MOTHER 2 / EarthBound
by Pitchfork

   

Major preliminary pladuits for Tomato's EarthBound Central, an unparalleled resource for information about the MOTHER series.

At the risk of sounding like a scratched record, you kids poking around the NES section of the Wii Shop like it were some nonagenarian garage sale can't possibly imagine what a big freaking deal the Nintendo Entertainment System actually was. If you've read even a few of the hundreds of video game industry timelines and retrospectives floating around, you're already familiar with the NES Resurrected Console Gaming meme. This doesn't do justice to what actually happened. It was like a dead canary coming back to life as a velociraptor.

The pre-NES consoles were essentially vehicles for watered-down arcade ports. Their games were ugly, hard on the ears, and repetitive, and they didn't offer players the promise of achieving local celebrity through their initials on a public High Scores display. But the NES had sidescrolling and save batteries. It had Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda. It was capable of turning perfectly well-adjusted and productive members of society into insomniacs obsessed with finding the Wave Beam, beating the Grim Reaper at the end of level 5, and finding the staff of Demnos. (Even my father went through a phase when he'd play Adventure of Link well past midnight, even when he had to be up at 6:00 the next morning.)

Before long, other companies entered the revived console market with shiny new game machines of their own like the Sega Master System and TurboGraphx 16. The time came for Nintendo to release a new product to stay ahead of the game, but how could it possibly duplicate the astonishing success of the NES?

Simple. By doing it again − but more. And so we have the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It's the same thing as the Nintendo Entertainment System, but it's, y'know, super. And in the early 1990s it was widely hailed as the biggest and best thing in gaming since the NES.

The guiding philosophy for developers taking their breakout NES hits from the old 8-bit machine to the new 16-bit model was largely identical: just do the first game over again, but do it super. And so Samus returns to Planet Zebes and battles Mother Brain in Super Metroid. Simon Belmont meets and defeats Count Dracula for the first time all over again in Super Castlevania IV. Little Mac takes to the ring with his most recognizable opponents (sans Tyson) in Super Punch-Out! Bomberman blah blah blah blah Super Bomberman! Link navigates rescues Zelda and defeats Gannon in Super Legend of Zelda III! Mega Man is reborn with gritty flair as "X" in Super Mega Man Super X! You get the idea.

And so we come to Shigesato Itoi and APE, who were priming MOTHER for its class change from game to series. And if what worked for Nintendo worked for Samus, Simon Belmont, Link, and Mega Man, what reason did APE have not to bring the same playbook into the development of Super MOTHER?

Okay, right − the game was actually called MOTHER 2. However, we will be calling it by its North American title, EarthBound. There are times when sentimentality must trump consistency.

And so it was that the sequel to MOTHER was likewise designed to be exceedingly similar to the original, only more super than before. The carryovers from the first game are abundant and obvious:

• Story about a kid living in America (or some fictional facsimile) who embarks on an adventure to unravel the sinister designs of a distant alien menace.

• Player characters: the young hero in a red baseball cap. The blonde and dainty magic girl. The spectacled dork specializing in high-tech weaponry. The weird afterthought fourth character.

• The hero's family: the nurturing mother who serves the hero his favorite food and acts as a walking recovery point. The unseen Dad who saves the game and communicates with the hero strictly by telephone. The Fat Chocobo little sister.

• Plot tokens! The hero must search the world for the eight "pieces" of a special song related to a bizarre dream world called Magicant.

• The endboss: a malignant entity called Giygas whose influence causes animals to become aggressive, people to act strangely, and weird stuff to happen all around. During his climactic battle with the heroes, he fights using incomprehensible psychic attacks.

• A town under siege by zombies. A town plagued by hoodlums. An underground maze full of monkeys. Live musical performances in a big city. Police blockades. Ineffective and self-absorbed mayors. Knife-brandishing teen gang leaders. Alien abductions. Fourth wall-breaking fathers.

• Another brilliant and rather unconventional soundtrack by Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka (now joined by Hiroshi Kanazu and Toshiyuki Ueno) that includes several reprises MOTHER compositions. Since we've got time, why don't we run through a small (and definitely not complete) list?

"Pollyanna"
MOTHER
EarthBound

"Youngtown"
MOTHER
EarthBound

"Snowman"
MOTHER
EarthBound

"Hippie Battle"
MOTHER
EarthBound

"Yucca Desert"
MOTHER
EarthBound

"Humoresque of a Little Dog" (Drugstore)
MOTHER
EarthBound

"Approaching Mt. Itoi"
MOTHER
EarthBound

• Also:

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

Right off the bat, EarthBound sacrifices one of MOTHER's most valuable assets: its unfamiliarity. (Although this was never an issue for us Westerners, Japanese players would have instantly recognized the setting, characters, and style.) Designing EarthBound as a Super MOTHER made sense − why overhaul something proven to work well? − but it contributed some baggage to the development process. Though MOTHER was basically Dragon Quest with some body work and a really nice paint job, APE had a comparatively blank canvas to work with during the development process. Building EarthBound as a same-thing-but-super sequel, however, required taking old pieces from MOTHER and constructing the new game's machinery around them. To use a gaming simile, it was like starting a round of Tetris with the Height cranked up to level three or four. There was stuff already there that couldn't be changed (or could only be tweaked to a certain extent) and had to be worked around.

In MOTHER, Ninten and his friends must "collect" the notes to the Eight Melodies because they come together to form the tune to Maria's lullaby, which is the only thing on the planet that can repel Giygas. In EarthBound, Ness and his friends have to run around and find the notes to the new Eight Melodies because that's what Ninten and his friends did in MOTHER, only this time it's different. Ness's best pals are a psychic blonde who fights with a frying pan and a nerd armed with explosives and a ray gun because these kids were also Ninten's best pals, but now they are super and different. Magicant and Giygas yadda yadda yadda but super and different.

The whole scenario seems just a tad contrived compared to its predecessor's. In MOTHER, Ninten has an immediately pressing reason to begin his quest (apart from Dad telling him to do it, of course): weird and dangerous shit has been happening all around Rural America and his family was attacked by supernatural forces in their own home. As the only psychic kid in the neighborhood (and as the descendant of George, an alien abductee who dedicated most of his life to paranormal research), Ninten is uniquely equipped to uncover the root cause of the bizarre problems plaguing Rural America and protect his family from another attack. But in EarthBound, a talking bug from the future tells Ness he needs to travel the world to prevent some really bad thing from happening someday. There's just not the same sense of urgency this time around. "Something is attacking your family and you need to do something about it" injects a lot more fuel into a story's engine than an announcement that there's a prophecy the hero must go out and fulfill.

(But we're not far enough into this thing just yet to start nitpicking − especially since the sheer weirdness of everything EarthBound throws at you within its first fifteen minutes has proven sufficient to convince players that seeing what else its world has to offer is reason enough to keep going. Besides, this lack of urgency serves a practical purpose we'll look at later.)

There may have been another reason behind APE's "same thing but super" approach. What if the team just wanted to take another crack at the original idea? Maybe after finishing MOTHER, gauging players' reactions (and criticisms), and assessing it from a distance, the team decided to try rejiggering the thing now that they better understood what they were doing. EarthBound is comparable to Evil Dead 2 in that it's equal parts sequel and remake. You've got pretty much the same hero, the same setting, the same antagonists, and no suggestion of any continuity. At the same time, it can't be called a straight-up remake when things play out so much differently than in the original. (Perhaps we could call it a reboot?)

(It should also be noted that MOTHER took about a year to make, while EarthBound was apparently in development for about five. Not only was APE approaching the sequel with a better understanding of the process and yields, but with the luxury of being able to take its time and feel things out.)

For all that EarthBound carries over from MOTHER, it was actually designed quite differently than its predecessor. Most of the similarities are only topographical: as a game EarthBound is anything but a rehash, and its trip is very dissimilar to MOTHER's.

MOTHER's huge world map is gone, as are its tremendous open spaces. Though Ness's adventures aren't confined to a single rural countryside like Ninten's, EarthBound's segmented globe somehow feels smaller − or at least less overwhelming. Now that the world map is illustrated in detail, it's considerably harder to get lost in Eagleland than in Rural America; and although they're definitely not small, the towns and pathways between them are more compact and circumscribed than before. Danger zones like the Peaceful Rest Valley and Dusty Dunes Desert mine are difficult to navigate and might take a few tries to complete, but there's not a single EarthBound dungeon comparable to Duncan's Factory (the horror) or the Mt. Itoi caves (the horror) in MOTHER.

Also gone is that maligned staple of the console RPG, the random encounter. SquareSoft and Enix kept it in Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy all through the 90s and into the 00s; whether this was because of a dogmatic adherence to the games' original formulas or because the developers felt random battles were essential to the experience is anyone's guess. But APE very deliberately removed them from EarthBound. Encounter-triggering enemies now appear on the field screen and can be dodged, avoided, and scrolled out of existence. If Ness and pals are strong enough, enemies will actually shy away from them, and if a triggered battle is really in the player's favor, it will end instantly (while still giving her all the rewards she could have expected from fighting and winning it).

This contributes to another very noticeable difference between MOTHER and EarthBound. MOTHER is a game that will beat your ass. You're going to get lost, worn down, and forced to choose between resetting the system, taking the game over, or warping to Magicant (and then paying back the bailout with the time it takes to leave Magicant), and this will happen over and over again. EarthBound's enemies are avoidable (and less frequently encountered), its danger zones are smaller, and now the party size is 33% larger and the heroes are much tougher than before. In my own experience I've liked to keep the team somewhat underlevelled in order to make battles exciting, and it's sometimes been hard to do this. EarthBound probably errs toward being too gentle on players.

Oddly, in this regard EarthBound's trajectory deviates from Dragon Quest's and is more closely aligned with Final Fantasy's. While Dragon Quest stuck to its guns and remained a grindfest through the 1990s, many SquareSoft games were becoming easier and more forgiving so as to hook and reel in new players. MOTHER can be a difficult game to see through to the end, but EarthBound's trip is substantially less daunting. Something is certainly lost in the transformation − the aforementioned je ne sais quoi of the 8-bit RPG and the palpable tension pervading MOTHER − but players must admit that it's more fun to poke around a game world when they're not fighting random battles every seven steps and the areas aren't so spacious and empty.

