Part of what makes video games fun is that they allow us to experience things not possible in real life. We can visit fantasy worlds, wield immense power, and ultimately save the world, or even the universe, from evil. In most cases anyway. Part of the thrill that comes from video games is the unfamiliar. It’s why I’d much rather watch a fantasy or sci-fi movie than one that takes place in the real world with regular people. That all kind of changed with a game I recently completed. EarthBound.
EarthBound had been on my to-do list for a long time, like Final Fantasy VII and Super Metroid, but it took me a long time to play it because I didn’t have access to it until recently. I originally heard of the game thanks to Super Smash Bros and its inclusion of Ness, a seemingly normal boy with psychic powers. I admit I was unimpressed by Ness (unintentional rhyme) at the time, considering I had no idea who he was, but as the years went by, I heard people talking more and more often about how amazing the game he hailed from was. It wasn’t until March of 2016, however, that I finally got my hands on it, thanks to my dear Wii U’s Virtual Console.
When I downloaded the game, I had no idea what to expect. I knew who Ness was. I was familiar with Starmen and Mr. Saturn. And I knew that Pokey was not to be trusted. (All of my knowledge actually came from the Super Smash Bros series and its various trophies. I had even heard of the Franklin Badge, which seems like a decidedly strange object to get its own trophy….) Other than that, I was clueless. All I can say was that my first hour with it was surreal, a feeling I hadn’t experienced since first playing Final Fantasy VII and getting to battle as Cloud for the very first time. This was finally happening. I was finally playing this game everyone praised so highly. A game that had previously been so difficult to get my hands on, considering my other option was buying a $200 cartridge to play on a dying SNES. And now, somehow, the stars had aligned to bring this game to me. We were fated to be together, I say!
EarthBound, plain and simple, was an amazing experience. The first impression I had of it was that the humor was quirky and unique and the battle music (and the crazy backgrounds during said battles) were pretty weird, but a kind of weird I enjoyed for how purely different it was. I can’t tell you how many times I laughed at this game’s humor, from Pokey “smiling insincerely” or using me as a human shield during the game’s initial battles, to enemies “sizing up the situation” and feeling strange when they were outmatched or the clumsy robot that kept cleaning the floor or eating bologna sandwiches when I was trying to defeat it. Never have I played a game that inserted such goofy exposition into battles until this one, and I have to say, any RPG I play from here on out is going to feel rather dull as a result.
This game is one of the most unique to have ever been made, but I’m not going to spend this post trying to convince you of its greatness. Just, go out and try it. I mean it, this is not a game to be missed. But first, I have a bit more to say. One thing that really struck me about this game was how…normal it could be. As I mentioned earlier on, I like that video games are so different from real life. I love fighting dragons or visiting alien planets. And yet, while this game certainly has sci-fi or fantasy elements (I mean, how much more sci-fi can you get than flying saucers and an alien invasion?), one thing I really enjoyed was the real-life elements. To save the game, you call your dad on the phone. You get money from an ATM, and if your characters get knocked out, you must visit them at the hospital. Rather than healing with potions and ethers, you can use hamburgers and pizzas or even sprinkle salt or ketchup (I’m aware you don’t sprinkle ketchup, but what other word can I use…squirt?) on your food to boost the effect. Status ailments include getting a cold, which causes you to take damage whenever you sneeze, or uncontrollable crying, which causes your attacks to miss. You can also get sunstroke, which can be cured with a wet towel, and occasional calls to your mother helps to prevent homesickness.
I think that’s one thing that really appealed to me in EarthBound. There was something very familiar and comfortable about it. I wasn’t exploring some foreign, new world, but a world very much like our own. I didn’t have to wonder, darn it, where can I find the next save point or where can I withdraw more money? Rather, I seek out a hotel with a phone so I can save or I head straight to the store because that seems like a likely place to find an ATM. I knew where I could find payphones and where phones were free, and it was more intuitive to decide which will heal you better, a hamburger or a pizza (I mean, ‘cause pizzas are bigger, I’d assume they’d have better healing abilities) than figuring out the different between a mega potion or an X potion. Huh, is X better or worse than mega?
I felt a greater connection to this game than many others I have played because this world felt so familiar. To illustrate, we’ve all seen plenty of destruction in video games, and I doubt anyone bats an eyelash at, let’s say, an entire city being wiped out by a giant monster. You probably just shrug and think, crap, another boss battle. But when I first started the game, and the title screen came up with UFOs attacking what looked like your ordinary, everyday town…it struck a chord. It was a bit too real. It was such a simple image, but it made me feel something because, seeing a normal town similar to my own being attacked by aliens is just easier to relate to than a dragon attacking a magical castle set in a fantasy world. Likewise, this game may seem light and cheery on the outside, with its wonderful sense of humor and its bright colors, but there is definitely a darker side to it, as well, from cults to hallucinations brought about by evil statues, among other things.
More so than games that take place in fantasy kingdoms and alien planets, this game feels like it shows the many sides of humanity, and of the world we live in. Good and bad things happen, and that’s what it feels like this game kind of represents. Ness leaves home, and on his adventures, he sees the dark side of the world, and the good, as well. Some people are good, some are bad, many are a combination of the two, but whatever troubles he and his friends face, they prevail. Like Ness and his friends, we live in a world of joy and sadness. We all must face trials, and we must all gain the strength we need to overcome them. Ness is growing up like anyone else his age. He lives the sheltered life of a child until the day that meteorite strikes. This is when his journey begins, and I feel like this is when his eyes are opened and he sees the world more from an adult’s perspective. We all must do this, in a way. The only difference is our journey from innocence to maturity doesn’t typically involve a grand adventure and an ultimate showdown against the evilest of evils. (But, what kind of video game would this be without those things?)
I know this game involves aliens and three of the main characters have psychic powers, but it’s still about real people in the real world. At least, that’s how I see it. This game has all the fictional elements needed to make a fun and interesting game, but enough of it draws very close parallels to the real world, which I think is extremely important. Without that, I don’t think EarthBound would have had the same effect on me. Sometimes the familiar is far easier to relate to than a plumber saving a princess from an evil turtle or an intergalactic bounty hunter fighting brain-sucking parasites (Nintendo references come easiest to me, I’m afraid). Those all make great games, and we do connect with them on an emotional level. EarthBound simply did so in a world that already felt like home from the moment we started playing. This game is unlike any other, and I have to say, it’s been an honor finally getting to experience it.
The Duck Says, “Fuzzy pickles”
This post was originally published on United We Game on May 3, 2016.