Homebound with EarthBound

EarthBound got a nice Nintendo Power push. But in retrospect, Nintendo of America, you could've tried a lot harder with this trailer.

Give me 10 minutes. I need to defeat five giant moles so the miner can find the gold… which I need to get $1 million and bail out the rock band… who can arrange a meeting with the evil real-estate-developer-turned-mayor I need to beat down.

My partner doesn't get it, which I completely understand. When I first tried EarthBound, I didn't either. The now-cult-classic SNES title first arrived in the United States in June 1995. And I, a nine-year-old, had no chance. I craved action as a kid gamer, and that largely meant co-op, multiplayer, and sports titles (a lot of NBA Jam, Street Fighter, and Turtles in Time). Nothing about EarthBound, particularly when only experienced piecemeal through a weekend rental window, would ever speak to me. As one of the most high-profile JRPGs of the early SNES era, it embodied all the stereotypes eventually associated with the genre: at-times batshit fantastical storylines; slow, s l o w pacing; virtually non-existent action mechanics.

Frankly, I wasn't alone. Based on its sales, not many gamers seemed to understand EarthBound, and it's not clear Nintendo did, either. What on Earth does the trailer above say to you? In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the company again and again (and again) tried to find a hit JRPG in the States without much success. Nintendo literally gave away games like Dragon Warrior—as a Nintendo Power pack-in—and still couldn't find an audience. Even the heralded Final Fantasy franchise struggled initially, as Nintendo brought it stateside with a big, splashy map-filled box that no one seemed to care about in the moment.

But a quarter-century later, I can't stop pushing the power switch on my SNES Classic to spend time with Ness and company. Part of it is me; I'm much older and, in theory, have more patience despite how things like social media and smartphones may be slowly destroying our collective ability to focus. People liked EarthBound better in 2013, too, when Nintendo finally re-released the game for the first time in decades on the WiiU Virtual Console. But part of my newfound appreciation is inevitably the timing of this recent play-through. The compounding pandemics of 2020 have changed the way we all approach the world; FOMO has all but evaporated. (Do I need to constantly doomscroll on Twitter to get all the depressing news as it happens? Should I plan a vacation so I can sit inside doing nothing particularly active somewhere more scenic?) In some ways, there is nothing but time, meaning an indulgent, leisurely, complex game suddenly offers a new value proposition.

More than any of that, however, all my time spent homebound with EarthBound—nearly 20 hours and counting despite a newborn and no work stoppages around the Orbital HQ—comes down to the game itself. To a subset of modern gamers, EarthBound's legacy may simply be introducing Ness to legions of Super Smash Bros. disciples. But on the 25th anniversary of this game's arrival, it actually seems more suited for our current moment than ever.

  • My parents had no idea what kind of game I was renting at age 9. Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his living room TV)
  • Excuse me, what is happening here? Cal State University San Marcos
  • This cop has watched way too much Elliot Stabler in his life. Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his living room TV)
  • At least the pro at the Onett Times captured the moment: "Police attack innocent boy!!" Evidently it was caught on videotape by a bystander and will air on the local news. Nintendo
  • The Insane Cultists are obsessed with blue but really look like they prefer white. Cal State University San Marcos
  • Does Scientology involve beatdowns? Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his living room TV)
  • Why are the kinda crazy ones obsessed with having their name on the building? Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his living room TV)

A plot for 1995, a plot for 2020

If it's been a while or (like me) you never bothered in the first place, EarthBound takes place in a not-so-subtly veiled version of the US, literally called Eagleland in-game. Our hero (whose name defaults to "Ness" but can be changed as you see fit) grew up in the sleepy and seemingly mundane suburb Onett. Other "numbered" suburbs like Twoson soon follow.

Things are not as idealistic as they first appear. In these shining cities on various hills, an alien called Giygas has landed and seeped an evil influence into everything. You have to fight Runaway Dogs and Cranky Bag Ladies now. And post-invasion, every town has developed a problem for you to work through, each feeling eerily prescient in 2020.

In Onett, for example, bad cops feature prominently. Even after you rid the town of a pogostick-riding gang called the Sharks, you can't just leave Onett because Captain Strong and his police force instead threaten to beat you down for trying. EarthBound originally came out within years of the beating of Rodney King, and it features four cops ganging up on a kid. Captain Strong literally attacks you with submission chokeholds. Nine-year-old me must have been confused if I even got this far, but adult me did a double take as society continues to grapple with the tragic deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain at the hands of police.

