Even if you’ve never played Earthbound, you’ve almost certainly heard about it. You may know its protagonist Ness as that annoying kid from Super Smash Bros. that screams and throws fire everywhere. It’s also possible that you’ve heard rumblings from the Earthbound fanbase, a dedicated group of diehard fans that exists in spite of Nintendo’s lack of acknowledgment. People go on and on about how Earthbound’s a cult classic and one of the best RPGs of the 16-bit era.
You might not get what all the hype is about at first glance. The simple “Peanuts”-esque art style and Dragon’s Quest-like gameplay show a standard if quirky RPG that has a unique setting and amusing dialogue. However, if you actually sit down and play the game you’ll embark on a nuanced, introspective adventure that has you questioning the balance between wide-eyed wonder and cynicism, love and distance, and the reframing of our lives as “adventures.” While I’d have to think about calling it the deepest Nintendo game ever made, it is without question the most personal.
And yes, the game is worth the hype.
The World Beyond Your Front Yard: when the mundane meets the surreal
To understand Earthbound we must first understand its setting. Most RPGs of the ’90s took place in fantasy settings, with swords, spells, dragons, and the like. Earthbound instead takes place primarily in Eagleland, a pastiche of the United States.
Instead of playing as some hero of legend, you play as Ness, a typical 13-year-old boy who likes baseball and riding his bike. After a meteor crashes into the mountains behind your house, you set off to investigate. It’s here that you see your first truly bizarre character: Buzz Buzz. Buzz Buzz is a fly from the future who tells you that you need to save the world from Giygas, an indescribable being of pure evil. From here you say goodbye to your mom and sister, you leave home, and your quest begins.
This idealized, Rockwell-esque setting further satirizes RPG tropes by replacing items like swords and potions with baseball bats and burgers. In the beginning of the game, the enemies you encounter are unspectacular animals like wild dogs, snakes, and crows. It’s certainly funny seeing a typical small American town recontextualized as an area from an RPG. This setting serves as more than just a humorous reframing of an RPG, it serves one of the main themes of the game: the relationship between the mundane and the surreal.
By starting with a normal, relatable setting and diving further and further into the bizarre, Earthbound plays out like a kid’s imagination running wild. As the kid makes stuff up as he goes along, his friends join him with their own ideas, leading to far out settings like a town with a zombie-infested circus, a neon city where “no” means “yes,” and a pyramid populated by angry hieroglyphics.
Think back to when you were a kid, and leaving your backyard was the beginning of an adventure. When you were with your friends exploring and playing, there was no telling what you’d come up with that day. Early on in your adventure, you encounter human adult enemies, such as mean old ladies, cops, and local punks. When you encounter people like this as a kid, you don’t think of these people as people with their own thoughts and lives. As a kid, they only seem like greedy, evil people who exist solely to ruin your fun.
Earthbound recontextualizes the mundane (the real world) by presenting it as an adventure. In doing this, the game can present relatable, real issues through the lens of a child. The game pits Ness against the literal embodiment of evil, and Ness believes he can save the world armed with only a baseball bat and his psychic powers (Ness and his friends prove to be no match for Giygas). Ness and his friends aren’t fighting some evil dictator or greedy businessman or something, they set off to fight the very concept of evil itself.
As a kid, it’s common to believe highly in your ability to change the world for the better. We all think we’ll be good people who help others and act selflessly. However, as the pressures of adulthood slowly seep in, you become wearier and more bitter, limiting both your ability and desire to actually do good. For most people, their adventure against evil ends there.
This is not to say that the game presents the struggle to find meaning and goodness in the world as some childish, naive pursuit. Quite the opposite, actually. While trying to fight evil head on and find the ultimate meaning of life is a daunting and exhausting task, the game encourages people to find meaning and joy in the little things. The greatest example of this in-game is the cup of coffee.
At an early point in your adventure, you encounter a friendly person who offers you a cup of coffee. If you drink it, the screen fades out into this psychedelic blue haze as relaxing music plays. Text then slowly scrolls up the screen telling you to relax, take a breather, and feel good about all you’ve accomplished so far. It tells you that you have done amazing things, and though you’ve felt plenty of pain and will feel more, if you keep your courage and sense of humor then you’re going to be fine. By recontextualizing mundane everyday acts, like relaxing with a cup of coffee, Earthbound helps show the player that their own lives are worth living as exciting adventures.
Giygas Attacks: When childhood and adulthood clash
While Earthbound presents itself like a child’s imaginary story, the game itself is the brainchild of designer Shigesato Itoi. This perspective is key: the game is a childhood adventure created by an adult. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that Itoi filled Earthbound with not only all of the whimsies of childhood but some of the more uncomfortable truths of adulthood. With this in mind, I believe that it’s best that you play Earthbound when you’re at some sort of transitioning period in life. Whether that be entering or leaving high school, going off to college, or entering the workforce, the sense that you’re being pulled in multiple directions with no right answer is essential to the themes of the game. The harsher realities of adulthood only really start becoming apparent towards the end of the game.
