What does Earthbound mean to you?
In Itoi’s interview regarding Earthbound’s U.S. re-release on the Wii U Virtual Console, he describes Earthbound as a playground he threw stuff in for everybody “to play in”, and that he let other people throw in as much stuff as they pleased too. His description expresses that the experience of the game is intended to be something that anybody can take away their ideas, impressions, and beliefs from. 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.
A lot of that spirit 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.
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.