While many of my friends are currently obsessed with new-fangledy video games such as World of Warcraft and the like, there has only been one true capital-'O' Obsession for this video game geekling: EarthBound. My brothers and I rented the game for our Super Nintendo many years ago, and while we all enjoyed it, my feelings about the game bordered on the near-unhealthy. Early video-game RPGs, like Final Fantasy, were all about the sword-and-sorcery: a band of intrepid adventurers - I always picked Fighter, Thief, Black Wizard, and White Wizard - wandered a mystical landscape, pitting their skills and weapons against goblins, ogres, dragons, and other mythical creatures. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but eventually it became the same old show.
EarthBound was like no game I'd ever played. You're a ten-year-old boy who awakes in the middle of the night to examine a mysterious meteor that crash-landed in your town. After you check out the meteor, your annoying neighbor enlists you to help find his little brother who's gotten lost, and along the way you meet up with a bee from the future who has traveled back in time to help you in your quest. Armed with a tee-ball bat, you and the bee - who, if you didn't catch it the first time, is from the future - combat a powerful alien, and you return the boys to their home...at which point he is killed by a flyswatter. I was hooked; I had never played a game like this before. This past week, I got my old SNES back, and I was just as excited to play the game as I was ten years ago.
EarthBound could be my favourite video game of all time. I have not had more fun playing an RPG in my entire life. Instead of creatures of legend, the game pits you against a mysterious cult that paints everything blue, the city police force, aliens, posessed department store goods, zombies, robots, piles of vomit, and, of course, silly hippies. The main character makes mincemeat out of these monsters, armed with his trusty baseball bat (or yo-yo) and psychic powers, but he's not alone. His companions include a girl who also has phenomenal psychic abilities and wields a frying pan, a nerdy guy who can make incredible machines out of broken tubes and spray cans, and a mystic ninja (no, not him) who gains his powers through studying the ancient philosophy of Moo. It's silly, but it's fun.
It not only creatively uses the conventions of RPGs up to that point, but examines them as well - sometimes to re-invent them, sometimes just to poke fun at them. Sure you have to talk to other people in the game, break into houses and look in drawers and presents, and slay wandering monsters, just like Zelda and FF. But every once in a while, you get a laugh out of it. Like the guy in the sleazy nightclub who says "I don't know why you talked to me. I have nothing informative to say, and nothing useful to give you. Do you think it's odd that I would be here?" Taking the conventions and playing with them takes a kind of meta-awareness that I find very appealing.
If you're expecting phenomenal graphics or fast-paced gameplay, look elsewhere: this is a 16-bit game, after all. Playing EarthBound is like watching old movies and being amazed at what they were able to come up with using limited resources. It's challenging and fun, a game you can curse at when it gets tough and laugh at...pretty much the rest of the time. If you can somehow track it down, I highly recommend it.