Nintendo has done a fine job of keeping previous generations of video games alive with the Wii’s Virtual Console software. It allows us old timers to kick back and travel to a time when the words rent and utility bill weren’t part of our vocabulary, but more importantly, rare and less accessible titles are just a Wii-remote click away. Classics such as Ogre Battle, Phantasy Star, and the recently added Chrono Trigger are available without having to participate in strenuous eBay bidding wars or sketchy flea market scoutings. It’s important that we share these titles with the younger generation, not just so they can snicker at the 16 bit sprites and primitive environments (“This was high quality when I was your age, sonny!”) but so they might also experience the evolution of video games, learn to further appreciate earlier forms of the medium without having to hand over a seventy-five dollars for a Super Mario RPG cartridge. As said before, Nintendo deserves a big high five for their efforts. However, we’re still missing one of the most important titles from Nintendo’s retro library. I’m talking about a weird little game called EarthBound.
If you’ve ever played a Super Smash Bros. game, you’ve probably wondered about the strange little kid with the red hat named Ness. Why is it that Ness is featured in every installment of Nintendo’s superstar brawler, yet he’s the hero of some cult underground title that Nintendo doesn’t find important enough to release on the virtual console? What’s his story? Don’t feel like less of a Nintendo fan if you’ve never played EarthBound, because, well, to quote gaming journalist and YouTube sensation Samtron5000, “it seems like Nintendo just doesn’t want you to.” Released in North America in 1995, EarthBound’s marketing campaign did anything but push the game’s sales, resulting in a small cult following of American gamers. EarthBound’s native title, Mother 2, is a household name in Japan, a revered classic earning a Gameboy Advance rerelease in 2003, as well as a GBA sequel in 2006 aptly titled (Mother 3) which has yet to receive a North American release. Twice, EarthBound has ranked #1 on NintendoPower’s 2008 poll asking readers which classic titles they’d like to see on the virtual console. The fans spoke, and the game gained a sort of quasi-mainstream revival, resulting in a wave of ROM downloads and a fan translation of the game’s sequel. It’s apparent that Nintendo would easily make a nice chunk of change off a Virtual Console release, so why do they insist on keeping EarthBound from us? Owning a legit copy can cost over $400—that is if you want the oversized box bundle including the strategy guide (similar to Secret of Mana’s original release). The cartridge itself goes for up towards $100. And there’s that question again. Why don’t they want us to play it? In an attempt to answer it myself, I’m giving the game another playthrough, a slightly more analytical approach with more attention to the details and motifs. Time to go back to 1995.
Check out the introduction here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3dIWyvNoxM. If you watched up to the gameplay montage, you’re probably asking “What the frick? What kind of transition was that?” Going from a remotely realistic image of UFOs destroying suburbia with a sounds of Hell soundtrack to upbeat chiptunes and a Pokemon’esque RPG montage is an… interesting choice. From terrifying to cute in just seconds. Weird. But that still doesn’t explain why Nintendo is stunting the game’s Western revival. Let’s take a look at the environments. The ten towns Ness and his friends visit in EarthBound each resemble American suburbs and cities. No Shinto temples or cherry blossom trees in the area, no compartmentalization when it comes to NPC homes. So why might a Japanese game developer choose to set an epic man vs. alien role playing game in a fictionalized America? I’ll get back to that. Next we should take a look at the characters. Why are all the NPCs slightly terrifying? Especially the females. The blonde hair, those clown faces and crazed grins. Are they supposed to be wearing too much makeup? Did I just see one carrying two shopping bags? Many of the male NPCs are similar, but feature an added rotundness. Every so often you’ll come across a redhead or brunette, but most of the NPCs are blonde. Except for our hero, Ness. Ness looks, well, Japanese. I’m not stereotyping the kid due to his black hair—it’s obvious that he’s supposed to be different from the surrounding crowd. Notice the random moments when the whacky photographer drops from the sky to take Ness’s picture after discovering new locations. That’s not a gang sign Ness flashes (though I’m guessing by the red hat that he might be a Blood), but a peace sign, a popular hand gesture adopted by the Japanese from the western hippie culture of the 60s. Of course you knew that, but it’s still relevant to where I’m going with all of this. Which brings me to my next point—money. Instead of gaining money through battles, Ness’s father deposits money into a bank account as the game progresses, forcing you to withdraw money, American dollars ($), from ATM machines in town. The amounts deposited are, how should I put it… hysterically obtuse. Ever met a ten-year-old with a debit card and $9014 dollars in the bank? Well, meet Ness. He makes it rain in the clubs. All of this information is just a fraction of the game’s quirks. I’d go into further detail, but we must move on.
By now you’ve probably caught on to fact that EarthBound is a parody of America. We’ve become the laughing stock of the gaming universe. How dare they? Shame on you, Nintendo! It must have gone unnoticed during the game’s North American debut in 1995. Nintendo must have let out a sigh of relief when the corporate media overlooked the title. Thankfully, Mortal Kombat and had parents fearing for the lives of children all across the states at the same time. So why might Nintendo and developer Shigesato Itoi poke fun at us? It might have something to do with the aftermath of that whole mess in Hiroshima and Nagaski. You remember—the atomic bombs, the radiation poisoning that ended the war and led to the American occupation of Japan. You could say that eventually the US westernized an eastern country. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, wrote up a new constitution for the country, steeping their political structure into one much like our own. Itoi, born in 1948, lived through a transitional period between two cultures in a singular nation. One culture came from heritage and traditions that were literally blasted out of existence, a unifying identity of Japan, and the other, a new, rather ambiguous identity—bridged a gap between the East and West. The economic changes were quite beneficial for a time, allowing the country to reach peak economic success in the 70s and 80s, prior to the economic collapse in the early late 90’s/2000s. For Itoi, being a marginal figure through a time of transition, an artist in a country dedicated to furthering an economic superpower, might have deepened his reflections on cultural identity. It doesn’t seem as if Itoi’s game demonizes America or the overly imposed western image, rather it pokes fun by illustrating the oddities of being Japanese in a time of American occupation and influence. EarthBound’s story is simple. Giygas, an outer space alien, wants to take over the world by exploiting the evil nature of humans. It’s as if the materialistic ways of westernization have led humans to ruin in a country dedicated to materialism and economics, which could be considered a stereotype of the post-nuclear superpower. Itoi’s over exaggerated illustration of this could serve as a more metaphorical antagonist, creating the idea that conformity to systems without regard for the lives of humans will ultimately lead to the end of humanity. Sounds like a pretty universal message.
EarthBound’s success in Japan isn’t due to its aspects of American parody; its success comes from the fact that it’s an entertaining yet thought provoking title with an epic story and quirky atmosphere. It possesses all the qualities of a solid JRPG, and at the same time it’s packed with cultural context on par with post World War II Japanese writers such as Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami. So why doesn’t Nintendo give it a Virtual Console release? We wont be offended. I’d be happy to see a game so relevant to our culture given new life, another chance for a universal audience to see the kind of risks a developer must take to create a classic that bridges the gap between entertainment and social commentary. Please, Nintendo, we’re not offended by satire. I think we can take a joke.