It’s been a sad week for gamers, with the loss of one of our great artists, a real friend to the community. We each mourn in our different ways - and it’s been touching to see the many, wonderful tributes to Mr. Iwata - but for many of us, the simplest, best way to pay our respects to such a figure is to go back and re-engage with his work. For my part, I decided to dig deep into the backlog and finally take a crack at, if not his most beloved game, arguably the one most closely associated with the kind of originality and humour that would define the, now sadly ended, Iwata years.
That game, of course, is EarthBound (1994), or if you prefer, Mother 2, the crowning achievement in one of gaming’s great underdog stories. Indeed, despite the best, decades-long efforts of a rabid fan base - forget the unofficial translations, how about that unofficial sequel? - the only title to get a proper Western release before this year was the SNES RPG classic. Please join me as I take a closer look at aggressive fire hydrants, smelly ghosts, and yes, cosmic abortion.
I played this on a SNES Emulator, which, as will be discussed, had a marked impact on the experience. (Please debate the ethics of emulation elsewhere, but for what it’s worth I do not own an eShop-enabled system.)
EarthBound is a fairly standard JRPG wrapped in an absolutely wonderful design sensibility. Mostly eschewing traditional fantasy and sci-fi tropes, the game casts players as a typical group of children armed with yo-yos, baseball bats, and other household items, who find themselves suddenly thrust into a globe-spanning adventure driven by their decidedly not-so-typical psychic powers.
Levels range from the familiar - a suburban American neighbourhood - to the classic - ancient booby-trapped pyramids - to the bizarre - a mirror world, and a journey into the subconscious that out-weirds Psychonauts by a good decade. Echoing the environments, enemies range from the mundane - vicious dogs, neighbourhood bullies - to the hilariously bizarre - a pair of floating lips called “The Kiss of Death”, several iterations of a barf monster, and the demon known simply as “abstract art”.
And even though its themes are sometimes mature - this is, after all, the game that inspired the Great Nintendo Abortion Debate - the game never takes itself too seriously. Appearances by the likes of the Blues Brothers and Groucho Marx will bring a smile to your face, and heck, even the save system is friendly!
I discuss the annoying save system below, but otherwise the only thing you might long for is a bit more action during the fight sequences, which are simply static images with overlaid text. This game should come with an allergy warning: “Contains Excessive Grinding.”
EarthBound is a very good game if you have a fast forward button. Very fun, highly engaging, and remarkably funny... but boy does it ever have a lot of repetition. Difficulty spikes abound, which, compounded with sparse checkpoints and all-but-mandatory grinding, can make for tedious hours playing the same sections over and over and over again. In this, the emulator’s fast forward function is a godsend, as is the ‘save state’ function, which allows players to basically bypass the in-game save system. Far be it from me to endorse ‘cheating’, but I’m pretty sure that if I played this as a kid, Game Overs and all, I would’ve thrown my controller out the window.
There is nothing in the world quite like EarthBound.
Re-releases and sequels
I can’t believe I am saying this, but yes. EarthBound is on the eShop, as is EarthBound Beginnings, a long-overdue English translation of the original Mother. You can find the Mother 3 fan translation (play it after EarthBound) on the InterWebs. Oh, and Ness is a badass in Smash Bros.