Retrogamer: The ‘Road House’ of Video Games

  1. Earthbound is a role-playing game about the end of the world. Many video games are.
    1. Of course, the format (RPG) and goal are about where similarities end
    2. Earthbound feels like Dada-art, mocking and satirical and deeply weird
  2. Earthbound is set in a suburban dystopian apocalypse. Enemies are visible and loiter outside arcades, pizza joints, hospitals. Sometimes, when the player (playing as a red-capped boy named Ness) talks to a hippie, they talk to a hippie. Other times, they beat the hippie to death with yo-yos, a la The Baseball Furies.
    1. I’m not the only one who suspects that people on the street aren’t always who they appear to be
    2. Of course, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you
      1. (Most of the time, they’re not after you)
  3. In 1994 and 1995, I encountered advertisements for Earthbound in copies of X-Men, The Silver Surfer, Spider-Man.
    1. Some were just a picture of a baseball bat with the title of the game
    2. In copies of Nintendo Power there were scratch and sniffs that deliberately smelled terrible with the slogan, “This game stinks”
      1. The advertisements did not encourage my purchase
      2. In America, the advertisements didn’t work much at all
      3. I didn’t meet anyone who played Earthbound until the late aughts
    3. Also in 1994 and 1995:
      1. Green Day released “Dookie”
        1. For my first concert ever, I saw Green Day late in ‘94
      2. Bill Clinton gave his first state of the union address
      3. “Schindler’s List” won Best Picture
        1. I still haven’t seen that film
        2. I have, however, been to Auschwitz
      4. The Rwandan Genocide began
        1. We were told about this in school
        2. At the time, I didn’t know where Rwanda was
      5. Kurt Cobain killed himself
        1. Even at 13, I was neither surprised nor upset at his suicide
          1. The man titled a song “I hate myself and want to die”
          2. Depression isn’t normally so overt
      6. Sarin gas attack in Tokyo subway system
      7. I began high school
    4. In addition to the atrocious marketing plan, see bullets C-i through C-vii for reasons I missed Earthbound
    5. Incidentally, I tend to not read superhero comics anymore
      1. I do, however, contend that Ness and his companions would qualify as super heroes
        1. They have psychic powers, machine-building acumen, martial art skills and BAAAASHING prowess
        2. Maybe Power Pack?
          1. All metaphors break down eventually
  4. Often in RPGs, the player names the main character.
    1. I usually choose the default name
    2. When I don’t default (and am not playing as a woman), I often use Nuje Regat
      1. Nuje is Mike with home key typos
    3. Angel is the third choice
      1. My favorite X-man is Angel
        1. My freshman roommate used to mock my Angel fandom
          1. “Don’t make me do it. I’ll flap my wings. I’ll fly away.”
    4. After naming Ness, the computer prompts naming Ness’ teammates:
      1. Paula
      2. Jeff
      3. Poo
        1. Poo?
        2. What’s that about, Nintendo?
          1. In the original Japanese, it’s Pu
            1. Dragonball Z characters are named after food, so maybe this isn’t that weird
    5. The game then asks for:
      1. Dog’s name
      2. Favorite food
      3. Favorite thing
    6. This oddly in-depth naming convention is a hint that Earthbound is a mind trip
    7. Speaking of names, Earthbound is the English name
    8. Its Japanese name translates as Mother 2
      1. I’ll come back to that
  5. The story begins with a meteor crash. Ness’s next door neighbor, Pokey, wakes him to ask for help rescuing his brother, Pickey. Ness helps and meets a talking bee-thing named Buzz Buzz. Buzz Buzz tells Ness about the arrival of Giygas, a supreme monster who will destroy the world. It’s an info dump of a meeting.
