Monday, September 27, 2010

That Earthbound Smell

With massive, screen shaking explosions, emotional, CD-quality music at every turn and controllers that rumble as our on-screen counterparts dish out and receive punishment, there’s no denying that video games do their best to dazzle our senses of sight, hearing and even touch. With audio-visual feasts like Resident Evil 5 and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots currently on the market and the likes of Final Fantasy XIV and Fable III on the way, today’s games might seem like they have it all. However, even though 1995’s Earthbound didn’t have stellar, life-like graphics and cutting edge orchestrated music, it did do something that hadn’t been done before and has yet to be tried since: Earthbound choose to appeal not only to the player’s eyes and ears, but to the player’s nose as well.

The player knew that he or she was in for a unique gaming experience upon seeing the bizarre ads for Earthbound, which usually consisted of one or more wacky enemies, a massive green cloud of what can only be described as “fart gas,” and some sort of quip about the game’s wicked stench. For example, imagine Mondo Mole standing in a green stink cloud with the following text floating above his head: Holy Moley! Earthbound smells like unclean nocturnal creatures who live underground and play in the dirt! BUY IT NOW.

Borrowed from Earthbound Central. Excellent site!

Next was a picture of Master Blech, a piece of pizza  nowhere to be found in-game, a semi-accurate description of the game’s plot and a coupon that said, “Cut this coupon not the cheese.” Yes, it all sounds like a generic video game ad from the mid ‘90s (Interplay's Boogerman comes to mind), until you notice a curious circle of, uh, something on one of the screenshots.

Also borrowed from EB Central 'cause I used mine.

“What is that odd circle thing doing on my ad?” the reader would ask predictably, and try to scratch it off. Then he or she would notice that the ad was daring them smell the little circle they just scratched. So, not wanting the ad to think they were a sissy, most people rammed their noses into it was reckless abandon. And that’s when you’d get a nosefull of stink. “Earthbound. It's like living inside your gym shoes,” the ad proudly proclaimed, as readers bolted to the window for some fresh air.

Bravo, Nintendo! You know, looking at it on paper, it all seems rather ingenious. I really have no idea why an ad campaign that literally smelled like old socks and puke was so ineffective. Perhaps there just weren’t enough references to disgusting bodily functions?

The first three cards all dipict bosses. Also stenches.

I never sent this one in.
So the “smell the ad” gimmick was just that – a gimmick. The game has nothing to do with “stinking,” with the possible exception of Master Belch’s factory. But wait a minute! Luckily for Nintendo’s legal department, it’s not false advertising quite yet! Turn to the back of the player’s guide and what do you see? No, not the warrantee information, before that! The “rancid smell” theme actually wafted into the player's guide too. Inside were six scratch-n-sniff cards, similar to the ads, each with a different, somewhat pungent odor. If players could figure out the mystery scent on the last trading card, Nintendo would send them a free Mach Pizza air “freshener.” Participants probably needed it after all those atrocious odors, assuming it didn’t smell like sweaty monkey feet or something. I, unfortunately, never got my hands on one.

The scented cards were a fun diversion while waiting at Master Belch’s waterfall for three long minutes before someone answered the door, and maybe you’d sniff them if you brought the guide to the bathroom or when you showed it to your friends at school, but that was about it. However, it’s not until you take a snort of one of the cards after a few years of ignoring them that you realize how much of the Earthbound experience those odors encompass. Remember that crazy burning smell on the Ness card? If that came drifting towards you while walking down the street, what would be the first thing to pop into your head? “Hey! It smells like Earthbound out here!” That’s right, kids. Those aromas are forever ingrained in the player’s head. They ARE Earthbound. Nintendo has trained us well.

The bottom three cards featured Ness, the Bubble Monkey, and I guess they forgot to make a third one.

As I discovered when I first played the game almost 15 years ago, Earthbound defiantly does not “stink” as Nintendo’s ill-fated ad campaign would have customers believe. In fact, it smells pretty good to me… literally. The real “Earthbound smell” wasn’t printed on a scratch-n-sniff card, and if you’re lucky, you can see (smell?) what I mean. First, grab your player’s guide and open it to a random page. Now stick your nose in a take a big whiff. If the fragrance of the trading cards hasn’t taken over every page in the book yet, you should have just experienced one of the best aromas in the world – that of a new SNES game. This is most difficult to come by nowadays. If only one of the scratch-n-sniff cards had smelled like that! Oh well; I guess it’s more entertaining to barricade myself in the laundry room with my nose stuck in between the pages of NES/SNES manuals, sniffing the pages like a cocaine addict, in search of that ever-elusive scent of my childhood. Maybe it’s the thrill of being caught that makes me do it. I guess I just like living dangerously.

Maybe it’s better that more video games don't try to appeal to our sense of smell. After all, I'm not too keen on the idea of taking in the “fine” aromas of the blood and rust world of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories or the dirty, drunken sailors of Dragon Quest IX: Sentinel of the Starry Skies. I must commend Nintendo for trying something unique with Earthbound’s marketing, though. The Big N knew what an off-beat product Earthbound was, and they took a gamble on a different kind of ad campaign. In the end, the smell angle wasn’t a bad idea, it was just executed poorly. While it might not have helped sell the game as well as it should have, Nintendo’s innovative approach certainly made a lasting impact; the “Earthbound stinks” campaign really did add to the Earthbound experience more than we could have ever known at the time.

Too bad it didn’t do the same for sales.

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