Why We Love Earthbound
Fuzzy pickles, Wooly-shamblers, and Starstorms. Terms that make zero sense to those out of the know, but that’s simply part of the job in one of the quirkiest, unique, and decidedly artistic games ever released. I’m of course talking about Ballz 3D.
Okay, that’s not right. Rewind. Can I start over? Okay, okay, ahem. I think by the title we all know we’re talking about Earthbound here. A game released 21 years ago on June 5th; Earthbound is sort of hard to talk about as a throwback given its rarity. Even now, it’s hard to play the real SNES version without selling your soul and firstborn child. It’s uncommon that someone played this game back in the day without bargaining with Rumpelstiltskin himself, but old games bring new experiences, and it’s pretty hard to find one more interesting than this.
In case you haven’t the slightest clue what the hell I’m talking about, Earthbound was a Super Nintendo RPG game that was released June 5th 1995 that followed the exploits of a boy, a girl, a nerdy boy, and a dude named Poo. That’s the basics, but what makes the game special? What makes its fans so rabid? What exactly makes this obscure SNES RPG a cult classic?
All I can do is speak from experience. I am not an RPG player. Never really got into that genre. In fact, like most of the people who know about Earthbound, I learned about it through Super Smash Bros. where some weird kid with a sideways hat kept yelling “PK fire” while kicking my ass. But even I fell in love with this game, so much so that it is the first straightforward RPG that I ever finished on my own, something me and Shigeru Miyamoto have in common (which is a statement I’ll use any chance I can).
The thing that’s immediately striking about it is the way it’s presented. Isometric and stylized, it has this weird, almost psychedelic quality to it, namely when you reach a battle where the background goes all Fear and Loathing. The music has a crazy amount of range going for it. Where most games stick to one type of layout, Earthbound goes for a number of different 16-bit styles, including homages (coughrip-offscough) to classic music like the Who and “Tequila.”
The gameplay is even considerate of everyone. As someone who has a crippling hate of “grinding” in games, Earthbound has you covered. The “random encounters” are easy to avoid, you can take care of enemies in quick succession, and the layout of all the attacks are pretty natural. This is all done while maintaining the difficulty, never being too easy or too frustrating. Even for a turn-based RPG, things flow incredibly well, allowing someone to progress throw the game at a pace that keeps it from getting boring.
Then there’s the dialogue and characters, something that’s hard not to be charmed by. It’s just so strange. Even when something isn’t funny, it’s difficult to ignore or not crack a smile at. One of the reoccurring jokes involves a wacky photographer flying down the screen randomly and taking your picture, asking you to say “Fuzzy pickles.” All the enemies have strange names like the “worthless protoplasm” which that never ceases to make me laugh, as if the game’s insulting a character for just existing.
One of the most seen creatures of the game, Mr. Saturns, are just heads with legs and a mighty ponytail. Hell, the main plot is even kicked off by a bee from the future named “Buzz Buzz” so it isn’t as though the game is taking itself super-seriously. But that “unserious” vibe is where the game distinguishes itself from many others in the past and now, because it’s only a piece of the picture.
Preceding games like Braid and Portal, Earthbound was, on its surface, a rather goofy, innocent-looking game. However, while getting deeper and deeper into the story, things become stranger and much darker. The psychedelic aura becomes a ominous when the cute cuddly Mr. Saturns are found trapped in a dark lab in glass tubes. When one of the douchey characters from the beginning becomes increasing less douchey and more dangerously psychotic. The final boss fight is something of a nightmare that borderlines on painfully awkward. And it’s all part of something that’s rare to see in any game.
It masterfully balances the tone of the game without getting too in your face about it. One second you’ll be happy kids progressing through the city, the next you’ll be in a trippy anti-world, fighting a demonic statue. The ever-present feeling of impending evil, of pure darkness lurking behind these happy faces, keeps the game from ever feeling dull. The tonal shifts are something that’s difficult to do in movies let alone video games in 1995.
It’s almost like one of those cliche taglines for a bad movie, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll have the time of your life!” but that’s an accurate account of this game. It’s so multifaceted in how it approaches a story. Creator Shigesato Itoi wrote every line of dialogue for the game, making this one of those rare “auteur” video games. It’s the brain-child of one ambitious person wanting to relay their experiences through an unusual medium. Now of course he didn’t do everything on his own, but there is a strong connection this game has to the player.
That’s where this game shines. Its charm lies in its journey. The lasting lesson of the game is rather generic, but upon reflecting on it you can just feel all the moments. The craziness, the comedy, the fear. It all blends together for something that’s hard to understand, yet easy to fall in love with.
And to all… Fuzzy Pickles.