In my short lifetime, I've seen the video game industry change exponentially. I watched the rise of the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, and their inevitable decline as the next generation gave us the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. And now, I sit here smack dab in the middle bit of their successors, the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. Graphics improved. Stories got better. New and better technology gave us interesting new ways to play, especially in the RPG genre. New and groundbreaking games get released so often now - it's easy to get lost in them.
So, as I sat in my small, New York City apartment and contemplated my next topic - I couldn't help but wonder: What about the classics? After all, was it not these games of yore that paved the way for the modern masterpieces we see today? We wouldn't have games like Fallout: New Vegas without Wasteland; or Persona 4 Golden with Shin Megami Tensai. Games evolve, and they have evolved, but what about the starting point?
And then, it hit me: Earthbound. If there's one game that really changed the perception of video games at the time - it had to be Earthbound.
RPGs have always been a staple of my life. I played almost every single Final Fantasy game, The Legend of the Zelda, Dragon Quest, Super Mario RPG, Baldur's gate - you name it, I figured out a way to play it. I found myself drawn to the hero's journey; they satisfied me. About four or five years ago, I heard about this game called Earthbound, a weird cult classic video game that came out in the 90s. You fought snakes, rabid dogs, and even piles of vomit? It had a fun story, but it didn't have the same grandeur that most titles usually had. It definitely didn't sound like any of the games I grew up playing - and I felt turned off by that. In the end, I didn't play it for a while.
Then, years later, my little brother starts talking my ear off about this new game he's playing. It came out in the Nintendo E-shop and he's sure that I'll love it. It had a strange, meta bend (at this point my life, meta-humor had become my favorite thing in the whole wolrd). It turned the RPG genre on it's head. Plus, it had an astounding story that was both serious and didn't take itself too seriously. I asked him what it was called.
"It's called Earthbound."
The meteor behind your house! source (origin)
Finally, I played the game. And I wasn't totally sold on it at first. The real world setting threw me off. It felt too plain. Still, I tried not to let those early prejudices get to me. After pushing through, I began to see the surrealism that hides beneath the vaneer of plainness. It's subtle, but you pick up on it more and more as you move through the game.
For example At the end of the first town, Onett Town, you have to fight the town's entire police force to move forward to the next town. And before that, you had fight and entire cave filled with mice, slugs and ants. And no one bats an eyes at that. The police chief says that he has to test how strong we are before he can let us by - like that's a totally normal thing to do.
The game's change of pace forces you to stop and pay attention to the little details that separates it from other games at the time. I sat there laughing at this mouse I fought in the pre-boss cave - not a magic mouse, not a mutant mouse, just a mouse that just got berserked by an evil alien. In a lot of games of its time, you fought smaller creatures, sure. But they would be given some kind of fantasy title. Instead of mice, you'd have DIRE MICE (huge mice), or you'd fight the standard goblins or giant spiders. Even today, most of the starting baddies are large wolves or bears, or some sort of fantasy variation of that.
Yes, you even fight slugs! source (origin)
On the flip side, the battle system takes a more traditional, turn-based stance. You have a normal set of abilities, both physical and magical. At the end of the fight, you get XP, and then you level up. This disappointed me at first, but then I realized that this game released in 1995. And it didn't need some sort of new, innovative battle system - that's not the point of the game. The fact that it's battle system is generic allows the rest of the game to stand out.
One huge example of that is the map. In a lot of traditional RPGs, characters would traverse a large overworld. If you approached a town, you'd enter it and be taken to a completely different screen, separate from the overworld. Earthbound's map took a much more modern turn. Instead of an overworld, you are just walking through a large environment. Instead of going to a separate map screen, you just walk to the next down along a path. It's something that the casual gamer wouldn't think about, but it's effect on the feel of the game is monumental.
The game's workability lies in its quirky elements coming together despite themselves. Once you find yourself getting used to these strange, and often times completely-out-of-left-field choices, you begin to recognize that artistry that goes into a game like this. You're not playing a generic rehash of the genre - you're playing a commentary on RPGs of it's time. After replaying through the first couple of towns, I even realized that even modern games still use some of the same tropes that Earthbound subverts.
Thus, Earthbound remains timeless.
The captain to the Onett police force you fight...? source (origin)
One of the best and most exemplary sequences is the game's beginning. A random meteor crashes down not too far behind your house. You decide, being the protagonist, that you're going to go and investigate. You speak to your mother and instead of warning or trying stop you - she goes full Pokemon and basically says that you're going to do it anyway, so you might as well get dressed. You go get dressed, and then you investigate this meteor and deal with a bunch of cops who seem to be totally cool with you being out this late near a crashed meteor.
It's funny and a change from the heroic origins that most heroes get. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the whole game starts off with this grand battle. A massive rift has torn through the sky and you must fight your way through hoards of monsters before finally using your mysterious new ability to close the rift. It's massive is scope, as are most RPGs. You need that dramatic hook, and it has to be big, because how else are players going to take it seriously?
Earthbound proves that simplicity and humor are just as effective. In your first mission, after you have found your obnoxious neighbor's little brother, you are approached by a bee (or bee-like organism) from the future. This bee tells you that you are the first line of defense against an evil alien threat named Giygas. But then, after delivering your neighbor and his brother home, that bee gets swatted by your neighbor's mother and promptly dies. As it breathes its last breath, it begs you to complete the mission. It's hilarious, and sad, but in that bit - it accomplishes everything. You get your mission, your enemy, and even a small bit of emotional attachment.
Still, this humor doesn't take away from the game's more serious moments. The ending of the game (don't worry, no spoilers) is surprisingly serious. It's uplifting and has a message, but the tone shifts. The game stops being about a happy adventure with your friends, and you realize this story is about a group of children who have gone through a harrowing, traumatizing event. They have the world on their shoulders and their final battle is the culmination of that. It hits you hard, and you don't expect it.
One of the game over screens after you fall in battle. source (origin)
I could spend another thousand words talking about how excellent Earthbound is, but there are small problems. The game has certain parts that pump up the difficulty to unfair levels. At the end of the game, when you're making it back to your hometown, the monsters are ridiculously OP. You have to grind the living hell out of your characters before you make any real progress. On top of that, you've got the obnoxious status effects that are very hard to cure unless you're rolling in money. Still, even these are small criticisms compared to most games.
Bottom line, Earthbound is a timeless cult classic. Even by today's standards, it pokes fun at itself and in turn, the entirety of the RPG genre. It was ahead of it's time, and deserves all of the praise in the world. I can play through it again and again and still find something love about it. And I hope you do too.
Shann Smith is a lover of video games and has played RPGs since he could hold a controller. He is a freelance writer, playwright, screenwriter, and also writes the Video Gay-Mer column on Popdust! If you have any RPGs you'd like him to unpack, hit him up!
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