Thursday, September 18, 2014

Earthbound (1994, SNES) - Fear and Loathing in Eagleland

I've played more than my fair share of turn-based, Japanese RPGs over the years. I've even spent years making my own games in the same style. Yet for some reason, I'd never put any real time into Earthbound, a cult classic 1994 RPG published by Nintendo and developed by Ape and Hal Laboratories under the direction and writing of Shigesato Itoi, with programming and production by future Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. It's a game that's earned a dedicated following, with everything from thriving fan sites to an in-depth study of its localization to oppositional readings. After years of fan demand, Nintendo of America re-released it on the Wii U in 2013, and I finally had my chance to give it at a fair shot. I'm glad I did; Earthbound is a stylish, imperfect game that stands out as a sort of precursor to the writing style of the modern indie game movement.

Click here for a complete gallery of screenshots taken during my play through of this game on the Wii U.

Old Fashioned Fight Time

Earthbound features an unusual setting and writing style while showcasing an extremely old-fashioned battle system taken directly from the original Dragon Quest games. Players control a party of up to four characters and engage enemies in first-person, menu-driven battles with limited options. You've got a basic attack, a handful of offensive and healing spells, and a tiny number of status buffs/debuffs. Players have extremely limited item inventories and a simple equipment system that mostly follows a linear upgrade path.

The one thing that makes Earthbound's battles easier to swallow is the fact that they aren't true random battles as you'd see in Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, but are instead battles triggered by encountering NPCs on the map, as seen in Chrono Trigger and some more modern RPGs. Because of this, you never feel overwhelmed by enemies, and if you want to avoid a fight you can often leave the area and come back hoping that the enemy has been scrolled off the screen. To make it even better, if you've out-leveled your enemies, you're given an instant win without having to go into battle, and enemies will actively avoid you if you've defeated that area's boss.

Other than seeing its lovably bizarre monsters, nothing about the game's battles appealed to me. Aside from the wonderfully surreal final battle, most of the bosses are defeated easily by just dumping your strongest offensive spells while healing when needed, and most lesser encounters serve as resource consumers without any real strategy. Since your options are so limited, there's not a lot to do in the first half of the game, and you'll often do fine just turning Auto Battle on. If you've got a high tolerance for slow, very basic RPG combat and can still have fun (whether pure or nostalgic) with this sort of battle system, you'll have a better time with the game's battles than I did. Thankfully, everything else in the game is more interesting that its combat.

Mad Ducks and Solid Funk

Unlike most of its contemporaries, Earthbound isn't set in a medieval fantasy or futuristic sci-fi world. Rather, it's set in an idealized, nostalgia drenched piece of 1950's Americana known as Eagleland, as its residents begin to be corrupted and controlled by the alien life form Giygas. It's a really refreshing mixture of a setting that feels at the same time realistic and completely bizarre.

The game uses simple, bright colors to accentuate its setting and set it apart from other RPGs of the time. Its flat, cartoonish graphics have a ton of personality, and unlike many SNES games, it doesn't go overboard with using as many shades and gradients as possible with this new-found 16-bit technology. Earthbound's visuals are smartly designed and varied, keeping each new area fresh and exciting. It's an exercise in restraint, while focusing on a tightly designed sense of style that it stays true to.

Enemies encountered in Earthbound are delightfully wacky, in spite of not having any animation in battle. You'll see some RPG standards like dogs, bats, and zombies, but by the end the majority of things you fight will be abominations like piles of barf, living taxis, traffic signs, and Salvador Dali's clocks. While I didn't enjoy fighting the game's battles, I loved seeing each new enemy, and a lot of them have fun flavor text as they attack/flail around in combat.

A big part of what makes Earthbound so strong is its soundtrack. It ranges in style from Beatles-inspired classic rock to jazzy blues to odd funk that sounds like it could come from Twin Peaks. Every piece of music in the game is good, and the fact that it features a huge number of battle songs instead of just repeating one or two throughout the game keeps things fresh. It's a standout soundtrack that really sells the "familiar, yet wrong" feeling the game's atmosphere creates.

Smart Writing and a Sour Belch

Its battles aren't thrilling and its dungeons range from short and simple to long drudges, but in spite of that, Earthbound is a very entertaining game due to how much fun it is to explore its world and talk to its people. NPC dialogue is lively and well written, whether it's an old man being grouchy, a mom being mean to her neighbor's dumb kid, or someone telling you about farts. It's referential and very self aware in the way many of today's indie games are, and because of this feels massively ahead of its time. The mixture of juvenile grossness with a serious but still very jokey narrative feels right at home with more modern games, though I have to say I enjoy Earthbound's juvenile burp and fart humor over the "cute things and gore" humor that lots of indies focus on. The game is dumb in just the right way.

