Retrokick – Earthbound

It’s been a while since the last Retrokick. I know, almost two months since my last headlong collision with the saccharine walls of my childhood. Shocking. Discontented pensioners should be collecting at the end of my road, locked in hushed discussion about my sudden living in the moment, allowing only the occasional “Oh I know” and, “Absolutely appalling” to waft its way through my perpetually ajar window. But to tell you the truth, the switch-up’s quite…bracing, it turns out.

I was hit, however, by a particularly strong waft of blast-from-the-pastitude after rewatching Rob Reiner’s 1987 film Stand By Me. Dark, folkish, wayward with a discernible maturity, the King adaptation has always held amongst my top coming-of-age films. And despite Ape Inc’s Earthbound attracting most of its praise from its satirical nature, it’s very much a game that instilled that same juvenile precocity when I locked buttons with the 1994 RPG after it launched on Nintendo’s Virtual Console.

Earthbound might for me be an endearing, refreshingly witty JRPG, but it’s also incredibly relevant today. Gaming and self consciousness has attracted more in-depth discussion currently than has ever been, and the reflexivities of Metal Gear Solid, The Stanley Parable, Undertale and most recently Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island, have had their hands in developing gaming not just as a form of entertainment, but one of creative expression.

And considering that all this has happened in very recent years  (Pony Island only having released two months ago), it’s rather innovative ( not to mention brave) of Ape Inc. to have produced a concept so fresh and challenging as Earthbound.

 

As the second in the now-cult-favourite Mother series, Earthbound‘s very inception could very easily have been canned. The Mother series was dreamt up by one of Japan’s top slogan writers, Shigesato Itoi, whose advertising line for Seibu Department Store remains one of most prominent in the Japanese advertising industry. As well as landing a voice acting role in My Neighbour Totoro, Itoi had co-written songs with the Oscar-wining Ryuichi Sakamoto and a collection of short stories with Haruki Murakami, who just so happened to be one of the country’s best loved contemporary writers.

Photo

Actually, I don’t remember this self-proclaimed ‘photographic genius’ giving Ness the pictures. Did he just stalk a young gang of children, obsessively capturing their adventures?

Understandably, Nintendo eventually approached him in 1987 to write the slogan for one of its games. Itoi, however, agreed on the condition that they allow him to pitch his idea for his own video game: Mother. Despite his creative portfolio, however, Itoi was turned away by the company’s best known developer, Shigeru Miyamoto, as a high-profile games enthusiast, rather than an artistic prospective designer. It was only later that Itoi recovered his chances. Itoi was called back by Miyamoto, having been instructed by Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi to inform the seminal sloganer (whom Yamauchi heavily respected) that his idea had been successful.

Mother’s success continued, too, selling nearly 500,000 copies in Japan. After a sequel was planned, Itoi set to work with Kirby’s HAL Laboratory, and suffered technical difficulties to say the very least. Earthbound was worked for four years, and after multiple developmental set-backs, the remarkable Satoru Iwata was brought in to lend his development expertise.
And of course, here Mother 2 is. It was finished, and released in Japan in 1994, a year later in the US as Earthbound. Of all things, the ambitious SNES title was advertised through the olfactory medium of the scratch-n-sniff.

Those cards of what can only be described as compressed death, that all too often laced the underside of your fingernails with eau de rotten egg, or something equally repulsive. It evoked curiosity, but together with slogans like “Earthbound. It’s like living inside your gym shoes” and “Earthbound. The first Role-Playing Game with BO”, adverts didn’t offer much in the way of enticement, even if the satire within the game’s description was markedly apparent. The game’s cheery art style wasn’t held highly in the States either, and along with its vague marketing campaign, Earthbound struck both as unfashionable and unpromising at the time. Quite ironic considering the huge success of the similarly styled Pokémon Red and Blue only two years later, with no graphical criticisms in sight.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Earthbound‘s narrative strikes initially as a nod to the coming-of age film. Ness, the incurably inquisitive protagonist of this double-sided adventure is woken one night by a meteor landing, and obviously feels compelled to check it out. The id of the child. Upon discovering that the fallen chunk of rock now native to his back garden is rather the vessel of powerful spacebeing named Buzz Buzz (because of course he is), Ness learns that his idyllic 1960’s hometown is under invasion by intergalactic warlord, Giygas, who intends to enslave the Earth. What ensues is a shared quest between a psychic girl, a firearm-handy genius, a perpetually-frowning distant prince, and an incredibly determined young man, as they traverse various cities and civilisations to thwart Giygas and save the Earth. An average plot, but communicated with remarkable boldness and even bolder flair. A shame, considering its self-effacing marketing struck as little more than a cheap joke.

