The following is an excerpt from Earthbound, Ken Baumann's upcoming book about Nintendo's cult classic 1994 RPG.
“I mean, you have to pray to beat an emotion!”
Scott laughs. “Yeah.”
“How did this game get made?”
It's hard for me to reconcile EarthBound with any video games I've played since. Most games traffic in repetitive gristly thrills, but EarthBound focuses on emotion, on yearning. The team behind Call of Duty promotes the realism of its weaponry, which implies their pride in its resultant gore, but EarthBound's marketing campaign primarily hinged on scratch and sniff stickers designed to evoke the smell of hotdogs and vomit. Hundred million dollar games like Grand Theft Auto IV are made by reclusive Lamborghini-driving auteurs and massive teams of developers, programmed to simulate American hustle, but I don't think there's a game that embraces—and satirizes—America's sentimental mongrel spirit better than EarthBound, which was produced by less than twenty people, helmed by a copywriter-turned-philosopher.
I'm starting this book now, and writing about starting this book now, for a few reasons. The first is the most obvious and the most perennial: I'm on a deadline. I'm also tempted to lose myself in further research, but I know that could lead to a creative paralysis, so I'm preempting that you'll-never-know-enough anxiety by starting today. I'm also writing about writing right now—self-narrating, self-aware, like some of the most powerful moments in EarthBound—because I'm thinking about time.
A few days ago, I called my older brother for the first time in a year. Well, nearly a year. We had spent time with each other when I got married—June 16th, 2012—but it's been awhile, and major events have occurred in both our lives and I haven't called the guy. I felt and still feel bad about this. I thought this book about EarthBound would be the perfect excuse to reconnect with him, get us talking again. Why I thought I needed a writing project to reconnect with my brother instead of any of the various quakes in our lives—familial death, lost jobs, new homes—is mysterious to me. Mysterious if I chalk it up to something more than “Well, I'm just an asshole.” So when I called him a few days ago, I felt guilty.
But then I told him about writing this book.
And then we started talking about EarthBound.
“I remember we got it, but we didn't play it for awhile,” Scott says.
“But when we finally started it we were obsessed with it. Played it all day on the weekends.”
“I'm curious… What do you remember the most about it?”
“The scratch and sniff cards in Nintendo Power—”
“Yes! Holy shit!” The smell of caked barbecue Lay's potato chip dust on the pads of my fingers.
“Do you remember the Mr. Barf smell?”
“No—” Carbon Dog. The card that smelled like barbecue.
“That was the strangest smell. I can't... I don't know how to describe it.”
“For the sake of my book, you've gotta try.”
“Maybe like... a pickle. A pickle but grosser. You remember Twang Pickle Salt?”
“No.” I google Twang Pickle Salt. ADD zing TO anything!
“It smelled like that,” Scott says.
You start up EarthBound and you see three somber logos: Nintendo, Ape, Halken. White on black. The Ape Inc. logo is hard to make out—scratchy white lines rendered by the Super Nintendo's 16-bit CPU—but it seems to be a Neanderthal man holding a torch next to the word APE, spelled out with bones. The next company, Halken, now known as HAL Laboratory Inc., is named after the brilliant and murderous HAL 9000 computer from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Halken's logo reminds me of something, so I trawl the internet. I search for Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a movie I watched roughly six thousand times in my childhood, trying to find the name and fictive logo of the company that manufactures Skynet, another cybernetic machine that tries to eradicate its master. The Cyberdyne Systems logo comes up and it's too pyramidal, so I keep looking. I google 'Warner Bros. 70s logo' and hit symbolic paydirt—the vintage WB logo is a prelude to Halken's dots and dashes, and it's designed by Saul Bass, a designer whom I've come to love while learning about design, trying to feel learned enough to feel competent enough to say to other people, “Yes, I will design your book cover and it will look great.” The synchronicity here spooks me. What's even deeper about this dig into EarthBound's opening credit iconography is that both companies explicitly reference 2001, the movie that blew my twelve-year-old mind more than any other filmic experience, injecting philosophical questions into my kid-sized head that I didn't even know could exist.
EarthBound came out in the summer of 1995. I was five.