Something that really makes Earthbound special is the fact that it actually says something coherent. The game's reality intentionally goes off the rails, but its themes and plot never do, something few RPGs from the 90's can claim. Games today are, for the most part, more smartly written than the majority of games from the 90's, but even today, and even in story-driven games, the quality of writing seems to be one of the least important parts of game design. Even game writers I really enjoy, like Metal Gear's Hideo Kojima, have absolutely no sense of pacing. Others, like Suda51, have lots of fun, nutty ideas, but almost always fail to turn them into anything that fits together. With Shigesato Itoi's writing, Earthbound feels more like a well-composed book with a game attached to it, rather than just being a game with a lot of words.

The main weakness in its writing is that the game's fourth primary character, the wonderfully named Prince Poo (I named him Frog in my play through), feels tacked on and less relevant to the story than the other three principal players. His own little side story, one that the player experiences after Ness, the game's main character, chows down on some Magic Cake and trips out, is pretty great, but feels hugely disconnected from the main plot. It's a good aside, but Poo doesn't really contribute much once he joins the main crew. In fact, all of the cast gets weaker once they become playable; whenever you're actively controlling characters in your party, they almost never speak. It may be a joke on the silent hero trope in games, extended to the rest of the cast the moment they cross the threshold into "hero" territory.

Part of what really impresses me about Earthbound is that I find some of its messages disagreeable, but they're presented so solidly that it doesn't detract from the work. It's a mark of a good writer to be able to continue to compel the audience even when they find a core theme of the story a bit repellent. And of course, not everyone will find the game's themes bothersome; it's purely personal and it doesn't apply to everything in the game. I want to stress that I don't think these issues make it a bad game. On the contrary, by saying anything coherent, even something I don't agree with, Earthbound does more than most video games even try.

Pros and Cons of Moms and Pops

In an RPG rarity, players actually meet most of the parents of the main characters. Even among games starring kids, this doesn't happen very often. Each of the families differs from each other, but there's a running theme of something missing, whether it be from absence or neglect. It's fitting that a game whose original title was Mother 2 would have a big focus on family.

The main hero Ness lives with his parents but never actually sees his father. Dad, busy with work, communicates by phone and serves as your save point/main source of income. Mom is nice enough to everyone but the neighbors, but comes off as a bit absent minded over the phone when Ness calls her during his journey. Their family unit is portrayed as solid, in spite of the father being so swamped with work that he never gets to go home, a prototypical salaryman. It isn't portrayed as a bad thing as much as just a bit, but only a tiny bit, sad.

In stark contrast to the Ness family is the family unit of next-door neighbor Pokey. Pokey's parents are rude and uncaring and possibly abusive, though not much of that comes through in the game's translation. Both parents are around at all times, but Pokey isn't any better off for it; on the contrary, he's a lazy brat who takes very much after his father, and, for some reason, is chosen by Giygas to be a sort of envoy of evil. Pokey's transition for playground dummy to ultimate evil is kind of hard to buy, but there's a clear arc for him in which he rejects his mundanely monstrous parents to become the disciple of an actual monster. Pokey would be a stronger character if his parents' meanness was played up more blatantly.

Paula, the first friend to join Ness on his quest, comes from a family that's superficially perfect. She is cast in an almost saintly light, as an ideal guardian to the young children at her parents' preschool. The pure goodness in her family contrasts the pure rot in Pokey's, but I couldn't help but feel there had to be something off somewhere that I didn't quite get. Her family life is the least interesting here.

The next hero, Jeff, is an inventor who has lived at a boarding school for ten years, abandoned there by his father, the scientific genius Dr. Andonuts. The doctor plays an essential role in the story, but barely acknowledges Jeff as his son outside of a couple of flippant remarks. Andonuts shows that someone can be a good person who does great things for the word while still being a terrible parent, and it's a shame that Jeff doesn't really give him a hard time over this. It would be a severe tonal shift, but Andonuts kind of has it coming.

Poo, the final hero, is the prince of Dalaam, a mystical nation guarded by creepy rabbit statues. As such, his parents would certainly be royalty, but do not appear in the story. Whether dead or alive, they're unimportant to Poo and his instructors. He has the most absent parents of all the heroes, and yet never shows any concern with this, presumably because his mind is completely at peace with the universe once the player completes a series of training exercises. A lot of interesting things could be done with this character, but his place in the story still feels like an afterthought.