The quaintly tiled visuals might’ve been unimpressive for the SNES, but where the anterior Secret of Mana and Illusion of Gaia opted more for *proportionate character design, Earthbound’s visual predilections assume instead a decidedly Charlie Brown direction. As I guided my motley crew of children across Halloween-party ghost towns and strange cults lead by paintbrush-headed townsfolk, the knee-bobbing piano licks of Peanuts hummed reminiscently at the back of my mind.

Lassie

Much of the humour in Earthbound stems from its observation of a world where kids appear to run the show. Not in a despotic, We Need to Talk About Kevin way, for adults certainly aren’t lacking, or much controlled. They just don’t care as much as we might expect them to. Against Earthbound‘s waggish crayon art style furthermore, it’s not just noticeable – it’s startlingly funny.

Your own mother tells you to ‘Go for it!’ as you embark on your adventure with no certainty of return, because she knows you’ll just defy her anyway – as is the instinctual impudence of any gamer. She also knows you’re playing a game, as does seemingly everyone in Eagleton, many of whom occasionally let the illusion of this Trumanesque world to slip every now and then, with its smarting jabs towards at the player and gaming traditions. Honesty is Earthbound‘s driving characteristic, and given reflexivity in gaming has only started to trend recently, you can imagine this drove quite the rift between the peculiar SNES title and…well, just about every JRPG going at the time.

And it wasn’t just a distinctive quality that made Earthbound notable. Whilst there was nothing quite like Earthbound at the time, its wryly literal humour and deceptively Utopic art style has since fed through into a plethora of other games, both within and beyond the realms of Nintendo. Majora’s Mask, Animal Crossing, Retro City Rampage are just a few titles that revelled afterwards in intentional kookiness, and there’s a little more than a mere taste of Earthbound in all of them. Heck, it even inspired South Park: The Stick of Truth. The game as a foundation for quirkier titles cannot be overlooked, and whilst the form is somewhat taken for granted nowadays, back in 1994, it was a huge risk for APE to take. I’m ultimately glad they took it. I bet Miyamoto is too.

Dungeon Dev

Beneath its smarting, referential tone and beguiling writing though, Earthbound is a relatively standard turn-based RPG. You can attack, defend and use consumables to regenerate health, as well as equip a variety of weapons in between enemy attacks. Levelling up and increasing character health and strength is noticeably easier than in other RPG’s, with experience points being awarded voluminously, even for reasonably straight-forward encounters.

I’ve never been one for turn-based combat, but battles with some of the weaker, yet more persistent enemies often felt unnecessarily drawn out. I found myself resorting to the ‘AUTO’ function after one too many Runaway Dog encounters, and since most opponents possess idiosyncacies and tendencies, this leaves combat feeling predictable, monotonous and occasionally mundane. The original’s lack of save points could also become frustrating; throw in as many quirkily-penned lines as you like, when you’re constantly oscillating between your next big location and finding a damned hotel to save your progress, gameplay can feel restricted by just how time-consuming this transpires to be.
Fortunately (or perhaps not, considering the power of first impressions), most of these instances occur early on, and gradually sputter out as the story develops.

Ruffini

Something I really did appreciate, as a veritable un-frequenter of turn-based bashing, however, was Earthbound’s neglect of random encounters. I’ve always felt interrupted at the prospect of random encounters in an RPG, so much so that Pokémon regrettably continues to be one of the most unnecessarily frustrating games I’ve ever played. But allowing enemies to be visible whilst exploring the battle ground aided Earthbound’s pacing unanimously, even including the option to outrun larger enemies should Ness’s health dip too low.

Another favourite quirk of mine is its constant mockery of the empowered player. Rub a possessed toadstool the wrong way and it might just muss up your control scheme, leaving Ness floundering freely into rocks, trees and all manner of townsfolk as you try earnestly to control him. And don’t worry, it’ll leave you just long enough to suss things out before inevitably re-muddling it all over again.

