Perhaps you are aware that, in 1995 in North America, Nintendo published a game for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System entitled EarthBound. (If you are unaware, you can read more about this event on Wikipedia or Starmen.net.) During the course of tonight’s live stream Jmac and Doug play The Little Match Girl 2: Annus Evertens, @jmac observed several parallels worthy of further discussion, but there wasn’t time to elaborate. I hope that he can do so here!
Additionally, Ryan (@Afterward) and Zach and Sarah (usernames unknown, if they have them?) have been recording the Third Strongest Podcast about EarthBound for the past month. Are you listening? You should be.
Sarah is @malacostraca !
The parallels between EarthBound and the Little Match Girl games are of course very fascinating and someone could probably make a cool list. But @jmac also said that EarthBound is an important reference point for text games in general which I think is very apt. It uses text in ways that video games arguably had not discovered before—but that many games since have benefited from.
There’s the way dialogue can be timed out, stretching out a written scream or creak over the course of realtime seconds. There’s the way it it uses the textual combat format to tell a story (or a comedy sketch) in a space that’s normally reserved for dry “ELMO casts HEAL! ELMO gains 3 HP!” messages.
There’s the way it uses text as a reward for player interaction! The inventory interface has a “Help” action that displays a little description for each item. There’s a lot of “Eating this will restore 40 HP” in there, but there are a lot of jokes or weird musings too. In a modern game, this text would show up as soon as your cursor appeared over the item. Having to hit three or four buttons to see the text is very inconvenient, but it adds so much to the pacing. It makes the jokes funnier.
It’s a shame that MOTHER 3 (Earthbound 3) started out as an Nintendo 64 game, then moved to the ill-fated 64DD, before being shelved and then finally released for the Game Boy Advance, albeit only in Japan. One more reason why Japan gets a lot more exclusives.
I played EarthBound for the first time this summer (via the SNES Online for the Switch) and – what a game! It’s honestly been a while since I’ve been this invested in a video game story. I loved the quirkiness, the humour, the tonal whiplash with actually dark and unsettling parts, the characters… The actual gameplay (fighting and exploration) I found really rough, though. The text descriptions were my favourite part of combat – even early game enemies, who often do nothing on their turn, were entertaining thanks to those. On the flipside, once you’ve seen these lines a couple of times, combat becomes dull, and at times I found myself wishing for the “classic” jRPG random encounters instead of the enemies being visible in the overworld. This teased me so many times into thinking I can avoid a fight, only to be sneak-attacked from behind by an enemy that’s faster than me (and a jerk, too – enemies will frequently not engage even when you come very close, but the moment you try to go around them or turn away and run, they jump at you from behind, getting a free attack at the start of combat).
I still enjoyed the game very, very much, which speaks volumes to how good I found everything else. (The music, too – how could I have forgotten about the music?). I played Mother 3 some years ago, so I sort of knew what to expect, but the weirdness still surprised me and delighted me to no end. I also enjoyed these games much more than a more recent, well-known one which frequently gets compared to them, and which didn’t really work for me (which is fine, no game’s for everyone!).
So, yeah, EarthBound rocks.
Hey the podcast is pretty cool. Something else to be said about the opening is that although the setting is a series of mundane towns, the player’s first experience of it is totally liminal. Awakened out of bed, a child wandering around at night, it’s the least mundane side of your neighborhood, followed by mundane. It’s the reverse of what’s maybe the more typical opening, normal-to-weird.