Tuesday, January 6, 2009

EarthBound: Breaking the Fourth Wall

Perhaps it would be best to start this blog with a brief discussion of EarthBound. The fact that I have played through this game numerous times (around 13 or 14 probably) since its release in 1995 is particularly telling--the only game that I have played anywhere close to as many times through is Fallout. It is no stretch of the imagination to state firmly that this is probably my favorite game of all time; it holds a place in my heart that is reserved for only a select few games.

What is it about EarthBound that I love so much, though? Admittedly, the game is not very pretty to look at, so it isn't the graphics. EarthBound's graphics are very simple and, especially considering some of the other games coming out at the same time near the end of the 16-bit era, very low-tech. They do not really push the limits of the Super NES hardware in even the smallest way.

Is it the “quirkiness” or the “trippy battle backgrounds” that were spouted on about ad nauseum during the game's marketing campaign? Well, sort of, but not really the way that they were marketed. Yes, EarthBound is definitely quirky, but as Tim Rogers pointed out in his excellent article, these elements of the game were marketed so heavily because the advertisers really didn't have any idea how to sell the game to the gaming public. Granted, the trippy music and backgrounds were quite good, and the battle system changes to the traditional Dragon Quest formula--the rolling HP counter, the ability to see enemies on the overhead map, etc.--were quite a welcome change of pace from the more mainstream console RPGs of the day (a fact that Chrono Trigger also used to its own advantage). These things alone, however, do not make EarthBound what it is to me.

No, what really sold me on EarthBound was something that, as a 12-year-old seventh grader, I could only feel, but not really articulate. The game was quite simply hilarious. There was always some weird joke or spin on an RPG convention that would at least make me smile, if not laugh out loud. From Picky Minch trying to “cast a magic spell” early in the game, to all of the moles in the desert mine claiming to be “the third strongest,” to rummaging through trash cans to find hamburgers, EarthBound was full of funny and/or strange moments that gave it personality and a unique charm.

That charm, however, lies distinctly in its existence as a parody of the traditional console RPG. The simple graphics take on an added meaning when viewed as an intentional parody of the then-simplistic nature of RPG graphics compared to action or adventure games. (This was, of course, before Final Fantasy VII came along and made FMVs and shiny graphics mandatory for RPGs.) There were a lot of instances where the game made it explicitly clear that it was aware of its own existence as a video game. The most obvious example of this is when, after crossing to the port in Summers, the game stops to ask the player's name. That player later gets another chance to confirm his or her name in the Tenda Village. Also, when Ness first gets the Town Map from the library, the librarian is sure to remind him to push “You know, the X button... near the top, haha.” While the game puts on an air of being serious, you know it is never taking itself too seriously.

And that is, for all intents and purposes, what makes EarthBound so great overall. The game is just plain fun to play, and is an excellent take on the traditional console RPG. There are just enough differences to make it unique, but the game's content is what truly sets it head and shoulders above the rest in my mind. Parody and satire have a great impact on me, and EarthBound is one of the finest examples of RPG parody that has ever been made. It is a shame, then, that more people did not get in on the joke when it was readily available. I just count myself among the lucky ones; thanks to one of my last issues of Nintendo Power providing a really interesting preview of the game, I was able to get in on a game that has provided countless hours of enjoyment... and one that, no matter how many times I play through it, always seems to have some new joke or twist that I never noticed before.

That staying power is the sign of a truly great game, and is to me reason enough to count EarthBound as perhaps my favorite game of all time.

Check out my MobyGames review of EarthBound here.

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