Earthbound never really lacks originality or character, it’s more the issue of design and technical issues clouding its kooky charms. Amongst the most beguiling is its soundtrack; a peppy, rosy-cheeked, shoulder-twitching, nostalgia-rousing chipset collection that often does as much to reference underlying themes as the words of its odd little folk.

Mini Barf

As I mentioned earlier, it does try its best to be honest with you. Beneath the boppy muzack symphony lies a darker, suspended set of notes; ones that escape every now and then to merely hint that there could be something deeper going on. Today, I’m oddly reminded of the static interruptions and bassy monotones of David Fincher’s Fight Club, although that particular dose of satire didn’t come till ’99.

But alas, playing Earthbound for any of these things alone is a little like watching JJ Abrams’ Super Eight just for the aliens. It’s the wider awarness that makes it. Not just within genre and archetype references, but of the communities that thrive within those genres and know those archetypes well. Earthbound still retains, for the most part (although the Toby Foxotrons, Foxlings, or whatever else they may or may not like to be referred to have since turned to enjoy the delights of Undertale’s influential Daddy), something of a cult status. As of this moment, it’s still incredibly niche, but given its recent release on Nintendo’s Virtual Console (and I have a sneaking suspicion the aforementioned skeleton-dating sim partially influenced that) and the increasing vocality around commentative video games, Earthbound could enjoy some- I think quite deserved – post-millenial praise.

Group

*considering the visual constraints of the SNES era and the technological advancement consoles and PC has seen since, it can be problematic to claim either game was particularly or remarkably proportionate, but we’ll keep the comparison here between SNES games to avoid any unwarranted or potentially violent eventualities.

Advertisements

A Level Spiral – Games, Worry and Universe City

There is nothing quite so inconsiderate, inconvenient and immodestly defeating as worry. Countless hours lay tallied up before me, intermingled into the inevitable milestones and benchmarks of my, admittedly, young life- an accumulation more formidably impressive than any of my feverish hoardings across Fallout, The Witcher, and anything even remotely Elder Scrollsian. 

It’s often during these increasingly common moments of sudden awareness – of my irrational flittering like some crazed squirrel with only half an idea of what it really should be doing – that I can observe my attraction to gamerdom. At least partially, that is. Games aren’t always escapist

It’s true that this bothersome, frustratingly human affliction has been increasing recently, for a rather quite logical reason. In just over six months, I’ll be packing up my bags (more importantly everything related to handheld gaming), books and exactly thirty pairs of underpants to venture off to University, like the optimistic young duckling I am.

Ness in Super Mario Maker.jpg

And it is exciting, don’t get me wrong. I’m looking forward to an (well at least more of an) independent lifestyle to what I’m used to – and the prospect of embracing change is now coming as something of a pleasant eventuality, rather than the experience I’ve always associated with losing all my save data on a heavily invested RPG for the second time in six months. Such experiences must’ve hardened me for the outside world. Who said games could never contribute to one’s life?

But as looky-forward to-y it is, it’s also understandably nerve racking. It’s anxiety (often, anyhow) that can cause a person to get into something of an enormous rut. For me, anxiety breeds a desire for predictability, for everything to be nice and expectable, but the methods that often coincide with such pseudo-comfort is a secondary interpretation of feeling ‘trapped’. It’s manageable and predictable, even comfortable, but it’s not necessarily any more pleasant, especially when taken to extremes. And it’s funny that I’ve only now just noticed how much the precious elusivity of the game worlds I retreat into have helped surface that – until now – quite dormant tendency towards structure.

Settlement

It’d be a little rainy, but the reverberation would be stupendous.

Days have passed before now on which the sole itinerary was to subdivide my orchards by fruit and managing my bank account, of all things, on Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Not to mention the literal double-life I lived playing anything sprung from Todd Howard’s brilliantly open-world mind (the Bethesda director will be earning his Lifetime Achievement Award today, as it happens). Most recently, my penchant for all things steel in Fallout 4 has allowed me to build a seven-storey complex that I’m quite sure mimics what I will be staying in at The Ultimate Big School, except containing considerably less washing-up and a quite noticeably stronger aroma of pizza, dish-soap and breath. Not mine, of course. That would be unstudious, and wrong. 

