Monday, 16 December 2013

Earthbound is the game I missed twenty years ago

In 1994 Nintendo released a game called Earthbound on the SNES. At least, they released it in most parts of the world. It didn't come out in Europe until this year, possibly because they forgot about it. So I hadn't played it until now. I could have downloaded it from some dodgy website, but I like to be nice and legal, and I didn't really care that much. But it's a classic, both in the sense of it being really good and quite old. It's an adventure, about a boy leaving home to fight aliens with his friends. It's funny, and inventive, and charming, and reminded me how special games can be.

Even by the standards of 1994, this is not a very good looking game. But at the same time it is a very good looking game, because sometimes all you need is a few pixels in the right place. And it's also just a basic RPG, even though that makes it constantly compelling. The thing that makes this game special is that, more than anything else I've played recently, there's a sense of adventure. At the start, a boy wakes up in his bedroom, says goodbye to his family, and goes out to save the world. He wanders around the town, eating burgers and fighting snakes. He goes to the next town, saves a friend from a brainwashed cult, then goes to the next town to fight zombies. Soon you're on a different continent altogether. There's a long way to walk, and it's always strangely brilliant. It's funny, and I don't just mean there's a few jokes. The entire game is a surreal comedy, both in the script and the way it plays around with gaming conventions. This was back in the days when games were made by a few people, and this is all the vision of one Japanese designer, Shigesato Itoi (and translated to English by one guy). It's a very personal game - to the people who made it, and to the people who played it.

I didn't realise how wrapped up I was in all this until I was standing in a desert and a monkey taught me how to teleport. Suddenly, after plodding around the whole world, I could warp to wherever I wanted. I didn't go straight for some item shop or old dungeon. The first thing I did was teleport home. There was no reason, even in the story, for me to go back to the house where I started, but that's what I felt I needed to do.When I got there my mother was watching television, and said she was proud of me for saving the world. My point is that with simple graphics and brilliant writing, this game from twenty years ago made me care. It's a shame I didn't play it back then, because good game + time = nostalgia. I know it would be something I'd look back on as being part of my childhood, as many other people do. More than any other media, games are what I remember from that long ago. The best ones can take you back to another time, even by just hearing the soundtrack. They are different worlds that never change. Parts of your childhood that you can always go back to. To a lot of people, Earthbound is that special. To me, twenty years late, it's just a very good game.

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