It took me over half a decade to finally play through Earthbound. I tried numerous times over the years but each time I stalled at or before the town of Onett. Eventually I figured out the problem: I was trying to play the game on a PC emulator, in environments where I couldn’t get comfortable, or even put the sound on. My latest solution to this dilemma was to play it on my cell phone, with stereo headphones and a slide out keyboard with the d-pad on the right. Not quite the same as playing it on a genuine SNES, but you’d be amazed at how much better a game can be when you can curl up on the couch and let the soundtrack drown out the outside world. At the very least, it helped me get past Onett and all the way to the end credits.
In general, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really care about spoilers. I often like knowing what is coming ahead of time, and I believe that if a major plot event is done well enough, it can be just as powerful without the element of surprise. Still, there can be such a thing as knowing too much, and I believe this happened to me with Earthbound. While I didn’t understand the entire story, I was familiar with all the town names, the plot twists, and the nature of the final battle. While I still enjoyed experiencing the details for myself, I can’t help but feel this knowledge diminished the experience. This is a game that aims to add unconventional ideas into a fairly conventional game concept. If you already know of the unconventional parts, there’s less for you to grasp on to. If you haven’t played Earthbound and you are still in the dark, do everything you can to stay that way. You’ll be thankful once you start it.
Classic in its creepiness
Playing Earthbound made me go back and rethink my past experiences with its devoted fanbase. My mind is filled with reviews, retrospectives, and forum posts, where gamers poured their hearts out. They detailed the scenes that made them cry, the characters they clung to, and bubbled about all the reasons why the game was a classic. I remember descriptions that made it appear to leave the realm of video game and enter that of life changing events. Some of these were insightful and well written, but I’m going to have to echo my last suggestion, and say that new players should avoid these discussions until after you have finished. The problem is that Earthbound can be a very personal game. If you find some slice of your life within it, your take will likely be different than the next guy who plays it. Not only may you build up your expectations to disproportionate levels, but it may cause you to try and focus on what everyone else seems to like in the game, rather than what you yourself find intriguing. Earthbound simply cannot work this way.
If my impression of the fanbase is at all accurate, then I wish more of it would adopt this line of thinking. Instead, they run the risk of assuming that everyone who plays the game will regard it exactly the same way that they do. Negative opinions about Earthbound, and sometimes even opinions that are simply less positive, can muster up ridiculous responses. You could write one of those teary eyed anecdotes about how much you loved the game, and someone might still try to debate you, just because you didn’t like the Runaway Five that much. Unlike, say, Fallout fans, I detest the Earthbound fanbase for their enthusiasm. They have done some amazing things over the years, and their behavior is the result of being so moved by the game that they wish to share with everyone. I just think it’s best to leave them be until after you’ve finished playing.
Having said all of this, I do have a couple of bits of information which I think anyone should know going into Earthbound. Know that the combat is based on Dragon Quest, and even with all its additions and enhancements, the best way to survive is to play it like Dragon Quest. Use status ailments, conserve your MP, and don’t let items collect dust in the inventory. Know that the pacing in the first half the quest is not the same as in the second half. Know that nearly every inch of the experience was deliberate and carefully considered, but that sometimes this means standing under a waterfall, without hitting any buttons, for three minutes. Whether you find this brilliant or annoying is up to you.
My time with Earthbound was nowhere near the level which I had built it up to be in my head, yet less than 24 hours after completing it, it’s already growing on me more. It may not be the worst, or the best, but it is certainly one of gaming’s greatest labors of love. There’s something special about it as a result, and while I can’t say how you may feel about the game, I’m sure you’ll feel that it was something.