Today seems like the perfect day to reminisce about Earthbound, a Japanese role-playing game that is best described as a 16-bit electronic acid trip.
Earthbound, which Nintendo originally unleashed upon the United States in June of 1995, is in many ways a traditional turn-based JRPG. It draws much of its inspiration from the original Dragon Quest. You walk around maps and talk to people. You buy things at shops. You encounter enemies, who transport you to separate battle screens and force you to stand around while everybody takes turns attacking.
But Earthbound isn't a medieval fantasy game. It's one of the weirdest, most surreal experiences in RPG history. And it's a must-play.
See, what makes Earthbound special isn't its combat system, or its story, or its soundtrack, or any of the other individual elements that critics like to divide and dissect like they're the appendages of an unfortunate lab frog. What makes Earthbound special is the way it takes full advantage of the video game medium to explore the type of trippy ideas that wouldn't be possible anywhere else.
Just ask Shigesato Itoi, the man behind the series (called Mother in Japan):
Some people consider Mother entries to be big scenario scripts rather than games. But that's not quite right; they wouldn't have been interesting at all if they hadn't been in game form. That's what they were made to be from the very start, after all. They wouldn't have been much fun in text form only. In game form, they're an amalgamation of the ridiculous ideas I sometimes have as a player.
For example, in the Lost Underworld area of [Earthbound], I portray the large size of the world by making the main characters very tiny. I would give these kinds of ideas to people at the workplace, and after a while of this, other people would start chiming in with other similar ideas of their own. Those links of reckless wildness are what the Mother games are built on.
Itoi, who directed, produced, and wrote almost everything in Earthbound, clearly gets why his games work so well. The appeal of Earthbound doesn't lie in its individual narrative or mechanical elements. It's the wackiness. The zaniness. The trippiness.
In a gaming landscape stuffed with sci-fi shooters and fantasy adventures, it's almost hard to picture a game that can't be summed up with a nice turn of phrase or genre descriptor, but that's precisely what Earthbound is. You'll fight a sentient puddle of vomit. You'll use an inexplicable device called the Pencil Eraser to remove inexplicable statues of pencils. You'll suffer through morose hallucinations of your family and friends. You'll meet a man who turned himself into a dungeon.
This is a game that isn't afraid to make you feel lonely. Miserable. In over your head. There are points in Earthbound—like when you're stuck inside the fantasy land of Magicant, forced to battle through a windy maze of excruciatingly difficult enemies without the three friends you've had for the hours before—when you might feel like throwing your controller at the television. That's what Itoi wants, he told Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. He wants you to feel distraught.
Like many Japanese role-playing games, Earthbound pits you in the shoes of a young boy who is thrown into a near-insurmountable quagmire of obstacles and forced to save the world. There's been an alien invasion. Animals, people, and even inanimate objects are growing violent and malicious. One night, you're visited by a talking bumblebee from the future and told that you have to gather eight tools called Sound Stones in order to stop Giygas, the alien force behind this sudden wave of hatred that has engulfed the world.
Spoiler warning: The "Giygas is a fetus" theory has floated around the web for years now.
You partner with a psychic girl, an eccentric inventor, and a ponytailed martial artist. Your adventures take you through modern cities, prehistoric villages, heatstroke-inducing deserts, dinosaur museums, and a yellow submarine. And, eventually, you stop the alien and bring peace back to Earth.
But the end of the game isn't very satisfying. It won't make you feel ecstatic or relieved that you saved the world once again. Sure, it's nice to wander back through the world you've saved, talking to newly cheerful civilians and bringing your companions back to their homes. And then the credits roll, complete with super-peppy music and the adorable sprites you've seen along your journey, presented as if they're characters coming out on stage after a play, bowing for applause.
And then there's the photo album. Throughout the game, you're visited by a bizarre photographer who will descend from the sky like a pillar of light, pop up in front of your party, and ask you to smile. "Say 'fuzzy pickles,'" he'll command you before snapping a shot. These pictures will roll throughout the credits, serving as a makeshift montage of your time with the game.
This is all wonderful. Until you wake up in your house. It's the middle of the night. There's a knock at the door.
It's Picky, brother of Pokey, the portly, antagonistic child who has been hounding you for all of Earthbound. Pokey sent you a letter.
The letter says, "Come and get me, loser. Spankety spankety spankety."
Fade to black. White letters appear on the screen.
"The end... ?"
This Week in JRPG News
- Speaking of Earthbound, here's a Kickstarter for a game that looks a whole lot like Nintendo's quirky RPG. Seems neat!
- Kirk Hamilton and I debate the important questions in Persona 3—like "why is Mitsuru so hot?"
- Dragon's Crown wasn't cancelled! It's just switching publishers. Atlus is taking the reins on Vanillaware's gorgeous RPG.
- If you live in Europe, you'll be able to get your hands on the Devil Survivor games soon, thanks to Ghostlight.
- More The World Ends With You? Yes please!
- Namco Bandai made a lot of money!
What To Play This Weekend
It's not easy to get your hands on Earthbound these days, but it's well worth playing, as is its sequel, Mother 3. Both games are really good at making you upset. But it's the good kind of upset.
(For more on the awesomeness of Earthbound, check out this long, wonderful write-up by Kotaku columnist Tim Rogers.)
Your Questions Answered
Every week, I post several reader questions about JRPGs. Want to see your question featured in an edition of Random Encounters? Send it to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you have any suggestions for games that seem to have a foot in both worlds in having the massive open ended nature of most modern WRPGs, but with JRPG design aesthetic (such more character centric stories, usually better polish)?
For an example of what I'm talking about, I'll point at FFXII. Like most RPGs you get shunted around by the story for the first few hours, but thereafter you are free to do whatever. I've never seen a JRPG that featured such a huge world that you were free to explore. You had mission questions (such as the hunts), you could synthesize things, just exploring the world was a treat. FFXIII has this to an extent, but the world you get to explore is vastly limited compared to FFXII and almost entirely devoid of NPC interaction.
Sounds like you need to get your hands on Xenoblade. Though I didn't love Monolith's recent Wii RPG, I think it'll be right up your alley. Its world is large and chock full of sidequests, and in many ways it feels like a single-player MMORPG. And its combat system feels quite a lot like Final Fantasy XII (and World of Warcraft).