The Top 25 RPGs of All Time #16: Earthbound

The Top 25 RPGs of All Time #16: Earthbound

The kids are all right, but the adults sure aren't.

We're counting down the 25 best RPGs ever on USG! Go here to see previous entries, and also make sure to subscribe to Axe of the Blood God for the accompanying podcast segments!

Are you surprised Earthbound is on Axe of the Blood God's Top 25 RPGs of All Time list? I didn't think so. It took time for this unforgettable RPG to garner its steadfast Western audience, but Earthbound finally commands the same level of respect as Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and other 16-bit RPG classics.

I can explain why Earthbound is worthy of its place on this list, and I can tell you why it's very much worth playing now (despite the difficulty spike you're expected to scamper over quite early in the game). Thing is, I reviewed Earthbound when it was announced as a title for the SNES Classic Edition. What's left to say about young Ness' adventure to save the world?

A bit, as it turns out. There's a reoccurring theme in Earthbound that hit me hard when I first played the game as a 28-year-old who spent a year around dead and dying family members, and it still hits me now as I watch everything good and pleasant about life struggle to stand back up: Earthbound is a game about kids having to save the world because adults have no idea what they're doing 95% of the time.

In Earthbound's opening moments, an alien fly named Buzz-Buzz finds Ness and delivers a warning: Not too far in the future, a malevolent entity called Giygas has banished all life and light to non-existence. Ness must find friends and stop Giygas before this horrifying future comes to pass.

Buzz-Buzz says something else that first-time players might accidentally click through. Giygas materializes in the future, but his influence in Ness' time is still strong. Buzz-Buzz tells Ness the dark entity is still capable of touching the hearts and minds of adults, thereby amplifying their greed and fear.

It doesn't take long for Ness to run into these chaotic adults. Some are simply corrupted NPCs that want to fight. Others are just out to hurt the kids. In my review, I mention how Ness is forced to fight against a phalanx of aggressive cops who pull no punches, and while Mother series director Shigesato Itoi might've intended for the encounter to be surreal and goofy, it gives me a bit of a chill now. It's also wholly possible Itoi meant for Earthbound's "Cops Versus a Kid" scenario to be disturbing; adults are as vulnerable to fear as much as any kid. Problem is, they're expected to hide it, so they lash out in ways that hurt other people, or even the world. The presence of an entity like Giygas just amplifies adults' tendency to behave badly when under pressure.

The world's ending, yeah, but consider this: Pizza.

Kids generally learn good values. "Make sure you have enough candy for everyone." "Be nice to others." "Share your toys." Later, the adults who told us to be good say "Well, it's not that easy" when you point out health care and other social programs technically count as sharing. I wonder if that's why Buzz-Buzz tells Ness four kids are necessary to defeat Giygas. Kids' values are simpler than adults, and they also have a much better understanding of monsters in their purest forms versus when those monsters manifest themselves in adults' hearts as selfishness, uncompromising beliefs, and fear of "the other." Ness and his friends get shit done by finding and attacking the root of the problem while the adults of their world prey on each other and find excuses for their actions.

Porky is the obvious exception here. He's Ness' age, and he revels in the chaos that seeps from Giygas' dimension into his own. Even then, Porky's determination to make money and treat anyone weaker than him like dirt are unsettlingly simple and childlike—if the child in question is Prince Joffrey from A Song of Ice and Fire. There's no question where Porky "gets it from," though: His father's disdain for everything except money no doubt made an impression.

I know an Atlus mascot who'd love you. Actually, he might just turn you inside-out. Never mind.

It's not as if Earthbound's adults are out-and-out evil, though. Some refuse to find redemption, but others are simply screw-ups who nevertheless try their best and put themselves on the line for Ness and his friends. Everdred is a hustler and a thief whose generosity with money proves invaluable to Ness' quest. The Runaway Five are a bit scatter-brained, which lands them in debt, but it's that same joyous, chaotic attitude that lets them drive away the ghosts keeping Ness from the town of Threed. Jeff's father, Dr Andonuts, is airheaded around Jeff to the point of being neglectful, but the inventions born out of that airheaded nature are what let the kids challenge Giygas in the first place.

Earthbound is all about kids doing the big jobs adults can't—or won't—do. It's about adults undoing everything good because adults panicky and short-sighted. It's also about adults listening to children and then doing their part to fix the damage that's been done to society by that panic and fear. Earthbound's story was relevant in 1994, it's relevant now, and it'll probably continue to be relevant for decades to come. That's why it belongs on this list of the best 25 RPGs of all time.

That, and "There are UFOs with bows on their heads."

So cute!

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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