    1. The writers did not care about subtlety
      1. The primary English localizer, Marcus Lindblom was givenlicense to be as weird as I wanted to be and I certainly took advantage of that in a lot of places”
    2. After the intro, Ness goes off to save the world with his mother’s blessing
      1. What? No curfew?
      2. When I was 16, my implicit curfew was “be home before we wake up”
        1. Somehow, I failed in keeping that
    3. During the quest, Ness and company fight evil trash cans, evil puppies, evil hippies, piles of (evil) vomit
    4. At one point, Ness and company hallucinate an entire evil town, Moonside, a reverse, LED-colored version of Fourside
      1. That world is actually just a storage room
      2. The segment reads as an acid trip
        1. We’ll come back to acid trips
  6. The battle to save the world takes place in everyday towns. They might be morphed, skewed towns, but they’re recognizably streets and homes. Cars drive past. People work.
    1. If I were to ever have a world-saving adventure, I’d want it to be like this
    2. Modern conveniences—plumbing, Thai food delivered, Uber—and still glory, adulation, validation
    3. I wouldn’t want to live in a fantasy, swords-and-sorcery world
      1. Nobody writes about all the dysentery before modern plumbing
    4. Sometimes I fantasize about the far future
      1. Among other luxuries, plumbing would be tremendous in the future
      2. At some point in my fantasies, I always remember that if I were to travel to the future, everyone I knew and loved would be so long dead, they wouldn’t even be memories
      3. I never feel so lonely as when I daydream about everyone I know being one with the earth
        1. Earthbound has future robots. Also cavemen
        2. Chrono Trigger had both populations as well, but the two groups were at least separated by 65,002,300 years
        3. Earthbound has robots and cavemen separated by a continent
          1. Locational logic isn’t a strong point
      4. Sometimes, when I’m getting ready to sleep and I start thinking about future-Mike and how everyone is dead, I want to cry
    5. There are many difficult times ahead, but you must keep your sense of humor.”
      1. Good advice, hard action item
      2. A talking head NPC from the town of (literal) talking heads imparts that wisdom after Ness drinks a cup of vision tea
        1. Again with the psychedelics
  7. An RPG trope is status attacks: poison, sleep, berserk, etc.
    1. Sometimes in Earthbound, both enemies and friends start crying, and as a result, they refuse to attack.
    2. I was incredibly depressed for the past two years
    3. I even got married while depressed—that was a fun day, but I started reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home a few hours beforehand.
      1. Spoiler: Fun Home is not fun
        1. I found my mood plummeting
      2. I switched to X-Men instead
        1. It helped
    4. I was in a very good mood by the end of the wedding
    5. But for that two year period, while I was in the throes of depression, nothing I said or did had any meaning
    6. If I had been battling enemies—even Mini Barf or its master Master Belch—I’m pretty sure I would have just cried, maybe rolled over on my back
    7. Earthbound “… is a game that isn’t afraid to make you feel lonely. Miserable.” (source)
    8. Leigh and I have been watching the third season of “You’re the Worst”
      1. The female lead’s storyline is all about her crushing depression
    9. I finished the third season of “Bojack Horseman” not long ago
      1. That entire show is about Bojack’s crushing depression
    10. Leigh doesn’t love when I watch depression shows
    11. She worries
    12. I love my wife
    13. I also love Earthbound, but Leigh thinks it looks stupid
      1. There’s no lesson in that
  8. I’m happy that romantic love isn’t relevant in Earthbound.
    1. Not all media needs a love story
    2. Ness’s parents seem to be divorced
      1. If they aren’t divorced, Dad sure isn’t present
      2. It seems an honest portrayal of many people’s lives
    3. The player calls Ness’s parents periodically—his dad saves the game’s progress
      1. Dad will sometimes call Ness
      2. There is an internal clock that keeps track of time spent playing in order to shame the player into taking a break
        1. Which is … nice, actually
    4. The player calls mom because Ness misses his mom
      1. Talking to mom improves Ness’s fighting
    5. We should all be so lucky
  9. Earthbound was called Mother 2 in Japan.
    1. It’s called Mother because of the end game
      1. The heroes are put into robotic bodies and “sent to the past where Gigyas is weakest” because Gigyas is too powerful to defeat in the present
