Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 12, EarthBound

EarthBound manages to be an incredible send up of its genre and video games in general, while also being a fantastic, memorable video game in its own right.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

I struggled quite a bit with ranking EarthBound. The issue at hand was my concern that I was overrating a game that I had played dozens of times, for over 25 years now, one that I felt a close emotional attachment to. Do other people see EarthBound the same way I do? Do they recognize just how good it is? Is nostalgia powering my enjoyment of what I consider to be a classic, or is it actually as good as I tell myself it is?

Nostalgia is something I promised myself — and all of you — would not be a factor in making these rankings, so this was a real fear to me, that I’d rank EarthBound too late to go back and change my mind, that I’d give it too much credit, for where it really “belonged” among Nintendo’s greatest efforts, and lose the trust I had established in the project to this point. Kind of an overreaction, maybe, but I was very serious about the mission here, so the fear I’d let this game cloud that was understandable.

As I began a replay of the game to finalize its ranking and take the notes I’d use to write this very feature, I realized those fears were unfounded, even if they were useful for keeping me in check. I love EarthBound this much not because I played it so long ago that I rented it multiple times from Blockbuster and was eventually able to buy my own SNES cartridge at MSRP instead of six times that off eBay. I love it not because I used to replay it every single summer at a time when new video games primarily arrived at my house for birthdays and Christmas. I love it because it was the best role-playing game the company produced for a significant portion of its video game history, on its own merits. I love it because it was so good that I bought my own copy after renting it, because it was so good that I could replay it every single summer for a decade without getting bored by it, and now that it’s available in forms other than an SNES cartridge, I still go back to it pretty regularly, because it still flat-out rules.

While it doesn’t hold the title of best Nintendo RPG any longer, that’s not because it has succumbed to age, and hell, given where we are on this list, you know it’s still damn close to the top, anyway. If anything, EarthBound, like its sequel, Mother 3 (number 32), probably works better in the present than it ever did in the past, both thematically and from a gameplay perspective: the kind of experience EarthBound was trying to create didn’t set the sales world on fire, but it did help inspire a generation of developers to make their own games with their own quirks, and now, suddenly, EarthBound feels like it can be appreciated as something more than just an oddity. It feels like the kind of game that, if it were new instead of a cult classic, or if it was getting its first-ever North American release a la Famicom Detective Club, you’d be excited to play once that release date hit.

There are plenty of games I played in the 1990s — games I played again and again, just like EarthBound — that I don’t keep going back to now, or that don’t hold up like EarthBound does: Super Mario RPG is still good enough for this list, but it isn’t sitting here in the top dozen, you know. EarthBound might not have been a success at the time of its release, but it has held up over the years in a similar way to other all-time classics of the era, like Final Fantasy VI, Phantasy Star IV, or Chrono Trigger. It had that extra gear just like those titles, that extra bit of attention or to detail that made it special at the time and has kept it special since. There is a reason an entire online fandom developed around the game well before that became the norm you’re used to, to the point that unreleased games have their own communities spring up around them these days.

It’s a game with real heart, one that’s sometimes tough to pin down and explain, but it’s got that “it” factor, the you know it when you see it kind of thing. There’s something special about it, and after all this time, I feel confident that something is its ability to fully understand the world of video games: what we love about them, what’s goofy about them, why we play them. EarthBound is something of a send up of Japanese role-playing games, and the hobby in general, but it’s also a killer game in its own right. It’s not simply a fun spoof for genre diehards, but ended up being significantly better than many of the titles it was referencing with its design decisions: the best classic Dragon Quest game is EarthBound, which is a nonsense sentence unless it isn’t.

Part of the game’s success, non-sales division, might be because it was conceived and written by someone whose primary work wasn’t video games. Shigesato Itoi has had many careers over the years, but he didn’t start writing while in video games: he wrote video games because it was yet another medium for his writing. There are times, even now, where it feels like those writing video games have no real reference point for stories outside of video games, or from the same batch of comics or television shows everyone else in the industry has read or watched. Mother, which preceded EarthBound — the latter of which is Mother 2 in Japan — felt extremely different for the time even if its influence from Dragon Quest was explicit. The battle system was extremely Dragon Quest, sure, and much of the game felt like any other Japanese RPG, except instead of swords and mages, you had a modern setting and baseball bats and psychic powers. The story and the game’s characters are where Mother separated itself from the genre it was contained within and the traditional trappings that adorned it: Itoi’s writing, both in story and dialogue and even the role text played within battles, was the separator. EarthBound is similar on all of those fronts, except it is that vision realized with an exponential level of success higher than what the original game managed.

