My Greatest Flaw? I Haven’t Beaten Earthbound

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By Abram Buehner on October 26th, 2021


We all have character flaws that we’d like to address. For instance, my biggest character flaw is that I haven’t finished Earthbound. And before you pin me as a major narcissist, I’ll note that this is simply a running joke between my friends and I, one that has persisted for many years now. It’s testament to the fact that this SNES oddity has captivated me for a long time, regardless of the fact that I’ve never been able to truly sink my teeth into it.

As I wrote about recently, I believe in the importance of setting games aside and returning to them at different points in your life, reconnecting to them as your worldview and appreciation for art changes. In doing so, I may find an opportunity to beat Earthbound after all. However, since I’ve spent a solid decade not being an RPG guy beyond the context of Pokémon and Fire Emblem, Earthbound is a tough sell. Developing a palette for the genre itself would have to precede playing Earthbound, which might not be in the cards. For that to happen, I just may need Ness to come whack me upside the head with his bat!

Ness from Earthbound (Smash Ultimate design)

Without derailing the conversation by discussing why RPGs don’t connect with me, I’ll simply note that Earthbound is certainly designed for fans of the genre. My roommate is somewhat of an RPG expert, and he’s said as much, and I’ve felt this firsthand. The game is in part a subversion, if not a straight-out satire, of RPG tropes while still having RPG-intensive gameplay. Since I don’t have a working knowledge of, and appreciation for, Earthbound’s design intention, so much of its success just flies straight over my head. So, if I’m not a RPG fan, why do I care so much about completing this one, if I can’t get more than a few hours in whenever I do try to play?

the endearing country of eagleland

Well, I just love Earthbound’s world. Zaniness and peculiarity are qualities that I greatly value in my art. Well, zany and peculiar are absolutely words that I’d ascribe to Earthbound. Its cast of ridiculous characters is matched only by its ridiculous scenarios, which are surpassed only by its ridiculous presentation. Simultaneously though, the adventure also packed an emotional and thematic wallop. Even though I’ve never made it past Titanic Ant myself, those early hours still matched style with substance. For these reasons, I’ve desperately wanted to experience the title in its totality. Earthbound was a lightning rod of uniqueness that exuded a particular charm.

Official screenshot for Earthbound

I say it was, though, because Earthbound has become decidedly less unique over time. This is not an insult, but simply the other critical reason why I desperately want to complete the game. Despite all odds, Earthbound became an underground phenomenon that over time established a cult following and a genuine cultural importance with respect to game development. This was not always the case. Earthbound did not sell well, particularly in the United States. It was niche at best, and a blatant underperformer at worst. Its peculiar advertising gambit aside, where Nintendo humorously insulted the game in promotional materials, Earthbound left very little impact during its commercial relevance. Yet, the little RPG that could continues to snowball in popularity to the point where it’s arguably bigger today than ever before. And that’s really odd. 

earthbound’s unexpected revival

However, it’s not without possible explanation. You know the idea of death by a thousand cuts? Well, Earthbound was paradoxically given life by a similar philosophy. It started with Super Smash Bros., as all good things do. Regardless of Earthbound’s incredibly small footprint – for the longest time only one of its three games was available beyond Japan – Ness found his way in Smash 64 and has stuck around ever since. He was even joined by Mother 3 protagonist, Lucas, in Brawl. This is where I first learned of the characters and franchise. Like Fire Emblem’s increased visibility in the West due to Marth and Roy in Melee, I think that Mother (the Japanese name for the franchise itself) held on because of Smash also.

But that’s just the first bit of relief that the series received. The low circulation of Earthbound led to it being a bone-achingly expensive cartridge, even beyond the incredible retro bubble that we’re stuck in right now. So, its re-release across Wii U and 3DS Virtual Consoles (as well as on the SNES Mini) did a lot to buoy this title. New 3DS Virtual Console is where I own the game actually, and this renewed accessibility was absolutely critical. Finally, interested players, myself included, could legally obtain a copy without shelling out literally hundreds of dollars for a copy. Funnily though, I’d argue that the inaccessibility of Mother 3, the infamous GBA title, might have done more good for Mother’s cultural presence than the availability of the SNES game or Mother 1 (Earthbound Beginnings) even, when that was surprisingly translated and dropped on Wii U’s eShop.

Lucas from Mother 3 (Design from Smash Ultimate)

Yes, the never-ending string of Mother 3 memes are, I think, critical in keeping the series on the tongues of Nintendo fans. I’ve long expected that Mother 3 would see localization, but clearly I’ve been wrong so far. It’s to the point where I’ve personally stopped even mentioning it as a possibility, but clearly I’m in the minority there. For the last decade or more, Mother 3 has become a community touchstone as we plead and port-beg (sometimes humorously) for this quirky RPG to leave Japan. Reggie, when he was still at Nintendo of America, was consistently pestered by such jokes, and that hasn’t stopped today, even though Reggie left Nintendo years ago. Talking about Mother 3 is just a thing that Nintendo fans do, and that conversation is only prolonged by the lack of a localized version. This is so important. Even though the word of mouth isn’t making a difference with respect to Mother 3 itself, it’s still propping up the franchise’s cultural existence. That’s more than a lot of series like Star Fox can say.

the unmistakable indie connection

But the other thing that Earthbound has going for it is the existence of Toby Fox and others indie developers. Yeah, it’s time to talk about Undertale, another game that I haven’t played. Fox’s progression from Mother mega fan to indie dev sensation is well chronicled. While Undertale is FAR from the only Earthbound-inspired indie title, it’s certainly the most influential. This game’s spiritual ties to Earthbound certainly rewed interest in the SNES RPG as well. Like I said though, Undertale is not the only indie to walk in Mother’s footsteps. You can seldom stand on any street corner without seeing a Mother-inspired indie out of the corner of your eye.

It’s sort of like A Link to the Past or Super Metroid. Earthbound has somehow become a well-established influence within indie development. I find it so exciting that Earthbound can sit alongside these other, oft-cited Nintendo masterpieces in this regard. It’s just so unexpected too, because Mother’s influence developed guerilla-style. It really is the modern indie scene, particularly the post-Undertale scene, where you see the most love for this otherwise-overlooked Nintendo franchise.

Official screenshot for Undertale

What I like about this progression is the ways in which Earthbound transcended its own obscurity. It’s development into a prominent cult classic is iconic. Between all these converging factors that we’ve discussed, Mother is far more mainstream within particular circles than many Nintendo IPs are. Earthbound managed to claw its way back from the grave, and not simply because Nintendo decided to revive the series. Nintendo’s support has helped, but Mother‘s newfound lease on life came from beyond the company.

The resurgence of Earthbound’s cultural status is owed in large part to its fans. While the meme of the “quirky Earthbound RPG” has taken on a bit of a negative texture, the ability for players to rally together and prevent Earthbound’s absolution is truly heartening. This groundswell, more than the lovely and bizarre world of Earthbound itself, is why I want to give it the time of day in spite of my disinterest for its genre. The passion for Earthbound, whether expressed though memes, fan art, or indie projects, is undying. And, well, I just think that’s really damn special.

Abram is a part-time student and a full-time dork from the East Coast of the United States. He spends much of his time discussing video games, film, and comics... that is, when Abram isn't playing games, watching film, or reading comics. When Abram's not doing that, he is probably busy with college, dual-majoring in English and Film & New Media Studies.


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