Because of this, EarthBound is more conducive to the experience that Itoi had hoped MOTHER would achieve. We know that he wanted players to take their time playing MOTHER, to explore its world at length and "read" it more closely. We also know that this was a somewhat superfluous statement, because MOTHER rather makes players take things slowly. The path from Point A to B through Rural America is frequently vague, extremely long, and fraught with danger. It can't easily be rushed through by the first-time player, no matter how badly she might want to advance at a faster pace. EarthBound similarly requires first-time players to thoroughly investigate new areas to figure out the next objective (unless you spent money at the Eagleland Hint Union, the game rarely spells out what you should be doing), but now it's much less of a chore. There's more to see, more to do, and no random battles dogging you as you're looking around. Without the constant looming threat of enemy encounters dissuading players from straying off the path, and with the increased likelihood of finding something interesting in out of the way spots, players are strongly encouraged to explore and won't really want to rush through things.

The story of EarthBound's release in North America is long and tangled enough to warrant a piece of its own − but we have Starmen.net and Tomato's own EarthBound central for that. We will be brief!

After its aborted effort to bring MOTHER to North America under the EarthBound title, Nintendo took the exportation of MOTHER 2 much more seriously and went to a lot of trouble to translate, localize, and market it for a North American audience. The English translation alone is an impressive feat for its time: EarthBound is tremendously wordy (I'd be curious to see how its word count compares to the rest of the SNES's RPG library) and the effort to make it eminently readable and faithful to the original went far beyond the usual standards applied to localization. (See Breath of Fire II for an example of the persistence of shoddy translation standards during the SNES's latter years). Moreover, it was packaged in a huge eye-grabbing box with an impressive strategy guide (because Nintendo evidently still presumed that American kids were dimwits who could only enjoy text and number-heavy RPGs through coaxing and coddling) and an advertising campaign featuring foul-smelling scratch n' sniff cards and an irresistible slogan: "this game stinks!"

The bumbling PR effort is sometimes pegged as the reason for EarthBound's lukewarm reception in North America, but this is an oversimplification. We can actually credit Nintendo of America for acknowledging that, like Dragon Quest, EarthBound wasn't going to sell many copies stateside without a lot of help. With the exception of the SquareSoft games, console RPGs still weren't very popular on this side of the Pacific, and if Dragon Quest consistently failed to catch American players' fancies, a cutesy game that purposefully apes (pun intended?) Dragon Quest was bound to be a tough sale. You have to remember that EarthBound came out during a time when cutesy was not in vogue with Western gamers: this was the era of Mortal Kombat and DOOM. Gamers wanted grit and gore, and EarthBound has neither. But "gross" was also popular, as exemplified by Earthworm Jim and Boogerman − and EarthBound happens to have a few fart jokes and monsters made of throwup, so the Nintendo ad men ran with that. "This game STINKS!" The PR campaign might have been boneheaded, but you have to figure that the Japanese commercial pitch (basically: "it's a game even your sister will like!") wouldn't have gone over much better.

My memory might be unreliable, but what I recall most from scrolling the old Nintendo message boards in 1995-7 were people trashing EarthBound for how it looked. At that time it was widely held that the quality of a game was directly proportional to the realism of its graphics. I'm inclined to hold the marketing campaigns of the Genesis/SNES wars responsible: when the advertisers drill into kids' minds that their console is better because its Mortal Kombat port looks the bloodiest and best, the kids start applying this standard elsewhere. "This looks like a Nintendo game," I recall more than one person complaining on the message boards. ("Nintendo" meaning NES, of course.) As somebody who has spent more time ripping and screwing around with NES graphics than 99% of humanity, I can tell you that EarthBound's graphics do not look like they're from the NES. Since we've already looked at MOTHER, this should be obvious to us all − but I would hope we'd all know better than that anyway.

The mainstream gaming press didn't do EarthBound any favors, either. "What's missing: graphic intensity! The graphics are nothing to get excited about," whined Electronic Gaming Monthly. "Scary Larry" of GamePro concurred: "The graphics follow the three S's: short, squashed, and simple. The backgrounds don't look particularly 16-bittish, and the enemies are weakly illustrated. Dragon Warrior on the NES had better-looking enemies." He then went on to complain that the game doesn't have any of those grainy, pointless, two-second voiceover clips that were such a popular novelty in the early 90s. Scary Larry was a person who actually earned his living by publishing these thoughts for a national audience, and all of a sudden I feel like downing a glass of Clorox and just giving up.

Moving along!

EarthBound was hardly a blockbuster in North America, but it soon amassed a fervent cult following. Why, I myself was a member of an online fan club called the Eagleland Hint Union. Every Saturday night, about five to ten of us would convene in a private chat room to discuss how much we all loved EarthBound, brag about acquiring this or another 1:128 item drop, and speculate, speculate, speculate about the game's ambiguities and unsolved mysteries. I suppose we were a tiny microcosm of the then-scattered EarthBound fanbase, which eventually consolidated around Starmen.net near the end of the decade.

Anyway, the rest is history: EarthBound's unified, vocal, and visible fan community (not to mention Ness's inclusion in Super Smash Brothers) kept it from sliding into obscurity in the West, and it has since been vindicated to the extent that you'll sometimes hear it being called the o-word − overrated. Now that the sprite-based, self- aware, retro-styled indie game is in vogue, it's hard to imagine that the scene was once so hostile to games like EarthBound. It's ironic, really: back when it was officially released, people eschewed it for looking and playing too much like a game from the 1980s. Lately it seems rather ahead of its time.

   

You know what we haven't done in a while? A survey of an RPG's characters and locations. What do you say − just for old times' sake, why don't we look at a few of the more important and/or interesting people and places in EarthBound? (This will not be all-inclusive. EarthBound's cast is huge.)

Characters

NESS

Ah, yes: Ness, the super Ninten. He's basically the same person as MOTHER's protagonist: a courageous and energetic young boy who wears a red cap, swings a baseball bat, and wields strange psychic powers. It's almost tempting to believe Ninten and Ness are the same person, though this is almost certainly not the case. But if you really, really want to believe Ness is a one-year-later version of Ninten, Itoi sees no reason to stop you. If it will make you enjoy EarthBound more, go for it.

Unsurprisingly, our hero is mute once again. Since the only characterization an RPG's silent protagonist usually receives comes from what other people tell him about himself, we have to rely on EarthBound's NPCs to fill us in on the role we're playing. We know that Ness is mature for his age: visiting the secret clubhouse behind the library and chatting with Ness's buddies, we see that they're all a little smaller than him and treat him with a respect bordering on reverence. The girls he meets tell him he's adorable. The gang leader Frank Fly thinks he's a bad ass. Shadesters like Lier X. Agerate and Everdred trust him implicitly. And his neighbor Pokey − well, let's talk about him later on.

One thing that's nice about EarthBound is that no matter how much of a dislikable, socially awkward, always-smells-like-cigarettes troglodyte you might be, you can always turn on EarthBound, stroll around Onett, and let everyone tell you what a great person you are. Anyway, all we need to know about Ness is that he's a paragon of thirteen-year-old excellence and virtue.

Like Ninten in MOTHER, Ness is built to be your team's powerhouse. Selected as "the chosen boy" by cosmic providence, Ness appropriately ends up becoming even more of a stubby little Achilles than his predecessor (who merely gets involved in an interplanetary conflict because of his family ties). Whereas the conclusion of MOTHER's Magicant arc grants Ninten the words to a lullaby, the conclusion of EarthBound's Magicant arc turns Ninten into a supercharged conqueror-killer whose level and stats absolutely dwarf his companions'. (Ironically, after his apotheosis, Ness is most useful as a healbot.)

In addition to the recovery, auxiliary, and teleportation PSI we've already seen in Ninten's arsenal, Ness also boasts a unique PSI attack whose name depends on your answer in the pre-game "what's your favorite thing?" prompt. (In MOTHER 2, the default is "fighting spirit;" in EarthBound, it's "Rockin." During my very first playthrough in 1995 it was called "PSI Pogs" because I was a very stupid child.) This is designed to be the strongest PSI attack in the game, but it comes with some built-in drawbacks: it's got one of the steepest casting costs in the game and an unfavorably wide damage range. (Note: EarthBound's characters and their abilities are designed much more deliberately than MOTHER's, which seem rather slapped together by comparison.)

Once again, our hero's unparalleled power is tempered by a unique weakness. Instead of being prone to asthma attacks like Ninten, Ness's special vulnerability is simply that he's a thirteen-year-old boy. He may be the chosen hero of the universe, and he might get to skip school to travel to far-off lands and fend off invaders from beyond space and time, but he still occasionally misses his mom. Ness's unique "homesick" status ailment strikes without warning and causes him to randomly ignore battle commands to sigh and think wistfully about home. The only cure is a phone call to his mother, but a public phone can be hard to come across when Ness and his pals are being chased by swarms of hostile aliens in an underground bunker. All you can do is hope Ness snaps out of it and obeys your orders during the next turn, and that the rest of the team is capable of picking up the slack. (Ness suddenly experiencing homesickness while fighting the Nightmare in the Sea of Eden is how controller cords get tied in fretful knots and gnawed on.)


PAULA

MOTHER's leading lady is Ana. EarthBound's leading lady is Paula. Let's compare!

Ana is a magical blonde girl with a kind heart and a pure spirit. Paula is a magical blonde girl with a kind heart and a pure spirit. Ana wears pink. Paula wears pink. Ana wears a hat. Paula wears a ribbon. Ana whacks foes with a frying pan. Paula whacks foes with a frying pan. Ana nukes enemies with elemental psychokinesis. Paula nukes enemies with elemental psychokinesis. Ana is the daughter of a priest. Paula is the daughter of a preschool proprietor. Ana sets out with Ninten to rescue her abducted mother. Paula gets kidnapped and must be rescued by Ness. Ana gives Ninten his first dance. Paula gives Ness the Franklin Badge. Ana has tender feelings for Ninten. Paula has tender feelings for Ness.

God, Itoi's heroines are boring. Paula is every bit as saccharine, passive, and bland as Ana, and she suffers the indignity of getting kidnapped and needing to be rescued twice. (As you might have guessed, I'm more of a Kumatora person.)

