“You confront the Abstract Art and its cohorts.”

was released in North America on June 1st, 1995. In other words, it was mainly played in the mid-90s by young Generation-Y gamers approaching adolescence (Maybe acquired on Christmas ’95, or a birthday in ’96). As such, the game is difficult to create a Critical Compilation for. There’s a lack of writing about it, and what does exist is barely critical. 15 years later most of what is written about EarthBound comes from the same Gen Y, now adults. Their declarations of love often appear in forum threads, comments on blog posts, and other secondary channels. When longer posts or articles are attempted, they usually consist of highly personal anecdotes driven by a paradoxical appreciation for—and struggle against succumbing to—the almost overwhelming nostalgia.

In the past two years we’ve seen critical writing about games explode from bloggers searching for a deeper meaning in AAA and indie games alike. Games are torn apart piecemeal in search of something that might confirm the artistic potential of the medium and signify progress. If nothing else, I hope this somewhat unique take on a Critical Compilation can serve as a reminder that in many ways this potential has already been realized. The importance of EarthBound isn’t found in its contributions to the development of the medium, but to the development of actual human beings who played it during their formative years.

“Here is the map. All the info is there, except for the info that isn’t there.”

The essay Tim Rogers wrote on Mother 2 [mirror] (the original, uncensored Japanese version of EarthBound) is perhaps the single most comprehensive examination of a video game that exists. I will refrain from attempting to incorporate all of his research and dozens of personal accounts and observations into this critical compilation and instead encourage you to read it for yourself. This critical compilation, in a way, could be considered a companion piece to his essay. “All the info is there,” but what follows is some of the info that isn’t.
“At times like this, kids like you should be playing Nintendo games.”

In EarthBound: One Boy’s Coming of Age, Tomm Guycot provides an anecdotal account of his first experience with the game, and how it single-handedly proved to him that games were capable of something inexplicable but undeniably powerful. The post is not a good introduction to the game mechanics or story; as he explains, in listening to someone go on about EarthBound, “You may not learn much about the content of the game itself, but you’ll probably walk away with a good idea of the feelings it evokes in that person.” A similarly personal account appearing on GayGamer.Net [mirror] was written by Justin, who first played it in his early teens. Like Tomm, he also struggles with attempts to present the game to a larger audience. The language he uses to describe his relationship with the game might appear overly dramatic or incomprehensible to most, but there’s likely a small group of players who felt something similar. In the following lines EarthBound is personified, made as real in memory as a long-gone childhood friend:

The game wants to know you, because you’ve been a part of this story longer than anyone within its universe. The game wants to know you, because the story won’t end without you … . It will miss you, because it never really got to know you. It heard you, it felt your prayers, and it knew that with you the impossible was actually within reach.

Recognizing the difficulty of attempting to explain what makes the game special, Justin concludes “EarthBound requires an appreciation of nostalgia to operate at full force. This isn’t a prerequisite for play, and you may eventually grok it at length, but it is necessary so as to understand the depth available.”

In a post titled Gaming Made Me Also (part of a 2009 meme in which authors wrote about some of their formative videogame experiences), Nels Anderson indirectly reminds us that EarthBound did not exist in a vacuum, and he acknowledges that it impacted his life alongside—not to a greater extent than—several other titles. While the sensations of first playing the game remain with him as vivid memories for nostalgia to exaggerate, he feels the game holds up in retrospect by having ‘heart’: “It was sophisticated enough to be able to take itself less seriously at times without compromising its more resonant moments.”

A forum post by user Lestrade on Large Prime Numbers suggests that the game can, under certain circumstances, still be deeply meaningful for people playing it for the first time today. He did not play it as a child, but had acquired the necessary “appreciation of nostalgia” by growing up in a small village surrounded by nature, blue skies, lakes, and a healthy whiff of innocence—not unlike the opening territory in Onett.” He then echoes the nebulous sentiment of those who did play it at a young age, explaining that playing EarthBound has so far been a well-needed reminder for me. A reminder of what, I won’t bother going into, since it would be strictly personal, anecdotal, and probably of no interest to anyone.

“(I can sense … that … you have a controller … in your … hands … .)”

