Ness and the Space Invaders
If I was forced to make a list of my favorite games, I wouldn’t pick Earthbound, but I’d really want to.
Even after sixteen years, Earthbound is the strangest game in my collection. Even its sequel, the incomparable Mother 3, a title that would be my favorite game ever, doesn’t quite scratch the same itch. No, what Earthbound has is an abundance of whimsy. In a culture where we have hundreds of fantasy adventures, sci-fi epics, and gritty war dramas, Earthbound is one of the few games that offers us the whimsical modern world of a child.
When I read Harry Potter, I think of Earthbound (and vice versa). Both help us transcend the everyday by making the routine, the mundane, exciting. They both take simple tasks like taking your dog for a walk or making breakfast, and they make them compelling theater by adding elements of the fantastic. They take our world, and they make it strange and new to us.
When I play Final Fantasy, I hear the story of a spiky haired antihero with a massive sword. It’s interesting and I love playing games like that, but I, the gamer, am not brought into that world. When I play Earthbound, I begin to feel like everything I do could become an adventure. That bee I saw fluttering past me yesterday afternoon could have been a time traveler from another dimension trying to contact great heroes in the past. I will walk down the street after I am done posting this article and I will marvel at the beauty of creation, because if I followed the river behind my house far enough I bet I could get to Saturn Valley, while strange, androgynous aliens live.
The concept of whimsy is alive and well in literature, where the best selling books since the Bible are a big, tall glass of whimsy poured into a copper mug, but in video games it is increasingly an emotion designed and manufactured, created from what we thought we’d want to see. Nintendo has made bank on the concept with Mario, a plumber transferred to a magical land, but as technology has advanced, as there has become more room for worlds, places, and ideas in games, he has been moved to a magical fantasy land and become more like a fairy tale for modern times. Super Mario Brothers 2 was the whimsical height of the series: Mario, a normal man, having a dream about fantastic things. The player is brought into the whimsical world. While the world of more recent title Super Mario Sunshine is, no doubt, magical, it does less to bring us in. Mario is a character, and we are not him like we were in the older games. We’re not him because now he has thoughts, and he has feelings, and they are not ours. Delfino Isle and the piantas that inhabit it are designed to induce happiness, but they don’t bring us into the equation. Mario Sunshine is a story, while Mario 2 was a story we were taking part in.
Other games are less subtle. Titles like Cargo! and Rock of Ages exist solely to scratch the whimsical itch, by placing us in a world that looks like its come out of a bizarre European animation. And they work. They’re fun games, and I’m happy they exist. But there’s no element of player involvement. They are designed to assault the part of our brain that processes the whimsical (let’s call it the hypothalamus, because that’s a wonderful word), but it is an unsubtle process. They give us wonderful alternate realities where everything is strange and weird, but when the game is over, we’re back in our cold, boring homes, wondering why life is the way it is.
What makes Earthbound different, what makes it transcendent is the attempt at sixteen bit realism, and it amazes me more games have not approached this combination: the realistic with the fantastical. Most games prefer to tell their stories in broad strokes of fantasy or war or what us literature types call “genre” over the idea of building stories in the modern world, placing us in our lives and giving us the chance to see the beauty in the everyday.
Earthbound’s legacy, the reason why I love it so, is that it takes modern life and makes it exciting. You go for a walk with your dog at night and you find a meteorite, cordoned off by the police, surrounded by angry animals. You meet a bee who tells you you’re destined to save the world, and off you go on a merry adventure into a world quite like ours, but with mystery around every corner. You save a town from ghostly possession. You defeat a creepy, color-themed cult, and you have a magical experience eating “cake”. You find a race of strange, alien creatures living over the hill next to your town, and you befriend them, to the point where they help you travel in time.
You know, everyday things you wish you could do, but never found the time for when you were a kid.
True whimsy is rarely the goal of games. The Persona series takes a lot of these concepts, and it places the player in the modern world, one where the weird can, and does, happen, but it goes for more of a dark direction instead of giving us a world of childhood legends. If Earthbound is Harry Potter, then Persona, rather unfortunately, is Twilight: edgy, a little dangerous, and sexy. Earthbound, like J.K. Rowling’s breadwinner, is fun, exploratory, and it finds, in its ending, triumph and happiness out of the deepest darkness it can imagine.
That happiness is why I go back to Earthbound. It’s a brilliant little game that makes me feel better about myself, about life, about the world around me. While other games attempt darkness, Earthbound gives us the world as we assumed it as children: happy, speckled with darkness but ultimately a lovely, brilliant place where we want to live and grow old. It’s why I’ve grown with Earthbound and why I hope, years from now, I’m still playing through it, appreciating its whimsical world.