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What Earthbound Means to Me

Update: I would like to dedicate this past entry to Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, who suddenly passed away in July 2015 at the age of 55. The game discussed below would not have existed without his herculean programming efforts. The videogame industry has lost one of its greatest and kindest visionaries. In memoriam.

Before delving into the next Ekostory, I want to take a brief side trip. I want to share a work is a major touchstone to my childhood. It’s one I regularly revisit over the years, and one that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary. It’s a video game called Earthbound.

“What is the video game, Earthbound?
Even today, it’s so hard to answer that question.

It was like a group of children taking dolls from a toy chest.
Old dishes no longer used in the kitchen.
Nuts and bolts found inside a toolbox.
Little flowers and leaves from the backyard.
And they were all laid down on the carpet with everybody singing made-up songs.
Ready to talk all day about that world they just made.
That, I think was how Earthbound was made.”

– Creator Shigesato Itoi

Chances are that you’ve never heard of this quirky role-playing game (RPG). Deemed a commercial failure in North America upon its original release, Earthbound has since gained a fervent cult following. While its fanbase is still small, few fandoms rival Earthbound devotees in sheer dedication. Businesses have been founded and books have been written around this game. A $100,000 Kickstarter project was just successfully funded for Earthbound community documentary. But what really blew my mind was one fan’s video that manages to capture the spirit of this game that’s so very dear to me:

What is it about Earthbound that can make someone spend years crafting such a tribute? Earthbound’s graphics are simple. Its gameplay is dated by modern standards.  Yet most who play it seem to know that they’re playing something special. The soundtrack is ambitious and experimental, featuring everything from jazz and electronica to ambient echoes and saccharine pop. The writing by Shigesato Itoi (described by one author as “an ad-man turned philosopher”) and translated by Marcus Lindblom, is both endearing and bizarre. Game scenarios frequently alternate between the absurd and the profound. In no other game, in no other work, have I ever encountered exchanges like these:

Earthbound features many fourth-wall breaking moments that help draw the player into its strange world, an outsider’s idyllic take on North American suburbia. It felt post-modern before I knew what post-modern meant. As I grew up, I recognized Earthbound as being brilliant satire, but I also knew that its parodies were never cruel or mean-spirited, but instead guided by a strong sense of whimsy and tender sentimentality. Earthbound is a labour of love. Perhaps that’s why my teenage self managed to connect so strongly to this game, discovering within it that ineffable quality few works manage to express, of heart.

“All sorts of people tell me about their memories,
about all the things I left in the playground called Earthbound.
From the tiny safety pins, broken pieces of colored glass to the withering leaves.
When I ask them, “how do you remember so much?”
With their eyes gleaming, they say,
“I love that world so much I remember everything about it.”
I reply right away saying “me too.”

– Shigesato Itoi

I’m not going to talk too much more about Earthbound, because as much as I love it, it’s not really an Ekostory. My brief detour does serve a purpose, as over the next while I’ll be cover Earthbound’s sequel, a game titled Mother 3. It is even more obscure, having never officially been released in North America. But Mother 3 is crafted with the same care and skill as Earthbound, and with themes much more relevant to Ekostories: Notions of progress and change, the corruption of nature, the fragility of utopian ideals. Its tagline: “Strange, funny, and heartrending.” I hope you can join me in this latest venture.

Related Ekostories

References

Shigesato Itoi. What Earthbound Means To Me. Retrieved from http://earthbound.nintendo.com

Images of Earthbound © 1994 Nintendo, Inc. All rights reserved. Featured image from nintendolife.com

9 Comments

  1. Yeah videogames definitely have a higher barrier of entry than other works, aesthetically, mechanically, culturally. Nowadays one can watch entire playthroughs of games on Let’s Play videos on Youtube, but something is missing from that sort of experience.

  2. I never got into videogames at all. They started up when I was already in university. Gosh. make me reveal my age. (Shrug it’s in my blog anyway….)

    I honestly thought that the post title was going to be about the topic itself..of being earthbound. 😀

    • I’m probably the same way with smartphone games. Just can’t get into games with no buttons haha.

      The game is actually a globetrotting adventure, so earthbound is quite appropriate!

  3. It’s my children who play games, rather than me, but I really enjoyed reading this Isaac. Your fondness for the game really came across, as did the sense that this particular game is really something different. Your comment about video game playthroughs on Youtube grabbed me; what an amazing cultural phenomenon that is in itself!

    • Thanks for reading! Can you believe that just 10 years ago, there was no Youtube? A lot can change in a decade, yet there are also things that seem to endure, like two-decade old quirky games 🙂

  4. I admit to not being a gamer and so I never heard of “Earthbound”. From what I have been able to gather from your references…it seems to be a lot like life in that it is free flowing with no set course, map, or destination and is filled with the small, absurd bits of improvised life that gives free reign to one’s imagination.

    • There is a structured narrative arc to the game – it is, after all, an adventure across the world (hence the name Earthbound). But there are many contemplative moments sprinkled throughout that renders the whole experience a bit surreal and lifelike.

      An example – After slogging through a long and challenging sequence, you’re asked if you would like to have a coffee break: http://youtu.be/I6LZ1GqSrEE

      Sequences like these seem to stay with many fans.

  5. Based on what you included, I would have loved to play Earthbound. I would love a game with contemplative moments.

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