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
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
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
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
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.
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?
"Humoresque of a Little Dog" (Drugstore)
"Approaching Mt. Itoi"
Right off the bat, EarthBound
sacrifices one of MOTHER's
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
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
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
what Ninten and his friends did in MOTHER,
only this time it's
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.
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,
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
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
(But we're not far enough
into this thing just yet to start nitpicking − especially since the sheer
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
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
(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,
actually designed quite differently than its predecessor. Most of the
similarities are only topographical: as a game EarthBound
but a rehash, and its trip is very
MOTHER's huge world
is gone, as are its tremendous open spaces. Though Ness's adventures
aren't confined to a single rural countryside like Ninten's,
segmented globe somehow feels smaller − or at least less
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
Also gone is that maligned staple of the console RPG, the random
encounter. SquareSoft and Enix kept it in Dragon Quest
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
This contributes to another
very noticeable difference between 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.
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
gentle on players.
Oddly, in this regard EarthBound's
trajectory deviates from Dragon
and is more closely aligned with Final Fantasy's.
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
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,
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
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
to rush through things.
The story of
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
After its aborted effort to bring MOTHER
to North America under the
title, Nintendo took the exportation of
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
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
slogan: "this game stinks!"
The bumbling PR effort is sometimes pegged as the reason for
lukewarm reception in North America, but this is an
oversimplification. We can actually credit Nintendo of America for
acknowledging that, like Dragon Quest, EarthBound
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?)
was bound to be a tough sale. You have to remember that
came out during a time when cutesy was not
with Western gamers: this was the era of Mortal Kombat
Gamers wanted grit and gore, and EarthBound
has neither. But "gross"
was also popular, as exemplified by Earthworm Jim
− 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
console is better because its Mortal Kombat
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
look like they're from the NES. Since we've already looked at
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
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.
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,
about acquiring this or another 1:128 item drop, and 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
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.
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
(This will not
cast is huge.)
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
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
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
stubby little Achilles than his predecessor (who merely gets involved in an
interplanetary conflict because of his family ties). Whereas the conclusion of
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
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.
characters and their abilities are designed much
more deliberately than MOTHER's,
which seem rather slapped together by
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.)
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
(Postscript: actually, after going through the ending again, I realized I
really enjoy the way Paula expresses her feelings for Ness during the epilogue
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.
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.
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.
heroes, the one to undergo the biggest upgrade in the sequel is Lloyd, who is
metempsychosed as EarthBound's
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
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.
Three is a great number. A
number. A mystical number. Good things come in groups of three.
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
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?)
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
Teddy is indisputably
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.)
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
YOUR SANCTUARY BOSSES
Remember how we complained about MOTHER
not having any boss battles?!
has about twenty boss beasties in total. The standouts of
the bunch are the guardians of the eight power spots that Ness must seek
In some circles these are iconic classics of a stature equaling Mega Man
rogues gallery or the original cast of Street Fighter II.
circles, but nevertheless...)
fans playing the Earthbound Zero
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
questions and arguments. if the Giygas Ninten meets in
is the same entity Ness encounters in EarthBound,
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
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
games. I doubt Itoi was terribly interested in establishing
the continuity between the two incarnations of Giygas. And since
never bills itself as a direct continuation of
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
Let's talk more about this later.
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
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
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
An improvement over
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
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
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
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
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
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,
relies mostly on recolors for variety. (Side note: both games' character
sprites are generally 72 pixels tall. Is that some magic SNES hardware number,
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
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
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
we'd find in an Eagleland history book, but the results seem pretty much the
So rather than hosting just the equipment merchant and the items merchant,
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
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.
arbitrarily divide themselves up into "chapters." EarthBound
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What other game does
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
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,
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
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
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
Itoi must have noticed that this sort of thing happens fairly often the
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
game contains an area where things become suddenly and
We've already seen Ninten warping from his rural
1980s podunk into the dream demesne of Magicant. In EarthBound
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
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.
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
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
After traversing through the suburbs and cities of
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
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!*
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
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
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
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,
strictly speaking, the story is collateral in the sense that a
dedicated player could muddle through and beat a Dragon Quest
game without being able to read any of the
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
has a sandbox feel to it; Final Fantasy VI
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
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
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.
repeats a similar mantra of its own:
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
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
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
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.
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
final battles are uniformly exceptional, and the showdown with Giygas in
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
− 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
Two final notes:
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.
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
talk; it's another for him to jeer at the hero/player
like a vicious schoolyard bully.
When we looked at
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
designed so as to not end until the player is ready
for it to
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
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
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.
was an effort to make a Dragon Quest
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.
is an RPG about RPGs and what makes them such fun to
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
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
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
I might even call EarthBound
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
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.
− 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
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
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,
) Who knows why − but over the last few years I've found myself enjoying them less and less.
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!