EarthBound has quite a bit to say, and even more so, to make you feel. Maybe its messaging isn’t quite as overt as that of its sequel, which goes deeper and clearer on anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism than you might have imagined a game with its art style could. Despite this, it still manages to exceed its followup, and nearly every other RPG Nintendo made before or since. Part of its strength over Mother 3 — and as I mentioned in that essay, your mileage may vary — comes from EarthBound working better as a single entry. You don’t need to play the original Mother to fully appreciate what EarthBound is offering, unlike in Mother 3, where you’ll feel even more, and more strongly, if you’re familiar with the first two games and their themes, their characters, and the journeys of those characters. EarthBound is more its own thing, even if one of its antagonists featured in the previous game, and the other antagonist features in the next one.

In spite of these shared elements and that EarthBound is part of a three-game series, it feels unique to this day, which you can attribute to its strengths in narrative, in world-building, in gameplay. The way the world is fleshed out, the kinds of interactions you can have with NPCs if you bother to interact with them instead of just flying through the world as fast as possible, help make the game as memorable as it is. There was so much more put into these NPCs, to make them characters that help make this world you’re playing in both believable and seem more complete, than in many competing RPGs of the day, where NPCs seemed to exist mostly to talk about the weather you’re having unless they were the one you needed to speak to in order to find your next progression hint. Here, you have NPCs musing on music, on art, on the end of capitalism, you have cops admitting to you that they’re corrupt and just trying to gain notoriety, you have monkeys that want pizza.

There is just so much character in everything. The characters themselves, the quests, the cities, the plot devices. The Pencil Eraser as a stand-in for whatever nonsensical MacGuffins other games in the genre would present to impede your progress cracks me up all this time later: you need to fund an inventor so that he’ll develop a Pencil Eraser, which erases any pencil-shaped object it comes into contact with. Why would you ever have a need for that? Well, it turns out your enemies are blocking your progress using statues of pencils. They eventually adapt, and switch to statues of erasers, but don’t worry: your inventor pal comes up with the Eraser Eraser just in time. There are the fives moles in the mine, who all believe they are the third-strongest one, and are each prepared to show you the power of being third. F’n, Moonside, man. It might all seem like goofiness for the sake of it on the surface, but these decisions were riffs on how these kinds of video games operated, and it ended up creating a scenario and series of items more memorable than the ones it’s poking fun at. Itoi and the rest of Ape really understood the source material they were working with, and they created a classic as worthy of your time as anything they were spoofing, if not more so.

Itoi described his design philosophy in these games as one of “reckless wildness.” There was reason behind everything, but Itoi wanted both himself and his team to feel confident in pitching off-beat ideas in order to make EarthBound (and Mother games in general) more than just standard fare. And to make the games be something they could only be in the medium he had chosen for their stories:

Some people consider MOTHER entries to be big scenario scripts rather than games. But that’s not quite right; they wouldn’t have been interesting at all if they hadn’t been in game form. That’s what they were made to be from the very start, after all. They wouldn’t have been much fun in text form only. In game form, they’re an amalgamation of the ridiculous ideas I sometimes have as a player.

For example, in the Lost Underworld area of MOTHER 2, I portray the large size of the world by making the main characters very tiny. I would give these kinds of ideas to people at the workplace, and after a while of this, other people would start chiming in with other similar ideas of their own. Those links of reckless wildness are what the MOTHER games are built on.

Being weird or goofy isn’t my only aim, though. It might not be something game creators these days go for, but more than anything I have this strong desire to make people feel distraught. I want to give them laughter and joy too, of course, but I’m always filled with the desire to make people feel ever-so slightly heartbroken. Not just in games, but all sorts of things I work on.

It’s little wonder that Ape went on to become Creatures Inc., which works on various aspects of the Pokémon franchise, or that Satoru Iwata, then of HAL —who co-developed EarthBound with Ape — went on to bigger and better things at Nintendo after his experience assisting in EarthBound development: Iwata is a legend of the industry for many reasons, ones you would easily come to understand simply by reading entries from his Iwata Asks series, where he, as President of Nintendo, probed game developers and philosophized on what makes game development work or not work. While EarthBound might not have been a success from a sales point of view, those involved were certainly positively impacted by the experience of making the thing, in a way that guided their future design decisions.

