Discovering EarthBound 23 Years Late

This SNES classic is still great for franchise newcomers

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live on another planet for a good 20 years or so, return to Earth, and discover the cultural developments you missed while you were away?

A fairly trivial version of this probably happens to most of us nearly all the time. When all your friends, work colleagues, and apparently all sentient beings on the planet are watching Game of Thrones, it’s natural to be compelled to at least sample it to see what all the fuss is about (by the way, I watched the entire first season and didn’t like it at all — go figure).

But imagine a scenario where, say, you’re a massive Disney fan but you’ve never seen The Lion King. It’s such an iconic film that even if you somehow haven’t seen it, you must surely be aware of its enormous impact on pop culture (the fact that it spawned a musical that has now run for more than 20 years straight is definitely testament to that).

Well, I’m a massive Nintendo fan — one of the biggest there is, I’d argue — but until now I had never played EarthBound.

“You’re not a real Nintendo fan if you haven’t played EarthBound…”

Yeah, I get that. I know that’s what you’re thinking right now. But in my defence, I should say that I live in Australia. In 2018, being in Australia isn’t really a disadvantage anymore; we are typically included in all global releases and we occasionally get interesting Nintendo stuff before other major territories. But back in the ’90s, we certainly missed out on some iconic Nintendo experiences.

Doshin the Giant started life on the ill-fated 64DD add-on. Image credit: MobyGames.

So — North America, I’m looking at you — while it’s true that you may well lament missing out on certain gems (Doshin the Giant, perhaps?), a number of games completely bypassed Australia when I was a kid. Super Mario RPG is another game that I remember being upset about, because I read all about it in gaming magazines only to find that it would never find its way to our sunny shores.

There were always options for me to get my hands on EarthBound, of course. I could have imported it from the USA, but that would have been rather expensive and I only have a PAL SNES console. And sure, I could have used an emulator and downloaded a ROM, but I’ve never really been into that kind of emulation (for reasons I could probably discuss in a whole separate article).

Luckily, the best possible option I could hope for presented itself in the form of the SNES Classic Mini, released just last year. Although I bought one when it came out, I only just sat down to play EarthBound in the last few days.

This isn’t a review of the SNES Classic Mini itself, although if you’re a Nintendo fan I personally think this little device is a bit of a no-brainer if you’ve got the budget to grab one. This also isn’t a review of EarthBound itself. I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to really delve into it, so I’m not far beyond the intro yet.

More than anything, I just want to comment on the bizarre experience of finally playing a game that fellow Nintendo fans have been raving about since my childhood.

It may sound strange, but I was a little hesitant to jump into EarthBound. I know that so many people have fond childhood memories of it, and I absolutely relate to that (I often wonder how someone playing Super Mario World for the first time today might feel about it; I still vividly remember the first time I saw it, and how utterly blown away I was at the time).

Because I can relate to that perspective, I think there was a part of me that was actually asking “What if I don’t like it?” — or, more accurately — “What if I don’t get it?”

After all, video games — including turn-based RPGs — have continuously evolved since the mid-90s. I’m sure EarthBound felt new and creative and exciting in its day, but would it feel more like a series of pale clichés in 2018, given the rather large passage of time since original release?

Well, this may or may not surprise you — but for a newcomer who has never played EarthBound before, it does feel fresh and inventive all these years later. If you pull apart the nuts and bolts that underpin it mechanically, there’s probably not a lot here that seems wholly unique on the surface. But as I’m sure fans of the game know all too well, everything in this game is imbued with an almost hypnagogic quality; it’s not merely that the experience feels surreal (because it does), it’s also that somehow, as I’m playing, I feel like I’m experiencing elements of dreams I’ve had before — especially as a kid.

And as much as this game obviously orbits around tropes that recall American suburbia (with a feeling that could only really make sense in the context of the ’80s or ‘90s), it nevertheless echoes the way my childhood felt in some respects.

I mean, I grew up in suburbia. I had a group of mischievous friends. We definitely ventured out at night, too (with our parents being none-the-wiser, of course). Speaking of which: did you ever have that feeling as a kid where your neighbourhood seems like an alternate reality under the cover of darkness? Everyone’s asleep, so it’s eerily quiet except maybe for the wind or a distant barking dog. Your neighbour’s well-maintained topiary transforms into dark, hunched silhouettes — if you stare at them long enough, they almost look like they’re inching closer to you.

Maybe there’s a specific word for this that I’m not aware of (if so, please comment on this article — I’d love to know), but it’s a phenomenon I’m still fascinated by as an adult. Somehow, though, it’s as though only a child can really see that frighting-but-exhilarating transformation where mundane suburbia becomes a mysterious alternate dimension under the cover of darkness. EarthBound perfectly captures this, especially in the opening sequence. Waking up at night as a kid — and venturing out of your bed (especially outside) — is awesome. This is even more true if the reason for your little escapade is because you heard a sudden, strange noise nearby.

…and then, the most bizarre knock at the door…

As I walked downstairs to answer the door, I actually paused and just listened. I couldn’t wipe the grin of my face. The opening minutes of EarthBound are among the most engaging and wonderful I’ve encountered in any video game…ever. How must this have felt as a new player in 1995? I can only imagine.

For now, I’ll just say that I’m so pleased I have the chance to finally play this Nintendo classic. I’ve completed a few (rather interesting) battles and made my way into town. The humour that permeats the game is still completely relevant today — I wonder if this is partly because it is never heavy-handed in terms of being ultra-topical. Rather, it somehow comfortably exists in a highly elusive median between outright strange and utterly heartwarming. It’s written in a way that nods to the adult player while conjuring a kind of nostalgic delight all of its own.

With all of that throat-clearing out of the way, I still have a lot of game ahead of me. I can’t wait to experience everything Shigesato Itoi’s masterpiece has to offer.

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