Making New Memories With Earthbound In 2022


Ness
Image: Nintendo Life / Zion Grassl

I didn’t have a SNES growing up. I didn’t have a NES, either. I had an N64, though, so I’m not totally hopeless. Lately, I’ve been able to remedy the gaps in my gaming knowledge, since Nintendo’s been adding a ton of games that I either missed (because of being a baby) or missed (as in, bemoaned the absence of) to the Nintendo Switch Online service.

But, well, a lot of them haven’t aged well — even the ones I remember fondly, whose sharp edges can be filed off by nostalgic forgiveness, like Banjo-Kazooie. Listen, Banjo-Kazooie is a great game, but 25 years of playing constantly refined and perfected platformers make that game feel kinda bad. Sorry. [I… But… It’s… *temple pain kicks in* – Ed.]

Playing old SNES and NES games is even more difficult, because I don’t have the fond memories to soften the blow. I booted up Final Fantasy, a game I had never played before, and it just feels like playing an old game — like selling your fancy 2020 Ford Focus with Bluetooth and seat warmers and buying a car from the ’90s with manual roll-up windows and no aux port. I am spoiled, but when it comes to games, I like having things like sensible camera controls and the ability to carry more than ten things in my inventory.

It’s not just controls, either. Some games have aged poorly in terms of their writing and their quest design, and although I’d love to say that it’s not really their fault, their age is no excuse. There were plenty of games in the ’90s with whip-smart dialogue and humour that aged exceptionally well, and one of those games is… Earthbound. What do you mean you already knew that from the title?

When you don’t grow up with certain consoles, you’ll find that you have big gaps in your video game library of knowledge. People will reference beloved serieses like Halo, Uncharted, and F-Zero, and you’ll just smile and nod and hope that you don’t get outed as someone who doesn’t know the difference between Master Chief and Captain Falcon.

That was me with Earthbound. It was one of those games that seemed universally adored, and there’s a cynical part of me that just point-blank refuses to believe people when they universally agree on something, which is also why it took me 25 years to watch Die Hard.

I mean, yeah, sure, I’m sure Earthbound was great when you were a kid, but without that context, it’s just another old JRPG, right? I’ve played Pokémon! I can extrapolate! Earthbound is probably just Pokémon with extra children and fewer animals designed for punching.

Anyway, to cut a 30-year-old story short, I picked up Earthbound as soon as it came to the Nintendo Switch Online library, because there’s not much point in paying for the NSO service if you’re not going to use it. I figured I’d see what all the fuss was about, and then move on to a modern game with tasty 3D camera controls and an inventory that has a “sort by value” button. Yum.

Why did nobody tell me how good Earthbound was?

Oh, right. Because I didn’t listen to them.

Earthbound
I M A B

From the very beginning, I was in awe of how weird this game was. Millennial and Gen-Z humour these days tends to favour the absurd, and Earthbound slotted right into that like it had been released just yesterday. I mean, in the first few minutes of the game, you find a special bee in a crater, and just when you think this bee might be a companion or a super-important character at the very least — he gets squashed, never to be mentioned again. That’s still funny! And likewise, there are loads of items that don’t do anything magical, like the ruler — which just helps you measure things. Because of course it does. It’s a ruler. What did you expect?

It’s strange to play games like this out of order, because having played a fair bit of Undertale and Deltarune, my first thought was, “Wow… this seems like a Toby Fox game.” I know. Of course it does, it’s one of his biggest influences! That’s like going to a museum and saying, “Huh, a lot of painters were named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” But you know what I mean.

my first thought was, “Wow… this seems like a Toby Fox game.” I know… That’s like going to a museum and saying, “Huh, a lot of painters were named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Being able to see the influence that a game would eventually have on an entire generation of developers is pretty cool in itself, but being able to acknowledge that a lot of the things you love about modern games were straight up ripped out of Earthbound is like finding a puzzle piece you didn’t even know you were missing. Suddenly, a lot of things make more sense.

There are all these musical stings that I’ve been hearing for years, and it turns out that they’re all from the same place: Earthbound, which has some utterly stunning sound design for its age. Same with the aesthetics, from the main kid’s iconic cap-and-stripy-shirt getup (I called him “Egg”) to the green/blue checkered background — references to these things can be found everywhere, once you know where to look. I told a friend of mine that it was like finding out that half of American celebrities are secretly Canadian, and then you’ll start seeing secret Canadians everywhere, too.

Earthbound
egg

And aside from the impact it’s had on the industry, Earthbound is just a really good game. Sure, it has its flaws, which largely stem from it being a game from the mid-’90s — but I’m willing to forgive a lot of the problems, because they’re so immaculately, cleverly flavoured.

Earthbound is a game that’s about kids, and a lot of its design decisions stem from that. All the healing items you get are the foods that children dream of, or that might be packed into their lunches: Burgers, fries, boiled eggs, and sandwiches; sometimes you’ll find more grown-up items like coffee, but the description specifically says “I guess it tastes good to adults.” Your enemies range from strange monsters that make no sense, like a literal road sign, to corrupted adults with mundane names like “Extra Cranky Lady” — the kind of monsters that an 8-year old might come up with.

Earthbound
I’m always saying this

So it makes sense that you have a really tiny inventory, and half of it is filled with key items you can’t get rid of. You’re a child. You have tiny pockets. It also makes sense that you save the game by telephoning your dad, and that towns are the only place to do so, because again — you’re a kid! And likewise, fast travel being done via buses, a tiny village inhabited only by weird little guys who all have the same name, and the fact that a significant portion of the game is about exploring caves — it’s all prime ’90s kid stuff. I didn’t live near a cave, but if I did, you can bet I would have spent a lot of time in there imagining I was a pirate or whatever.

(So, listen, game developers: If you’re going to make a game that has some slightly irritating design choices, you can totally get away with it as long as you theme it.)

I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to listen to the horde of people telling me that Earthbound is a good game. To be fair, people recommend things all the time that turn out to be pants, so it’s healthy to have a little bit of cynicism. But it’s also good to know that some games are eternally great, no matter how old they are, even if you don’t have a cushion of nostalgia — so on this Mother’s Day I’ll be working my way towards the end of Earthbound. 30 years too late is better than never!

Earthbound’s great, huh? Tell me your favourite bit (and what you named your characters!) in the comments.





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