EarthBound: Taking dad’s advice

I’m not totally ready to write off EarthBound. There are, after all, some good things to say about the game. The enemy design is unusual and imaginative, even (or especially) for a genre that spends a lot of time on its bestiaries. I love bumping into tripped-out blue-skinned people who “turn back to normal” at the end of a fight. I love that Territorial Oaks are hardcore, and that while they take a chunk out of you when they self-immolate, it’s far worse if you have a teddy bear, because you’ll survive, but the teddy bear won’t. I love that you can walk around with a teddy bear to attract enemy attacks!

And I especially love the boss fights, which are often unexpected in a deeply refreshing way. You can run into a boss in the middle of a town instead of always having to fight through a huge dungeon, and they have personality. In fact, if there’s one thing that this game has, it’s personality. It takes RPG tropes and tweaks them a little. You can’t take any of the standard RPG mechanics for granted (see Daniel’s column this week about Poo’s unique diet), and everything from the battle narration to the save system is just a little offbeat in a really good way.

And yet. For a game with such wonderful personality, the protagonist, Ness, has none at all. There’s no feeling of an overarching direction. And, worst of all, when I turn off the game, I don’t think about it. At all. It’s not until I’m coming up on another Gamer’s Club deadline that I remember that I need to put some time in. And, until I turn on the game at least, it feels like such a chore.

In fact, if I think about the game at all, it’s to try to figure out what it could be possibly missing. Why does it seem to measure up so poorly to its near-contemporaries Chrono Trigger, A Link to the Past, and Final Fantasy III (VI)? Part of it, certainly, is that the graphics and animation are sub-par — In fact, it’s not much beyond what I would expect from an NES rather than an SNES title — but that doesn’t seem sufficient. I played through the original Final Fantasy a few years ago, long, long after its original NES release, and even in its polished Game Boy Advance re-release, the game is no more technically advanced or polished than EarthBound, and it’s far less unique.

It’s been a genuine conundrum, and this, if nothing else, has kept me playing for the past few weeks.

But I think I’ve figured it out. While Ness’s lack of personality is in itself far from a deal-breaker — none of the playable characters in the original Final Fantasy have any personality at all — and despite the fact that EarthBound‘s designers clearly put a lot of energy into creating the world of the game, the game itself spends no time or energy exploring Ness’s place in that world, and that’s making it difficult for me to get invested in playing.

Let me give an example, using the last Gamers’ Club game. In Final Fantasy VII, you don’t just have a quest, or a world to explore, you have a main character, Cloud, who has left one life, as a member of the elite military group SOLDIER, and is trying to start another. Initially, that means working as a mercenary with the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE, but the game quickly throws not only Cloud’s self-conception, but his entire past, memory, and even his birth into question. You, as the player, are trying to save the world, but you’re also trying to solve a mystery, and your relationships with the supporting characters and villains are critical to that mystery.

In short, everything matters, and it brought me back, even when playing the game felt like homework. (Deadlines are deadlines.)

EarthBound isn’t giving me that, and so, for now, I’m going to let it fall to the side. It’s been an interesting experiment, and a fertile imaginative world at an unsettled time in my life. I’m glad that I gave the game a go, and one day I will come back to it. You know, when I finish reading all those books I’ve been meaning to read, or after I make it through Indigo Prophecy, or the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus re-release. (Aw, yeah.)

So long, EarthBound. We’ll meet again.

Read Daniel J. Hogan’s week 10 post

Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.

3 Responses to “EarthBound: Taking dad’s advice”
  1. kelsey says:

    While I agree that the creators did not “develop” the character of Ness, I believe this was done to the advantage of the game. Instead of force feeding the player what their avatar is supposed to be feeling, the game allows the player to shape their own identity of Ness, reacting to the characters and situations he comes across in gameplay. This seems fairly obvious and intentional as the game designers meticulously created “life stories” for all the supporting characters. It is hard to believe that they neglected the main character on accident.
    As a kid playing this game, it didn’t bother me in the slightest having to use my *gasp imagination to shape how my Ness thought and felt. Perhaps this is why it was so easy to connect with and become the character in the first place, and why this game remains one of my very favorites after all these years.

  2. tbustah says:

    The graphics are supposed to be simplistic.

    They were trying to make it look like “Peanuts”. Seriously, look it up.

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