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Why Gaming needs a Next Generation Earthbound

Earthbound BoxWhen I was a kid, I played ice hockey for seven years. I was generally lacking in self-confidence and wasn’t very good, but I still enjoyed the living hell out of it. Occasionally I’d even pull off a few relatively skillful maneuvers and have a good game. It was after one such experience that my dad, acting on the understanding that deep down his son was a nerd, told me I could buy any video game I wanted. It was the perfect positive reinforcement for a nine year old me. We went to the store and I naturally picked out the game with a box twice the size of the others, making my dad most certainly question his decision.

The game I wanted was Earthbound, and it was amazing. An American port of designer Shigesato Itoi’s Mother 2, it’s the second in a series of games involving young children trying to save the world from the intergalactic terror known as Giygas. As the only title in the franchise to make it out of Japan, Earthbound is considered by a strong cult following (myself included) to be a standalone classic for its unique art direction and writing, a staple of the SNES era, and one of the greatest RPGs of all time.

Sadly, the game’s long rumored N64 sequel was cancelled in favor of a Japan-exclusive GBA title. The result is that the western world has been without Earthbound for several generations of video game hardware. This is, frankly, a crime. Earthbound played a pivotal role in not only my development as a gamer, but my childhood as a whole. Given the ecosystem of modern gaming, now would be a perfect time for the game to resurface as something re-tailored for the modern age: A high profile video game reboot to reintroduce Ness (aka that guy in Smash Brothers with the red hat) to a new generation of young gamers. Here’s why.

It solves Nintendo’s console problem without breaking its brand.

Nintendo’s success in the mobile gaming world (remember what they phrase meant before Smartphones?) is unparallelled, but its console reputation has slowly been eroding among those who consider themselves more than casual gamers. The Wii’s innovative foray into motion-based controls held a lot of potential, but (with a few notable exceptions) developers and consumers alike treated the device as more of a novelty than a revolutionary platform. Now that the Wii U has been released, one need only look at its list of games to know that Nintendo has a drought of captivating titles for people interested in playing more than the occasional mini-game. A new Earthbound could help reopen the demographic Nintendo appears to have given up on by providing a deep gaming experience.

Earthbound is also consistent with Nintendo’s overall philosophy of family friendliness. It could be a game that fulfilled the desires of self-described hardcore gamers while staying true to the spirit of Shigeru Miyamoto.

An opportunity for Distinctiveness and Artistic Freedom.

Earthbound’s artistic direction is singular. You’re confronted with enemies like Spiteful Crows, Mostly Bad Flies, Worthless Protoplasms, Crooked Cops, Territorial Oaks, New Age Retro Hippies, and legions of Starmen who would fit in at any David Bowie concert. You save your game by calling your parents on the phone. You gain health by eating Hamburgers and other childhood favorites. Your main ability is named after, quite simply, your favorite thing.

The game’s setting is also broken down into nine towns, each with distinctive styles both audio and visual. Threed (you guessed it, town 3) is in the midst of a Zombie attack. It’s atmosphere is Romero-lite while being kid-friendly. I still remember the immense sense of accomplishment when, after stopping the source of the zombies, the murky, overcast town transformed into a sunny, pleasant community once more. Fourside (town 4) is a glowing metropolis that starkly contrasts with Ness’s hometown of Onett (town 1). Each setting often pokes fun at certain subsections of American culture, but in ways that feel somehow sincere and endearing. It’s almost like watching an episode of the Simpsons. You know, deep down, that the show is making fun of you, but it’s laughing with you and not at you.

It also hits you with moments that can only be explained by the whimsy of a child’s perspective. Take a look at the following sequence, where Ness’s friend Jeff is guided by a monkey to meet the mythical Tessie, a purple prehistoric swimming dinosaur, who ferries him across a lake:

Video courtesy of YouTube user TysonBlast88.

It’s bizarre, unusual, but also strangely engaging and beautiful.

Every seemingly straightforward theme is thrown at you like a curve ball. This even applies to evil. The ultimate villain, Giygas, is presented in a deeply unsettling matter. Supposedly, Itoi based the encounter on a traumatic experience from his own childhood. When he was a young boy, he inadvertently went into a movie theater showing a film in which a woman is murdered by a river after a sex-scene. Itoi based the abstract dialogue during the Giygas fight (e.g. “It hurts…”) on that film. He describes the sequence “as a combination of atrocity and eroticism.” I can think of nothing less disturbing for a child. It also features one of the most unique and off-kilter pieces of gaming music of all time:

Video courtesy of YouTube user Peanut3423.

So imagine what a talented group of artists might be able to do with modern hardware at their disposal and a license to be this creative? This game is about freedom of presentation, defying the obvious and giving people the ability to play through a child’s dreamworld. In other words, it’s art.

A new Earthbound could be the most unique looking game to hit American consoles since Katamari Damacy. There’s an opportunity for a developer to flex some serious creative muscle, and make a real stamp on the gaming world for decades to come.

Everyone can be a Hero.

Modern gaming is wrought with over-muscled protagonists coasted head to foot with ridiculous weaponry. While awesome in small doses, I’m getting a little tired of looking at dudes with biceps the size of my head perform ridiculous, impossible feats of strength and agility.

Earthbound’s opening act features an amazing intergalactic hero, a bee named “buzz buzz”, who is quite literally a dot on the screen. Despite his form, the game takes numerous clever steps to make him out as a noble, powerful character despite his only brief appearance. Furthermore, the protagonist, Ness, is an everyday eight year old who wields little more than a baseball bat and a red cap. His friends, while archetypal, are also remarkable in ways that are much more whimsical than physical. Jeff is a boy genius, Paula relies on kindness and faith, and Poo’s strength comes from meditation and discipline.

These design choices made the game feel relatable and engaging. For once I wasn’t playing as something I wasn’t, I was playing as something I was. By showing that heroes could come in any form, Earthbound could re-establish that kids can do the right thing no matter how weak or insignificant they perceive themselves to be. To borrow from Mr Tolkien, “Even the smallest person can change the course of history.” A new Earthbound could reinforce that lesson.

It’s a “Coming of Age” story.

I’m sure they’re out there, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a game that was really about growing up. There are plenty that dance around the “Hero’s Journey”, sure, but not many emphasize overcoming the hurdles of childhood like Earthbound did. The game teaches the value of friendship, the benefits of helping others for reasons outside of financial gain, and the difficulty of confronting a big, scary world that isn’t immune to evil. Of course, it’s not as self-serious as these statements may suggest, but goddammit it’s wholesome.

If you haven’t played the original, it’s easy enough to track down an emulator and a ROM online. Despite the fact that I’m rapidly approaching my late 20′s, I would buy any new Earthbound in an absolute heartbeat. If I have children myself, it would be the kind of game I’d want in their lives.

There aren’t any plans on the horizon for a new entry in the series, and Itoi himself said he’s done with the series in 2005. But a man can dream, can’t he? It’s not the game that gamers want, it’s the game that gamers need, or deserve or whatever.

  • grouper “grouperfish” fish

    Great read.

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