If ever there were a game that teeters precariously on the line between accidental and intentional genius, this is it. Travis previously spoke of the phenomenon in Chrono Trigger (a review that, perhaps, I could copy word-for-word) where a game doesn’t seem to be good on purpose as much as the weird combination of childish plot, blunt translation and goofy dialogue combine into something that becomes immediately different and recognizable and possessing its own voice. That is to say, Chrono Trigger was not good in spite of its flaws, but because of them. It told a story that, after the amateur writing and translation and relentless editing to fit speeches into single text boxes, sounded like nothing that had been experienced before.
But that’s Chrono Trigger; I’m talking about Earthbound. And despite their similarities, there’s a lot that seems to be different about them (and I don’t mean in the superficial ways, like “it’s an RPG but it doesn’t have combo attacks” or something).
First, a bit of backstory about my RPG-playing past, in a nutshell: at age 6, I watched my friend’s neighbor play some Final Fantasy on the NES. What intrigued me was the insane amount of auxiliary junk it was packaged with; a meaty manual, a giant foldout map (I can remember, almost photographically, the scene: the map was lying on the carpeted floor, held down with relics of the era: a Zapper, an Advantage controller, an extra RF cable, a copy of StarTropics), and loads of those little cards that tried to get you to buy other games or subscribe to Nintendo Power.
If there were anything else I played before the age of 11 or so, I’m not sure. But, I stayed unaware of the bubbling, boiling cauldron of wonky Japanese RPGs during the 16-bit era until an acquaintance from TRAIL (To Realize Advanced and Independant Learning; yeah, I was “gifted” (I had ADD, too, but there wasn’t a special “group” for that)) mentioned that Chrono Trigger was cool and had good graphics. Final Fantasy III was new at this point too, and I wanted to play it, entirely based on that vague memory from 1990 where I saw Final Fantasy I in action. Our family wasn’t well-off, though, and video games weren’t high up the list of priorities. That said, though, vacations apparently were high up the list: our grandparents took us down to Florida. My mom said I coudl get a SNES game while we were there. I said I wanted Final Fantasy III. It was… it was expensive. New, it was something like $89.99 Canadian. Maybe even $99.99. That was out. I was crushed.
We eventaully went to some awful, gaudy mall in Tampa with a Babbage’s, a used game store. That was a concept that didn’t exist in my sleepy southern Ontario town; good games for cheap?!
I browsed through the games, and I remember passing two I thought looked cool: Secret of Evermore and Chrono Trigger. It took me ages to decide which I wanted (both were $20 American), but finally, I picked Chrono Trigger. I still wonder to this day how different a human being I’d be if I had picked Evermore; Chrono Trigger ended up informing and shaping my life more than any socially respectable human should admit. It was there that I started my multi-year escapist obsession with many things Japanese. I don’t say all things, because anime was a little bit too sexual and J-pop was a little too squeaky (and both were, in the pre-broadband / pre-allowed-to-watch-violent-things era, virtually inaccessable to me anyway). Games, though. And also Japanese cheese metal (Sex Machineguns, anyone?). And also, later, Japanese food. Japanese girls, sort of, I guess, although I didn’t meet any Japanese girls until I was an adult (when I was far more scared of being racist, and less horny).
So, Chrono Trigger was pretty much the only RPG I played from the 16-bit era, during the 16-bit era. FF3 and FF2 and, more importantly, EarthBound eluded me due to my lack of a computer good enough to run an emulator (seriously: not well-off) and continued lack of money.
Hey, check it out! I’ve written a shitload of words about Earthbound and virtually none of them are about Earthbound. How Tim Rogers of me.
I said that’d be a nutshell; it was more like an entire nut bush. Nuts grow on bushes, yeah? Yeah. Probably they do.
EarthBound though, right? I tried playing this about 5 times. Every time, emulators let me down. Every time I’d use a better set up, and every time, inevitably, something would fuck up and my save game was janked and I needed to start over some new place. I think I got as far as getting Jeff at one point and it failed. I almost gave up. “I will never see this game’s end,” I said to myself. I really did. FAST FORWARD to a year ago: I borrowed the cartridge. It wasn’t until about 2 motnhs ago that I dug my heels in and said:
“Fuck it. The internet in my house is broken. So is the oven. In the spirit of this newfound luddite lifestyle, I shall plug the SNES into an old tube TV and play the dick off this game.*”
So now I’m at Moonside which, if I understand correctly, is about halfway in. Let’s get back to that whole accidental vs. intentional awesome Japanese game thing: this was made by Shigesato Itoi, who, as far as I understand, is a generally awesome guy who does other things than make games. That’s a great thing. People who make games, exclusively, are the sort who don’t see past games. Or something. This guy’s also a contemporary of Haruki Murakami, who’s a great writer (and I don’t think that’s the teenage Japanophile in me talking). The funny thing is, I have no idea who translated it. That means it may have been those game-only types. I was worried they’d fuck up the masterpiece.
You know what? I think they did, a bit. I bet it’s better in Japanese. With nothing beyond a very cursory knowledge of the language (I know how to say, “Anata no okaasan wa kitanai da yo!”, which translates directly to “Your mother is most certainly dirty!”), I’ll never test that out. BUT! The original game is good. Even better because it is a look at America through the lens of someone who was, probably, a lapsed Americophile in the same way that I’m a lapsed Japanophile; that is to say, someone who spooged over it all until they got smart enough to realize how silly it all really is. I can appreciate that. It’s a late, jaded view of a place someone wanted to go until they grew a brain.
I am pretty stuck in Moonside. I can’t get to the statue that I think I need to fight. I need to talk to more people who look like Duke Nukem or something so they can warp me across the neon-light landscape of Moonside before I get to him. Some Mr. T motherfucker is standing in the way, so I know that the Duke Nukem motherfuckers are my only shot to get there. I don’t know how I feel aobut fighting all of these “Abstract Art Paintings” on the way, but, you know what? I’ll try. Even though the Internet and the stove are working again and the tube TV is the only one that gets cable in this shitty old Montreal apartment I call home.
Also: every once in a while the main character (named Will in my game) starts fantasizing about his favourite food (Burito in my game (because you can only have six characters, an R was dropped)) instead of beating up New Age Retro Hippies (a sterling example of why this game is translated by people who only play games). When that happens, you’re homesick and need to find a phone and call your moms. Also, your dad puts silly amounts of money into your bank account. I have some $50,000 or so now. In real life I maybe have $300 and today was fucking PAY DAY. I love escapism.
I can’t think of a fucking closing sentence for this article.
*I never said this