To the surprise of nearly everyone, Nintendo has decided to rerelease Earthbound on the Wii U Virtual Console for America and Europe. This was a surprise because for the past decade or so it seemed like we would never see a legitimate rerelease of that game. Whether this was because the music featured samples of famous songs which made Nintendo’s lawyers nervous or because an executive just REALLY had it out for Earthbound’s notoriously zealous fanbase may never be known for sure. But no matter the reason for the delay, Earthbound is finally coming back to the US, and in honor of this I’d like to talk a bit about the game. Spoilers alert for the people who missed it out back in 1995.
Earthbound (Mother 2 in Japan) is the brain child of Shigesato Itoi; famous critic, literary editor and occasional Iron Chef judge. Itoi came from a decidedly non-videogame background and even today is better known in Japan for his work with novelist Haruki Murakami than for his work with Nintendo. In terms of mechanics, the game is a generic Dragon Quest knock-off. The game world, however, is an unique pastiche of America from the 50s to the 90s. The player can explore this world as they see fit, the actual storyline on its own is remarkably small and so in its place the world is filled with ridiculous events and characters. What makes this world and story compelling is how it gives freedom to the player to ascribe meaning to it. Random objects can be interacted with in surprising ways and are given a great deal of depth, while supposedly key characters and terms are left undefined and unexplained. At several points in the game you are offered a “coffee break” where relaxing music plays and the story is recapped in a way that explicitly asks you to consider what has happened and what it all means. If you play for over an hour at a time, the phone will ring in the game and your in-game father will ask if you want to take a little break. After all, you might see things different if you had time to rest and get some air. Every aspect of the game is designed to imply certain moods but never overtly and always open to interpretation upon reflection.
More than that, the game is also built from the cultural artifacts and touchstones of the world outside the game. Cultural debris is taken and recreated in a collage of stories and themes. The music is filled with samples from famous pop songs while anachronistic slang and references come from every character. You’ll fight a version of the KKK by way of Scientology obsessed with the color blue, you’ll meet a man who builds video game dungeons for a living and whose greatest dream is to BECOME a dungeon, you’ll find a Himalayan city where you must undergo spiritual training equal parts zen and nihilistic, and ultimately you’ll give up your humanity in order to travel back in time and defeat the ultimate evil while it is still developing in an almost embryonic state.
That final battle merits special mention. It is the most abstract moment in the game, where a terrifying shape, like a rorschach from hell, attacks you by means “you cannot grasp the true form of.” Each round the thing speaks to you in creepy dialogue that is word for word taken from a sex scene from a Japanese exploitation film that traumatized the creator as a child. Nothing you do has any effect on this ultimate, abstract terror. Only the Pray function, up until now a rather pointless function in battle, offers hope. When you use it in this battle, friends from earlier in the game appear, remember your party and think of you fondly. This destabilizes the enemy, but eventually your party runs out of friends to call on. Your characters just start praying for ANYONE to think of them and aid them, but no one is left to hear them. This continues until one person, who has never personally met the characters, begins to earnestly pray for them. The game slowly reveals this person’s name, and it ends up being none other than the player (the game cleverly asked their real name long ago). The player’s desire and connection to the game world is what saves it. The player characters open a path for the player to enter into the game and change the narrative.
Earthbound is an amazing achievement in many ways. One of the reasons its fans have been so zealous in their praise for it is because it is a game that thrives on audience participation in a way too few games do. All games require the player (or players) to engage in some way in order to complete the performance. Earthbound does this too, but then also asks the player what the meaning of this performance is, and what matters to them. It also manages to do so in a way where you can’t answer those questions wrong. Earthbound empowers players to ask these same questions about what matters and what has meaning for them even outside the game.