But even in the midst of what can very easily become a timorous spiral into the realms of impending irrationalities and unlikely-likelihoods, it’s oddly my old linear friends that highlight the – in reality – equal opportunity for balance. Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Tomb Raider (both retro and contemporary greats) bring me as much joy in the present moment as they did when I first played them, and those times have always marked incredible periods of balance and contentment, despite various inevitable changes having been made in my life between the now and the then. Somehow they help bring back to light that despite the oncoming ‘Big Change’ (meaning neither the menopausal, nor lycanthropic change, but the moving from home), once it happens, once adjustment, admin and accommodation has been verily sorted out, balance will naturally restore itself. Sometimes it’s difficult to conceive of a better future in the midst of a panic attack, or a period of gloom, but much in contrast to the claims that gaming provides exclusively escape, my Playstation companions have rather encouraged a little more awareness; awareness that can help jog the ‘downward spiral’ to at least keep it level. A level spiral.

And I anticipate many of my regular homecomings will allow me to feel closer to my family than ever before. In addition to ‘separation makes the heart grow fonder etc’ aphorism, I’ll be able to connect with my parents more as an adult, rather than just their child. Because, naturally, I’ll be doing more grown uppy things to supplement my rampant endeavours betwixt the 3DS, PSVita and Steam whilst defiantly alcoved within the folds of some blanket fort or other outside study hours. Perhaps I’m getting fancifully overworked a bit. Blanket.

bill haverchuck

 And I’m sure each of my (what I’ll anticipate now as relatively regular) homecomings will prove times of great re-connection and unity, before I undoubtedly race into my bedroom on the insistence that no one should disturb me, as I engage in some long awaited me-time. Not what you might be thinking, of course, for that particular activity remains one of the most portable practices in the world today – and, might I add, more immersive than the HTC Vive rabidly claims to be.

No, I’ll be taking the DualShock 4 in my extensively textbooked hands after a lengthy separation due to having no television to accomodate it, and launching myself onto one of No Man’s Sky’s 18 quintillion planets, or unintentionally squashing, impaling, shooting, decapitating, drowning or otherwise irking poor Lara Croft as I discover the PS4’s version of Rise of the Tomb Raider. And it won’t be much different than now – except that I’ll get to sit on trains for a while longer and teach my less-than-technologically fluent mother the arcana of Skype.

There is of course the mindlessly hefty financial side to living away. Despite all Fallout 4 has taught me of late, shacking up in a network of cleverly linked tents outside the school accommodations for ‘economical reasons’ tends to be somewhat frowned upon, even in such places as a University. This is where simulator games like Animal Crossing, The Sims and even a production-sim game from yonks ago The Movies (created by none other than the recently shut down Lionhead Studios), come in. Budgets, structures and savings has always come naturally to me, and I wonder how much of that was encouraged by having grown up with these games. Images of stocky anthropomorphic animals, or the anxious protests of my sims as they fled from an unscheduled fire in their kitchen, certainly come to mind when I begin to think about money.

Fire.jpg

Would now be a good time to mention that it was my aunt’s game save at the time?

But nevertheless, to one extent or another, they’ve prepared me, at least in an extremely elementary way, to be conscious about my various spendings and prospective irrationalities, so for their alleged contribution to that, I can only be grateful. As Sans of Undertale would probably say: All ’bout the determination, kid,

 

My Favourite Mothers Across the Gamepad, Mouse and Screen

SPOILER WARNING: I discuss some of the characters from Archer, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Bates Motel and Undertale here, and some of these points might be interpreted as spoilers. I also highly recommend watching and/or playing these titles, too, if you’re looking for a little extra Mum to ferment your maternal Sunday exploits. Enjoy!

Ah, Mother’s Day. A day I don’t receive direct joy from, as I am neither beloved caretaker of mischievous sprogs nor the correct sex to be considered such in the future. But none of that matters. What I do find irrevocable joy in is the annual celebration of those who truly deserve it.

Maybe I should explain. Because we’re English, there’s an unspoken boundary on affection. In order to retain the taught, stately reserve that has come to stereotypically preserve us over the years, there has to be a day in which we get all that out, have a nice cup of tea, and then pull back into our own self-contained bubbles of quiet reverence.

Okay, so perhaps it’s just so Clintons Cards can make its yearly shift in its surplus of heart-shaped cushions. The era of quiet reverence died a death a long time ago. But in spirit of all of that – both obligatory and genuine – maternal homage, I invite you all to give your mothers a little love. Give her a hug. Write her a card. Shower her with beguilingly awful renditions of her face translated into macaroni. And I’ll share my favourite mothers across the realms of pop culture.

