Backtracking: EarthBound (1995)

Backtracking is a blogging project that I’m embarking on in 2024 in which I will play one game from each year since I was born. My goal is to engage with games I’ve never played and divert some of my attention away from new releases and towards older titles. I hope to cross off some major backlog items, learn more about the influences and intertexts that informed the games I grew up with, and practice my analytical skills. I’m using US release dates as the relevant year for my selections.

Why I Chose This Game

EarthBound, and the Mother series to which it belongs, is an arguably niche cultural object that's seen a swell of popularity in the decades since its release, casting a long and fascinating shadow over the art that's followed in its wake. It's beloved for its dark, offbeat humor and psychedelic storytelling, which ripple through generations of indie RPG writing and design (Undertale being probably the most notable).

Beyond cultural reach, it also belongs to a genre that I've fallen away from as I've gotten older, my life busier and more complicated. The JRPG format, with its epic-scale plotlines and long sequences of repetitive combat encounters, is something I struggle to engage with today. It's not mere disinterest; it's impatience. When I chose EarthBound for this project, I hoped it might help me confront and retrain my hangups with works like it. Whether or not I succeeded... well, we'll get into it!

But before I go on about my play habits, let's talk about EarthBound itself.

What I Thought

EarthBound is an RPG that follows a suburban boy and his psychically-fated friends as they embark on an adventure to defeat a cosmic evil from beyond the stars. It's fondly regarded for its unrepentant strangeness, its sense of humor, and its abundance of heart and aesthetic appeal. It delivers its charm in such a multitude of ways that it left me with a positive impression, despite some aspects failing to land.

Without nostalgia to guide me, I wasn't really moved by the emotional heights of the story. The grandiosity of EarthBound's tale is lost in its irreverence and its paper-thin protagonists. The party of heroes is characterized almost entirely by overt stereotype and exhausting gender tropes (I truly can't believe Paula gets kidnapped twice), most of which come off poorly in a game so often praised as being satirical.

Instead, what I came to appreciate was a consistently charming writing voice that never quite runs out of cleverness. While there are plenty of plain old jokes, EarthBound also delivers a lot of silly caricatures in the form of NPCs and various Funny Little Guys: talking rocks and animals, the Mr. Saturns, Dungeon Man, etc. that keep the world surprising and fun. It also reinscribes its RPG vocabulary, replacing traditional status effects with things like "crying uncontrollably" and "feeling strange".

EarthBound also playfully reinterprets staple JRPG mechanics. For example, Ness' ability to teleport between previous locations can only be performed by finding a long runway in the overworld to dash along. This reconfiguration of the spaces he's exploring provides unexpected new puzzles to solve. Another example is Ness' companion Jeff. Jeff has no psychic abilities and unremarkable stats, but can repair broken items when the party stops to rest. These items become critical combat tools that damage enemies or defend allies. Adding nuance to both the “use an item” and “rest at a hotel” interactions makes Jeff feel like a mechanically unique party member without needing any unique menu options.

These mechanical departures are core to EarthBound's quirky sensibilities. Not only are they setting up jokes and delivering punchlines (flubbing a teleport leaves the party cartoonishly covered in soot and freeze-framed in a startled pose; Jeff's abilities eventually result in him carting around a Heavy Bazooka to fight with), they also demonstrate an admirable commitment to simply being weird and unpredictable. The same can be said about the soundtrack, which veers between jaunty jazz tunes full of references to various decades of American music, and dissonant, atmospheric backdrops that underscore the encroaching alien presence.

Despite the abundant charm, my dislike for the repetition of the JRPG format remains. EarthBound's most grueling sections boil down to meandering dungeons, dense with enemies, that must be navigated with careful resource management so that the party is ready to take on the boss that awaits them at the end. The resource management is engaging, but the pacing is drawn out and the price of failure can feel steep. What should be a source of interesting tension is mostly just a looming sense of frustration.

I took my own measures to mitigate this, consistently leaning on the emulator's save states before boss fights to avoid retreading dungeons on each attempt. Late in the game, I encountered a boss fight with only Ness in my party that instantly KO'd me with an unlucky opening move — ample justification for my save scumming tactics.

Qualms aside, though, EarthBound's flair for the unexpected is what leaves me glad to have played it. It tells a rote story about a hometown hero saving the world, but it's always wriggling in the grasp of its monomythic structure, deploying a grab-bag of genre tropes to surprise and bewilder its players. Its earnest heroism is balanced by a chaotic mix of oddball humor, creeping horror, and rampant psychedelia. Beyond all else, EarthBound is distinctive and memorable.


The most surprising thing I learned from playing EarthBound is that I truly wasn't going to play it. In other words: the only reason I finished EarthBound was because I had the structure of the Backtracking project. As with System Shock before this, the tenacity required to see it through was ultimately rewarding. But EarthBound being as long as it is, and save states being as critical as they were, I felt the tension here more than any title so far.

Establishing an analytical lens was similarly challenging. The storytelling in EarthBound is so rampant with haphazard symbolism and off-kilter stereotypes (which seem to gesture at satire, but never say much) that I struggled to form a clear reading of it. After some digging into other critical analysis, I found that I can see more in its margins and assumptions than into its actual thematic ideas. Fans breathe much more life into the characters and the story's maneuvers, but they felt largely superficial to me, which made it tricky to unravel how I felt about the story.

Nonetheless, I'm glad to have played it all the way through if only to have seen the entirety of its bizarre offerings and mechanical subversions. Even if I didn't love playing EarthBound, I've had a good deal of fun watching it go by and thinking about it afterwards.