For example, lousy fatherhood is a running theme throughout the game. Ness’ neighbor Pokey is an obnoxious bully who lacks friends, but it can be argued that his behavior stems from his father abusing him. Pokey’s gradual transformation from annoying neighbor to Giygas’ reality warping right-hand man stems from a desire to control things for once in his life.
Ness’ friend Jeff is the party’s tech whiz who relies on gadgets and his own intuition instead of psychic powers. You encounter Jeff’s father, Dr. Andonauts, multiple times throughout the game. Like Jeff, Dr. Andonauts is a supergenius inventor. He is cold and distant toward Jeff, however, only visiting him once every few years. They’re so distant that Jeff refers to his father as “Dr. Andonauts” rather than “Dad.”
Ness’ own dad isn’t exactly a shining beacon of fatherhood either. He is never shown throughout the game, being constantly busy with work. Ness’ father can only be talked to on the phone, and while he clearly loves Ness, he never stops work to make time for him, even as Ness is quite literally saving the world. Because of this, Ness quite literally views his dad as just a voice on the phone. Being a child, Ness only vaguely understands the nuances between raising and balancing a family, but he is old enough to feel disappointment and loneliness at his father’s lack of presence.
Toward the end of the game, Ness is knocked unconscious and enters a place called Magicant. Magicant is easily the most cerebral and introspective part of the game. It is Ness’ own subconscious, filled with little snippets of your adventure and Ness’ past, such as a snowman that Ness once made as a child that eventually melted away. You encounter both enemies and allies while exploring, and some enemies even comment on how much it hurt when you killed them. The most startling person that pops up in Magicant is Ness’ younger self. When spoken to, young Ness says this:
“It’s me… I’m you when you were younger.
Hey, let’s play ball.
Do you prefer reading comics or playing games?
What? You’re busy?“
Even Ness, who is still a child himself with an absent father figure, can’t make time for his younger childhood self. Kids are always trying to appear grown up in any way they can, quickly discarding things they think will make them look childish. This segment shows that the struggle against adulthood takes place at every point in a person’s life.
Further along in Magicant, Ness finds the Flying Men. The Flying Men are muscular birdlike creatures who say that they represent Ness’ courage. These Flying Men join Ness one at a time in Magicant and are essential allies in dealing with the level’s tough enemies. There are only a limited amount of Flying Men, however, and if enough die, they scold Ness for treating them like trash. After each one dies its gravestone appears near their house, explicitly displaying the gradual death of Ness’ courage in the face of adulthood issues he doesn’t understand. At the end of Magicant lies Ness’ Nightmare, the manifestation of Ness’ evil thoughts. He is an extremely difficult boss that has access to all of Ness’ abilities.
A surreal place like Magicant sends the mind racing. What would your Magicant look like? What essential people from your past and present would you find there? What precious memories would you relive? What would your childhood self say to you, and how would you respond? Could you beat your own nightmare?
Warning: ending battle spoilers follow!
The climactic battle against Giygas is where the duality of childhood and adulthood come to a head. When Ness and his party finally get to face Giygas head-on, the player quickly realizes that they can’t hurt it at all. Giygas’ attacks are beyond comprehension (“You cannot grasp the true form of Giygas’ attack!”) and do obscene amounts of damage, sometimes wiping out party members in a single blow. Giygas’ attacks represent the entirety of the evils of the adult world crashing into a child at once, with the child having no idea what’s going on.
Giygas’ incomprehensible evil is based on a real traumatic event experienced by Shigesato Itoi. As a kid, Itoi once accidentally stumbled into the wrong movie at the theater. He watched a scene depicting a woman being brutally murdered and sexually assaulted, a moment that Itoi specifically points to as when his childhood ended. As a child, Itoi did not understand what he was seeing in the film, but he knew it was horrifying and damaging. Giygas reflects this assault in its dialogue (“It hurts… It hurts…”) and is a dramatic representation of the moment a person’s childhood dies in front of them.
The only thing the player can do to fight back is to pray. As the player prays, the game cuts to various characters you met earlier in the game. They sense something is wrong and pray for Ness and his friends, dealing massive amounts of damage to Giygas. If you haven’t played the game and ignored the spoiler warning, then I won’t reveal who the final person who prays for Ness is, it is something that truly needs to be experienced blind.
Through this battle, Itoi is trying to show that for many the transition to adulthood is sometimes sudden rather than gradual, and can be a confusing and painful experience, especially if one goes through a traumatic event. But by invoking all of your life experiences, from small joys to major milestones, and the strength of those who love you, you can make the leap to adulthood and fight against the fear and malice that would otherwise consume you.
Spoilers end here
No crying until the end
Itoi is not trying to equate adulthood with evil in Earthbound. Instead, he is trying to show that the sudden injection of adulthood into a child’s life can be a jarring, confusing, and distressing experience. Adulthood is not evil, and the pressures that come alongside it are normal. At first, the mundanities seem soul-crushingly boring and the new experiences are disheartening and confusing. However, like Earthbound, as you lean on your collective life experiences and those who love you, the mundane and the surreal combine with childhood and adulthood, reframing your life as the memorable adventure that it truly is. This adventure is often funny, heartbreaking, bizarre, confusing, exhausting, and touching, but it’s wholly your own. Like Earthbound, this adventure is personal.