Earthbound was one of those games I've always heard spoken of in reverent tones, but never actually played myself. Like Panzer Dragoon Saga or Radiant Silvergun, it was a game I knew primarily because of its reputation instead of its content. So when Nintendo released it on the Wii U Virtual Console yesterday, I decided it was time to change that.
All I knew about Earthbound was that it was an RPG with a modern-day setting, which I admit was plenty interesting already. But I didn't know what the story was about, what the tone of the game was, or why exactly people loved it so much. And when you're talking about legendary titles you've never played, that's a dangerous thing.
Much of our enjoyment of games is relative to expectations, and hearing decades of praise for a game without knowing the specifics almost inevitably sets us up for disappointment. When I finally played Radiant Silvergun thanks to its 2011 Xbox Live release, I was thoroughly let down. The ridiculous assortment of offensive options made for an interesting game, but not one that lived up to the years of hype. So I decided to download Earthbound from the eShop and keep a running diary of the first few hours of the game, to chronicle the discovery process and see if the game would get its hooks in me and earn its lofty reputation. And I figured if I wrote about it, I could always expense it and get my money back. Win-win!
00:00--Intro sequence begins with TV static fading to a splash screen straight out of a '50s alien invasion movie. The picture is even warped to evoke those old Cinemascope curved screen effects. Nice touch, Earthbound. Oops, it's starting to go into an attract mode. I don't want to know any more about this game before I start playing, time to skip it. Push start.
00:01--Time to enter my character's name. He's in Smash Bros., right? What was his name there? Nester? No, that was the Nintendo Power kid. Crud, there's only five spaces, so my old creative standby "Brendan" is out. I'm paralyzed by my options. Whatever this kid's name is, I'm going to be seeing a lot of it. Mario would fit, but that guy's already a protagonist in far too many Nintendo games. Luigi? Nah, too contrarian. Jimbo. There we go. Jimbo. OK, moving on...
00:04--Another character to name? I guess it's the female protagonist. I'm a little bugged at having to come up with a second name (so much pressure!), but it's cool that Nintendo was making an inclusive RPG long before female protagonists were trendy. I hope she doesn't wind up just being the healer. Hm, five letters again. Trish? Sure, that works. Now I wish I named the first kid Dante. Oh well.
00:07--Oh god, another character needing a name? Come on, Nintendo, what am I paying you for? Do I have to write all the exposition for this thing myself? Do you understand how much I hate naming things? OK, who is this kid? He's apparently supposed to be the main character's best friend. He looks kinda nerdy, reminds me of Lucas from that movie about the nerdy kid. You know, Lucas. Had Corey Haim in it. Or was it Feldman? I think it was Haim. Wait, is Lucas the actual canon name of the protagonist? Better pick something different to avoid confusion. I still can't share memories of Final Fantasy III on SNES with anyone because we all renamed our characters and it just feels like we're talking about two different games. Man, this looping background music is pretty funky. I'll go with Earl because he looks like an Earl, and the music is keenly reminiscent of ToeJam and Earl.
00:09--Another character to name, and I've given up caring. He has a sort of kung fu ponytail, so I'll name him Liu, in honor of Gordon Liu. I can't remember Gordon Liu ever sporting that ponytail look, but like I said, I've given up caring.
00:10--And now I have to name my pet and my favorite food. How is this not the defining characteristic of Earthbound? "Yeah, Earthbound. That's the game where the first hour is spent naming everything, right?" Bah.
00:10--My favorite thing? Well, "dignity" is too long a word, so let's go with "farts."
00:11--Oh, it's asking me if I want to rename anything. Yeah, let's go back and make Jimbo into Dante. Done. Annnnnd now it's making me go through and confirm every other thing I named individually. I grunt my disapproval.
00:12--The year is 199X, and a peaceful night in the small town of Onett is shattered by a meteor crash on a nearby hilltop. The crash wakes Dante up, and I'm finally playing Earthbound. Holy crap, I can walk in diagonals! It's not even just sliding the horizontal walk animation, either. There's honest-to-goodness distinct animation for walking in eight directions! This is basically what I always thought of as The Nintendo Difference when I was younger. This was the sign of production values on a AAA game back in the 16-bit era. Walking up and down and left and right was the standard in top-down RPGs at the time. It was good enough, and nobody complained if you could only walk in four directions. But this was above and beyond. It stands out even now. This is legitimately making me more excited about this game.
00:13--I walk into my little sister's bedroom and immediately start checking every piece of furniture for loot. She's apparently used to the invasion of privacy because she stands there, saying nothing. There is a beautifully wrapped present on the floor in the corner of her room. I am a jerk with no concept of boundaries, so I immediately tear into the box and steal the present within. It's a cracked bat. As far as presents go, it's a little underwhelming. Now I'm curious about the story behind this present. Was she planning to give this to me? Was it something I had given to her that she just hadn't bothered to open? Who gives a cracked bat to someone as a present? "Here's something defective/broken. I saw it and instantly thought of you!" I suspect these mysteries will go unsolved.
00:15--I go downstairs. Mom is waiting there. She says I'm nuts for wanting to go outside and investigate the meteor. Is she planting this idea in my head to subtly push me out there, or is it something I'm just assumed to have expressed as the stoic protagonist? She doesn't seem to care about me going out to explore crazy noises in the middle of the night, so long as I change clothes out of my pajamas. She might not be a very good mother.