Itoi might have loved to focus on heartbreak and distress, but you can tell he also wanted to create stories filled with hope. EarthBound is no different, especially in the game’s climax, which has your foursome of Ness, Paula, Sean, and Poo fighting against intergalactic conqueror Gygas, but unable to complete the task without help from, well, everyone else. Paula, a telepath, has the ability to reach the hearts and minds of others, and she reaches out to everyone she knows from this adventure, one person or group at a time, in the hopes they can send along the prayers and strength needed to defeat Gygas. Like with Mother 3’s focus on community, EarthBound, too, emphasizes that need for connection and working together. In Mother 3, the emphasis was on what happens when community is broken, but in EarthBound, it’s on what can be achieved when you come together in a world, and against a foe, that does not want you to.

Music is one more reason that EarthBound gets the nod over Mother 3 for me. Music has always been important in the Mother series — Ape cared enough about sound and music in the original Famicom offering that drums were an integral part of the music, even though the technology of the time meant that a constant drumbeat — and in the case of Mother’s soundtrack, not just drums, but also the constant use of a high hat —could interfere with sound elsewhere, since the systems were only capable of producing so many sounds at once. This was less of an issue on the Famicom than on the NES, of course, since the Famicom had enhanced audio capabilities compared to its international sibling, but still. That audio design decision, and the sheer volume of tracks available in the first game, were not subtle hints about the importance of music to the series. And EarthBound expanded on that importance with a soundtrack that remains stellar to this day.

"Pokey Means Business!” is a standout track, of course: it’s the penultimate boss theme, when Ness finally faces off against his asshole neighbor who has been making his life hell since the game started, except now Pokey is sitting inside of a giant spider mech that, as we learn upon defeating him, can also travel through time and space. The theme begins more chiptune-y than anything, but suddenly, sounds more befitting the SNES’ hardware and instrumentation abilities kick in, and the song is then metal as hell, with driving guitars and drums that very much do the job of telling you that Pokey does mean business.

That’s far from it for this soundtrack, though. Each town and city has its own theme, and there are once again multiple battle tunes that are designed to fit certain types of foes, be they sci-fi or alien or a household gadget possessed by evil or just some annoying hippie. The tracks are layered affairs, even more so than in the original since the SNES had the ability to utilize more instruments, and more instruments at once. They sound wonderful in their native form…

…but you can really hear how fantastic some of these tunes are when YouTubers decide to play all of the instruments individually and then mix it all together:

That song, “Boy Meets Girl,” which serves as the theme of the second city, Twoson, and also as a touching tune meant to make you feel nostalgic for your first meeting with another party member, played during the break at my wedding between the ceremony and the reception, along with other renditions of video game music the two of us thought were fitting. Yes, that’s right: my wife approves of me being like this, I am unstoppable.

I could do this all day with this soundtrack, but I won’t, other than to say you should also give this metal cover of “Pokey Means Business” a try, if for no other reason than to once again give Chip Tanaka the respect he deserves for pioneering an entire goddamn genre of music and then writing songs like this one within it:

Yes, EarthBound’s gameplay is pretty standard, if you’re thinking of how battles work (like classic Dragon Quest) or how you maneuver through the world (one town at a time, earning experience points and buying stronger gear in each new town). But the care given to “reckless wildness,” to making sure this game has heart both in its narrative design and in its sound design, to ensuring there is a message at the center of it all that goes beyond, “we can do anything so long as we have friends at our side!” as is too often the case in the genre… that’s what separates EarthBound from the rest. Despite being limited to the size of an SNES game, it feels like there is always something intriguing to discover or rediscover, some new angle to home in on, some decision to appreciate. That’s impressive, a reason I’m able to go back to it again and again and again, and also the kind of thing that gets you the devoted fan base EarthBound has, as well as the ranking I’ve given it here.

EarthBound remains a stunning achievement in the genre, an exceptionally playable and engaging adventure that, sadly, just never got the support base, numbers-wise, that it deserved. At least, at this point, EarthBound has seen re-releases on the 3DS and Wii U Virtual Consoles, as well as on the SNES Classic, so experiencing it doesn’t require dusting off your SNES and shelling out $300 on the secondhand market. If you don’t have any of those devices, well, it’s time to hope Nintendo puts the thing on their SNES channel on the Switch, because it remains 20-25 hours well spent all this time later.

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