Earthbound is Out of It’s Mind but Totally in Proportion

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Welcome to week two of the RPG Club’s ongoing discussion of Nintendo’s recently re-released Earthbound!

Last time we kicked off the series by giving our first (and in some cases third, fourth, and fifth) impressions of the 1995 SNES classic. This time though we’ll be zeroing in on some specific moments in the game that point to what makes it so compelling after all these years, despite the genre conventions that aged so poorly and unfortunately weigh it down (like overly repetitious battles.)

While last week we only just began to scratch the surface of what we found while exploring Onett, by now most of us have made it to Fourside and beyond.

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Chris Waldron: Clearly, Earthbound is a game looking to draw parallels between the lives of its characters and the lives of its players. As childhood reflection is such a consistent theme, it’s hoped that we’ll see Ness and his comrades as walking metaphors for a simpler time in our own lives. When a little league bat was all you needed to strike down evil, and when bottle rockets were a first-class ticket to a back-yard cataclysm.

But I, much like Earthbound‘s creators, didn’t grow up in the land of eagles. There were no baseball bats or bottle rockets in my childhood. Instead we had the odd game of rounders and the promise of a few drizzle-soaked fireworks on Guy Fawkes night. And although much of Earthbound‘s reflective charm is universal, an otherwise trivial event in the game proved jarring amidst the backdrop of my own cultural context, and it led me to reflect on some of the institutions I’d grown accustomed to, and how I’d react if such institutions were threatened with removal.

M2hospitalIt was in Twoson, immediately after losing Paula to a rogue mushroom, that I realised I couldn’t afford her hospital treatment. Now this is a situation faced daily by many around the world but it’s one I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid.

As a resident of a windswept rock known as the United Kingdom, my personal healthcare has fallen under the remit of the National Health Service (NHS), a predominantly free service born from Britain’s post-war push for a welfare state in the late 1940s. The NHS, despite it’s faults, is a service I find a large degree of national pride in, and if the opening ceremony of the London Olympics is anything to go by, it’s something a great deal of my countrymen find pride in, too. The idea that anyone, no matter their economic circumstances, can access free and dependable treatment is a noble goal, and one that I would defend to the hilt.

I’ve always been a supporter of the NHS, but it was there, in that unassuming hospital in Twoson (that looks so much like the hospitals we’re often forced to visit ourselves) that I began to truly reflect on how much I’d grown accustomed to a free health service, and how I and those I love would have been affected if our healthcare was privatized completely.

Now I’m not claiming that Earthbound is making any deliberate commentary on the nationalized v. privatized healthcare debate. More likely the payment was implemented to dissuade players from putting their party in harms way by threatening to take away a chunk of their hard-earned cash. But it’s certainly interesting how a game can provoke such deep thought on a variety of challenging topics. Even if some were entirely unintentional and sprung predominantly from the player’s own cultural background.

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Mike Barrett: As I spend more time in Earthbound‘s world, the art steps into an increasingly important place when thinking about the game, particularly the space I occupy as I bash dogs and aliens with baseball bats. When compared to many other 16-bit RPGs, there’s much, much more consistency in terms of ratios and space conservation.

In RPGs, particularly 16-bit RPGs, there’s usually a great amount of space compression and dilation. Our character icon is at times the size of an entire town while traversing a world map, and other times fits neatly inside the smallest homes and caves. It’s a shorthand that helps us understand the distances crossed and represent all the various actions we perform in understandable terms. We accept a certain amount of size changing while keeping the “true” size of characters and locations in our heads rather than on our screens.

weirdosEarthbound doesn’t do this, or at least, doesn’t do it as much. Ness and his world keep roughly the same size ratios at all times.

For example, your enemies walk around the towns and forests and occupy a space relative to their actual size with few exceptions (some of the “adults” are the same size as the kids, but that’s a limitation of the hardware and character sprite “slots,” if you will).

