Itoi Story: 20 years on, is EarthBound still a classic?

In the two decades since its original release, EarthBound has achieved a status bordering on the mythical. Few games are untouchable, but Shigesato Itoi’s SNES RPG is one of that select group of titles almost universally acknowledged as classics, discussed in hushed, awestruck tones by those who played it and those seduced by the legend. Its scarcity helped, of course: though successful in Japan, where Itoi enjoys celebrity status, it saw disappointing returns in the US, becoming a coveted rarity, trading for extortionate prices on eBay and the like. Its release on Wii U’s Virtual Console is the first time it has officially reached European shores.

So how does it hold up? Surprisingly well, as it happens. It’s tempting – albeit rather unkind – to say it’s aged so gracefully partly because the JRPG has evolved at a glacial pace since, yet it’s easy to see its influence on the genre. Indeed, if its ideas aren’t as fresh as they were back in 1994, that’s only because so many games since have adopted them: its lack of random encounters was revelatory at the time, giving the player a choice of which creatures to battle and which to avoid, offering a free attack should protagonist Ness walk into an unsuspecting opponent from behind.

Itoi eschewed the idea of a separate overworld, preferring a seamless, explorable environment that adds to the sense of journey. EarthBound’s combat is turn-based but conducted at a refreshing clip, and while its random elements can frustrate – Ness’s attacks can sometimes miss at crucial moments, particularly when he has a slingshot equipped – one of its most potent mechanics has rarely been seen since. Instead of killing you outright, potentially fatal blows see your HP meter slowly tick downwards; defeat all enemies in this time, or use an item or Psi power to recover your health, and you’ll survive.

Still, it’s not so much EarthBound’s systems that endure as everything that surrounds them. The story may be traditional save-the-world fare, its youthful protagonist’s journey leaning on the rite of passage trope favoured by so many of its peers, but its themes and tone are still out of step with so many JRPGs. Its contemporary setting was all but unheard of at the time and while it’s less unusual now, it remains a potent blend of reality and fantasy. That strange sense of otherworldliness, contrasted with the mundanity of an all too familiar suburbia, contributes to the game’s unique tone: that all these strange happenings are occurring in a place recognisable to us all makes it all the more intoxicating and unsettling. Ness equips himself with a cracked baseball bat from home, calls his dad – a caring but distant figure – to save the game, eats bread rolls, croissants and burgers for health boosts. He wears baseball caps and hard hats for protection. Should an enemy infect him, he’ll catch a cold, each sneeze taking a small chunk off his HP. It’s easy to see why a generation was so taken by this identifiable young hero.

Its world, too, is uncommonly vibrant, strange and densely populated. So many role-playing games reserve NPCs for plot-relevant dialogue and useful hints, but here your enquiries are as likely to return gags or nonsequiturs. Itoi’s prose was faithfully localised by Nintendo for its US release, without losing any of its glorious oddness and occasionally melancholic tone. It’s a triumphant translation, full of character and delightful grace notes: those who’ve recently marvelled at Pikmin 3’s inventive enemy names will find similar joy in its Spiteful Crows and Even Slimier Little Piles.

EarthBound’s curious, shifting tone comes perhaps from Itoi’s outsider status as a Japanese observer of American culture, but it’s a perfect fit for the narrative itself. Its blend of humour and darkness could easily feel like a satire of contemporary Americana, but there’s genuine affection, too. And any time it threatens to get too sinister, there’s always a joke to undercut the tension: a cameraman sporadically descending to take snapshots of your adventure, asking Ness to shout “fuzzy pickles!” as the shutter clicks, for example. Indeed, some of its most memorable moments are blackly comic: early on you’ll meet a bee-like creature with a seemingly crucial role to play, only to die ingloriously minutes later when your friend’s mother swats it, mistaking it for a dung beetle.

Two weeks on from its belated European launch, EarthBound’s Miiverse page is abuzz with chatter, suggesting a new generation of players has been finding and discovering the wonders of Itoi’s woozily eclectic tale. Of course, Wii U’s meagre sales mean it’s again unlikely to extend its numbers far beyond a dedicated cult of converts, but its status appears intact. EarthBound remains a potent, heady brew of an RPG, an adventure that catalyses at the place where the light-hearted whimsy of fantasy and the melancholy of reality collide.

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