(Postscript: actually, after going through the ending again, I realized I really enjoy the way Paula expresses her feelings for Ness during the epilogue by not expressing them. Rather than the goopy "Ness...I..." sort of affair we might expect from a Japanese RPG, Paula simply extends Ness a cordial farewell, and then drags it out much, much longer than she needs to because she's so reluctant to leave him. Okay − that's really cute and clever.)

Among the four chosen heroes, Paul is the most likely to be felt as a deadweight for most of the game. She's got the lowest health, the weakest physical attack, and with the exception of PSI Shield and Fire, she has very few abilities that can't be done almost as well or better by her teammates. But since this is still a MOTHER game, the female essence is once again the greatest power in the world.

In MOTHER, Teddy's tremendous physical strength proves all but useless against the forces of darkness, and humanity is eventually saved by a lullaby and a mother's love. In EarthBound, Ness absorbs the power of Magicant and becomes a peerless war titan. This is only useful, however, for the next hour or so of the game as the group travels to alien-occupied Onett and then to Giygas's lair. Once it's time to face Giygas, Ness's unsurpassed power amounts to squat, and it's up to Paula to save everyone (and everything) from Giygas. Her "Pray" command, which usually generates a random PSI effect (and is generally better off not being used) becomes the one thing that can overcome Giygas. If Paula falls during the final battle and can't be brought back to consciousness, you might as well reset the game. (Hmm. This might explain why she keeps getting targeted and kidnapped by Giygas's agents.)

It should also be noted that Paula is also the only character who doesn't get her own solo chapter. The player guides Jeff during his journey from Winters to Threed, and later on takes control of Poo as he completes his Mu training. But Paula just sits around and waits to be collected by Ness. For a game that originally boasted that it would even appeal to (presumptively male) gamers' sisters, this seems like a rather tactless exclusion.


JEFF

Of MOTHER's three main heroes, the one to undergo the biggest upgrade in the sequel is Lloyd, who is metempsychosed as EarthBound's Jeff.

Lloyd is a shy and nervous weakling with low self-esteem who hides from bullies in a garbage can and has a penchant for explosives. Jeff, on the other hand, is a ballsy brainiac who's respected by his peers and content with who he is. Maybe the difference in their personalities can be accounted for by the differences in their pedigrees: Lloyd's father is another weirdo who hides in garbage cans, while Jeff's pop is the brilliant (but unsociable and singleminded) Dr. Andonuts, who is a lot less interested in his son than his research.

As an item-user who can't use PSI, Jeff serves more or less the same function as Lloyd in MOTHER, but his arsenal has expanded significantly. He's got access to many more cool gadgets, and most are found in treasure chests (well, in garbage cans or gift boxes) rather than as rare enemy drops. The catch is that they're usually busted and not good for anything until Jeff repairs them, which he can't do until his IQ stat reaches a particular value (differing for each broken item). Now that bombs can be used by any party member, Jeff's exclusive one-use attack items are bottle rockets, the strongest of which is the supremely deadly multi-bottle rocket − the single strongest attack in the game.

Lloyd might occasionally be useful, but Jeff is essential. If he does have a drawback, it's that his weapons are hard to find. Most department stores in Eagleland don't sell laser guns, and his equipment is easy to miss if you're not a thorough explorer.


POO

Three is a great number. A solid number. A mystical number. Good things come in groups of three. Heroes come in groups of threes. Consider: Batman, Robin, Batgirl. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia. Spike, Jet, Faye. Fry, Bender, Leela. Brendon, Jason, Melissa. Harry, Ron, Hermione. The main man, the second banana, the woman. If there is some archetypal Jung/Campbell-type theory behind this trope, I would be interested in reading about it.

(Yes, yes, the mold clearly bears a patriarchal stamp in its insistence on a male hero and its defining one of his subordinates on the basis of her non-male gender. But that's a chat for another time.)

My old sprite comic had three main characters: the protagonist, his buddy, and his ex-girlfriend. When it took on a Story B, the side plot also had the hero, the rival/ally, and the female healer/protector. I didn't plan this at all. I imagine it often just happens on its own.

A fourth character is tricky. Number four must be inessential, incongruous, or both. Batman/Robin/Batgirl are indissoluble; Huntress/Red Robin/Azrael/Batwoman/Spoiler/Ace the Bat-Hound, etc. frequently appear and vanish from the serials because their inclusion usually isn't necessary. They cover bases that don't need covering. Kramer, the Thing, Chewbacca, and Radical Edward are fourth men. They're the weirdos and oddballs of their groups. They have to be − otherwise there would be no reason for them to be there. (What's the point of having two Leias or two Lukes?)

MOTHER's Teddy is an inessential fourth man. Though his appearance acts as a device to accomplish a few things within the narrative (give Lloyd his chance to shine and deliver a ham-handed statement about the futility of violence), his presence is by no means integral and can actually be skipped through some easy (though not immediately obvious) sequence breaking.

Teddy's spiritual successor in EarthBound is the knife-brandishing punkabilly gang leader Frank Fly − but Frank never actually becomes a party member. And so the role of Teddy as the inessential fourth team member is succeeded by Prince Poo of Dalaam. [insert forced scatological joke here.]

Ness, Paula, and Jeff all hail from a Western culture; Poo comes from a pastiche of a few different Himalayan nations. Ness, Paula, and Jeff are just a bunch of neighborhood kids and students; Poo is his kingdom's reigning monarch. Ness meets Paula and Jeff through an organic sequence of events within the narrative; Poo just appears out of nowhere halfway through the game after Ness eats a slice of psychedelic cake. He's the last party member to join the team, the first to leave the group during the epilogue, and by far the least developed of the group. Maybe Itoi figured that since the fourth man would stick out like a sore thumb anyway, he should just go for broke with Poo.

Teddy is indisputably MOTHER's dullest character: he has a physical attack and nothing else. The much more versatile Poo has decent HP, a 1/128 chance of becoming a strong physical attacker, elemental PSI like Paula, and a slew of recovery, healing, shielding, and unique attack PSI like Ness. What Poo contributes to the team is redundancy, reinforcing it with more of what it already has. If this were Final Fantasy I, he'd be the useful but nonessential Thief or Red Mage backing up the crucial Fighter/White Mage/Black Mage triad.)

EarthBound's player characters each have an idiosyncratic weakness (Ness's susceptibility to homesickness, Jeff's hard-to-find arsenal), and Poo's usefulness as a Jack of all trades likewise comes attached to a small disadvantage. All of his equipment is exclusive and can't be bought in stores, and he recovers hardly any health from the processed, Western-style slop his friends eat. (He can, however, recover psychic points just by sipping bottled water.)


THE MINCH FAMILY

   

"The evil begins at home," says Aristotle, and we see something like this illustrated in EarthBound by way of Ness's next door neighbors: the ostentatious, dysfunctional, and miserable Minch family. How's this for RPG villainy: instead of a demonic dimension or looming nightmare fortress, EarthBound's primary den of evil appears as the household of a shitty upper-middle class white suburban American family. The man of the house, Aloysius, is a greedy, whining jerk; his cruel and shallow wife Lardna isn't much better. Picky, the younger of the two Minch boys, is...actually, Picky isn't that bad. (MOTHER callback: Picky is Pippi remixed.) And there is also Pokey, the corpulent and cowardly firstborn.

Let's talk more about Pokey later.

(Note: Pokey is an alternative localization of "Porky." The latter seems to have become officialized by Nintendo through the character's Super Smash Brothers Brawl appearance − for purely sentimental reasons, we will call him "Pokey" as long as we're talking about him in EarthBound.)


BRICK ROAD/DUNGEON MAN

   

Old heads: When you were pushing through the Marsh Cave in Final Fantasy or Level 7 in Legend of Zelda, did you ever find yourself wondering about who designed the place and how he did it?

Think about dungeon building in NES games for a sec. How long did it usually take? How many people were involved? Did the designers sketch the maps out on paper first? Did they use a drawing pad or graph paper? Was there some set of aesthetic standards and methodologies they applied? Did the team usually have a project bible detailing what a dungeon should and shouldn't do? How did they know when a dungeon was good and when one needed work? Were there a lot of arguments between designers over which maps made the cut and which ones didn't?

All I'm saying is that there were salaried professionals designing these game maps, and I doubt they took their responsibilities lightly.

Itoi obviously spent some time mulling over how an RPG dungeon should be designed. It seems his proclivity toward the meta eventually got him thinking about the logistics and unasked questions about building an underground maze. RPG worlds are full of the damn things: somebody's gotta be making them, right? So who is it that designs and builds these places? What kind of person makes a vocation of devising baffling labyrinths to ensnare heroes, store precious treasure, and support small ecosystems of zombies and plague rats?

And so EarthBound offers us a glimpse into the mind of the dungeon design auteur. Meet Brick Road. Jeff first bumps into him in Winters after navigating the "modest" dungeon he constructed and opened to the public (with no admission fee). Judging by all the signs and signatures he places throughout his dungeons, Brick Road feels very passionately about his work and wants people to understand and appreciate what goes into it.

He's so interested in dungeons, in fact, that he has Dr. Andonuts turn him into one. Sometime after his first meeting with Jeff, Brick Road is transformed into Dungeon Man, the first human/dungeon hybrid in history. It is strange and unique experience to wander through an RPG dungeon given to introspection about what it means to be a RPG dungeon. Around every other corner there's another sign placed by Brick Road, pointing out the facts and details of his masterpiece as though he were a museum curator. (Oddly enough, he calls the music in the place his finest achievement.)

After working through Brick Road's new "body" and speaking to his face, Ness and friends are briefly joined by Dungeon Man on their trek through the Scaraba desert. But soon Dungeon Man gets inextricably tangled in some trees. Aside from feeling sad about saying goodbye to his new friends, Brick Road doesn't seem too upset about being stuck in the same spot for the rest of his existence. Staying in one place and waiting for people to find you is the lot of the dungeon, after all. (Could it otherwise be an allusion to the loneliness of the dedicated video game designer?! Workers in the field are known to work very long hours. Itoi himself admits to sleeping on a row of chairs in the APE offices during EarthBound's development.)


THE MANI MANI STATUE

   

A prime agent in Giygas's monstrous plans for Earth is the "Mani Mani Devil" − a statue-demon-machine that causes people to behave erratically and evilly while giving them great power over others. It can also create illusions and act as a communication channel between its possessor and Giygas.

