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The 2D 90s RPG That Changed Gaming

Nintendo's cult classic EarthBound inspired a generation of game makers and still influences artists today.

by Zack Kotzer
Sep 16 2014, 5:23pm

A pic of artist OMOCAT's personal shelf. Image: OMOCAT

There are games that are popular among many, some among a selective cult. Few games can tell you everything you need to know about a person like when they say, "EarthBound is my favourite game." And it will always be their favourite.

Surreal, introspective and strange, with a jilted score and an uncanny colour scheme, EarthBound attracts a certain kind of devotee, one who looks for something warm and unnameable in their games. Something rare, as the title remains Nintendo's most unusual creation, despite making entire games about feudalist pinball warfare and a depressed and divorced baseball dog.

Originally released as Mother 2 in Japan, Earthbound is the lovechild of Shigesato Itoi, writer, actor and peach enthusiast. It's a game that built itself against almost every convention, and that's during the mid-90s when there wasn't even much demand for deviation. 

Related: Why Hardcore Gamers Are Hooked on a 2D Golf Game

EarthBound is a turn-based RPG with no fierce warriors or elfish legends, but young children in juvenile clothes, battling against invaders across small towns and cities. Dreamlike, feverish, you infamously take on lavish street punks and new age retro hippies in unspectacular battle sequences with more psychedelic filters than attack animations.

The game has also accumulated its own cult lore, theories about influences from childhood traumas and maternal phobias, Japanese death cults and obvious traces of drug intake. Some have said the game holds a Murakami aura, which makes sense given that he and Itoi wrote a book together. 

At the same time, dialogue often prattles like an ebook Twitter account. The game has been dissected, discussed, and displayed in every way imaginable in wildly abstracted ways. Like I said, the game has garnered a very particular audience, but despite this, its influence on other games has been a sleeper cell. That is, until recently.

Screenshot from EarthBound gameplay. Image: YouTube

While most only know of Earthbound through characters Ness and Lucas being in Smash Bros., other game makers cite its influence like they're all part of a club that wears special rings. South Park creators said their recent game endeavor, Stick of Truth, which is primarily a spoof of Skyrim, is still greatly inspired by EarthBound and its use of average towns to cast epic adventures. When it comes to independent game makers, who turned tributes to a vintage dungeon crawler into one of the most popular genres of the last few years, their flexibility can make for the most gushing love letters of all.

"Could someone really make EarthBound the first time around in 2014, could that game have existed?" asked Andrew Allanson. "I don't really know if it could. I think that EarthBound had to be made when it was made, by the people who made it. There was no other way around it, that's how it needed to happen. You can make Assassin's Creed any year and it will feel like Assassin's Creed. For me, this is a bit of mysticism here, but Earhtbhound has to be Earthbound."

Andrew and his brother, Brian, are working on YIIK (as in Y2K, not 'yiick'), a surreal upcoming RPG that wears its influence on its casual-wear sleeve. Like EarthBound and its seeming influence from Itoi's own life, YIIK is based on Andrew's memories of the pre-millennium internet. 

I've loved EarthBound ever since I played it when I was a little kid, when was that, twenty years ago now?

A mysterious, sparse virtual place, inhabited by the few instead of the masses. In the game's case, it follows Alex, a middle class kid who goes on a quest to find a girl who goes missing off a message board, learning that the person he seeks to find may not be the person he thinks he's looking for. The battle mode looks to have a similar vibe as well.

"EarthBound is absolutely a direct influence," said Allanson. "We're intentionally doing certain things differently than the way EarthBound did it, because we're not trying to make Mother 4, we're trying to make our own game but there are things done in EarthBound that are not done often enough in games. The setting is one of those, you rarely find an RPG that takes place in modern times. I think the characters feel real, even if they're caricatures of different personality types you would find in kids, but they feel like someone you could know."

The modern setting also appealed to Ryan Vandendyck as well, who is working on his own tribute, albeit a much more lighthearted romp, Citizens of Earth.

"I've loved EarthBound ever since I played it when I was a little kid, when was that, twenty years ago now?" says Vandendyck. "The thing that really stood out for me, and something I find myself back at twenty years later, is that no RPG really tried that again. Basically the modern everyman setting. You're fighting with baseball bats and yoyos and frying pans."

Ryan's game seems to have lifted some of EarthBound and its absurdist nature, though in a slightly tweaked manifestation. In Citizens, you play as the vice president of the planet, and your abilities as a smiling, well-dressed politician is to get others to fight your battles. Bakers, baristas, farmers, each with their own abilities and recruitable as if they were Pokémon. Also taking a note from EarthBound, the enemies you'll encounter can feel like newspaper cartoons, protestors, an eagle with a toupee, or an obese tank.

Screenshot from EarthBound gameplay. Image: YouTube

"Commonplace meets the bizarre," says Vandendyck. "It's interesting, the feedback we've gotten from some EarthBound fans. Some people say it doesn't look enough like EarthBound, and others say we ripped them off too much. In the end we're not trying to be EarthBound or any sort of spiritual successor, but we're certainly inspired by a lot of the good things Earthbound had done and haven't been done in a long time."

"I absolutely love EarthBound," says OMOCAT, a cartoonist turned game maker and fashion designer. "It was such a weird, free-spirited game, and it really seemed like the developers had as much fun developing it as I had playing it. I think I've played it over at least four times and I actually have a whole shelf in my room dedicated to EarthBound."

OMOCAT's game is called OMORI, based on characters from some of her previous work, and seemingly more inspired by EarthBound's most abstract qualities. The things in between, the texture patterns that are difficult to process, and the unsettling, lucid moments in Itoi's creation. 

EarthBound never took itself too seriously, and took place in a world where, compared to those fantasy games at the time, was very different

EarthBound was a game of exceptions, a Japanese RPG with zero fantasy tropes. It's uniqueness made it an alien product to kids who were used to certain repetitive themes, and it didn't help that stateside it came in an oversized, intimidating box to include strategy guides and supplements that Nintendo feared the game would be endangered without. 

"At the time I had been a fan of Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger," said Vandendyck, "and those are really great games, but they're sort of similar in tone and style. EarthBound never took itself too seriously, and took place in a world where, compared to those fantasy games at the time, was very different. It wasn't just different art style, different colour palette."

The great thing about our age of nonstop indie games, is that any game you hope will be made, has a decent chance of being made. EarthBound fans probably aren't going to get much from Nintendo, but in all their overflowing passion were even a gag during Nintendo's E3 presentation this year. It then took mere hours for conspiracies to be extrapolated from that gesture.

The closest major publisher game to EarthBound is Persona 4, which has garnered its own cult following. For those who have been desperately, desperately looking for an EarthBound fix, new game developers, ones with your mindset, will have you covered. Free your mind, and know what you must do.