EarthBound: A Strange Journey in a Cult Classic

Nintendo is a video game company that has many beloved franchises to its name. These franchises are ones that have grabbed the attention of gamers throughout the years thanks to fun gameplay and memorable characters. Who hasn’t enjoyed the fun platforming with Mario and Luigi in the Super Mario Bros. franchise, or the adventure and exploration undertaken by Link in the Legend of Zelda series? Even newer games have already gained their followers, such as with Pokemon. However, while Nintendo games are pretty well-known, they do have certain titles that slip through the cracks. A variety of circumstances may cause this, but such games can still be worth checking out. In fact, there is one such title from the Super Nintendo that has gained a cult following over the years, even if it may not have been a financial success during its original release. This title is the always fun if definitely odd RPG known as EarthBound.

Set in the present-day world of Eagleland, the game is centered around Ness, a young boy who wanders from home one night when he discovers a meteorite crashed in a nearby mountain. Going to investigate, he finds a bee-like traveler from the future, who warns him that the world will plunge into chaos at the hands of a vile force known as Giygas. Entrusted with this goal, Ness sets out with his mother’s blessing and a little pocket money to journey on and destroy Giygas before he can reach his full power. Along the way, he is joined by the kind-hearted psychic Paula, the mechanically-gifted inventor Jeff, and the mysterious Prince Poo. Together, they must use their gifts to take down Giygas and all those beings who have become twisted by his evil. The style of game is a turn-based RPG, with your team battling all sorts of bizarre baddies as you journey around the world and collect the tools necessary for preventing a horrible future at the hands of Giygas. This turn-based combat does offer an interesting mechanic in that health is represented with an odometer-like meter which can tick away even as you go through your choices for actions. That means that, if you’re quick enough, you can use a healing item to save yourself if you’re hit by a particularly powerful attack. The gameplay is very much in the style of classic JRPGs, so expect a certain degree of grinding to raise your levels. However, it is not simply gameplay that has gotten this title its cult following. That comes more from the fascinating world, characters, and perspective developed by creator Shigesato Itoi.

Most RPGs tend to be set in some fantasy realm that is very distinct and separate from our own. EarthBound is not such an RPG. Though it may have countries with such names as Eagleland and Winters or cities known as Onett or Fourside, this is a world that is firmly rooted in our own. To go along with that, the enemies faced here are not just fantastical monsters. Though there are a few of that type, they are also plenty of foes along the lines of new age retro hippies, mad taxis, and skateboard-riding punks. The result is an odd and interesting juxtaposition, of psychic powers and futuristic aliens clashing against real-world setting and characters. Such an odd combination also serves as Shigesato’s viewing point for satire, offering a fun-house reflection of things from our world. A lot of the major areas and villains tend to showcase their ill will packaged within greed, a lust for power, or even apathy. For example, the town of Twoson is plagued by a cult that follows a religion known as Happy-Happyism, which preaches world peace and betterment through the color blue. As a result, there are families broken up as people fall under the cult sway of its founder, Mr. Carpainter, and all of his ardent worshippers who seek to paint everything blue. Over in the city of Fourside, it finds itself under the thumb of new mayor Geldegarde Monotoli. Rich and powerful, his influence has even made the local police swear to protect him over any other citizens. Though the game was released in the United States back in 1995, such ideas still feel fresh in our world. Another thing worth noting is a villain who has become one of my favorite video game villains: Pokey Minch.

Appearing early on in the game, Pokey is a boy who lives next door to Ness. He is cruel and mean-spirited, considering himself superior to Ness. He is a rather rotten boy, one who has been raised by parents who treat him callously and are very mean and vain themselves. However, over the course of the game, Pokey gains more and more power. At one point, he gets his first taste of power as a major assistant in the Happy-Happy cult. At another, he receives wealth and influence when he manages to become a business consultant to Mr. Monotoli. Through such encounters, Pokey grows more steadily twisted and cruel, even as Ness prepares for his battle against Giygas. In a way, Pokey serves as an encapsulation of human vice. He starts out selfish, then steadily grows more cruel as he gains a taste for power through society and institutions that put him on a level above others. Such an evolution makes him a natural foil against Ness, who gains more power as the game goes on but uses it to help better the world around him. It makes him a fascinating villain to watch, as he starts out as a rotten neighbor next door and grows into a powerful threat.

Sadly, such an interesting RPG didn’t prove to be such a hit when it had originally come out. The marketing for the game seemed to high-light a gross-out sense of humor that is not really in the game, along with a higher price tag due to the game being packaged with a strategy guide. Along with that, its 16-bit graphics seemed basic next to the then-recent release of Donkey Kong Country, which used computer graphics to create sumptuous visuals. However, time has been kind to this game and people have come to recognize the sharp writing and offbeat sensibility that makes this game stand out. If you’d like to give EarthBound a try, it is currently available for the Nintendo Wii U thanks to its Virtual Console component and sold in the Nintendo eShop.

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