The start of the affair: Earthbound

[Editor’s note: Dexter345 tells us about the effect that Earthbound had on his life for his Monthly Musing piece. — CTZ

I’ve actually been meaning to write an article called “Why I love Earthbound,” as a positive counter-article to a previous article you may have hated me for. When the musing for this month was revealed, I decided I could finally get around to it, as my story fits the criteria pretty well.

First off, I’d like to point out that Earthbound was not the first game I ever played (that honor goes to Pitfall on my dad’s Atari 2600), nor is it the first game I ever really loved (Super Mario Bros.). But it was the first game that ever made me feel like I was in the game, rather than just controlling an onscreen avatar of some character.

But we’re jumping ahead a bit. Let me start with a bit of backstory. More after the jump.

The year was 1995. I was ten-years-old. My entire life thus far had been spent in one place: Bloomington, California. I loved it there, and I loved my friends. My father worked during the day, and my mother worked nights, so one of them was always around to look after my sister and me. We were pretty financially well off, as far as I could tell, and as a result I had a Super Nintendo. My life was perfect.

Of course, times change, and when my father was offered a better paying job in Phoenix, Arizona, we all relocated to the desert wasteland. I would hate it, I had decided before I even got there. I would hate it and I would do anything I could to go back to my real home.

We moved at the end of summer, just before I was to start the fifth grade, in an entirely new school to me. I didn’t make friends easily, befriending only two people throughout the entire year. Needless to say, I spent a lot of my free time at home (when I wasn’t sulking about how awful my life was and how nobody understood but me) playing videogames.

However, as a not-even-a-teenager, the only chances I really got to pick games to buy were around Christmas and my birthday (which are within a few weeks of one another). So my parents spent a lot of money for me to rent videogames from Blockbuster. Of course, this was back before the Internet was around in full force, and I was armed only with the knowledge I would glean from browsing GamePro while my mother was grocery shopping. So a lot of the choices I would make for rentals were based entirely on box art.

This is where Earthbound easily wins.

You won’t be able to tell from the picture above, but Earthbound had the single most eye-catching box in the store. It’s a bit counterintuitive if you just look at that image; all it has is the title, some big robot thing, and a funky background. It doesn’t explain what kind of game it is. It doesn’t even show the main characters. Why was I drawn to it so easily then?

It was goddamn gigantic.

If you don’t know already, when Earthbound was released in the United States, it came with a strategy guide (and some awful smelling scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers). Instead of just having retailers hand the patron a strategy guide with the purchase, they put the whole thing in the game box, which would either mean a tiny strategy guide or a huge box. They chose the latter.

So anyway, I tell my dad that I want that one, he looks at it kind of funny, but grabs the case behind the box and takes it to the counter. I had no idea what I was about to get into.

Up until this point in my life, I had never played an RPG before. Heck, I had never even heard of RPGs before. Most of the games I would play were 2D sidescrolling platformers and 2D fighting games, if for no other reason than the glut of them at the time. So after watching the strangely disturbing introduction about an alien taking over earth, I was then brought to a screen where I would be asked to enter a name for this deadpan boy.

Enter a name? What? I had never been asked to give any videogame characters a name before. I could have given this boy any name I wanted, but I hesitated to take a close look at him for a moment. I was a young boy, with black hair, and I could frequently be seen wearing a baseball cap. And so I thought to myself, “Heh, he kind of looks like me.” So I didn’t just give him any name; I gave him my name. Or rather, a butchering of my name since it is six letters long and I was only allowed five.

After this, I was asked to name a girl. Ashly, I called her, after my “girlfriend” at the time (we were in a long distance relationship; it wasn’t meant to be in the end). This next boy? Edwin, after my best friend. This weird ninja kid? Josh, after my next best friend. And the dog? Zero, after my old dog that ran away while we still lived in California.

The adventure starts out in the quiet suburb of Onett, just like the suburb I grew up in. I met up with, traveled with, fought alongside of, and eventually defeated the ultimate evil with my best friends from back home. Every time I started up the game, I felt just a little bit closer to them in real life, even though they were still six hundred miles away.

I wasn’t pressing a button to make Mario jump. I wasn’t using the D-pad to steer Fox McCloud through a forest of rectangular prisms. I wasn’t performing timed button presses to make Ryu throw a hadoken. For the first time ever, I felt like I was in the videogame, doing all of these crazy things.

By this point, I had talked my father into buying the game for me. I was hooked. Not long afterward, my parents went through a pretty messy divorce. I blamed it on Phoenix, tallying up the reasons to hate the place. And in the meantime, I retreated to Earthbound, where my mother would always welcome me and make me sushi, and my father was always just a phone call away (and always depositing ridiculous sums of money into my bank account).

All I could think about was what would happen next. I fought off local hooligans, I rescued my girlfriend from a cult, I saved a town from zombies, I got heatstroke in the desert, I got homesick from being away from my mom, I traveled to Stonehenge, I rode on the Loch Ness Monster, I fought aliens, I fought new age retro hippies (see above), I fought my own nightmares, and I destroyed Giygas, the being threatening existence. And when it was all over, I didn’t want it to end.

And luckily, it didn’t have to. In another first for me, the game let me keep playing after the end. It let me take my time to see all that I had saved. And most importantly (to me), it let me say good bye to my friends. I walked each of them home dawdling as much as I could. When I finally returned Ashly to her house in Twoson, I had to say my farewell. But I wasn’t just telling Ashly good bye. After almost a year of living in Phoenix, I finally was able to tell the real Ashley (and the real Edwin, and the real Josh) goodbye. And I was finally able to say goodbye to Bloomington, California. And after Earthbound, I was finally ready to start my new (real) life.

Darren Nakamura
Darren is a scientist during the day. He has been a Destructoid community member since 2006, joining the front page as a contributor in 2011. While he enjoys shooters, RPGs, platformers, strategy, and rhythm games, he takes particular interest in independent games. He produced the Zero Cool Podcast for about four years, and he plays board games quite a bit when he can find willing companions.