The Mani Mani Statue is an important part of the story, acting as a proxy for Giygas in both the Twoson and Fourside scenarios, but we're told next to nothing about it. We don't know how it came to be buried in the hills of Onett. We don't know the sequence by which Carpainter acquired it and was followed by Pokey to the Happy Happy Village. We don't know the nature of Giygas's ultimate plan for it. We don't know how or why it came to signify Ness's dark side in the Sea of Eden.

These questions and many others (what is the Apple of Enlightenment?!) have been intensely scrutinized by EarthBound fans for nearly two decades. There are no answers. Like MOTHER, EarthBound inclines steeply toward ambiguity: anything occurring beyond Ness's immediate perspective usually isn't explained, and he's not allowed to ask questions. One might wonder, however, if the EarthBound fan community would have endured for so long if it hadn't so many mysteries to debate on the message boards.


YOUR SANCTUARY BOSSES

Remember how we complained about MOTHER not having any boss battles?! EarthBound has about twenty boss beasties in total. The standouts of the bunch are the guardians of the eight power spots that Ness must seek out:

   

   

   

   

In some circles these are iconic classics of a stature equaling Mega Man 2's rogues gallery or the original cast of Street Fighter II. (These are small circles, but nevertheless...)


GIYGAS

   

English-speaking EarthBound fans playing the Earthbound Zero ROM first knew MOTHER's endboss as "Giegue." For a long time there were great speculative debates on the message boards about a connection between Giegue and Giygas until some Japanese-fluent fans pointed out that both were known as "Gyiyg" in MOTHER and MOTHER 2. This just led to further questions and arguments. if the Giygas Ninten meets in MOTHER is the same entity Ness encounters in EarthBound, what the hell happened to him between the two games?! Why isn't he going after Ninten like he promised? When did he set up a base in the distant past? When did he lose his mind? When did he become whatever the hell thing he is now?

Itoi doesn't give us any clues. Nowhere in EarthBound is Giygas's first failed invasion of Earth so much as mentioned (though it is alluded to in the pre-title screen of MOTHER 2). He may as well be a completely different entity with a coincidentally familiar name, like all the Ryus and Ninas throughout the Breath of Fire series or all the Links and Zeldas in all the Zelda games. I doubt Itoi was terribly interested in establishing the continuity between the two incarnations of Giygas. And since EarthBound never bills itself as a direct continuation of MOTHER's story, there are no plot holes dug by the omission. If the player wishes to consider Giygas #1 and Giygas #2 as "before" and "after" versions of the same entity, whatever sequence leading to his transformation from a Mewtwo prototype in a glass jar to Ye Liveliest Awfulness is left completely to her imagination.

What do we know about the Giygas Ninten meets? A little. We know that his species was responsible for George and Maria's abduction. We know that Maria acted in some capacity as his surrogate mother. We know that human emotion frightens and confounds him. We see that he has conflicted feelings toward Ninten because of his relation to Maria.

What do we know about EarthBound's Giygas? Next to nothing. We know that he's scheduled to destroy the universe about ten years in the future. We know that he attacked the world in the past and was beaten back by an ancient civilization. And we know that he's set up a "hive" in the very distant past and sends his agents through time to attack future eras. We know that he (or his agents) consults a precognitive object called the "Apple of Enlightenment" in formulating his plans. Everything beyond that is up for conjecture.

One big blank spot is Giygas's motivation. His mind is already gone when we meet him, so he certainly can't tell us what he's been thinking about. This thing is definitely an endboss, but he's more of a set piece than a character.

Let's talk more about this later.


Places

ONETT, TWOSON, THREED, & FOURSIDE

   

In most console RPGs, towns are nothing but rest areas. You visit them to recover your team's health and magic points, save the game, buy stuff, and solicit clues from the locals about your next destination. All the exploration, battles, and important plot stuff − the real substance of the game − is found elsewhere.

Well, we're not in some backwater medieval fantasy world anymore. This is 1990s America Eagleland, dammit. Villages in the modern age are no longer little bastions of humanity nestled in the uncharted and dangerous wilderness. We've paved over the wild. Everywhere's a town now.

Well − perhaps this speaks to my prejudice as a (former) resident of New Jersey, a place where this certainly holds true. It's likely somewhat less the case further west, out in Appalachia or the Ozarks, or in the Rural America that Ninten calls home. Many of the hours the player logs into MOTHER will consist of guiding Ninten down monster-haunted dirt roads and paths through the woods. Podunk, Merrysville, Reindeer, and the other towns are oases in a veritable desert.

But for most of EarthBound, just about everything happens in a town. The same places where you do all the usual RPG pit stop stuff are also where you fight enemies, push the story forward, and find the entrances to the game's dungeons and danger zones.

Since relatively little usually happens in RPG towns, one often gets the impression that the games' architects threw them together somewhat arbitrarily. (Much less deliberately than the dungeons, at any rate.) Drop some houses here, throw the Inn, Item Shop, and Armory here, here, and here, and sprinkle some trees, creeks, and NPCs between them, and − bam! town's done, time for lunch. (This applies less, I think, to games with pre-rendered 2D backdrops or 3D environments. It's much easier to half-ass designing an area made up of tilesets, and commensurately harder to make one that's really very interesting.)

We already understand that Itoi and APE pay very close attention to the details in their work. Do we really need to catalogue all the lovely touches that make EarthBound's towns such fun to explore? We don't and we can't − it would be a long list, longer than I'd be willing to compile and you'd be willing to read. But APE had to take its work especially seriously here: hopping around town is something like 2/3 of the EarthBound experience. If Onett, Twoson, et. al weren't going to be interesting, neither was the game.

Picking apart EarthBound's first four towns would be an article in itself, so − just a few bullet points of stuff that struck or impressed me in particular.

• An improvement over MOTHER: the first game's villages are full of decorative houses that can't be entered and don't do anything but sit there and remind you about the setting. (In case you forgot: you're in a TOWN.) EarthBound's streets are also lined with boxy little homes. Many of them are still inaccessible, but now a pretty impressive number of them can be entered. Usually there's not much inside (maybe one room and an NPC), but their inclusion makes EarthBound's world substantially richer and livelier. Even when a house's door is locked, you can still bang on the door to elicit a response from the person inside. And when all the townsfolk's dialogue is written by a mutant like Itoi, you want as many opportunities as possible to hear from the hoi polloi.

• The vehicles. You'll frequently see cars and trucks chugging along the streets. You can't interact with them. They don't damage Ness if he steps in front of them. Really, they don't do anything except look cute. But what other RPG designers in 1994 were taking such pains to make their games' towns more interesting and animated?

• The townsfolk themselves. Let's compare the residents of Eagleland to, say, the townsfolk from Final Fantasy VI.

Pretend you're one of Final Fantasy VI's developers and you've been asked to populate a village map with NPCs. What are your options?

First, the men. You've got the 20-50 year-old average joe and the scholar.



Next, the women. The female gender is represented by the 20-30 year-old average Jane and the waitress floozy.



And you've got the little girl kid and the little boy kid:



You've got the old man and the old woman:



And finally there's a few miscellaneous townsfolk like the merchant, the rogue, and the shopkeeper:



Though that's not everyone living in Final Fantasy VI's world − we're leaving out the various soldiers, castle guards, rebel agents, etc. − you're looking at most of the game's population right here.

Now let's say that you're placing NPCs on a town map in EarthBound. It's the interior of a department store and you need to stick a female NPC behind a counter or in the aisles. What have you got to choose from?



Even without a complete sampling of EarthBound's female sprites, you still have 400% more to work with here than in Final Fantasy VI, which relies mostly on recolors for variety. (Side note: both games' character sprites are generally 72 pixels tall. Is that some magic SNES hardware number, I wonder?)

APE also designed special sprites for some minor but unique female characters. From left to right: Venus's mom, Pokey's maid Electra, the sea captain's wife, and Paula's mom.



Now let's look at some unique female characters in Final Fantasy VI. From left to right: Lola, who exchanges letters with Cyan in the World of Ruin; Cyan's wife Elaine; Terra's mother Madonna; and Relm/Shadow's unnamed mother/wife.



To anyone who whined about EarthBound's graphics back in the day, I offer you a vintage 1995 shut the hell up.

• This applies to most areas in the game, but I can't think of anywhere else to mention it.

The standard console RPG town has a few different places to buy stuff: there's the weapons shop, the armor shop, and the item shop. Maybe you can also find a magic shop or an accessories shop, too − but for the most part these places' retail economies revolve entirely around potions, swords, and chainmail.

But remember: this isn't some tenuous medieval civilization. This is the 20th century. Capitalism has supplanted the old feudalist system, industrialization has made goods exponentially easier to manufacture and distribute, and the rise of the consumption culture has flooded the markets with a variety of goods unprecedented in human history. (Maybe this isn't precisely what we'd find in an Eagleland history book, but the results seem pretty much the same.)

So rather than hosting just the equipment merchant and the items merchant, EarthBound's towns boast drugstores, bakeries, burger joints, toy stores, sporting goods stores, flea markets, cart vendors, pizzerias, etc., etc. And the variety of stuff they've got for sale is staggering for an SNES game. By my count, Final Fantasy VI has forty useable, non-equippable items. EarthBound has 163. (Again, by my count, and not including stuff like the Bad Key Machine, Pencil Eraser, Yogurt Dispenser, etc.

Unless you're using a strategy guide (which you really shouldn't be doing), you probably won't know what any of this stuff actually does (especially items like the toothbrush, protractor, stag beetle, and so on) until you experiment with it. I can't think of many 16-bit RPGs that not only include overworld and dungeon exploration, but also market exploration. (I also think it's cute that the best healing items in the game, bar none, are found exclusively in an unassuming little eatery in the corner of Dalaam.)

• All the towns have a very palpable vibe and distinct "culture" of their own. Crossing from one over into another is an event. Some RPGs arbitrarily divide themselves up into "chapters." EarthBound doesn't need any extraneous markers.

Itoi wanted the towns and cities in his game to come alive. There's no good writer on the planet who isn't concerned with setting − especially the writer of a travelogue, which is a label we could very easily and aptly slap on EarthBound.