      2. Gigyas looks like a sonogram and doesn’t “attack” as such
      3. The implication: Ness and company are inside Gigyas’ mother when they defeat (i.e. abort) him
      4. That’s dark
    2. It’s #2, because it’s the 2nd in a series
      1. The original was never released over here, for reasons
    3. I’ll buy Mother 3 if it ever comes out
  10. Buying the original SNES cartridge of Earthbound costs over $100.
    1. I used to buy old video games and systems on Craigslist and sell them on EBay
    2. Sometimes I’d find very expensive games mixed in with a bunch of crap
    3. Once I went to someone’s house to buy an XBox
      1. There was literally dog shit on the carpet and a cloud of cigarette smoke
    4. There were two women, mother and daughter, chain-smoking in tank tops
    5. When I asked to test the system, the daughter started playing Super Mario 3 on it
      1. “That’s weird,” I thought
      2. “Pretty sure XBoxes shouldn’t do that,” I thought
      3. When I got home, I realized it was hacked, and loaded with every SNES game
    6. I played Earthbound on my hacked Xbox that I still own
    7. I stopped buying and selling video games not long after that encounter
    8. I wrote a story about why I stopped
      1. It’s not terribly obtuse
      2. No need to read between the lines
  11. I make lines and lists to assert control.
    1. I’m chaotic by nature and have trained myself organized
      1. Earthbound is chaotic—take this sequence:
        1. Heroes arrive in the town, Summers
        2. While wandering, they discover the elite Stoic Club that they can’t enter
        3. To enter, they need to make a reservation, but the phone isn’t listed
        4. A random NPC gives the phone number
        5. Inside the club, they’re told about a woman who makes magic cakes (?)
        6. Eating a magic cake causes the scene and POV to switch to Poo, heretofore unseen and unmentioned
        7. Poo is a prince and a martial arts expert who undergoes training
          1. The training includes a vision sequence of a giant floating head who breaks his arms and legs, gouges out his eyes and lobotomizes him
          2. But not really
        8. After training, Poo teleports himself to Ness and says, “My name is Poo. I am the one who will fight beside you.”
        9. And then, of course, the option to feed a museum director a cookie becomes available
        10. This seems bizarrely nonsensical
        11. Of course, I can trace the entire course of my life to 10th grade Geometry
          1. Terrible teacher = no understanding
          2. Scored a 1290 on SATs
          3. With a 1300, would have gotten a 10K scholarship to different school
          4. At school I went to, met a friend on the first night
          5. That friend invited me to alternative spring break senior year
          6. There, I met Americorps members
          7. During my second Americorps year, did event organizing as a small part of my job
          8. Got a job doing events at a university in Baltimore
          9. To get a promotion, needed to go back to school
          10. During second undergrad, took a creative writing course
          11. Look at me now
        12. Life is weird
      2. Maybe the unreality of Earthbound’s logic is the most real thing in it
      3. No wonder I lose track of what’s going on, the world is full of chaos
    2. I have control issues that manifest in odd ways
      1. My friend Ashley once said that, “You know everything about me, and I only know what your favorite books are.”
  12. I met with a Barrelhouse editor a month ago.
    1. She read some unpublished fiction and said, “It’s good, but you need to lose control and dirty it up.”
  13. My Cartridge Lit editor asked me to loosen up, more like my list essay for Fallout.
  14. My editors were not the 2nd or even the 3rd person to tell me to loosen up.
    1. My therapist also wants me to loosen up
      1. I’m surprised therapists aren’t enemies in Earthbound
  15. I take LSD or magic mushrooms 1x yearly. I tell people it’s to clear my mind, and that’s not untrue, but (not so) secretly, I take it to lose control.
    1. Much like an evil hippie might, I tripped with some friends in the woods of Baltimore this year
    2. We were down by the Jones Falls, exchanging drugs stories (drug stories are the best part of doing drugs) when children approached us
      1. We must have seemed harmless because we were laughing
      2. Also, one presents as female
    3. The boys were maybe 10. Three of them: white and black. They asked me if I’d seen any snakes.
      1. “Are you looking for a snake?” I immediately saw snakes everywhere.
        “Not a particular snake. Do you know anything about snakes?”
        “I avoid snakes.”
        “We like snakes. We’re doing a school project.”
        “Right. Sorry, kid. I can’t help you.”
