Controversial opinion time.
I’ve been playing on handhelds for about the last six months. No TV at the moment, which means I get to chip away at my Vita and 2DSXL backlog. Of course this means I’ll be neglecting my PS4 backlog as it gets ever deeper because of PS Plus... but I digress.
I try not to buy games unless I know I’m going to play them within a reasonable amount of time. I especially try not to buy games that I already own on multiple systems.
Recently, I made an exception. I’m incredibly glad that I did.
I’ve mentioned before how I occasionally do some work for Boss Fight Books; that involves a lot of reading and rereading great books about classic video games. One of ours that I never read was our book on Earthbound, for a variety of reasons. In general I like to have a pretty firm grasp on whichever game is the subject of a Boss Fight Book; it makes for more cogent analysis and more resonant points. At the same time, I think they’re generally well-written enough to be enjoyable no matter how familiar the reader is with the book. All that being said- I had never played Earthbound, but I started reading the book anyway.
I was immediately delighted. The author has a very distinct style that resonates with me. He waxes poetic, he gets personal, he deals with family and nostalgia and childhood and technology. About a chapter and a half in, I said to myself, “screw it” and downloaded Earthbound onto my 2DSXL.
Yes, I have an SNES classic. No, I haven’t fired up Earthbound on it. I broke my own rule, buying a game that I already own. I justified this purchase to myself by saying that because it’s a portable system, I’ll be more likely to actually play through the whole game. So far, I’ve proven myself right.
Even though I’m a child of the 90s, Earthbound slipped by me. I never had a SNES of my very own and even if I had, it’s extremely unlikely I would have found this game on my own. The marketing push for Earthbound in the United States was baffling, to say the least. However, once Nintendo finally made the game available for download on the Eshop, it experienced a kind of second life.
The game does so many things right, so many things that are truly ahead of its time. It’s gorgeous to look at. The dialogue is genuinely funny and unforced. It’s unsettlingly strange at times, in the way that only video games can be. It’s wholesome and adventurous and sweet. It’s uncomplicated in a way that made me breathe a sigh of relief the further down the rabbit hole I went.
The main characters are quirky and wonderful. I’m floored that Paula isn’t a playable character in Smash. Finally discovering Mr. Saturn’s origins and weirdly tragic existence was outrageously satisfying.
There’s always a strange disconnect playing a classic game a few decades after the fact. I usually experience some inner tension, my eyes wide as I search every corner of the game for the thing or things that will determine that this game is, in fact, deserving of praise. Earthbound let me relax in that regard because practically every aspect is just that well considered. Instead of playing through and thinking to myself, “This must be that thing the developers were discussing in that interview about games that influenced their career!” I was able to actually immerse myself in what was happening.
About three towns into Earthbound the plucky heroes are stymied while trying to find the next bread crumb. I stumbled across a clue, but I thought to myself, “There’s no way they’re asking me to do that” but when I tried what the game was subtly asking me to do, I was rewarded with progress. Spoiler: the clue was to find the secret path behind the waterfall, walk until I couldn’t, and then wait there for three full minutes without pressing any buttons. When the game recognized that I’d figured out the puzzle, it was more satisfying than probably any other gaming moment I’ve had all year.
I’m about halfway through now and as far as I understand it only gets better and weirder from here on out. If you’ve never experienced this absolute gem of a game, I highly recommend it. It’s satisfying in a way that is nearly impossible for games of today to capture.
Though the less said about inventory management, the better.