Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sugar, Flower and a Dash of Earthbound

Plug in the gamepak and feel the smoothness of the controller in your hands as you power up the console. Watch eagerly as Ness and his friends travel to distant places and lost lands in the quest of a lifetime, or just to the burger joint down the street. Close your eyes and listen to the sweet melodies of Earthbound, knowing they will stick with you forever. Find your player's guide and take a good whiff of the scratch n’ sniff cards in the back, associating the unique scents with that unforgettable Earthbound experience. And, uh… lick the cartridge as you put it back in its sleeve, savoring the taste of 15-year-old plastic...? Sorry Earthbound fans, but as much as we adore and revere it, our RPG of choice can’t quite give us the satisfaction of stimulating all five of our senses at the same time.

Or can it?

How, you might wonder, does Earthbound appeal to a player's sense of taste? We’ll get to that, but first, let’s consider the approach that Toe Jam and Earl in Panic on Funkotron for the Sega Genesis took: Included with the game was a tasty Fruit Roll-Up. While it was an awesome surprise at the time, the problem with the Fruit Roll-Up gimmick is that after you eat it, it’s gone for good. Through nearly 70 levels of jammin’ action, Panic on Funkotron never mentions that lone Fruit Roll-Up again. Aside from a life-sustaining cake here or there, the game doesn’t allude to the player’s sense of taste at all, which is a shame, because Big Earl’s sweaty, oversized polka-dot boxer shorts look delicious. Instead of taking a unique theme and running with it, all Sega really did was jam candy in the game’s plastic clamshell and pray that kids would start asking their parents to buy more Fruit Roll-Ups.

However, unlike Toejam and Earl’s sophomore effort, Earthbound takes its snack time seriously. While Nintendo didn’t package mouth-watering candy in the giant box it came in, food is so well integrated into Ness’s world that it’s almost impossible to imagine the game without it. It often seems as if Earthbound has an endless supply of edible wonders, and with a menu of more than 50 items, it might as well. There’s always something exciting to eat in every town, swamp or palace, and the player is constantly winning new and interesting treats from the enemies.

At first one might think it’s strange that a game that sometimes spirals so far from reality would reel itself back in just for the culinary aspects, but take a look at some of the food the player can obtain during the course of the game: Peanut Cheese Bars, trout yogurt, soup made from the fins of a deadly sea monster, and more. Even the “normal” types of food add much to the game’s atmosphere, with pizza parlors, fast food places and fancy-schmancy, over-priced restaurants scattered virtually everywhere in the game.

With tons of wacky meals, each with their own unique healing effects, it’s clear that the programmers went far out of their way to give every food item a personality all its own. Do you remember finding the Plain Roll in your Earthbound travels? The player needs plenty of Brainfood lunches to survive the trek through Deep Darkness and make it to the cave of the elusive Tenda tribe, but once you get there and trade away a valuable Horn of Life, the 24 HP healing power of the Plain Roll will be yours. “Hey, wait a minute!” you may have yelled at this point, wondering why you wasted so much time and effort to get such a useless item. But take a moment to analyze what the programmers really did here: The Plain Roll is a one-time item, meaning you can’t find it anywhere else in the game. The prize isn’t the item itself – it’s obviously completely useless – but the fact the programmers went out of their way to put such an item in the game. Just try not to laugh as you slowly realize the joke the programmers played on you. Then take a few seconds to think about how dedicated the MOTHER 2/Earthbound team is to their craft.

Food even plays a subtle, yet vital roll in the game’s storyline. All I need to do is say “Tendakraut” and seasoned Earthbounders will smile at the thought of the stinky delicacy that allows access a village forgotten by time. Don’t forget about the snack that whisks our heroes’ minds away to a far away land, the hungry miner in Dusty Dunes Desert, or the coffee break in Saturn Valley. And what about the disgruntled Mach Pizza employee who delivers the Zombie Paper that becomes the salvation of an entire eerie town? Try as I may, I can’t think of any other game that can say pizza helped save its universe.

Shigesato Itoi, creator of the Mother/Earthbound series, strives for excellence in everything he does, from journalism to making video games. With MOTHER 2/Earthbound, he and his team set out to make something that would appeal to players not only as a video game, but on a deeper, more human level. Food is an indelible part of life in all cultures, and knowing this, Itoi found a most creative way to integrate it into his game. Earthbound proves not only can a video game appeal to sight, hearing, touch and even smell, but also that a hunk of plastic and circuits can indeed appeal to one’s sense of taste as well; and Itoi didn’t even need a Fruit Roll-Up to do it.

I guess you really can have your Magic Cake and eat it to.

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