This is an article I've been wanting to write for several months now, but I've always had a slight hesitation about doing so. There's a couple reasons why that is. The first is that ever since it's release on the Wii U virtual console, Earthbound, and the entire Mother series in general, has been pretty much rediscovered. It's more popular now than it was during it's initial release. So much so that it's to the point where it almost can't be called a cult classic anymore, let alone retro. The second reason is due to the massively opposite opinions players share of the game. The people who talk about Earthbound tend to fall in one of two categories. There's the fans who love it dearly and will not rest until they see every man, woman, and child who bears the mantle of gamer call it a masterpiece, and there's the other side who thinks it's the most overrated video game of all time. I'm not here to do either of those things. I just want to tell you a story. A story about a game I played back in the mid 90's that I thought was cool, and how I eventually was able to finish it, 20 years later.
To say I wasn't much of an RPG player back then would be understating it. I didn't play RPG's at all and went out of my way to avoid them. Oh sure, there were some that from a graphical standpoint looked cool, but even those were ultimately lost on me. I'm not sure why this is, exactly. I guess I was just comfortable with my action/platforming world and didn't want to bother learning turn based combat, item management, and the rest of genre staples of the time. Having an on/off relation with Nintendo Power throughout the SNES and N64 years, I did catch wind of the big name RPG's, and it was through the magazine that I heard of Earthbound for the first time.
Even though RPG's weren't my thing, I was instantly intrigued by this game. First and foremost, it was set in modern times, in the world that I was living in. That didn't happen in video games back then. I also liked the clay models used for the characters. Though I didn't think I 'd ever play it, I followed it because I loved the concept. There is no way I could have imagined back then the journey this game and I would take together. Not only would I play it, but I would see it through to completion. But first things first. My trek to stop Gigyas's invasion did not actually start with Ness and his friends. It began with another much beloved SNES RPG, one I'm sure most of my fellow retrojunkers are aware of...
Here's what happened. My uncle had just gotten married and his wife had a son named Alan, who was now my new cousin. I don't recall us hitting off right away, and for a long time I wasn't quite sure what to make of him. While the details are fuzzy, I do know we eventually discovered we had a mutual love of Nintendo and I think that's what led to our being friends. And as I've mentioned before in previous articles, Alan loved rpgs. He was also a massive Dragonball Z fan. So when the time came for us to officially hang out for the first time, I was schooled in the ways role playing and all things dragonball. Dragonball was an effort that went in vain, but I paid attention to his RPG lessons. He showed all the major games for the SNES, such as Final Fantasy 2 and 3, (4 and 6 if you prefer), and eventually he showed me Chrono Trigger. Unlike the other games, when the title screen popped up he handed me the controller.
"Really?" I asked.
"Yeah." he said. "Go to New Game Plus, though. It will help you." "Ok." I said.
And so it began.
I played, but he told me things like where to look for treasure chests and acted as a general guide. And I was really enjoying it. The real kicker was that he said I could borrow it. Looking back, this was monumental. Alan safeguarded his RPG's like good parents protect their children. The fact that he let me leave his house with one is nothing short of a miracle. God is good, that's all I can say about it. Anyway, I took it home and over the next couple months I played the crap out of Chrono Trigger. I stuck with New Game Plus, and in retrospect it was the best thing for me to do. Since it was my first RPG ever, it was nice to just experience the story and not have to worry about leveling up. I didn't get any honest challenge until the last quarter of the game or so. But I loved everything about it and I eventually beat it.
Having done so, I gave it back to Alan next time we got together. He lived a good 90 minutes-2 hours away, so it was usually a few months in-between visits.
Having dipped my feet into the RPG waters and finding I enjoyed it, I was ready for more. That visit, I was introduced to Earthbound. Remembering what I had read in Nintendo Power, I was pretty excited when we sat down to play it. I also remembered seeing it in stores with it's massive box.
It came this way because it housed the players guide, along with some foul-smelling scratch and sniff stickers. The whole "This Game Stinks" ad campaign was the other big thing about the game I remembered.
