More than eighteen years ago, a very unique game hit store shelves around the United States. Although it was the second game of a series whose original installment never made it out of Japan, its standalone storyline made Nintendo comfortable enough to simply re-brand the franchise in order to make it reasonably marketable.
For a game that came out during the glorious twilight years of the Super Nintendo, it had ridiculously simple graphics. After all, while Nintendo and its partners were already toying with 3-D effects on titles like Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario RPG, this little game – true to its quirkiness – was not afraid to bet on pixel art.
In addition, as a role-playing software, it presented a battle system that, at best, could be described as minimalistic, as not only did it not present any major stand-out features, it also failed to deliver visually appealing battles, as all that was shown on screen was a static enemy sprite and menus that could have been taken out of a text-based RPG of the early PC gaming years.
This technically unimpressive title with a rusty unimaginative battle system became – as time went by and despite its poor commercial performance – an undeniable classic. The few who were bold enough to purchase a game whose marketing slogan declared “This game stinks” in the midst of an era where stellar software was coming out on a weekly basis powered by the epic struggle between Sega and Nintendo ended up finding a hidden gem.
As word of mouth spread, its legend grew ever larger, and the few copies that were produced before Nintendo realized the game would simply not sell became rare and extremely valuable; the gaming equivalent of a pair of fine hand-made shoes produced by some old man who lives tucked away on some distant Italian village. The game in question, obviously is none other than Earthbound. And, fortunately, for either those few who have played it or for the many who want to do so, it has been once more unleashed upon the world by Nintendo a few months ago, making its long-awaited debut on the Virtual Console.
For those who like to put their thoughts into paper, there is nothing more anguishing than something whose qualities are, while sublime, awfully hard to describe. And that’s precisely the case of Earthbound. If judged by the regular metrics applied by most game reviews, it would suffer terribly in almost every single one of them: its visuals are not technically mesmerizing, its gameplay stumbles on a few JRPG traps and presents an average battle system, and it has none of the modern day incentives that try to attract players into replaying the game.
It’s a simple game, produced by a humble team of developers. One that does not try to pull off any stunts in order to claw its way into greatness. It accepts its straightforward nature, and it refuses to engage in direct battles with the gargantuan games of its kind released on the same era, such as Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and the holy trinity of Final Fantasy IV, V and VI.
Earthbound is the kind of game that sits back and laughs. It laughs right in the face of danger, putting a group of four kids against one of the most menacing enemies of gaming history, an alien embodiment of evil that is nothing short of nightmarishly disturbing. It laughs out loud towards any kind of RPG cliché; embracing the sluggishness of a stripped down battle system, perhaps in order to show the world the boredom of it all, while also replacing any kind of traditional RPG settings – such as castles, wizards, princesses and any sort of medieval asset – with a caricature of modern-day America.
It takes advantage of that choice of setting to laugh some more at the ridiculous state of life itself, which becomes blatantly obvious on its exaggerated exposure of laughable behaviors and cultural standards that are in plain sight to anyone that is willing to observe. There’s the corrupt police officers, the mindless hippies, the non-sense sects, the bullies, the unscrupulous politicians, the geeks, the wacky scientists engaged in dubious researches, the street gangs, the overzealous parents, a zombie apocalypse, and the conflict between rural and urban; all standing on the way of a kid who is trying to save the future of the human race.
After it’s done making fun of all of that, Earthbound chortles some more and points out to players that, most of all, the joke is on them for engaging in the sort of game that is not afraid to break the fourth and fifth walls in order to delicately yell that it stinks indeed, and that it will refuse to do any effort in order to be like the world and the games it so harshly criticizes.
And before you know it, you will be laughing along with Earthbound. Laughing at the ridiculousness of the fact that there is always a chosen one, at the absolutely outrageous enemies that will be found during the journey, and – most importantly – at the real harshness of the world that is comically displayed by a large group of unforgettable side-characters who are not afraid to speak their minds.
And that might, at last, be the key ingredient of Earthbound’s insane recipe: the fact that it has little to no tolerance towards nothing at all, and that it does not beat around the bush in order to adorn the world. On the contrary, it’s not afraid to tell the truth to your face, and it does so in such a confident manner that instead of hating its honesty, you will embrace it.
Like most of the things that are genuinely great, Earthbound is better experienced than described. One can easily take a look at it and fairly state that there is seemingly nothing too special about it. However, upon starting a new file, a newcomer will open the door to a very unique world, and to a game that is so charmingly moody and cranky that it will draw you for its simplicity only to proceed to throw a heavy rock right at you for wasting your time playing an RPG that is a contradiction in itself.
After all, while it blasts a genre and mundane standards with deep anger, it also accidentally pays a brutally honest homage to them, which – in turn – makes Nintendo commercially tragic statement of “It stinks” awfully accurate. Earthbound is, in the end, a game that is so self-aware that after madly laughing at the world, it looks itself in the mirror and, upon not liking what it sees, takes one final – even louder – laugh directed at itself.