SATURN VALLEY & TENDA VILLAGE

   


Let's talk about the typical "non-human" village in the early console RPG. For instance, a pair of elf towns: Final Fantasy's Elfland and Dragon Quest III's Village of the Elves. They're both pretty much the same as any other town in their game, but all of the NPCs populating them share special (and for the most part identical) sprites, and the dialogue is sort of different because they have to impress upon the player that they're elves. Goody. They get points for variety, but aren't that interesting in themselves.

Itoi seems to have decided that his new game needed a village of this sort, and so we get Saturn Valley and Tenda Village − another instance where the MOTHER series takes a typical JRPG cliche and vaults it into the realm of the atypical.

Saturn Valley is populated by Mr. Saturn. Not only do its residents share the same sprite, but the same name as well. Mr. Saturn's personality is, uh...colorful. Maybe we should just leave it at that. We could easily say the whole thing is just quirky for the sake of being quirky (no explanation for the creatures' existence is ever offered), but the visit to Saturn Valley makes the trip that much more memorable and enriches the player's impression of the world in which EarthBound takes place, just as a town of elves reinforces the idea that Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are set in recognizable genetic relatives of Middle Earth.

Tenda Village, appearing much farther down the road, riffs on another cliche of the old school RPG: the "mute" town. These are the places where the people all repeat the same words in some made-up gibberish language, refuse to speak to outsiders out of xenophobia, or have been cursed and don't say anything but some variation of "help us!" Before the player can get information out of them or trigger any local event switches, she must first go out on a quest to find the translation slab, earn the villagers' trust, or break the evil wizard's spell.

The Tenda don't talk to Ness because they are too shy. And so Ness can't proceed beyond their village until he brings them the self-help book Overcoming Shyness, and the only person known to have a copy must be rescued from an alien outpost beneath Stonehenge. How convenient.

Saturn Valley and Tenda Village host a pair of unusual scenes. A Mr. Saturn and a Tenda tribesman ask Ness to sit down with them for a cup of coffee and a cup of tea (respectively), and a cutscene is activates if the player agrees to it. A low tune with a reflective, sunny sort of flavor plays; the screen flickers and rolls as through it were displaying a battle background, and text addressing Ness scrolls up the screen. These sequences don't reveal any new information about the plot, but they can't really be called recaps, either − the events of the story are not restated in much detail at all. What's discussed is the experience of playing EarthBound. As Ness takes five and chills out with a cup of tea or coffee, EarthBound compels the player to sit down for a few minutes and think about her progress through the game, consider how far she's come, and prepare herself for what might be ahead.

What other game does this?!

A footnote from Tomato:

There are a couple things of note to this. First, in MOTHER 2, this narration text includes kanji. This is notable because besides these narration scenes, all other text in MOTHER 2 is written in kana. The reason Itoi chose to write all the MOTHER games using kana only wasn't because of technical issues, but because kana is closest to how people actually speak, and when he wrote the scripts for the games, he would say each line out loud over and over until it sounded just right, then he (or an assistant) would type in the polished line. This attention to detail gives the text to all the MOTHER games something a little extra, but it's hard to pin a single word on it....

Actually, getting back to the kana/kanji thing, the reason he used kanji for these narration scenes, was because this ISN'T someone talking, at least not someone normal. This is some sort of strange narration, MAYBE with someone doing the speaking, given the content of what's said, and the use of "kimi." But, by having the text say, "I wish you luck..." the English translation suddenly 100%, undoubtedly personifies the whole thing by giving direct evidence that there is a speaker. In MOTHER 2, there is no self-reference like this in this scene.


Hmm. The game is talking. Or: Itoi communicates with the player from behind the mask of the game, while the player listens from behind her assumed identity as Ness. Zoom!


WINTERS & SUMMERS

   

Winters: because console RPGs are expected to have at least one snowy location. Summers: because console RPGs are expected to have at least one port town.

Winters isn't really a town. It's got a boarding school and an off-campus drugstore, but that's all the civilization you'll find here, sharply contrasting the overdevelopment of its sister country Summers. The people drawn to live in a place like Winters seem to be generally students, scientists, researchers, and artists (re: Brick Road), while the folks attracted to Summers are mostly rich oafs, airheads, layabouts, and pompous pseudo-intellectuals. Hmm. I wonder if there's a message here?

Winters was built as a mishmash of cliches from some of the more remote parts of the British Isles. You've got your all boys boarding school, Loch Ness Lake Tess, and Stonehenge, not to mention Britain's signature climate. (Though I've never visited the UK myself, my half-Brit buddy S[l]am emphatically describes the land of his forebears as a "cold, cold place.")

I much confess a saccharine fondness for Summers. My grandparents have always lived in a Delaware beach town right beside Ocean City, Maryland, so I've spent many, many summer weeks on the seaside resort scene. Summers nails everything: the languid atmosphere, the macho beach jerks, the efforts of the locals to bleed the tourists dry, the willingness of the tourists to be bled, the quiet resident community on the periphery, and the hostile psychic highway signs. The only thing it fails to pin down are the scores of drunken college kids and yahoos staggering and shouting down the streets after dark − but this might be because, as far as we see, the sun never stops shining in Summers. Every moment of every day here is just like the last − which must be great if you're into that sort of thing and have the luxury of being able to afford it. (In Road-Side Dog, Czeslaw Milosz writes: When I was young, I was driven to despair during vacations by the boredom of obvious things. In my old age, finding myself in the tropics, I already knew that I had always searched for medicine against this horror, which lasts because it means nothing. To give a meaning, any, only to get out of this bovine, perfectly indifferent, inert reality, without aims, strivings, affirmation, negation, like an incarnated nothingness.)


HAPPY HAPPY VILLAGE

   

Some intensely charismatic psycho founds his own religion, persuades people that he has all the answers to the problems of existence, moves them all into a secluded commune, and has them submit to baffling devotional practices.

Itoi must have noticed that this sort of thing happens fairly often the States.

In EarthBound, the guru is Carpainter, the cult is Happy Happyism, the commune is the Happy Happy Village, and their sacramental duty is to paint everything in the world blue.

The idea appears to have caught on elsewhere.


MOONSIDE

   

Every MOTHER game contains an area where things become suddenly and inexplicably weird. We've already seen Ninten warping from his rural 1980s podunk into the dream demesne of Magicant. In EarthBound the weirding strikes with just as little warning when Ness and Jeff are standing in a Fourside dive bar and all of a sudden − Welcome to Moonside. Wel come to moo nsi ns dem oons ide.

Moonside is Fourside upside-down and backwards. The people spout gibberish, buildings and objects glow and flash in the ambient darkness, and Ness and Jeff are constantly under attack from hostile fire hydrants, abstract art pieces, and fiendish gas pumps. You'll be split between wanting to probe Moonside and take in as much of its raw weirdness as you can and racing to get the hell out and back to safety as soon as possible. "If you stay here too long, you'll end up frying your brain," a Moonside resident warns Ness, adding: "Yes, you will. No, you will...not. Yesno, you will won't." Reminds me of some of the conversations (or attempts at them) I've had with the kids at Shpongle shows.

Note: Psilocybin (i.e. psychotropic mushrooms) were not criminalized in Japan until 2002. As much as I hate to bring up that tired old HUR MARIO GETS BIG CAUSE HE EETS MUSHROOM AND GETS FACED joke, I often wonder if there isn't some truth to what it might imply about the people designing Nintendo games. The MOTHER series in particular has too much psychedelic content (is now a good time to point out the flashing, swirling, arabesque "video drug" battle backgrounds?) to fully escape speculation about some of Itoi's source material.


DALAAM, SCARABA, DEEP DARKNESS, & THE LOST UNDERWORLD

   

Over in that old Final Fantasy VII writeup (which could really use some cleaning up), we looked at how the game begins in megalopolis and takes Cloud and friends farther and farther out into the world until they reach the polar wastes at the end of the earth, where humanity could never hope to thrive. Ness's journey in EarthBound progresses similarly. After traversing through the suburbs and cities of America Eagleland and its provinces (Winters and Summers), Ness comes to some more exotic settings in the form of Dalaam and Scaraba. Since comparatively little time is spent in them than the Western-styled areas, we won't dwell on them here. In short: Dalaam is an amalgamation of Tibet/India/Himalayas cliches, and Scaraba is a collection of stereotypes from ancient Egypt and the Arab world. In any case, Ness is very far from home.

   

Exiting the village walls in Scaraba takes Ness and friends beyond the last human settlement on their journey. From there it's through the desert, beyond which Ness's map is no longer of any use. After crossing a swampy river via submarine, Ness must wade into the dense and dangerous jungles of the Deep Darkness, and then plunge into an immense Jules Verne-esque underworld where dinosaurs roam.

Ninten's journey only takes him down the road. Ness's trip takes him to the the ends of the Earth, and then to the bottom of it − almost as far from home as anyone can get. (Itoi talks about originally wanting to take the game's heroes into outer space, but ultimately decided to keep them earthbound − so to speak. *rimshot!*)


YOUR SANCTUARY

Itoi once again has you guiding a red capped hero kid running this way and that looking for music. In EarthBound, the melodies are no longer projected by seemingly random objects lying here and there, but mysteriously come to Ness when he visits certain "power spots" in the world: his sanctuaries. (In MOTHER 2 they are each called "your place" instead of "your sanctuary.") Ness cannot confront Giygas until he collects a melodic stamp on his spiritual passport from each of these eight places and absorbs their combined power into himself.

When encountering one for the first time, Ness is struck by a recollection of himself during his own infancy. At the eighth location, the visions culminate with the overlapping experiences of his past self and present self realizing that they are realizing they are both looking at each other. Trippy.

   

   

   

   

The nature of the places is never explained. We don't know what left the footprint at Giant Step, the reason for Rainy Circle's perpetual localized precipitation, or why the glowing lichen in Lumine Hall suddenly start broadcasting Ness's thoughts. (Coincidence and destiny colliding?!) But we don't need to know. It's not important.

I'm more curious about what inspired the places themselves and the in-game goal of visiting them all. I envision another of Itoi's flights of fancy − who hasn't found themselves traveling somewhere out of the way, pausing at a particular spot, and being struck by an ineffable sense of significance in their being at that very place at that very moment? You must have come across at least one during your life − a place to which you felt drawn to remain for reasons you couldn't articulate and that you departed with an inexplicable regret. Freud may have called it an experience of the uncanny. The New Age types might say something about negative ions or keylines. Itoi might suggest that you have stumbled upon Your Place − a point of convergence between the worlds within and without.