I don't know how old my brother was then, because I don't know how old he is now.
I grew up in Potosi, Texas. In 1992, when I was three, 1441 souls lived there, its windy flat shelf typically oil-laden. Over the next eight years, Potosi's population grew by 223 people.
I grew up among animals. Lots of them. We called it a ranch, and it was functional: my mother rehabilitated wounded animals, no matter the species, and bred and showed miniature horses. At one point we hosted Tater Tot, the world's smallest stallion for about a year. My mom drafted an acronym in his name, of course: Talk of the Town. Trying to recover some internet-extant record of Tater Tot's miniature prowess comes up blank, but then leads me to another miniature horse named Tater Tot, covered by National Geographic as he visited hospitals and schools in Salmon, Idaho. I'm realizing that more and more of my past doesn't empirically exist if it's not salvageable with a Google search.
The point I'm trying to muster is that I can't remember much of my sixth year alive. I mean, I can feel impressionist activities, but they lack climactic punctuation, looped and redrawn a million times by the attempts to recall and sharpen the memory in the first place.
Allergies. High West Texan winds. Jumping on the trampoline. Watching out the north window, full of fear, for white, spindly clouds.
“It was a really mature game, though.” Scott's getting enthusiastic. “You had to be an adult, or maybe at least a teenager to get all the innuendos.”
“Yeah, I remember it feeling naughty. I don't know if I even knew what naughty felt like then, but...” I think about the time Scott called me upstairs to his computer, its monitor boldly in sight of anyone near the foot of the stairs, which was in turn near the front door. I stood at the top of the steps and stared at the screen, MS-DOS cursor blinking, wanting input. Pick a number, Scott said. One through thirteen. I paused, no idea what was coming. Thirteen, I said. Scott smiled, typed something, pecked Enter with a triumphant pointer finger, and revealed to me my first piece of pornography. A hippy redhead, a leather holster loosely arcing across hips and a smooth belly the color of our galaxy's blessed cosmic cream, and then of course there were boobs and a very bare bathing suit area. All said: immediate boner. Maybe immediate is an exaggeration. Hell, this memory feels like archaeological prophecy. I invite you—only this once under a self-enforced penalty of death—to Google my wife.
“And, it was a RPG, but it felt like a totally different genre.” Scott says.
“What do you mean?”
“It was a lot simpler than most RPGs. There were only three core stats, only a few possible actions during battle sequences—the mechanics are really simple.”
I pop out of forgetfulness to remember that Scott still programs video games.
The original North American Super Nintendo looks like a pallid tank, a chunky glyph. The old consoles are undeniably utilitarian looking, as if the rush to get them to market necessitated nothing more than plastic housing and functional controllers. The evolution of gaming consoles is less obviously linear than the march of Moore's law—game console design has oscillated between geometric, slot-full bricks, and sleek, sportscar-esque parabolas.
The Austrian architect Adolf Loos gave a lecture in 1910 titled Ornament and Crime. It's a wild document, narcissistic and riled and a preachy, delivered by an architect-gone-ideologue who was in love with America. There's a line from the speech that went on to majorly impact architecture: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects. In the Villa Moller, a house Adolf designed in 1927, I see the blocky origins of the Super Nintendo.
Might video game consoles might someday be purely utilitarian? Will screen-based media consumption someday be deemed necessary for psychological health?
As a kid, playing EarthBound felt like inhabiting a world as wide as human imagination.
Just typing that sentence makes me want to start the game on my Macbook Pro. I've ordered an original SNES controller and the necessary USB adapter. I plan on plugging my laptop to the TV in my living room, sitting on my The Shining-esque rug, and playing through the entire game for the first time as an adult.
“Final Fantasy VI had a bunch of different mechanics—it had the esper system, relics, custom moves for each character, real time input for certain stuff in combat—”
“Yeah. You're right—there's something really elegant about EarthBound. It's like they decided to ignore everything that took away from the characters and the story. And the really weird tone.”
“I mean, all you had to do is grind, and all you had to do to grind is level up, restore your health, upgrade your gear. Simple.” I feel impressed by Scott's breadth of video game knowledge and lingo. How casually he can deliver this shit.
