I dug up a review/piece I wrote about Earthbound in 2017 on my old blog. I'd like to post it here:

"What does Earthbound mean to you?

In Itoi’s interview regarding Earthbound’s U.S. re-release on the Wii U Virtual Console, he looks back on Earthbound and describes his views on it now as a playground he threw stuff in for himself and everyone else to play in, and that everyone takes something completely different away from these bits and bobs he's filled it with. A communal sort-of game, in which children make up stories and ideas as they go along and put it right in with the rest of the make-believe. When you have a group of friends in a playground, kids will often enter and leave as their parents drop them off and pick them up, and little by little the stories the group goes on changes as children come and go. Between zombies, aliens, the future, and whatever else kids either think about or wonder about their own world. And of course, the longer this goes on, eventually dark thoughts and feelings enter. Relationships form, and people realize things about themselves and each other.

A lot of the spirit of a shapeshifting make-believe can be found in the game’s stories themselves, as each town is going through some crazy problem, and as the heroes continue their adventure, each new scenario adds something completely separate to the mix of fictional situations, drawing from all sorts of American cultural iconography and imagery.

This is another reason the game is so interesting, it as an adventure through a self-parody of the American youth, the landscape of American suburban adventure (or as it is referred to in the game: “Eagleland”) with the coming-of-age spirit so prevalent in American fiction. But it is told through the mechanics, systems, and interface of classically Japanese role-playing games, namely Dragon Quest. The inclusion of (pseudo) first person battles (albeit influenced by psychedelic visuals, as they take over the background of each fight), a command menu, stat growth, and equipment/inventory all pulled from the Dragon Quest system. This combination of simultaneous parody of Japanese systems and American culture and iconography makes it a truly unique international cultural creation.

In addition to this, the localization of the game lends itself very much to the identity of Earthbound. Much of the Japanese humor that would have been lost in translation is rewritten, but still preserves the wit and verbal/deadpan tone of the original. The octopus statue blocking your way in a valley is replaced with a pencil, to allow for the invention of the iconic “Pencil Eraser” (Just don’t use it in a pencil store!), a now staple joke of the game, with which the identity of the American version of the game just wouldn’t be the same without. Of course, the “Eraser Eraser” continuation of the joke found later in the game acts as an even better secondary punchline to the same joke.

Much of the game often feels like a rambling collection of jokes, ideas, and views on the world. Nothing is quite told boringly or without clear authorial perspective. It brings to mind the sort of writing that books like Cat’s Cradle used, in which Vonnegut described as each chapter being a small chip of the whole book, and each chip is a little joke in and of its own.

The U.S. release, in specific, is the Earthbound I think of so fondly when I think of the game. And I find that name so fitting as opposed to its Japanese name.

Earthbound.

Despite all the adventuring, all the crazy, wacky, surreal stories you learn and experience, even with the threat and exposure to extraterrestrial life within the game, your characters, your experiences, everything you do is very much bound to the planet Earth. Every idea in the game, every character you meet, makes up one grand image of the world that the game, in essence, is presenting to you as you explore it with your d-pad.

The NPC’s of the game are some of the most iconic in any, and the reason for that is that their dialogue is written so unpredictably and humorously, but yet so truthful to their representations of their roles as humans. A businessman in Earthbound will not sound like a businessman you meet on the street. He will sound like a caricature of what a businessman would sound like, knowing that he’s a businessman in this world of hundreds of other people and hundreds of other types of people. And in knowing that, he has found joy and laughter understanding his place. Each character is a figment of themselves in the eyes of a child innocently wandering around.

There is a famous English saying, “it takes all sorts (to make a world)”, that is often used to understand strangeness or foreignness in the world and in people. People often use it when they find something difficult to understand, because of how strange and foreign it might be, so they make the claim that the world must be so big, that it must require all sorts of strangeness and foreignness and things of all sorts of manners hard to understand, for it to exist as big as it does.

Earthbound, to me at least, is like a literal, humorous depiction of that phrase. Every character, every strange, surreal person that appears so plain, has to be there to make up this world. This Earth that we are all bound to."

If you read it all, thank you

Reviewed on Feb 21, 2021


6 Comments


2 years ago

i dont love earthbound as definitively as i used to anymore but this review makes me remember that special something i found in it, and the effect that it still has on me, so thank you for writing n reposting this :')

2 years ago

@ludzu, thank you so much! I'm curious, what changed about your feelings of earthbound?