MAGICANT

   

When Ness hears all Eight Melodies at once for the first time, he has an out of body experience and views himself as an infant. There comes a moment when Baby Ness realizes he is being watched by Ness, and Ness remembers himself as Baby Ness being watched by himself, resulting in some sort of feedback loop. The next thing Ness knows, he's standing in a colorful dream world called Magicant by its inhabitants.

Though the name and some of its denizens (most notably the Flying Men) return from MOTHER, Magicant in its second incarnation no longer belongs to Queen Mary: it's Ness's world now. Each of the eight power spots is "Your Place." They combine to form Magicant, which is "Your World." As such, none of Ness's friends can follow him into Magicant. Suddenly, things revert to how they was at the very beginning, when Ness was exploring and fighting on his own. He may be more powerful now, but he's up against a much nastier collection of beasties than just stray dogs and local hoodlums. (I remember my friend Jeff arriving at Magicant underlevelled and with the Casey Bat as his only available weapon. Oops.)

As before, Magicant is a place of kindness, danger, and darkness. (Notice how APE toys with the interplay between emotion, color, and sound around here. Nothing too complicated or staggeringly brilliant; only more nice little touches added and extra miles gone.) In the "village," Ness meets dream versions of his family members, friends, and old enemies. Beyond its borders stretches the Place of Sadness, a winding path haunted by swarms of silly-looking and absolutely vicious dream monsters. At the end of the road is the gateway to the Sea of Eden, a place where Ness can make contact with the ultimate intelligence of the universe − but not before encountering the Nightmare, the embodiment of his evil side.

(And then the land of Magicant vanishes without a trace...)


CAVE OF THE PAST

   

As MOTHER approaches its climax Ninten arrives at Mt. Itoi, where his adventure takes a turn for the grim. The APE team makes excellent use of the limited Famicom resources to convey a sense of desolation and menace here; even though Ninten is within view of civilization, it feels as though he's walking the ends of the Earth. (Actually, it rather strikes me as a better-imagined reprise of Zelda's Death Mountain, but this is beside the point.)

EarthBound is a much more cutesy and cartoony trip than MOTHER, so when it takes another endgame swerve toward the foreboding, the jolt is more disorienting − especially since the improved hardware allows for a much more comprehensive audiovisual palette with which to establish the mood.

We discover that Giygas is lurking in the distant past, sending his minions through time to attack the present. In order to confront him, Ness and friends must travel back in time. Unfortunately, the Phase Distorter − the only time travel device available to them − cannot transport organic matter. The young heroes have to transfer their brains' "programs" into robot bodies in order to make the journey, and they're told they might not be able to return to their own time or their own bodies if they go through with it.

The Cave of the Past looks like the backdrop of the prelude to a really awful dream. As soon as the Phase Distorter touches down and the grinding, moaning ambient BGM rises, you just know something awful is about to happen. (Related, perhaps: Herman Melville says a "few" words about the color white.) Our heroes have sacrificed their humanity in order to go to a place where nobody can follow them, nobody can help them, and from which they may never be able to escape. (Most RPGs allow you to keep the option of turning around and running back to safety once you've entered the final dungeon. Funny how cute, cartoony, quirky little EarthBound brings some much higher stakes to the table.)

Remember how your English teacher explained the "climax" as the Point Of No Return in the dramatic structure? Well, here we are − and even farther from home than anyone can be.


"In truth, all is predestined..."

Not long ago one of the Socks faithful replayed MOTHER 3 and wanted to chat a bit about the series as a whole. One question that came up was "what is the MOTHER series about?"

We had some ideas. We talked about coming of age stories, family ties, pacifism, mother's love, friendship, and American culture. These are nice recurring themes, but none of them in themselves tell the whole story. They don't tell us what the games mean.

Before we try to figure out what EarthBound is about, it might be helpful to take a look at something about the game I never noticed until recently.

EarthBound's incubation occurred during the general cross-platform explosion of the console RPG. It's hard to say how much Itoi and APE were tuned into what was going on beyond their own studio, though they strike me as being very unconcerned with "the latest thing." (Otherwise they might have updated their battle mechanics a bit more than they did.) They must, however, have had at least some awareness that the "young hero undergoes a crisis, goes on a journey, allies himself with motley cadre of sidekicks, maidens, and misfits, and saves the world from ancient evil" blueprints were getting a lot of use. Not that we can wag our finger too much − after all, we've already covered the hero's journey and its transcultural ubiquity − but even before the horse was finally beaten to death in the last decade, there wasn't a whole lot of variety in the console RPG scene. Stock characters, stock settings, stock plots, stock twists, stock conflicts, stock spell types, and stock mechanics dominated the scene. I'm reminded a little of the genre fiction sections at the old corporate bookstore I used to work at: what cover would you like on your mystery novel today?

You'll notice that your old school Zeldas, Dragon Quests, Shinings in the Darkness, etc. all tell you right up front what the story is and where you can expect it to end: you're the hero, that guy in the castle across the ravine is the villain, and you have to do this, that, and this before you can get to the castle, defeat him, and win the game. Get it? Good. Go.

But MOTHER doesn't do this. Ninten has to figure out for himself why his house was attacked by a "poltergeist," and nobody tells him what he's looking for or where he'll find it.

As the 16-bit era progressed, this increasingly became the norm for the console RPG. Take Final Fantasy IV (incidentally, the first proper SNES RPG, and a game we know for a fact that Itoi has played), for instance: Cecil and Kain wander out of the castle gates with no indication as to where they're ultimately headed, what will happen to them, and how they're eventually going to end up on the freaking moon. Through the 1990s, more and more RPGs started hiding their playbills so as to heighten the allure of the experience: who knows where the adventure might lead?

Of course, after you've played a few of these games, the pattern becomes obvious. The adventure usually leads to the same place and the story never really changes. Hero, allies, crisis, ancient evil, save world, credits screen.

Early RPGs − think Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, etc. − frequently subject players to guesswork. The player discovers the next stop on her itinerary by wandering around on the world map (fighting random battles every X steps) until an unfamiliar town or dungeon appears. If she's lucky, some townsperson NPC will have pointed her in its general direction, but it's often the case that she determines the next destination on the basis of being able to survive the randomly appearing beasties in its vicinity long enough to spot it. The path usually isn't strictly linear and the player can wander about relatively freely, limited by geography and monster populations more than the demands of the script.

In the 16-bit era and beyond, the game's progression appears to be dictated by the exigencies of the plot, which has been contrived so as to be the arbiter of the game's fetch quests and event switches. Embedded in key scenes are the triggers that open up the next areas. As far as the progression of the game is concerned − and very strictly speaking − whatever text appears inside the word bubbles is arbitrary. The plot doesn't dictate the game's progression − the game's progression has simply become narrower and more segmented. Again, very strictly speaking, the story is collateral in the sense that a dedicated player could muddle through and beat a Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy game without being able to read any of the text.

But the point is that we see RPGs becoming narrower and heavier on the event switches, and this was accompanied by a greater emphasis on plot, characterization, etc. The games' paces picked up. (The original Final Fantasy has a sandbox feel to it; Final Fantasy VI straps the player into a rollercoaster during the first fifteen minutes.)

Itoi cites the film Blues Brothers as one of EarthBound's inspirations. Gorgeous and Lucky of the Runaway Five are clearly supposed to be John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, but the obvious points of contact stop there. (Both Blues Brothers and EarthBound tell stories with real tension, stakes, and emotion taking place in a world undergirded by the wacky, but this is almost definitely a matter of coincidence than influence.)

But there's a line in that Elwood keeps repeating in Blues Brothers: "we're on a mission from God."

Whenever someone asks for an explanation, Elwood tells them "we're on a mission from God." It's the reason why he and Joliet gotta do what they're doing. It's why they have to get the band back together and raise the money to save the orphanage at all costs, and it's why they will succeed. Otherwise, the whole thing would just be insane.

EarthBound repeats a similar mantra of its own: destiny.

Buzz Buzz tells Ness about his destiny − you're the hero will defeat Giygas and save the universe, he says. But at the same time, Buzz Buzz is telling the player: you're going to hit the eight event switches (placed conveniently along the only path she's allowed to take), meet the three additional party members whose names you chose ten minutes ago, and then fight the endboss, whose name is Giygas. And this will happen because of destiny. Because this is a linear console RPG and if you, the person holding the controller plays it long enough, that's what has to happen. EarthBound doesn't even ask you to pretend to be surprised when it rolls out a variation of the familiar RPG plot map you've seen a dozen times.

At every other stop on the journey, someone else reminds Ness that finding the Eight Melodies, combining his power with the Earth's, and defeating Giygas is his destiny. Because destiny is as good an excuse, really, any of the other MacGuffins or catalysts we see in other games − like the damsel in distress, the lost crystals, the demanding fairy, the cash reward, the request of a dying brother, or the pursuing soldiers right on the heroes' heels, or the advice of some old sage who tells the hero to find the special crystal to open the haunted palace and take the Orb of Darkness before the evil empire gets it. These are all artificial contrivances. There's rarely any real urgency: if you don't move forward in a game, the game simply stops.

Destiny is a fine apology for a console RPG's linearity. Why pretend that Cloud and Shion have any choice when the dimensions of their worlds are constructed as straight paths from A to Z? If you're always going to arrive at the first four towns in the same order, why not just give them numbers for names? Why pretend that getting to the next destination is an urgent matter when the world will remain in stasis if the player leaves the game on and walks away? (This makes a game like Majora's Mask rather interesting, but that's beside the point.)

Just like it's destiny that the Apple Kid finishes all of his inventions precisely when Ness needs them. It's destiny when Ness happens to find a man whose eyebrows are connected and has a gold tooth, and it's destiny that Brick Road happens to have a (yellow) submarine in his basement, or that the lichen of the Lumine Hall, for a few moments, flicker in a pattern which spells out Ness's thoughts. None of this can be called convenient or contrived when destiny is at work. Even the antagonists recognize that Ness is destined for victory (after all, the player's going to beat the game if she plays it long enough), but nevertheless understand that there's not going to be much of a game unless they put up a fight anyway.

I almost think a more appropriate title than MOTHER 2 would have been MOTHER: Magical Mystery Tour. (Or are we not allowed to mix our Beatles references with our John Lennon references?)