00:18--I leave the house. The main road is blocked by police, so it's time to explore the surrounding area, which also seems to be crawling with cops. One of them tells me I should stay away from the hilltop because it's dangerous, but then acknowledges the futility of his warning, saying he knows it won't stop me. I'm starting to suspect that either Earthbound has a very sly, self-aware humor about gaming clichés, or everyone in this town is conspiring to plot my demise. This game is either going to get really light and charming, or seriously dark and gritty.
00:21--"That meteorite looks different than usual," a cop tells me. I guess we're not going the dark and gritty route.
00:22--I arrive at the hilltop, but the cops keep me from getting at the meteorite. Nothing left to do but head home.
00:23--Later that night, my neighbor Pokey tells me his little brother Picky has gone missing, so we've got to go looking for him. On my way out the door, mom is again behaving strangely. Even though I'm just going to look for a missing kid, she gives me a pep talk, calling me her "very own natural born fighter," and telling me to go get the cracked baseball bat from my sister's room and "Go for it!" This is not a healthy family environment. I set off with Pokey and my faithful dog in search of Picky, and get my first taste of battle as a Spiteful Crow descends upon us. That worthless Pokey plays dead, and my dog and I "tame" the crow by beating it senseless and gnawing on its head.
00:25--Yay, we found Picky! He was hanging out by the meteorite. Oh wait, now there's a bright light and a future space bee gives us a warning about the ultimate destroyer Giygas, and how Dante is the chosen one and will lead a group of three boys and a girl to save the planet. We take it in stride and head back to our homes, where Picky is returned to what might be an even less healthy family environment with outright abuse implied, and the future space bee meets an untimely end.
00:28--Starting to think that Dante is a bit broken as a human being. He seems entirely unfazed by the trauma of watching his future space bee savior die, so much so that he smiles for a random photographer and flashes a "V" for victory like five seconds later.
00:30--After saving my game by calling my absentee father, it's time to head into town and explore Onett properly. There's a restaurant there selling burgers for $14, which sounds a lot more like 2013 than 199X. I go around back and steal one out of the trash. I shove it in my inventory to save for later because I have no idea about safe meat handling conditions.
00:55--After exploring most of the town (and beating up a few stray dogs), I run into my first human opponents, members of the local gang of thugs called the Sharks. I start to get a sense of the game's interesting battle system. Unlike a lot of RPGs of the day, Earthbound doesn't rely on surprise battles. You can see enemies walking around on the overworld map and run around or away from them if you don't want to fight. That was cool, but I noticed something else battling the gang members. When I walked near their turf, I saw multiple gang members milling about. Each of them only represented a single adversary, but they could rush you simultaneously and engage in a two-on-one battle if you weren't quick. And then once engaged, they had a nasty tendency to call for help from other gang members, which I suppose should be expected given that they are a gang. As I'm pondering this, a skateboard punk and a pogo punk pummel me to death.
00:56--I have a brief flashback to the way things used to be when I apparently go back to the last time I called my dad to save the game. Thankfully, it appears that experience, equipment, and money are all preserved when you die, so your physical location seems to be the biggest setback to dying here. And I seem to have lost my magic-casting points, which isn't too big a drag considering I haven't bothered casting anything yet. Another thoughtful touch from the developers in a time not really known for leniency on players.
00:58--A coil snake attacks me, and the game decides it's such a lopsided fight that it just skips the whole thing and declares me the winner. Nice! That's another bit of attention to detail. Where I always felt like Final Fantasy and other JRPGs did everything they could to pad out playtime with hidden battles every few steps and ornate spell effects, it's cool to see Earthbound make concessions so as not to waste my time.
1:00--There is a man in town who nobody trusts. I ran into him earlier with Pokey and friends, and he told me to come visit him when I was alone. Since I seemed to be outmatched by the Sharks, I figure there must be some sort of story progression here. He invites me into his creepy rundown house and into the basement, where there's a shovel and a wheelbarrow lying around, having recently been used. I follow him through his basement caverns, knowing that every step further will make it that much harder for anyone to hear my screams for help. I doubt Earthbound is going to take a gritty turn at this point, but it's still an unnerving situation. It turns out he wanted to show me a gold statue, and then he kicks me out of his house. I have no idea why he wanted to show it to me specifically. I am just happy to be safe in public view once again.
1:25--In the sense of an RPG, I am grinding levels. In the sense of the story, I am a bullied child roaming the town looking for stray animals to club with a tee-ball bat. I am doing to these creatures what those other kids did to me. But I'll show them. I'll show them all. And they'll never laugh at Dante ever again. Because they'll be dead.
1:50--Due to my fear of losing progress, I've been calling dad to save my game pretty frequently. Every time I call, he tells me he's deposited more money into my bank account. I thought nothing of it first, but I'm pretty sure at this point that the money he gives me is directly tied to the number of living creatures I have laid low with my bat. Earlier on I thought the game was going to be light and charming or dark and gritty. I never expected it to be both.
2:10--Frank, the leader of the Sharks, has fallen by my hand. The mayor approves of my vigilante justice, wants my endorsement in the next election, and gives me the key to a decrepit shack north of the city where a couple of circus clowns live. Though I have only completed the very first steps of the journey, I am convinced that Earthbound is the real deal, enjoyable in 2013 just as it must have been in 1995, and should be well worth the $10. I don't even think I'll expense it.