04 October 2016

a brief look: Earthbound

"Listen Ness. I'm going to tell you something very important. You may want to take notes. Ready? ......You're the chosen one." 

Hello, everyone! I'm Troy, also known as SymPhoenix. Since this is my first article in my tenure in Study of Anime, I wanted to talk about the moment I realized that this could be my next step for my writing, as well as one of my favorite games of all time. This won't have nearly as much academic content compared to what's to come, but it might help to introduce myself to you all.
When Earthbound was released, and even on the surface now, it's pretty plain. It's a JRPG on the SNES, in an era when the JRPG was the biggest genre, and you had the greats – your Final Fantasys, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana, to start. Against these, Earthbound looks like a child's game at first. Instead of massive monsters and huge worlds to explore, you're...a kid with a yo-yo beating up stray dogs and crows. Even from a technical standpoint, Earthbound – developed at a time when the SNES hardware was being pushed to its limits – was unimpressive.

I'll get this out of the way. I love Earthbound. I always have. I have fond memories of renting a SNES from Blockbuster (sure dates me, doesn't it?), and three games: Mario Paint, Super Mario RPG (which I'll talk about another time, probably), and Earthbound. I've never really been able to express why I love Earthbound so much, except that it tugged at my heartstrings in a way many games today haven't. I never finished it as a kid, with it being an RPG that took far too long to beat in a single week, but after recently finishing it for the first time, I think I can finally talk about why I love Earthbound.

The main thing that makes Earthbound stand out among its peers, I've already stated, was its very different setting. Our hero, Ness, is a young child with a baseball cap and shorts, not a sword-wielding adventurer. His first real adventure is into his town of Onett, and his first enemies are aggressive members of the local gang, the Sharks, at the arcade. There's some exposition at the beginning, with a prophet from the future named Buzz Buzz, but it's more like a trial-by-fire tutorial  - you're asked to help find the younger brother of your neighbor, Pokey. When you find Pickey at the site of a meteor crash, you also discover Buzz Buzz, who escorts you back to your home. Before you reach it, though, you are stopped by a Starman, a servant of the evil Giygas, who's doing some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff to destroy the world. Or something, it was always really unclear. This is where the story starts being more like our normal JRPG.

Upon defeating the Starman and bringing the brothers Pickey and Pokey home, Buzz Buzz (a bee he is not, but he definitely looks like one) is swatted out of the sky by the boys' mother, and Ness is given a Sound Stone, and told to collect eight melodies from Sanctuaries - points of great peace in the world - in order to truly defeat Giygas. Along the way, you meet three other children who are destined to help you save the world - Paula, Jeff, and Poo. The dialogue is rich with lots of tongue-in-cheek fourth-wall breaks like the one quoted above, and the visuals and music lend themselves to the quirky, off-beat charm that Earthbound is most known for.

What really makes the game interesting, though, is just how lovingly it paints a picture of American society from the eyes of Japan. Cities like Fourside and Summers are alongside small-town settlements like Twoson and Threed, all littered with burger shops, pizza joints, and pubs. I hesitate to mention this, because it seems a bit tacky, but an article that Charles wrote actually motivated me to think deeper on Earthbound, and games in general (search up his article on syncretism - definitely worth a read). The idea that Japanese developers did all of this as a way of admiring American culture, instead of parodying it (though some things can be pretty silly - looking at you, Runaway Five) is a nice thought, as opposed to our typical views of "'Murica" nowadays.

“But Phoenix,” you all may or may not cry, “why do YOU love it?” Well, that's...difficult for me to fathom. As good as my memory is, I have a tough time remembering specific details about my childhood. I remember renting this game and playing it, but not much more. I can only guess that I played it because it was different and looked cool on the box. Now, I kept going back to it because I never beat it as a kid, and as much as I loved the game, I never got a chance to beat it until recently. I think I can say now that I enjoy Earthbound because it's a charming, unique take on a genre of video game that finds it easy to stick to cliches. We see similar concepts with Ni no Kuni, a Ghibli-produced RPG with a modern-set story, and it's got as much charm as Earthbound ever did.

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