Bates Motel – Norma Bates

Norma Bates.jpg

I was initially going to give the limelight to the original villain of Bloch’s classic thriller Psycho – but there was something to be admired about Vera Farmiga’s intensely human portrayal of such an integral antagonist to the horror genre. The ‘backstory of the baddie’ story arc certainly isn’t new to TV and film nowadays, but in my experience it’s rarely done in a way that invokes real true empathy, and in the case of Bates Motel’s Mother Dearest, Norma’s desperate dominance over her adolescent son is always supported by her introspective fragility. The desire for control and power is driven by the feeling of helplessness, and Norma’s very much still a tortured child trapped in an adult mother’s body. Farmiga supports her character’s rapid swings between snide venom and self-defeat fantastically, and it’s rarely ever I get to view a wicked character as just an incredibly hurt soul free from the trappings of cliché.

Archer – Malory Archer

Malory Archer

Yes. The cantankerous, gin-swindling, intolerably elitist matriarch herself. Although a ‘mother’ only in the legal, Daisy Fay-esque sense, this cut-throat curmudgeon is so irrevocably on my favourites list that it often truly astounds me. She’s egomaniacal, she’s unprofessional, and she’s an incurably bad mother to her son and  H. Jon Benjamin’s crude play on Bond, Sterling Archer. Perhaps most noticeable beneath her hollow-cheeked facade, though, is her persistent proclivity for getting shit done. Although laughably aggravating, she’s perhaps the most capable mind working under Archer’s fictional secret special-ops branch ISIS (the name of which was promptly dropped upon its sixth season, for reasons I don’t think need to be detailed). For that, I can only give her kudos, and cut from the offensive heart of Arrested Development’s Lucil Bluth, the very same Jessica Walter translates her usual shruggish humour to the super-secret spy table deliciously.

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin – Eva Khatchadourian

Eva

If there’s something Tilda Swinton does well, it’s frost-like exterior. Even Narnia allowed her to parade her icy talents within the , but I’ve always been more interested in the concealed breakdown the refrigerator veneer strives to keep hidden. Swinton really does this in her role in We Need to Talk About Kevin, as the isolated mother of a psychopathic child, who becomes determined to prove to her son that she cannot be broken, despite Kevin’s increasingly dark pursuits. The ending scene remains one of the most powerful for Eva; as she confronts her imprisoned son after his murder of her husband and young girl, she strides towards him and wraps him in the tightest hug you would’ve thought possible for a human being so repeatedly bludgeoned. She realises her past mistakes as a contributor to Kevin’s psychopathy, and rather than fleeing him, by hugging him she convinces her son that all his past exploits to make her life miserable have been in vain. She de-validates him and his life’s work, in the guise of the stereotypical mother-son cocoon. It’s marvelously acted, and the power of the scene holds today as one of my favourite Mother’s Day scenes, demonstrating both female and maternal power.

Undertale – Toriel

Toriel

Possibly the most conventional mother to make it onto the roster is good-old Toriel from Undertale. From the very beginning, Toriel is sweet, nurturing and welcoming, despite her full knowledge that the race you belong to forced her underground to live amongst the dirt. She carries the primary theme of forgiveness in Undertale; something that ignites its further emphases on empathy, humanity and equality. But remember Norma Bates? There’s always something darker lingering just beneath the surface, and Toriel is one of the strongest vessels to carry some of Undertale’s most foreboding atmospheres. Her pressing phone calls that ask only if you like Cinnamon or Butterscotch pie have you questioning her motives from the beginning, but the fact you get no real confirmation holds this sense of foreboding entrancingly in motion. When I encountered her during my first (‘un-true’ pacifist) run, it was one of the first instances that convinced me of Undertale’s scarily capricious nature, and as I was forced (I say forced, because initial gameplay appears to sway the player towards killing Toriel) to slay her unforgivingly, her final words were, most understandably, heart-wrenching. It’s strange; I knew I was being swayed to commit the act of killing her (perhaps in order to fully experience Undertale’s overall messages and questions surrounding gaming’s ‘obsession’ with violence), but I still felt responsible; something that proves vital in carrying over the main question that appears to permeate Undertale’s seemingly adorable front: Is killing the best possible way of dealing with enemies? Are enemies really what we’re dealing with here?

Who are your favourite mothers? Have you any plans for the Day of the Mum? Let me know in a comment.