This article is part of our new experimental series, Backlog Club, where we (Nintendo Life!) pick a game that’s likely to be on our list of “games we should get around to playing”, and then we (NL + you!) spend the next month playing that game. This is the halfway point, the Part One of two, where we stop for a minute to check in with the game, and how much we’re enjoying it.
For May 2022 (how is it May already, etc.) we’re playing seminal JRPG SNES game, Earthbound, and discovering memories from a childhood we never had…
My bedroom smells like burned rubber. It’s not because I’ve been hosting raunchy Formula 1 parties, or because my furniture is made of old tyres — it’s because I’ve been reading the rather lush Fangamer handbook for Earthbound, which comes with its own scratch-and-sniff card, a replica of the one that came with the original game. And let me tell you: It is pungent.
The fact that I have spent my very own hard-earned journalism money on a book about the game I’m playing should tell you a lot about how much I’m enjoying Earthbound. It is only very rarely that I like a game enough to willingly do homework about it, and while it helps that Fangamer’s handbook is a gorgeous little thing, framed as a tourist guide, it’s all thanks to Earthbound’s incredibly well-aged self that I’m having this much of a blast with a nearly 30-year-old game. After all, most things start going downhill around 25, don’t they…? (sob)
Much like Slay The Spire, I’m not very far in yet, although it feels like I’ve done loads. I’ve ventured from Onett to Twoson to Threed to Fourside, visiting the delightful Saturn Valley along the way and wishing I could just stay there forever, and according to the handbook, I’m only at about page 122 of 250. But Earthbound is one of those old-school JRPG-type games that reward you for backtracking and finding secrets down every little alleyway and dead-end, and I bloody love secrets, so it might take me a fair while to finish this one.
Now, it does feel a little bit like I’m terribly late to the party on this one, because it seems like everyone and their mums has played Earthbound before — but it doesn’t seem to matter too much, since it’s the kind of game that people want you to play, even if you are a bit late. It does have quite the cult classic reputation, so my expectations were very high and I was also reluctant to ever give it a go, because I hate when people insist that I do things. I’m independent, dang it!
Admittedly, Earthbound has its foibles. The inventory system, which is a generous way to describe it, is little more than a small pocket where Ness (or Egg, as I named him) keeps all the random things he finds, some of which are useful and some of which are not and THERE IS NO WAY TO KNOW WHICH IS WHICH. And as I’ve mentioned, there’s a lot of backtracking, and it’s easy to get lost, overwhelmed, or tired. Or all three.
But it’s just so utterly charming. In fact, I’ll let you in on a wee secret of the trade. For whatever reason, British games journalists really like using the word “charming” to describe games, usually in reviews, because it nails a specific feeling: Being totally won over by a game that’s not afraid to be earnest, with a specific kind of enchantment that makes you smile, even if it is a little rough around the edges.
“Charming” games are the ones where the walls between you and the developer are so thin that you can almost see them watching you play, like someone who’s just given you a Christmas gift they made themselves — nervous, excited, and hoping that you like this thing that they put their whole heart into.
And Earthbound is charming. It’s bewitchingly lovely, enchantingly weird, deeply magical, and wholly unique. It somehow captures a ’90s (sorry, ‘9Xs) vibe that never really existed, because none of us ever had UFOs crash into our back gardens, and although 20th Century parents were a lot more lax than they are today, I doubt my mum would have been pleased with a 10-year-old me going globetrotting to save the world. Even if I did phone home occasionally.
I’ll admit, though, that it’s a tiring game. When I got to Fourside, I was starting to get a little irritated with how much the NPCs expected of me — they wanted me to travel back to past towns, raise insane amounts of money, fix their zombie problems, go spelunking for things they lost, and so on. I have my own mission, damn it! Leave me alone! I’m just a child!
I know that fetch quests and side quests are part of the journey, but when all your forward progress amounts to one step forwards, twenty steps right, three steps back, and occasionally getting punted into weird interdimensional spaces, it can feel a little bit like not being allowed to eat your ice cream until you’ve finished someone else’s maths homework.
Still, I’m having a good time. A nice time. A Ness time. I’m getting a little fatigued, but I want to see this thing through to the end, because there are so many unanswered questions: What are the weird musical footprints? Who is Giygas? Will I ever meet the fourth character,
Poo Klunk? And why does that weird photographer keep interrupting me?
I’m excited to find out. Say “fuzzy pickles!”
Check out Zion’s lovely tribute to the Mother/Earthbound series above! This wasn’t even an intentional synergy! We’re just cool like that.
Don’t forget to vote in this month’s poll for next month’s game, which will be one of these murder-mystery adventure stories:
Have you been enjoying playing/replaying Earthbound? Are you going to give Earthbound Beginnings and Mother 3 a try as well? Let us know your thoughts so far in the usual manner!