Monday, October 25, 2010

The REAL Greatest Game of All Time

Forget about that E.T. crap; this is the real deal. But you’ll still have to phone home.

When it hit American store shelves in June of 1995, Nintendo’s wacky SNES role playing game, Earthbound, was met with disappointing sales. Despite a generous amount of coverage in Nintendo Power magazine and an ad campaign that reportedly cost the Big N about $2 million, only about 140,000 copies of Earthbound found their way into the homes of eager Nintendo gamers. Compared to the 300,000 copies that made it into the hands of players in Japan and the fact that the RPG genre had yet to hit its stride in North America, 140,000 units might be considered a respectable performance. After all, games Final Fantasy II and III on the Super Nintendo met with similar success in the United States, though the actual numbers escape me right now.

Earthbound unboxed.

But then there’s this statement from Nintendo gaming guru Shigeru Miyamoto: “We had high hopes for Earthbound, the Super NES version, in the US, but it didn’t do well. We even did a TV commercial, thinking, ‘Hey… this thing could sell three million copies!’ But it didn’t.”

Suddenly, Nintendo’s reluctance to release the title on the Wii’s Virtual Console doesn’t seem as boneheaded.

Proof that EB's marketing was intended to cost $2 million. Borrowed from Earthbound Central.

Whether it was Nintendo’s poorly planned scratch ‘n sniff promotions of the game, the lukewarm (and frankly ill reasoned and written) reviews that criticized Earthbound’s “squashed” and “childish” graphics, or the fact that video games were transitioning to the world of three dimensions right as Earthbound hit the market, many American players missed out on one of the most touching, hilarious games ever. Known as MOTHER 2 in Japan, Earthbound is the coming of age story of a boy named Ness who, after being awoken one night by a meteor crashing practically in his backyard, discovers that it’s up to him and three friends he’s never met to save the world from the intergalactic menace known only as Giygas. Defying the typical RPG conventions of the time, Earthbound takes place in a postmodern world where baseball bats and frying pans replace swords and shields; hippies, drunken old men and scalding cups of coffee roam the streets looking for a fight; and to restore hit points, all one has to do is order a pizza. And if you’re feeling homesick, just give your mom a ring and you’ll get over it in a snap. Earthbound even came with its own strategy guide. Designed to look like a travel brochure, the guide quickly became an indelible part of the Earthbound experience.

Screens from the back of the box.

Many of the game’s unique situations and locales were based on the adventures of Japanese copywriter and TV celebrity Shigesato Itoi, who just so happens to have created the MOTHER series in the first place. For example, the “mole mine” in the Dusty Dunes Desert is based on a cave expedition Itoi took for a Japanese television program, and the final battle with the universal destroyer, Giygas, was inspired in part by a rape scene from a 1957 film called The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty, which a young Itoi was exposed to when he accidently entered the wrong movie theater.

Itoi
Yes, even though Earthbound is often light-hearted, Itoi cleverly approaches mature themes such as death, absentee parenting, homosexuality and psychological trauma as a father might explain them to his children. Other times the player is forced to face the facts with no one there to guide them, just like growing up in real life. It’s a potent metaphor for what many young adults, just like Ness and his friends, will endure as they reach adulthood. It’s especially meaningful for those who just entered the confusing corridors of teendom themselves, as I had the year the game was released.

Another of Shigeru Miyamoto’s pearls of wisdom, this time in reference to his inspiration for games like The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros.: “What if you walk along and everything that you see is more than what you see – the person in the T-shirt and slacks is a warrior, the space that appears empty is a secret door to an alternate world? What if, on a crowded street, you look up and see something appear that should not, given what we know, be there? You either shake your head and dismiss it or you accept that there is much more to the world than we think. Perhaps it really is a doorway to another place. If you choose to go inside you might find many unexpected things.”

What else would you expect from a guy who
runs around like this all day?
It’s that kind of childlike wonder that made Miyamoto’s many masterpieces the hits they were; his own monuments to kiddom. Likewise, Earthbound is Itoi’s celebration of childhood, but not through the lens of the very young like Zelda or the original MOTHER game. Earthbound represents late childhood, where the world is still a wonderful and intriguing place, but there’s the creeping realization that society is in some way diseased; along with the burgeoning sense of romantic love comes the unease of sensing that there could be heartache right around the corner. Maybe that’s why I don’t much like MOTHER 3, Earthbound’s Japan-only sequel, because it’s the gaming equivalent of the transition from teen to adult. The carefree feelings of MOTHER and Earthbound are mostly absent in MOTHER 3, replaced with dread, pain, loss and a musical battle system that BAFFLES THE CRAP OUT OF ME, just like real life.

If you ever get the chance to play the underappreciated gem that is Earthbound, grab your controller, start whacking the local crazy animal population with baseball bats, and don’t look back. Even if you don’t agree with me that it’s the greatest game of all time (which it is), I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

In fact, here’s the perfect excuse to play Earthbound TODAY:



Starmen.net’s yearly Earthbound Fanfast and Funktastic Gamplay Event is where it’s at. Every two days, the player is told how far to advance in the game and everyone talks about their shared experiences on the message boards. It’s a great way to connect to other Earthbound players and an even better way to reconnect with the greatest game of all time. Also there’s prizes and prizes are fun.

So find those strategy guides, grab your Leave It to Beaver-style red hat and get crackin’, because you’ve got a world to save!

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That'll do it for my top games list, but many of you have yet to tell me about YOUR favorite games of all time! If you haven’t, take a minute to post your top three games as a comment to this post. I’ll reveal the results in a future article here on Wordsmith VG!

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