The cops of Onett merely come first, but that's far from the only blunt observation on American life awaiting EarthBound players. In Twoson, your future friend and squadmate Paula has been abducted by a religious cult called the Happy Happy Religious Group. The group obsesses over turning everything blue, but, uh, they resemble a much whiter real-world analogue and maintain a similar disposition toward others ("Your existence is a problem for me and my religion," says cult leader Mr. Carpainter before he attempts to dismantle you). EarthBound's creator Shigesato Itoi may have again been responding to events of his day, as the Boss Fights Book on EarthBound points out the game was developed during the feds' siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.

But with their character design and dialogue ("I think those who won't paint everything blue are opposed to peace," another says), the Happy Happy Religious Group probably doesn't remind players of David Koresh anymore. Instead, my mind wandered to a much different modern-day cult, draped in white sheets or Stars and Bars, that pushes red on everyone instead. (As EarthBound's subtle commentary-cherry on top, Paula's "pray" ability during battle proves unpredictable and often detrimental if used.)

These storylines, rich in social commentary, come up again and again, and I'm barely approaching EarthBound's halfway mark. In fact, I just arrived in the big city of Fourside where a "regular unattractive real estate" developer named Geldegarde Monotoli has risen up the political ranks to become mayor. The guy's name has been emblazoned on a big skyscraper acting as a de facto city hall. He takes political and economic advice from a privileged, bratty neighborhood kid. And Monotoli tries (and apparently succeeds) at both forcing police to do his bidding and manipulating the media in his favor—The Fourside Post's lead story when I entered town was "Over 70% of Fourside citizens support Monotoli." Hmm. Perhaps, as Cord Jefferson (a writer on HBO's Watchmen) recently put it on a podcast: "History is prescient. The things we touch on are just things that have been complaints of my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents."

Listing image by Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his living room TV)

  • Srsly, how many minutes of gameplay have I wasted on "You encounter the Runaway Dog," selecting an attack, waiting for an attack, seeing the dog has become tame, hearing victory music, then claiming XP? And that's without any attack misses or level-ups achieved. Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his TV)
  • It's embarrassing how long it took me to figure out how to enter Belch's lair at Grapefruit Falls despite a Mr. Saturn very, very clearly outlining what I needed to do. But man did I love this bit of game mechanics. Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his TV)
  • God forbid you skipped a step several journeys earlier and encounter this odd pencil barrier. Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his TV)

Meditation through mechanics

Life has slowed down in many ways since early March, and there may be no better game for "slow" times than EarthBound. This is the slow food, 20-plus-hour sourdough bake of gaming experiences.

The game starts with its most common occurrence: a battle. By and large, you can't typically avoid these; enemies actively scurry toward you until your party has leveled-up enough to scare 'em. And in a vacuum, each EarthBound battle ranks among the most static, robotic gaming experiences you can find. No heroes visible. No displayed opponent info. No timed actions to take. No graphic depictions of attacks, even. This has to be as bare-bones as fighting gets in RPGs, maybe in gaming at large.

And yet, I started to find something calming about methodically pwning all these annoying Coil Snakes or Mobile Sprouts. The process becomes almost meditative, a repetitive cycle of completing remedial tasks (sorry, Urban Zombie) in the name of an incremental reward (XP!) and a quick dopamine hit. What others have found in Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing—solace, a mental escape, relaxation through repetition—I have achieved through EarthBound.

In fact, pull quotes from Ars reviews of those games would be equally at home here:

"Where other titles barrage you with features, with new twists, and new iterations on the latest big new idea, [this game] asks you, both as your pixelated avatar and as the player, to breathe… There's a stillness to the game that stands in sharp contradiction to everything modern life represents." —Cassandra Khaw on Stardew Valley

"The series lands somewhere between a feng shui simulator and a digital version of a bonsai tree." —Sam Machkovech on Animal Crossings: New Horizons.

On a larger scale, the game weaves slowness and stillness into its very fabric. Many of EarthBound's big plot points and missions can't be accessed without waiting in some form, whether it's spending a night at the hotel or talking to someone in one town, moving two towns over, then either backtracking for a payoff or finally realizing the use case for the "Bad key machine" (or whatever crap you've been given). My personal favorite instance involves accessing a hidden lair for one level boss by literally doing nothing, a slow mechanics puzzle move that might even make Jonathan Blow tip his dev cap.

  • Ness is obviously a well-to-do millennial who's father constantly floats him cash so he can eventually live in Fourside for a few years post-college. Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his living room TV)
  • Hmm, two competing inventors not working out of garages. Who to invest in? Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his living room TV)
  • The game's guide gives it away—despite looking like Steve Wozniak after a 36-hour hackathon, of course you want Apple's tech. Nintendo
  • Alien races naturally speak in some tongue more closely resembling Comic Sans Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his living room TV)
  • Unionize your workplace like the Eagleland Hint Union. Nathan Mattise (yes, photographing his living room TV) Read More – Source

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