      2. We got the hell out of there, because no good was going to come
        1. There are definitely snake-enemies in Earthbound
        2. As with many opponents, they’re cute and when they’re beaten, they “become tame”
        3. Why do we need euphemisms for death?
  1. Earthbound feels uncontrolled. Early on, in the suburban town conquered by zombies, Ness and Paula are captured. Paula then uses her ill-defined psychic powers to call across a (small) ocean to “Jeff, our friend who we’ve never met. Come rescue us.”
    1. Maybe it’s the localization, but that doesn’t scan
  2. When Jeff meets his father, an inventor: “Oh, Jeff. I haven’t seen you in ten years. Here’s a ship. Hope to see you in ten more years.”
    1. I talk to my parents weekly
    2. I can’t imagine going 10 years without seeing them
  3. It’s like the game designers and writers took a bunch of scripts of their interpretation of America and threw them at a pile of glue (similar to how zombies are captured in Threed by zombie-paper). Earthbound is the “Road House” of video games.
    1. Anyone who hasn’t seen “Road House” needs to
      1. It’s three terrible movies combined into one shitshow.
      2. Plots go nowhere, there a barn and a mansion and a hospital and a bar and that’s the entirety of the town.
      3. People say “pain don’t hurt” and “I used to fuck guys like you in prison,” lines delivered with straight faces.
        1. Pain don’t hurt—that’s what I tell myself
      4. Depression doesn’t exist in “Road House”
    2. Patrick Swayze is the king of bad 80s movies
      1. He’s in rare form in “Road House”
    3. Other, smarter people have written about “Road House” but they’ve never said:
      1. “Road House” is the Earthbound of cinema
  4. Ness is a playable character in the Smash Brothers series.
    1. Smash Brothers debuted in 1999
      1. I did not know who Ness was back then
        1. I was a college sophomore
      2. I mostly played as Pikachu, though I don’t care for Pokemon
      3. I enjoyed frying the little boy in the red cap, though
    2. Smash Brothers is a pretty weird concept too, so Ness fits
      1. Let’s take all these video game characters, turn them into toys and have them fight
    3. It’s all a meta game, and the final boss is the hand (of God) playing with toys
  5. I wish there were more games like Earthbound to play.
    1. Even visually, it’s arresting
    2. The art is primitive, but bright and novel
    3. Early on, an NPC remarks how people are the “strangely painted ones”
      1. Even in ’94, they knew the art was crude, a deliberate throwback
      2. Because it’s crude and deliberately retro, the art hasn’t aged badly
      3. In fact, the art is surprising and thus, somewhat exciting
    4. Adulthood is diminishing returns on excitement
    5. Earthbound excited me because I genuinely didn’t know what to expect
  6. I finished Earthbound in a week.
    1. Earthbound, for a game with a hint-seller in every town, does not hold hands
      1. The hint-seller looks like Lucy in Peanuts
    2. Gigyas kept defeating me until I accidentally told Paula to “pray”
      1. I’m told that praying is helpful IRL
      2. I personally don’t want or need anyone’s thoughts or prayers, but the sentiment is nice
    3. The pray command gets random results and sometimes hurts the player
      1. Of course that’s what’s needed to beat the boss, much like the Mega Man series, where the worst weapon hits the final boss’s weakness
        1. Mega Man is kind of a cannibalistic robot, stealing the power, abilities and even costumes of those he defeats
          1. Mega Man as Wendigo—that’s an idea
        2. Although Mega Man debuted in 1987, no one played it
          1. Mega Man 2 was the big hit, like Earthbound/Mother 2
  7. Finishing Earthbound, I felt accomplished.
    1. It’s a hard, long game
    2. It’s so objectively weird, I questioned my own expectations
    3. It’s Dada video game making
  8. If anything helps loosen up, it’s swimming in chaos.
    1. I felt long-constricted brain muscles unwind while playing Earthbound
    2. After all, if this is what can be created by drawing outside of the lines…
    3. I’m not cured of my control issues, but it’s a feeling to chase
  9. I feel the world open whenever particularly rule-breaking art crosses my path.
    1. Like Earthbound
    2. Like “Road House”
    3. Like Dada
  10. There’s certainly a lesson in that.