I think what happened was he played primarily, but I took control every so often. Again, I just loved the modern setting for the game. Eating pizza and burgers instead potions for health was great. It was more than a novelty. It was almost like a video game version of my life, in a sense. No, my father did not deposit thousands of dollars into my checking account whenever I called him, but the burgers, pizza, the arcade in Onett, the library where you got the map...even with all the fantastic elements, it was kind of surreal to be walking around an electronic version of the world I lived in. I also really liked the psychedelic backgrounds during the battles. At one point, I though out loud "I think I know what game I'm going to borrow next." Almost instantly, Alan said "No."
"Oh, come on," I said. "This is cool."
"Nope," he said. "I don't want to lend it out."
I begged him a little more, but he stuck with his answer. I just enjoyed it as we played, as well as all the other games and things we did that weekend. And it was a blast. That Sunday, when my dad came to pick me up, I was getting all my stuff together. As I was saying goodbye, Alan said "Hey, don't look in your luggage bag until you get home, ok? Call me when you do."
"What are you talking about, how come?" I asked.
"Just do it. Promise me, ok?"
"Ok, if that's what you want."
I was confused and I admit that on the drive home, curiosity got the better of me and I had to see just what the heck he was talking about. I unzipped my bag and lo and behold, what did I find inside...
I couldn't believe it. He'd let me borrow it. I called him when I got home and thanked him heartily. I fibbed a little and told him I had waited, though. (Sorry, Alan.) I was thrilled. As soon as I was able, I popped the cart into my SNES and started to play. Earthbound didn't offer any sort of new game plus, so I was on my own for this one. But I did take Alan's advice from when we had played it at his house. The first was take the time to gain levels. It may take awhile, but don't fight the leader of the Sharks until you gain your first PK attack spell. The other thing I took to heart was don't fight the trees, because they explode when you beat them and hurt you pretty badly. Using that knowledge, along with referencing the guide when I was stuck or confused about something, I sunk my teeth into my second major RPG; Earthbound.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game but unlike Chrono Trigger, I did not finish it. Not even close. I died more than few times but I tried to learn from my mistakes and level up some more. I got as far as the city of Fourside. I wasn't able hang on to Earthbound as long as I did Chrono Trigger. Alan came to my house and he took it back when he left. I showed him my progress and asked him how he thought I was doing. He said I was a little under-leveled but other than that I was doing pretty well. I played it a little more when was there but I didn't make much progress. When the weekend was over, I thanked him again for lending it to me and I let him borrow Donkey Kong Country. In time, I would lend him Donkey Kong Country 2. Both games would come back to me with perfect files, something I never managed to accomplish back then. The sad thing is that it would be last time I would play Earthbound for several years. I didn't obsess over it or anything like that, but it was something I had always hoped to come back to and beat eventually. Anyways, time marched on I played lot more games at Alan's house, such as the stellar Super Mario RPG. We also both obtained Nintendo 64's and Playstations, and he let me borrow Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy Tactics.
Readers of Nintendo Power may remember the magazine covering Earthbound 64. And as much as I enjoyed Earthbound, the screenshots didn't do much for me.
Where was Ness? And what was with the pig things? It didn't look like Earthbound at all and I wasn't disappointed when I found out it was cancelled. Then Smash Bros came out. I was excited about it from the get-go, but I was completely thrilled when I found out Ness was an unlockable secret character.
I was one of maybe two or three people who had played Earthbound and knew who he was, and I was determined to make him my main fighter. But alas, it was not meant to be. Cool as I thought he was, I could never handle Ness well enough to compete with my friends and eventually went back to using Kirby. I still lost most of the time, but at least I was putting up a fight. Time continued to march on and my friend Danny got a Gamecube and Smash Melee. I still wasn't good with Ness. More time passed. High school ended. I got married and started a life of my own. More years came and went and I eventually obtained a Wii and a copy of Smash Bros Brawl. The game had been out for some time when I got a hold of it, and it became the next step in my journey towards Earthbound completion. Not because I got to play it again, though. In fact, I hadn't played the game for so long by that point that even though I recognized items like the Franklin Badge when playing Smash, I had completely forgotten what purposed it served in Earthbound. Rather, Smash Brawl opened my eyes to all that had been going with Earthbound while I was busy growing up and living my life.