Most of the time − only one or two exceptions come to mind − Ness is never constrained to move or act. Think of this in contrast to Crono, Cecil, those awful people in Final Fantasy XIII, or even MOTHER 3's Lucas. As the narrative elements in games expanded, the writers' instinct was to keep the plot moving by way of repeated urgencies (like, for example, an action movie). EarthBound settles for destiny. Let the player take her time; she'll get where she needs to go eventually.

Even so, EarthBound is somewhat less structured than both its prequel and sequel. MOTHER has none of this "destiny" talk. Ninten is urged forward to solve the mystery and protect his family, and the in-game map points out the places he needs to visit in order to succeed. The plot-intensive MOTHER 3 pushes Lucas and friends from place to place rather forcefully. But EarthBound just drops the player in Eagleland, gives her an idea of what she can expect to happen, and then leaves her to figure out where to go and how to get there. It gives you every excuse (and reason) to just take your time, plod about, and tour the strange and lovely little world Itoi and APE dreamed up. There's no hurry. Destiny will take its course in due time.

EarthBound was designed to be a voyage rather than to tell a story. This is very important.

In the past I've erred in talking about games' potential to tell stories. A game shouldn't tell a story − books and films already do that, they only do that, and they do it better. A game should be a game. Even before console RPGs became 30 hours of voiced cutscenes interspersed with 30 hours of button mashing, Itoi understood that it's a better and more appropriate use of the medium to take the player on a trip, to give her a world to explore than to buffet her with a drama in which she plays either a small indirect role, or none at all.


The Evil Power

The MOTHER series' epic final battles are uniformly exceptional, and the showdown with Giygas in EarthBound is likely the most famous of them. We won't be getting into any of the "Giygas = fetus" theories or repeating any stories about Itoi's experience with the film The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty − this has all been done elsewhere ad nauseum. Let's see what else might be going on here.

This isn't your conventional RPG endboss battle. Heck, it's not really even a battle − the whole affair is actually a choreographed dummy fight. Victory isn't contingent upon leveling up your team so they have strong enough stats and PSI to match the endboss's power, or using a mastery of the battle system to outmaneuver his attacks. It's about learning the script and playing by it.

The first round is a bluff. "Giygas" opens a massive eye with Ness's face in place of the pupil. (Notice: Ness looks away while this is happening.) A heavily-armed Pokey appears to laugh at how silly robot Ness and his robot friends look, and then the showdown commences. It looks to the player, for all intents and purposes, that this is it − but it's a red herring. Once you deal enough damage to Pokey (refraining from aiming at Giygas, who reflects all incoming damage without exception), the fat bastard taunts Ness (and the player) for not having any clue what's really going on or what he's really up against. Then he switches off the Devil's Machine (apparently the name of the "eyeball" device) and lets Giygas spill out.

The final battle in MOTHER uses an incessant, unmelodious ringing sound to convey that Ninten and friends are trapped and practically drowning in Giygas's immense psychic power. EarthBound, equipped with better hardware, can also convey the terror of Giygas's presence visually. Giygas isn't a static enemy sprite sitting in front of an animated background − Giygas is the animated background. Giygas is everywhere. He's a bizarre dimension unto himself, and Ness and his friends have been swallowed into him.

If you've played EarthBound, you know that these descriptions and screenshots don't do the sequence justice. It is very unnerving, and the first-time EarthBound player won't be sitting comfortably. It's not just that APE is as capable of conveying indescribable alien awfulness as quirky cuteness, but the sudden and extreme shift from the latter to the former imbues the scene with much more force than it would possess had the player been desensitized to such terrors. (Are survival horror games as scary toward the end as they are during the first few hours?)

Giygas, phase two. Giygas gibbers deliriously and continuously attacks. At this point the skittish player will pound Giygas with PSI Rockin', PSI Freeze, PSI Starstorm, and multi-bottle rockets. After a couple of rounds, Pokey reappears to sneer and tell Ness (and the player) that it's useless trying to fight Giygas − but in doing so, he also inadvertently hints at how the entity might be defeated. (This too is destiny!!)

Now it's on to the third and final round. Paula has to stay alive and use the "Pray" command nine times to psychically reach the friends the team made during their travels, who then feel moved to pray for the heroes' safety. With each new volley of prayers sent his way, Giygas fragments and loses his cohesion − but he doesn't even seem to notice, and his attacks don't stop. At last, Paula manages to pray beyond the fourth wall and convinces the player herself (whose name has been solicited by Dad earlier in the game) to pray for the team. Human hope and love shatter the avatar of evil, and Giygas is erased from existence. The player can breathe normally again.

As impressive as all this is, it's hard to imagine it would work without Pokey. As a being whose mind was destroyed by his incredible power, Giygas is more interesting as a set piece than as a character. Taken by himself, he's just one of those BIGBAD THING bosses − a giant freaky monster with no personality and little potential to inspire any feelings in the player other than AAHHH BIGBAD THING KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT. The version of Giygas in MOTHER has motivation, goals, a history, and a conflict with the hero that has a bit more to it than the bare fact that he's waiting in the big room at the end of the final area. EarthBound's Giygas just swirls around and says awful, confusing things. He's the endboss, but not the antagonist. The real conflict here isn't between Ness and Giygas, but Ness and Pokey.

(Postscript note #1: I was too hasty in saying that Giygas doesn't elict anything from the player but fear and loathing. It's hard not to feel sorry for him, too − he seems to be in a great deal of pain, and he also seems to be somehow glad to see Ness. ("I'm h...a...p...p...y.....friends...") You pity the abomination even as you struggle to destroy it. I'm not sure I've ever felt that toward any other RPG endboss.)

(Postscript note #2: I like to imagine Gigyas's voice sounding like the Nihilanth from Half-Life. You can thank me later for making you think about that.)

So...Pokey. What can we say about Ness's next door neighbor?

We can presume that he and Ness have known each other for a very long time. We know that his parents are wealthier than Ness's. We also know that they're disgusting, miserable people out of some Roald Dahl children's book. Awful parents raise awful children.

Pokey's relationship with Ness is hard to define because he's the only one between them who ever speaks, and he isn't terribly reliable. Oddly, Itoi leaves it up to the player to decide how Ness feels about his neighbor by way of a yes/no prompt at the beginning of the game. Ness's answer has absolutely no bearing on how EarthBound progresses, but the tone and meaning of certain events slightly change depending on whether Ness considers Pokey as a friend or an obnoxious neighbor. Does he help Pokey search for his missing brother because they're friends, or because he's just a swell kid willing to help out somebody in need, no matter how annoying they are? Did Ness lose a close friend in addition to making a bitter enemy? (Interestingly, Ness and the player are denied the chance to answer Pokey when he asks Ness to be his friend again after Carpainter's defeat. Pokey's dialogue makes clear that Ness doesn't have anything to say to him. Hmmm.)

Even if we decide that Ness and Pokey are friends at the beginning of EarthBound, it soon becomes clear that Ness needs to find some better pals. Pokey sucks. Even as he pesters the cops at the meteor crash site, he tells Ness to buzz off and stop cramping his style. He patronizes Ness's mother. When he and Ness run into trouble during their search for Picky, Pokey whines, gets in the way, and is utterly useless in fights.

In the first twenty minutes of EarthBound we learn most of what we need to know about Pokey: he's a slobbish, dishonest, immature, self-centered coward. Meanwhile, we hear everyone around Onett tell Ness what a brave, smart, honest, and all-around excellent person he is. Pokey is something of an anti-Ness − he is everything that Ness is not, and perhaps in equal proportions.

There's something else that isn't said explicitly until we visit the dreams and memories in Magicant: Pokey is envious of Ness. At different times we see him alternately trying to one-up Ness and striving to impress him. He resents his handsome, athletic, popular, goody two-shoes neighbor for being happier and frankly better than him, but at times he also seems to desperately wish for Ness's respect, if not his friendship.

In the connected context of the MOTHER series, EarthBound tells two stories: one is of Ness's journey, which we follow from its beginning to its end. It's also the origin story of MOTHER 3's main villain. Ness meets an alien, communes with the ultimate intelligence of the universe, and becomes a hero. Pokey meets an alien, makes contact with the very avatar of evil, and becomes a veritable demon.

Each journey begins at the same point: Ness and Pokey stand together at the meteor crash site when Buzz Buzz appears and names Ness as the destined hero who will save the universe from Giygas. (Buzz Buzz doesn't even acknowledge Pokey's presence − imagine how much that must get under Pokey's skin, even as he says he hopes he's not one of the other three chosen heroes.) Soon Ness ditches Pokey and sets out to find the Eight Melodies, meet up with his destined companions (all nicer and cooler people than Pokey), and play out another permutation of the Hero's Journey.

Buzz Buzz chooses Ness; Giygas selects Pokey as his own champion. We can't follow Pokey's odyssey in full, but we can make some guesses as to how it transpires. Sometime during Ness's adventures in Onett, Pokey is contacted by Giygas. We never see it happen; we don't know how it happens. We don't know if Giygas directly communicates with Pokey or flips some switch in his personality, subtly changing his behavior and thoughts. What's clear is that Pokey is not being mind-controlled. Wherever Giygas's Mani Mani Statue appears, we find Pokey. Whereas the people the statue empowers and possesses − Carpainter and Monotoli − snap out of it and act as though they aren't wholly certain about what forces they had been dealing with, Pokey doesn't revert to normal, and moreover seems to have a grip on what's actually going on. The question becomes whether he began hating Ness before or after Giygas found him. Maybe all Giygas offered Pokey was the promise of making Ness envy him for once.

We know that Pokey disappears from the Minch household just before Carpainter buys the Mani Mani Statue from Mr. Agerate. The next time we see him, he's acting (perhaps only acting) as a subordinate to Carpainter in the Happy Happy Village. From there, we might guess that he clues in Monotoli to the statue's existence and potential. During his escape from Fourside in Monotoli's stolen helicopter he establishes himself as a very real and serious threat − and then vanishes for nearly the rest of the game. We can follow his footsteps, though: he leaves graffiti in Summers, takes a dump outside the village wall Scaraba, and ditches his downed helicopter in the Deep Darkness. (What are we to infer from Jeff's observation that its engine is missing? If the entrance to the Lost Underworld is still sealed off at that point, where does Pokey go? Should we guess that Giygas's agents retrieved him from the jungle?)