2 years ago

AH I FORGOT TO RESPOND TO THIS IM SORRY!!

so there's a lot of factors, but the biggest is that at some point i started to feel less enthusiastic abt games that dont deviate very noticably from, or at least lack some kind of ingrained confrontationalness towards, archetypal models of gameplay established since the 80s: the RPG, the adventure game, action games, puzzle games, etc. earthbound follows the RPG model pretty closely, even as itoi cheekily plays around with the space established by dragon quest, games he writes are still undeniably within it. ive come to like games like moon and certain games that follow its legacy more bc they have a sort of similar subversive air as earthbound/mother, but take a more radical approach to distance themselves from concepts of genre. i sorta grew dissatisfied with just wanting a narrative/world/atmosphere/etc that is considered and unique, i began to want gameplay that seems to break away from generic systems to accommodate that too. that its so much harder to find with the latter just makes it more enticing, and makes me more discerning in looking for something that satisfies.

i dont want this to be construed like im a strict ~wudonawwative dissonance~ theory guy, i understand that games do specific things within established systems that gives them their own expressiveness--and in fact a problem with just making something "different" is that its not always gonna be all that deep, and might just be formalism for its own sake. i still have much love eb for alot of the reasons you bring up, and in fact i somewhat prefer its lightweightedness in its mechanics, as the bloat of them in a lot of RPGs kinda stress me out most of the time these days (mother 3 is harder to go back to for being more classically RPG-ish in both narrative pacing and how combat encounters feel). tbh i think i just lost patience in dealing with abstract numbersy systems, even knowing that there is something beyond them, to call earthbound "my #1 with a bullet" anymore. i wanna get out of that comfort zone more sometime with trying rpgs or more "core" action games again, but atm my body doesnt follow my brain i guess!

2 years ago

@ludzu ah I know what you mean regarding sticking to conventional mechanics/systems vs breaking them or using them in an unconventional way. I feel that very much as a designer myself rather than as a player, most of the game ideas that excite me to want to make them are about unusual mechanics/systems design for the sole purpose of pushing a theme or story idea. However as a player, I've come to appreciate using traditional systems and instead changing the context or design of those systems to convey a powerful, subtle, or interesting message. I feel that the dragon quest games, as traditionally as they seem to play, carry some really weird and interesting ideas through context of their actions and structure that few other games to match, but you have to kind of go out of your way to read into it or look for it.

Something I'm working on is also a project or possibly an essay about how video games are all built around player-interacted metaphors, and that the abstraction and heaviness of those systemic and mechanic metaphors vary greatly from work to work and affect the player differently depending on how noticeable they are, and at its core, every game is either an rpg or an rpg designed to trick you into thinking it isn't an rpg. Basically that an rpg is a game that knows its a systemized collection of metaphors and makes it readily/visually apparent, wearing its numeric or formula-based designs on its sleeve, so to speak, while other games try to use other aspects of their parts(art/music/design/writing etc.) to portray or express an experience on top of a much lighter rpg secretly sleeping inside of it (sorta).

2 years ago

i kinda know what you mean, n i fully admit that ive just been more interested lately in games hiding that rpg-ish mechanicalness, or maybe HOW they hide it to some degree, than exploring ones that have it more out in the open and utilize it more thoroughly. id be interested in that project/essay if you get it out!

also should say that as much i might have implied i want experiences "outside of genre", thats only an ideal thats worth striving for but isnt totally attainable i guess? i gravitate towards adventure games if i have to pick a genre to exemplify what i mean...its a vague label but player actions framed as moving narrative forward in seemingly less abstracted, more contextually specific ways than other genres in general is what im into. rpgs ARE inextricably linked with that too even if its more "simplified", like portopia is not far removed from dragon quest and vice versa.

2 years ago

both the review itself and the discussion is really a bit eye-opening for me.
i really enjoyed earthbound in spite of its rpg mechanics (i was new to jrpgs at the time and had a bad impression of the genre outside of mario and pokémon) back in 2018, but it was hard for me to nail exactly quite why.

the reasons you love earthbound probably aren't exactly the reasons why i liked it, but it's a good opportunity to see it from the lens of someone who really does cherish it. thank you.