It's important to note that as the years passed, I never forgot about the game. Again, I was't obsessing over it or anything like that, but it always lingered in the back of my mind as part of mental "will finish someday" checklist. I'm not quite sure why, but I think a large part of it had to do with the games villain, Gigyas. When compared to other RPG's, Gigyas is very much an enigma. In Chrono Trigger, watching Lavos destroy the world is what...triggers...the time traveling quest to stop him. Final Fantasy III introduces us to Kefka early on. Same with Sephiroth in Final Fantasy 7. Heck even though you don't seem him until you fight him, Smithy in Mario RPG can at least be guessed at by all the weapons he has made that you fight as bosses.
You don't have that in Earthbound. Gigyas is mentioned several times, and it's clear he's a massively evil being, but up until you confront him at the very end of game you have no clue who or what exactly he looks like, or even is at all. I admit I had glanced ahead some in the players guide when I borrowed to look at some of the enemies and things, I purposely avoided any sort of spoilers for Gigyas. Even through all the years went in between me playing, I didn't want to see him until I could do it in-game for myself. But getting back to Brawl, Ness was once again unlockable, but in his place in the meantime was blonde kid named Lucas. Now, I had heard or read somewhere that Earthbound was the second game in a series called Mother, but I didn't care. I figured Lucas had to be somewhere from that series and I left it at that. I was even more confused by his experience in The Subspace Emissary mode. He was being chased by a giant Pokey statue. Why he was being chased by a statue of the annoying fat kid from Earthbound was beyond me. Brawl also had a stage called New Pork City. Since I had never finished Earthbound and by that point didn't remember much about it, I assumed that New Pork City was from that game and I had simply failed to reach it.
Brawl also had demos for games to showcase the origins of its characters. Earthbound wasn't there, which seemed odd to me. I decided to look online and see if it was unlockable somehow. What I found completely surprised me. I was incredibly naive about the gaming industry back in the day. I assumed that since games like Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger were so loved, Earthbound must have been as well. Heck, they were planning a sequel for the N64. But alas, Earthbound did not do well at all. It sold poorly and it's marketing campaign, which I always thought was clever and cool, is regarded as massive failure. I wasn't aware of any of this. In the meantime, a handful of fans had been voicing their opinions, calling it one of the greatest, most underrated games of all time. It had gone on to be the epitome of cult classic. There was going to be a release on the Wii virtual console, and even a demo for it in Brawl, but there were legal matters from the game's content that seemed to prevent it from ever doing so.
I couldn't believe it. This game that had spent months in my SNES was a highly sought after collectible that I guess only a few people had played. Since it didn't seem like it was coming back, I resigned myself to the fact that the only way I would ever beat it would be to emulate it or pay hundreds of dollars for the cartridge. I wasn't happy with either prospect, but I was thankful that I could count myself among the alleged few who had played the game in it's original SNES format.
For a little while, that was kind of it. Nintendo announced it's next system, the Wii U, but it wasn't doing much for me. The Wii, which had been a massive seller upon it's release, burnt out pretty quick. And despite some great games released for it, like DKC Returns, Epic Mickey, Tatsunoko Vs Capcom...etc, I was starting to get tired of it too. Thanks to my club Nintendo membership, my family and I were invited to attend the Wii U experience in Denver. We went, but weren't impressed. When the Wii u was officially released, I had a PS3 and a 3DS and didn't feel the need to get another console. More time passed though, and the Wii U was finally beginning to pick up some steam. I was starting to get excited about upcoming games like Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, and DKC Tropical Freeze. But the other big thing was that Earthbound was released for the Wii U virtual console. Not only that, but whatever legal hurdles it may have had were completely cleared. No content was changed or removed. If I ever got a Wii U, I could finally beat the game.