The only area where space doesn’t preserve almost perfectly are buildings, but even then, it’s far closer to the true size ratios than most games. Another example: the mall is a big building that takes up a considerable amount of Twoson, and thus inside there’s multiple floors and quite a bit of floor space. Now compare that to, say, the Silph Co. building in Pokemon Red and Blue, which appears relatively small in the city map compared to the expansive space once you’re inside.

What’s my point with all of this? All this conservation leads to the world feeling rather small when you think about it, yet it seems gargantuan to the main characters. This lends to that ever-present childish air. There’s no world map or anything silly like that, and it’s pretty clear that this is just a tiny section of the theoretical world, a fraction of a single county, perhaps. It plays as a story about a kid leaving his neighborhood and running into the next town to find a friend, running into some bullies, getting lost in the woods, etc. It could very well be that this is a big imaginary game of young teens running around their area, playing in caves and buying yo-yos. It isn’t, of course, but bear with me. It *could* be. The world physically accommodates the heroes in ways that the usual “Go forth, young lad, and SAVE THE WORLD!” themes don’t.

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Ethan Gach: I just defeated a Crested Booka and he dropped a present behind. I opened it up. Inside was a pizza. Thanks to that hopelessly confused Crested Booka, I was able to make it out of the dessert in one piece. Earthbound is a Greek epic set in an age where meaning is dead. The cyclops still exists, but he’s set against a blue and gold electric background, winking madly at you while a poor man’s Mortal Kombat theme plays on loop.

Chris, who hasn’t wandered into the hospital, relieved to be somewhere safe, free at last (free at last!) from those malevolent fungi, only to realize that when it comes to the Hippocratic Oath there are no free lunches (just wait till you get toward the end of the game. Earthbound might have gotten a lot of things wrong, but the hyper-inflation of medical care is depressingly spot on). If anything, this makes the Saturns that much more lovable. Heads with two feet, a giant nose, and who speak in some extra-terrestrial variant on Wing Dings. And still they heal you for free because that’s just how they do.

foursideSpeaking of ratios Mike, what’s your ratio of freeze α to EVERYTHING ELSE Paula can do? I’m pretty sure the game should just have made that her default attack. But it’s interesting you bring up the game’s scale and architecture. While the cities clearly aren’t realistically sized, they certainly don’t feel like caricatures either, which is no small feat for a 16-bit RPG on the SNES. The city of Fourside doesn’t just look big–it feels big. And I can almost forgive the lack of NPCs to populate it because somehow, for some reason, not having many people to talk to in a giant city feels all too appropriate.

Fourside’s interesting for a few reasons though. In addition to being the biggest “town” you visit in the game, it also marks a kind of turning point. It’s basically the end of Earthbound‘s first act (of three). You quite literally go there and then lose your “innocence,” at least in so far as gaining the ability to teleport (this game’s version of the Airship) feels like moving into quasi-adulthood. It’s bitter sweet really.

On the one hand you’re leaving behind your roots. The blindingly tinted greens of Onett are a distant memory, and it’s been ages since you recorded your first sound. What does your mom’s voice sound like again? Sometimes I can hardly remember–and then my Ness forgets what’s going on and fails to use Lifeup α before Paula gets burned up by an exploding smiley face in the middle of the desert. And this one didn’t drop any pizzas either.

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Next week the crew will be closing in on the Deep Darkness, and from there the end will almost be in sight! But we’re eager to hear your thoughts on the game. Would Obamacare break the game as much as it’s breaking America? Is Earthbound better for not having a world map and for at least trying to keep things in proportion? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter!

  • Jed Pressgrove

    Quick thought: you know how your dad is always depositing money in Earthbound? That’s something a lot of young adults, both hard-working and spoiled, can relate to.

    But the most compelling moment in the game — the one that makes all of the repetition and grinding worthwhile — is The Prayer (if you don’t know what I mean, you will soon enough). Religion showed up in other RPGs of the time (Breath of Fire II is an obvious example), but Earthbound is the only one that nailed spiritualism and how it can connect people and hopes and dreams.