EarthBound seems designed to encourage its players to empathize with Ness, without necessarily inviting us to fully inhabit his character. The game breaks the fourth wall several times, but only so as to expand the stage so it can include us. As Jason Love writes in a comment on Emily Short’s blog, the player is given the role of “an uninvolved NPC, or God, or the incorporeal force of narrative inevitability, depending on how you’d like to interpret it.” In a comment on his blog, Darius Kazemi links EarthBound‘s self-awareness of being a game to hypermediacy [mirror], a concept first developed by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin which suggests that “experience of the medium is itself an experience of the real.” The breaking of the fourth wall, in effect, does not harm our immersion, but enhances it.

Posting on the Something Awful forums [paywall], OzFactor makes an argument [paywall] that the varying difficulty of the game is used to subtly convey meaning about Ness’s state of mind. Since a registration fee is required to view his posts, I have provided a slightly abridged version here:

These areas are hard because they’re supposed to be. Each one is a conscious plot decision; the department store and Moonside are so hard because Ness and Jeff are scared with their friend missing. They had just conquered so much in Threed, only to be separated once again. Twoson/Peaceful Rest/Happy Happy Village is actually the very best example in the game. Ness is leaving home for the first time and his courage is wavering. Luckily, he finds it again in a new friend. In Threed, the two come upon a town that not even Paula’s optimism can brighten up. It’s looking pretty bad until another friend arrives. After you get Poo, the next couple places are a breeze, like the Fourside sewer, Dalaam, and Scaraba. You even pretty much blast through the legendary Kraken, because now as a full team you are some pretty brave kids. Deep Darkness, however, is a pretty scary place, and the Stonehenge base is really the first full assault you have against the forces of Gigyas. They should both be putting the kids to the test. It’s pretty easy to understand why Magicant is so hard: Ness has to fight his demons, and he has to face them all alone. And in the end, the four are all alone, so completely removed from the world they know.

Were these actually conscious plot/design decisions as OzFactor claims? Some might say it doesn’t matter, and that every interpretation is valid as long as it doesn’t contradict the reality of the work. Another example: EarthBound was programmed in such a way that the randomly generated enemies reset when off screen, which allows you to walk away from an area with enemies you know are too tough and then approach again hoping for a more manageable group. This is something I personally always do in Peaceful Rest Valley, where Ness’ “courage is wavering.” The brainwashed dogs and old ladies and hippies have suddenly been replaced with robots and UFOs and trees that explode into flames when they die. It’s hard. It recently occurred to me that my little maneuvers used to exploit a “bug” reflected the hesitation Ness must feel. A few steps forward, run away, gather courage, approach again, and yes, it turns out the enemies weren’t so bad after all. We can both go on.

Matthew Gallant considers Ness’s family in-depth in Long Distance Love. He claims that “by wrapping your interactions with them in gameplay mechanics,” they are able to take on an importance to the player that mimics Ness’ reliance on them as a son. Matthew goes on to suggest that throughout the game “storytelling minimalism” is used expertly to manipulate us into relating with Ness, the most obvious example of this being the parents appearing as “’empty vessels’ that are ready to be filled by the player’s imagination and expectations.”

“I’ll talk about my adventure, and you can tell me about all of your mistakes.”

As Darius notesEarthBound is particularly unusual in that is has a playable dénouement. Tim Rogers explores this in more detail [mirror], examining several specific instances of unique opportunities, NPC conversations and even sound effects that can only be discovered after defeating Giygas.

Everything about that final boss fight is twisted, from RPG battle conventions to the grotesque background imagery and taunts. Under “Reader Feedback” for the Retronauts EarthBound article [mirror], Nick Fagerlund contributes his thoughts on this battle and recalls that “most astonishingly, it reverses the single most basic power dynamic in an RPG: Instead of the NPCs existing to support a small group of mighty heroes, the heroes’ only ultimate value is to serve as a focal point for the hopes and beliefs of the NPCs.”

In The Hidden Themes of the End of the EarthBound [mirror], someone writing under the name Scary Womanizing Pig Mask attempts to shed some light on the nature of Giygas and what exactly is going on in the final battle. He provides a compelling theory that “Giygas has the mindset of an infant almost. He’s not fully aware of what is going on, only that something is attacking him, and his survival instinct[s] kick in. He can’t be held accountable for what he’s doing, and in essence you’ve just killed something primal and instinctive that isn’t even self-aware.”

After these anecdotes and interpretations, I can think of no better note to end on than the following observation by Tim Rogers: “Mother 2’s voodoo curse is that it reflects something back at you if you put enough into it. It’s the only video game I’ve ever known to change people.”

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