It still took a little time to get the console, but the deal was done when my family discovered a bundle that came with Mario Kart 8. We bought the last one Wal-Mart had, along with a couple extra controllers and nunchucks. That didn't any financial room for extra games, so Earthbound would have to wait. Like I said before though, God is good. I still had a Club Nintendo membership and since I had just bought a new console and a game with it, I gained a ton on of coins on my account. For those unfamiliar with Club Nintendo, it was an online rewards program. Games purchased when registered with your account would get you coins, which could be used to get cool exclusive items and download codes for games from the eshop. Get enough coins and you reach gold and then platinum status, which gets you a free gift of your choice at the end of the year. I got a ton a free virtual games for my Wii and 3DS thanks to it. But alas, it ended mid, 2015. This proved to be a huge blessing to me though. As a way of saying goodbye and thank you, Nintendo was offering a ton virtual console games for Wii, Wii U, and 3ds. I had a lot of coins and I scored Yoshi's Island and Earthbound, free of charge. I would finally get to complete the game, and for the first ever, it was officially mine.
It's also worth mentioning that a few months later, thanks to my platinum status, I also got DKC Tropical Freeze for no cost at all. Anyway though, I was excited to get into Earthbound again. At this point it had been almost 20 years since I had played the game. But I still remembered Alan's advice about leveling up before fighting Frank and not fighting trees. I was reminded of a lot of things I had forgotten about, such as the Happy-Happy cult that wanted to paint everything blue, the Franklin Badge's purpose, the guy who comes down from the sky at regular intervals to take your picture (Say Fuzzy Pickles!) and a bunch of other tiny little things. It was also a very sentimental experience. It's common knowledge that Earthbound is a Japanese satire of American culture, but it's not a cruel one. It's more of a friendly nudge in the ribs. And getting to back to the year 199X when the game takes was incredibly nostalgic for me. Everything from the games music to the NPC who mentions the arcade where you can play the latest games like Killer Instinct just took me back, almost like a mirror to all that was good about my childhood. The best way to describe it is to say it was like watching The Sandlot. See it as kid, you see yourself. You watch as an adult, you see who you used to be. It was kind of wonderful.
Nintendo also released a digital version of the guide for free. I made it a shortcut on my phone, and it proved invaluable. I actually would have completely missed two bosses if I hadn't been using it. Then it happened. On April 14, 2015, the day before I turned 32 and almost two decades after I had first played it, I finished Earthbound. It's hard to explain what that felt like. I finally witnessed Gigyas for myself. For those of you who are playing it or plan to, I'm purposely trying to avoid spoilers. But the final phase of battle with Gigyas is like nothing I have ever seen before in a video game. It was very powerful and moving. But I think the thing that touched me the most is what happens after. Unlike most RPG's, or any video game in general, once you beat Gigyas you are not treated to a cinematic and then watch the credits roll. In Earthbound, when all is said and done, you get to manually go back home. And after waiting almost 20 years, I sure felt like I'd earned it. I purposely didn't use a teleport spell. I walked. I took Paula back to her parents in Twoson and then made my way back to my little house in Onett. Remember at the end of Stand By Me when the kids get back home and the narrator says "The town seemed different somehow; smaller?" It felt like that. I said hi to my mom, and the game was finally over.
It was quite the rush and I was a little sad that it was over, but still. I couldn't believe I had finally done it. I've since started it again. For Christmas of 2015, my wife surprised with another difficult to find Earthbound item; the Ness amiibo.
And that's it. That's my story of how I beat Earthbound. Just one more quick thing. Back in January/February of this year, I played through the fan translation of Mother 3. So Lucas, the pig things, the Pokey statue, New Pork City...I get it now. ;) I really enjoyed it and have purchased a Lucas amiibo and hope that one day it gets an official U.S. release. So until next time, stay retro folks. Thanks for reading. Now one of these days I need to get around to finishing Final Fantasy III...