Upper Middle Class Hero

The central plot of Earthbound is that the alien Giygas is attacking Earth by manipulating its weak-minded, sinful people into doing his bidding. Players are accosted by these characters throughout the game, beating them down with baseball bats and frying pans until they "turn normal" again. The cast of villains include drunks, greedy shoppers, hippies, a woman who's too sexy (she gets to be a minor villain who controls zombies), and your neighbor, Pokey, who's just kind of a turd with bad parents. Giygas himself is a formless, abstract evil that is made up of pure rage and a creepy pretzel of pleasure and pain, without any clear goal or ambition outside of immediate ruin. As an alien, he's great, because he's totally outside the realm of humanity. As subtext, Giygas is simply sin itself, something that's enhanced by (ending spoilers, highlight to read) the fact that players must use a "Pray" command to defeat him, and by destroying this sin, the heroes die. It's a willing, Christ-like sacrifice to save humanity from itself, though of course everyone comes back to life and gets to go back to their happy routines afterwards, negating the horror of the sacrifice. It would have been shocking and brave (and possibly disastrous) to simply end the game when the in-game TV static turns your screen "off" and cuts to black, but we're given a much happier ending than that.

Giygas as sin is a theme I really dig, but what doesn't sit well with me are his choice of sinners to manipulate. The thing that makes an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario so scary is that they could be any one of us; the Other is internalized and absorbed into the blood, a foe that's impossible to fight on a base level. Giygas' invasion is definitely in the same vein, but by only controlling "bad" people, it really loses its edge and just feels like a too simple political commentary on what Itoi finds unpleasant in society. It's too easy to just say "the drunks and the greedy and the lusty are weak-willed," but wouldn't the invasion be a lot scarier if Ness's mom ended up becoming an agent of Giygas?

Aside from having an absentee father who communicates only via phone, nothing very bad happens in Ness's life, since he's a Good Person. The Bad People are clearly marked (they even get a different skin tone!) and there's no pity for the victims. It's a family-friendly game where you get to beat down people who have made bad life choices to set them straight, and that just sits very uncomfortably with me. I find it hard to buy the drunken business men, the shopping women, the "New Age Hippies," or the Sexy Woman in Black as inherently bad people who need the Hand of God to turn their wicked ways around. I obviously get that that's not what's literally happening on screen, but it's a very unsubtle subtext that I can't ignore, intentional or not.

Fondness of Memory

A critical part of Earthbound is the Strength of Nostalgia. In order to become strong enough to defeat Giygas, Ness must visit eight special places that trigger warm, happy memories of the past. He becomes weak and useless without regularly calling home to his mother, and finds true strength only once he goes into his own mind and fends off his own insecurities and regrets. This scene, Magicant, is one of the most interesting in the game; it's a surreal trip down a river populated by family, childhood friends, and the dead souls of enemies you've killed along the way. In a way, it's predictive of The Sorrow encounter in Metal Gear Solid 3, where an unconscious Snake walks down a river filled with the spirits of any soldiers he's killed along the way (people who play non-lethally get a far less morbid river walk.) It's played more for laughs in Earthbound, but it's still an effective scene.

It's interesting to see a game that so heavily embraces a fondness for the past as a source of strength, since today's games industry so heavily relies on players' nostalgia to sell products. Like loving alcohol or shopping or sexy dresses, this isn't intrinsically a bad thing; the fact that the Duck Hunt Dog is a character in the new Smash Bros game gets my nostalgia going something fierce. But there's a certain blindness associated with some forms of nostalgia, an idea that anything that came before was naturally better than what we have now. Earthbound treads a bit of a dangerous line by giving Ness Ultimate Power through his nostalgia while mostly ignoring anything sad in his past. How about that dad that never shows up?

Using happy thoughts to become powerful isn't something unique to Earthbound; it's endured in pop culture everywhere from the Patronus Charm in Harry Potter to the way Charles Xavier teaches a young Magneto to control his powers in X-Men: First Class. But in both of those cases, there's a heavy focus on tragedy in the past. Earthbound has none of that, and represses, consciously or unconsciously, how much the past can hurt. I've heard that the game's 2006 sequel, Mother 3, subverts this, but I've yet to play it. Either way, it's a part of Earthbound that just feels philosophically wrong to me. Of course, the game's Stoic Club scene tells us that thinking too much is bad.

Final Thoughts

Earthbound is a unique, funny, and stylish RPG that absolutely deserves to be played if you can stomach the battle system. When I say that it has subtextual themes that make me uncomfortable, consider that a compliment; I like to be challenged by art, and Earthbound is more daring than most games of its era. It's a game that I wish I could play with a fast forward button as in the PSP remake of Final Fantasy 4, but aside from that it was 25 hours well spent.

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