One of EarthBound's most peculiar mysteries (in this player's opinion, anyway) is the unexplained presence of the silver "tentacle" statue in the Cave of the Past, visible when Ness and co. enter from the Lost Underworld. We know that Pokey hijacks the phase distorter and ends up in the Cave of the Past. The wrecked Phase Distorter is still in the cave. The kidnapped Mr. Saturn is still in the cave. But Pokey is missing − and there's that silver tentacle.

The Cave of the Past bears such a resemblance to MOTHER's XX Cave (strange looping music and all) that I'm willing to go out on a limb and speculate (and please give me this, I've done so little theorizing thus far) that it serves the same function in Pokey's journey as the "god's tail" in Ninten's. The statue in the XX Cave waited in the cave specially for Ninten, placed there to warp him to Magicant to meet Queen Mary and fulfill the task Great-Grandfather George appointed him. The similar "tail" or tentacle in the Cave of the Past was placed there for Pokey, to bring him to Giygas. (His spider-mech might be a time machine − but then why would he have kidnapped Mr. Saturn and stolen the phase distorter to take him to the Lost Underworld? Why didn't any of the witnesses mention that he was piloting a demonic spider machine?)

So at last Pokey meets the roboticized heroes in Giygas's inner sanctum and unleashes his "boss's" full terror upon them. It's important to note how Pokey refers to Giygas during the battle, especially since the English version doesn't quite convey it. In the original Japanese, Pokey saliently drops the "-sama" honorific from Giygas's name, which is a tremendously audacious and disrespectful thing to do. Pokey no longer considers Giygas his boss or his better, but as something more of an attack dog or prop. This is no longer about what Giygas wants. Between the two antagonists, Pokey is the only one with any control or awareness of his actions, and what he wants is to see Ness beaten and humiliated − even if it means destroying all existence in the process. Even when Giygas has been mortally damaged and starts breaking apart, Pokey hardly seems phased. "So now which one of us do you think is the cool guy?!" he asks Ness before vanishing. (Some years later, Final Fantasy VIII would do something similar with the Squall/Seifer feud. Naturally, EarthBound does it better.)

Giygas has been erased from existence, but this is hardly a defeat for Pokey. Maybe he didn't beat Ness after all, but now he's got a time machine and access to alien technology. Ness's story is over, but Pokey's has only just begun.

Two final notes:

1.) For such an important character, Pokey certainly isn't seen very often. This does not diminish his impact. Parsimony in the most important things: even when the "reader" knows all she needs to know, she's still eager to find out more.

2. Who are Pokey's villainous contemporaries in the RPG world circa 1994? Thanatos. The Sinistrals. Kefka. The Dark Force. All evil wizards and demons. Villains who act evil because they're villains and villains are evil. Pokey is a jealous loser kid who makes friends with an alien god. He acts evil because he's a gleefully and deliberately cruel child. I can't speak for anyone else, but I think that's really scary. It's one thing for the gloating villain to taunt the hero/player with a grandiloquent MWA HA HA YOU IMPERTINENT FOOLS talk; it's another for him to jeer at the hero/player like a vicious schoolyard bully.


The Return

When we looked at MOTHER through our Campbell-colored glasses, we noticed that the third and final phase of the archetypal hero's journey (The Return) is rather sparse. It's typical RPG epilogue fare: all the kidnapped people return, the fabric of society is mended, all the heroes are hailed across the land, Ninten takes a well-deserved rest, etc. What happens in EarthBound's ending isn't that different: the heroes return from the final threshold, peace is restored to the world, Ness parts ways with his friends and goes home. The difference here is that the player isn't just a spectator to Ness's homecoming. She still has to take Ness back to his family before the game is really over.

There are no more enemies to fight, and no more damaging environmental effects. It's impossible to get stuck anywhere. You can guide Ness around the world for as long as you please, checking up on the people he's met and the places he's been, read all the latest editions of the town newspapers, return the map to the Onett library and the bicycle to the Twoson bike shop, search the Dusty Dunes Desert for the lovelorn sesame seeds − whatever you want. And you can theoretically do this for as long as you please: EarthBound is designed so as to not end until the player is ready for it to end.

But before long, it gets boring. There are no new places to explore and nothing left to do. Nobody in the world will ever tell you anything other than what they're telling you now − no matter how many times you speak to your former allies (who have reverted to NPCs, one by one) Poo will make a royally condescending remark about Ness's performance, Jeff will comment on Tony's letter, and Paula will tell Ness to just go home already − and this is all that any of them will say forever. Dad won't write save files anymore, and the player will already have been sitting in front of the TV for some time. Unless she plans to leave her SNES on forever, the player can only choose between turning the game off (and denying Ness his homecoming) or agreeing to bring the game to its ultimate conclusion by taking Ness back to his house in Onett and relinquishing control at last to watch the slide show of their adventure together. EarthBound doesn't end until the player is ready for it to end, but makes very clear to the player that the adventure is over and there's only one thing left to do.

At any rate, here we are at the end again.

What's left to say?

Oh, right − that question about what the MOTHER games might be about.

We make the question more difficult when we look at MOTHER 3 along with the first two games. We'll not go into detail now, but it's too anatomically dissimilar from MOTHER and EarthBound to be considered as part of the same genus. For now, let's just consider the first two games.

Now an answer seems rather obvious.

MOTHER was an effort to make a Dragon Quest clone while simultaneously calling attention to its quirks by way of parody and proxy. It doesn't do badly, but it isn't very incisive. In the five years between the release of MOTHER and its sequel/reboot, Itoi had a lot more time to think about what he was trying to do and how to execute it. EarthBound goes much deeper than parody.

EarthBound is an RPG about RPGs and what makes them such fun to play.

Right, right − a game about games. That's what everyone in the high-brow game design business is doing today. But EarthBound is close to twenty years old now. Itoi and APE were doing meta before the word entered the video gaming vernacular.

It succeeds so brilliantly because this isn't immediately apparent. Unlike a wide swath of the contemporary indie-meta crop, a player can enjoy and understand EarthBound without ever noticing or thinking about the game's sharp sense of self-awareness. It doesn't insist on being read of a self-aware text. All of the "meta" content is so seamlessly integrated with everything else that it can be easy not to be conscious of it. Moreover, it's not trying to impress anyone. Itoi didn't design EarthBound to show off how clever he was; nor was he ever one of those GAMES ARE VERY SERIOUS BUSINESS types. I think he was simply fascinated by the peculiar experience of the RPG trip and wrote the game to express and explore his fascination in a playful way.

I might even call EarthBound the Watchmen of the console RPG. Whether or not it's such a contender for BEST OF ALL TIME FOREVER is up for debate − but it certainly does follow Watchmen in that it not only is a console RPG about console RPGs (as Watchmen is a superhero comic about superhero comics), but it very deliberately tried to put its unusual and untested medium to use in a way that's exclusive to itself. We've seen how Final Fantasy VI does it (on occasion), but we also know that its designers maybe weren't really sure what exactly they were doing or how they were doing it. Itoi seems to have a much better understanding of what he's doing and a greater willingness to play around with his toolkit.

There are the innumerable minor bits: the sign asking people not to trample the flowers that can only be read when Ness is positioned right in a flowerbed. The jokes on the player involving a picture postcard in the Happy Happy Village, a house for sale in Onett, and a device called Super Orange Machine. All those little instances where the narration calls attention to what's going on and seems to react to it along with the player. And there are the bigger and more obvious instances: Buzz Buzz's frankly telling the player that Ness's journey will be pretty much the same as any RPG hero's arc. Frank Fly congratulating the player on reaching the game's first milestone (beating the first real boss, Frank Fly) and encouraging her to keep going. The game's heart-to-heart "chats" with the player in Saturn Valley and Tenda Village; Brick Road's meditations on dungeon design; Dr. Andonuts's insistence that the player press the button to take the Phase Distorter into the past; the return journey remaining in the player's control.

And of course there's the fourth wall-breaking final battle. Remember the movie The Neverending Story? The whole purpose of Atreyu's adventure in the book is to reach the heart of the boy reading the book, whose emotional investment in the "imaginary" world within its pages is the only thing that can save it. In EarthBound − well, what needs to be added but the oft-pointed out fact that the first time player will almost certainly be praying for the heroes' victory even before the game mentions it?

Beyond this, EarthBound really isn't "about" anything that any other 16-bit RPG isn't. It's about another hero's journey through another imaginary world, and about the people he meets, the struggles he pushes through along the way, and his return home when his work is done. That's pretty much all console RPGs are ever about, and EarthBound is no exception. But the difference is in the details, and we know that its architects pay very close attention to those. Despite (or because of?) its meandering pace, relative lack of drama, and cutesy pseudo-Peanuts aesthetic, EarthBound's trip is more interesting, funnier, stranger, sadder, and memorable than the rest of the 16-bit crop.

Games aren't serious business, but sometimes a good game is precisely what we need.

What Itoi gets is that the game (any game) is a means to an end. What matters ultimately is what it makes the player think, and more importantly, how the experience of playing it makes her feel. Your RPG can have a thunderous orchestral soundtrack, a thousand bonus quests, multimillion dollar graphics, and thirty hours of voice acted cutscene drama, but if all of this fails to tickle the player's brain and emotions, you're not doing your job correctly. EarthBound was designed with this result in mind; it plays around with what RPGS essentially do in order to do it more effectively. (What do RPGs do? Well − they make a world come alive in a player's mind while placing the player in an active role within that world. That's as good a guess as I got.)

It's probably no secret that I'm still burned out on RPGs. It's been as hard for me to start and stick with a new one as it's been to replay the ones that I used to love (like Seiken Densetsu 3, Phantasy Star IV, and Robotrek.) Who knows why − but over the last few years I've found myself enjoying them less and less.

EarthBound is an exception. As far as I'm concerned, it's the absolute rarest of rare gems in that it's a console RPG that I've actually come to enjoy and respect more as I've gotten older.

   

Well, that's it for today. And now for the the postgame self-plugs!

• My blog, Beyond Easy!

Comics Over Easy, my webcomic!

The Zeroes, my book! (Notice that the Kindle version is now only a measly three bucks.) If you like the stuff I'm doing here and elsewhere, I'd kindly encourage you to grab a copy or download. It would really help me out and I'd wager you'll enjoy reading it.

Until next time!


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