The next line from the notes I took during our two hour conversation is this jot, written without context: “Local story”
EarthBound's creator, Shigesato Itoi, became famous for his slogans.
My favorite advertisement of his came out in June 1982—about a year before Nintendo released the Family Computer in Japan, known as the Nintendo in North America—and it's stark. Presumably reacting to a combo of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and Japan's incoming Prime Minister—Yasuhiro Nakasone, the Ministry of Defense's director general—antimilitarism was rising among Japanese citizens. Published in the now-defunct magazine Kokoku Hihyo (literally “advertisement criticism”), the anti-war ad features a single white line of text and two Japanese soldiers. Helmets shade their faces into half-anonymity. They bow slightly, their far hands gesturing out toward the gray expanse of a painted soundstage wall. Their shadows are harsh convex half-circles, like a hand painted Zen ensō cleaved in two. Shigesato's slogan runs down the center of the image, ending between the men's hearts. “After you, Prime Minister.”
His copywriting career lasted decades, fueled by Japan's economic bubble of the 1970's and 80's. His other copywriting work is all over the place—selling cars, jewelry, Suntori liquor, makeup, clothes, rock bands, Studio Ghibli's animated films—hell, even Woody Allen shows up. Shigesato's most iconic campaign, promoting the multi-floored Seibu department stores, features Woody and the phrase “Delicious life”.
Japanese department stores are certainly sensual, and massive. My wife and I travelled through Japan for our honeymoon and our favorite store, Tokyo Hands, sports eight floors, the store's wares rising in sophistication while you ascend its behemoth levels. Second floor: suitcases and wallets. Eighth floor: stationary and “book reading supplies.”
I realize that the malls in Earthbound aren't like most American malls—they don't sprawl out, repping shopping corridors like malignant appendages. They're department stores.
“I think we started playing it on the weekends and we'd play it all day, every day.”
I laugh. “Sounds about right. How long did it take us to beat it?”
I listen to Scott pause. “Maybe two months. One to two months of eight to ten hours a day, or whenever mom walked in and was like, 'Go outside now.'”
“I remember playing it, but maybe I'm just making that up. I mean, I was five or six. Normally I'd just watch you play a lot of games, like I was watching you control a movie for us.”
“No, we swapped back and forth.”
Scott's seven years older than me. I realize this.
Twelve-year-old Scott passing five-year-old Ken the controller.
If you don't have an older brother, or you have an older brother but he's terrible, I'm sorry.
The company logos disappear.
Eleven seconds into EarthBound's opening, a high-pitched whine fades in. A glitchy bloodstream of red and yellow static fills the screen. The whine is matched, doubled, synced—for fifteen seconds, it sounds like a chorus of car alarms, dying satellites and falling bombs heralding in some chaos.
The static's replaced by an image of a city street at dusk. Its vanishing point is down and to the right. A placard—G A S—on the building in the foreground, frame left. Set against the purple and yellow sky are three flying saucers, each firing a ropey bolt of some energy down to the ground and into unseen buildings in the distance. It feels cinematic—the scene's letterboxed with odd concave lines, as if we're viewing it from the safety of a visored helmet, or from within some faraway theater. Capitalized and urgent red text at the top of frame reads: THE WAR AGAINST GIYGAS!
At twenty-five seconds, the sky sparks. You feel these attacks, these strikes, the flashes of white light—both in the painted sky and reflecting off the buildings—each scored with a thump of bass. Then tighter thumps, and tighter, nonrhythmic. Explosions. The music's pure dystopia now—minor notes and the convincingly rendered sound of a panicked crowd—yelling, screaming—the lightning quickens, the explosions burst closer together, the sky quickly strobes and the sound rises—the whole screen goes white—
Less than two seconds of black later, EarthBound's jazzy and Latin-neighborhood-wakes-up-to-a-glorious-sunrise-after-a-nightlong-block-party-esque theme music plays, the deco title card swings in, and you're thinking: what the fuck kind of game is this?
You can get a copy of Earthbound from the Kickstarter page of its publisher, Boss Fight Books.