This week, Zero Punctuation reviews EarthBound.
It’s alright, everyone relax. I've thought of another retro game that I quite like to sustain the fucking death march through July. Here’s a hint: it’s the only Japanese RPG I’ve ever played right through to the end. Unless you count Mario & Luigi or Paper Mario RPGs, which personally I don’t, because to my mind, a JRPG just isn’t a JRPG unless it ends with teenagers using the power of friendship to kill God. It’s like how if you don’t have the stallion scene, you can’t really call yourself barnyard porn.
Have you guessed the game yet? Well you didn’t need to, did you? It’s in the title of the fucking video. EarthBound, the 1994 SNES RPG that attained cult appeal but initially sold in America about as well as oily rags sell to people who are on fire. It’s also very nearly a timely subject with all this talk about whether or not Smash Brothers is going to introduce Max Payne or Margaret Thatcher or whoever. So if you've ever wondered about the origin of that one Smash Brothers character with the baseball cap and the thousand-yard stare like Wario’s been molesting him in the green room, then step this way.
As I said, EarthBound was critically panned on launch and I can see why, because I’m a critic myself and I know how much Captain Morgan’s we get through. But even disregarding the astonishingly bad launch campaign in America that thought the best approach was to make the box smell like farts, the game looks like salted caramel buttocks on a stick. The art is flat and pixely, there's next to no animation, the perspective is all over the place and occasionally goes in multiple directions within the same background, but this was towards the end of the 16-bit era, remember, when we were first getting used to the idea that the phrase, “These graphics look good” doesn’t necessarily always have to be followed by a comma and the word, “considering”. So an important and artistic cult hit was marginalized and ignored because it didn’t fit within the latest standards for graphics in an industry obsessed with competitive technology. Christ, isn’t it great that that kind of bollocks doesn’t happen anymore?
I freely admit I’d probably have shat on EarthBound too, if I’d been reviewing it, 'cause I replayed it for a bunch of hours this weekend to refresh my memory and I only got to the end of the second town. You can only give a game so much time while you're on a schedule, and rum. EarthBound is on an incredibly slow boil. The first thing you have to do is walk to the top of a hill, look around, then walk all the way down and go back to bed. The second thing you do is exactly the same thing, only now fighting the shittiest monsters the union had to offer. That’s not a slow boil, that’s chucking a signal flare into a swimming pool.
And it’s not like there’s a whole lot the game needs to explain; it’s turn-based combat. Click attack, click enemy, repeat, occasionally eat a biscuit. The plot at the outset is just that you are a nondescript apple-cheeked small town American hero boy, and there's this giant alien god from the future that is the source of all the evil in the world. It’s making people behave in ways you don’t approve of and is probably the reason why your dad doesn’t live at home anymore. So you set off on an odyssey to fight it, somehow, and your mother is suspiciously a-OK with all this. I guess she wants a bit more quality time with Mister Buzz-Buzz.
It’s a quirky game above all else. You name your character, standard JRPG practice, but you also have to name his favourite food that appears in dialogue a whole bunch. And if your first instinct is not to enter something along the lines of "cock", then you simply do not possess a soul. You use baseball bats and frying pans as weapons and fight animated stop signs and hippies, so the quirky random humour thing runs along the surface like baked beans sliding down a clown’s face. But there’s a dark surrealism running under it as well, as indicated by a soundtrack that alternates between fun jaunty melodies and weird electronic ambiance, like someone left a theremin in Buffalo Bill’s house. Make it all the way to the end of the game and you’ll find it topped off with a hearty dose of cosmic horror out of fucking nowhere.
It feels childish, but in the sense of being made by a child, rather than for one. On top of graphics that could be recreated with crayons, if only they had a fill tool, the plot has the air of an imaginary game made up by school boys in a playground, setting out on a journey through colourful lands as part of a grand heroic quest, vital in some wholly unspecific way, constantly shifting setting and themes as new playmates arrive and momentary fancies are indulged. And then, occasionally, something really fucked up happens because weird Uncle Peter was babysitting on the weekend and let them watch From Beyond. It gives the game a sense of timeless nostalgia, which always strikes a nerve with veteran gamers, who long eternally for the days when their metabolism worked. But there’s innocence to it as well, cosmic horror notwithstanding. The short text boxes and big font are the interface equivalent of a little puppy’s big brown eyes. The GUI and inventory's pretty shit, but it creates a wonky treehouse fort aesthetic of ramshackle earnestness that goes with the theme.
Also contributing to that feel is a rather strange health system which doesn’t remove losses all at once, but ticks down at a steady pace. And if you receive mortal damage but can end the battle before the counter reaches zero, then the game just forgets about it. It’s like playing D&D with an Alzheimer’s patient. But that’s not the only unique game mechanic. If you are so overleveled for the current crop of wildlife that it isn’t funny, then the moment you enter battle, the game goes, “Bollocks to it!” and you just win. Why don’t more games do that? Well, these days, 'cause if they cut out all the dull, pointless, repetitive, insultingly easy combat, then you drop half the fucking game right there.
Some parts of the game can be a slog. You do have to master the art of burly bastard back-and-forth, or retreating from large groups of randomly-spawned monsters until the game unloads them, then heading back and hoping that less of them spawn this time. But it’s only once you finish the game that you fully appreciate the intent, which might explain the earlier review piddling session. In Japan, EarthBound is the second game in the Mother trilogy. I confess I haven’t played the other two because neither were officially released outside Japan, presumably in fear of being piddled on again, so playing them would be a dirty crime!
But I think for all the space aliens and stop signs, Mother is the more representative title. For at any point you can go home to mum, sleep and eat some cock. It’s also both the very first and the very last thing you do in the game. Mother is the one point of stability in the chaotic fantasy life of the every-child. You can get on your bike and become adventurous through time and the nether space. But soon the day will fade and you will long only for home, where Mother will always be there to dust you down and tuck you into bed, so she can start playing the naked wrestling game with weird Uncle Peter.
- A staaaaar maaaaan waiting in the sky: Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw
- Obviously we know it’s not true of every mother so please don’t write in if your one sold you for food stamps or whatever
- Also: consider naming your special power ‘titwank’