Settings: Earthbound

September 07, 2016 ~ by Will McGee ~ part of Settings

In the second installment of 'Settings', we're jumping to one of my personal favorite games of all time: Hal Laboratories' Earthbound for the Super Nintendo.  Released in 1994, Earthbound was the sequel to a Japanese game for the NES called Mother (Earthbound was called Mother 2 in Japan) and sold poorly in the United States, due partly to its comparatively simple graphics (admittedly, its graphics don't look like much side by side with, say, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars) and partly to a non-sequitur ad campaign that attempted the risky gambit of 'appeal by gross-out',  scratch-and-sniff magazine advertisements and all.  Were it not for Ness's inclusion in Super Smash Bros for the Nintendo 64 (another Hal Laboratories game), this game might have gone the way of other Super Nintendo RPGs forgotten to history, but Ness's consistent appearances in the 'Bros kept him in gaming's cultural lexicon long enough to establish a fan base that would eventually convince Nintendo to release Earthbound on the Virtual Console, even following it up with the first American release of the original Mother (now 'Earthbound: Beginnings'), a full 27 years later.  Earthbound also has a sequel for the Game Boy Advance, Mother 3, that was, again, a Japan exclusive, this time with no American release except for a painstaking fan-translation released online as a patch for ROMs of the game.

Earthbound follows destined hero Ness, his psychic friend Paula, their techno-savvy friend Jeff, and their newest friend Poo, who is a prince from a far Eastern land called Dalaam.  Ness and his friends must travel the world linking their power with the Earth via sacred locations called 'Your Sanctuary Locations' in order to achieve the sort of power necessary to save the world from an interdimensional, Cthulhu-esque evil being called Giygas.  In the process, Ness and crew visit a wide variety of memorable and bizarre locations, to the point that most any town or dungeon in this game could have a Settings article written about it, but I chose to focus on the Dusty Dunes Desert .  You know a game is good when its desert level is good enough to warrant special mention.

On your way from Threed (the third major town, after Onett and Twoson... do you see the pattern here?) to Fourside (of course), Ness, Paula and Jeff (no Poo yet) pass through the sweltering Dusty Dunes Desert: a large, open area cut through the bottom by a highway and scored with the sound of a radio slowly fading in and out of range.  The first thing that greets you in the DDD is a large wooden sign simply reading "DRUGS", followed shortly by an actual drug store and an "Oh, that makes more sense" from the player.  Following that revelation, the desert itself contains sunbathers, bumper-to-bumper traffic, a human slot machine operated by three Mariachi-band-looking fellows named Pancho, Pincho, and Tomas Jefferson, a missing contact lens, a cave full of monkeys who all want different food items, a tiny white sesame seed looking for love, and, on the other end of the desert, an equally love-lorn tiny black sesame.  None of that is the first bit embellished or made-up.  What I'd really like to talk about, though, is the mine.

As it turns out, there are some miners in the middle of this desert who would like to dig for treasure, but the underground tunnels they stumbled onto by accident are infested with rope snakes, evil living nooses, angry ducks, and the Guardian Moles.  This dungeon has not one, not two, but five bosses lurking in the far corners of the twisty caverns, and each of them asserts that they are the third-most powerful of the five moles.  They even word it differently, with the last declaring that you have now defeated the most-powerful, second-most, second-least, and least powerful of the moles and have only the third-most remaining to fight.  To drive the point home, the wavy psychadelic background of each fight boasts a large "No. 3" against its undulating pattern.  When the final third-strongest Mole falls before your baseball bat and frying pan, the tense music of the dungeon returns to the staticy harmonica of the desert outside, and the miners can continue with their operation.  

But why, though?  The mine itself was not a 'Your Sanctuary' location, nor was anywhere else in that desert of absurdity.  It's perfectly possible to stroll straight through the desert to Fourside on one's first visit there, and soon after your arrival in Fourside you'll see a marquee outside of a theater advertising some old friends of Ness's, the Runaway Five, in concert.  The Runaway Five, so you can keep up, are a thinly-veiled parody of the Blues Brothers (from the 1980 film of the same name and preceding Saturday Night Live skit feat. John Belushi and Dan Akroyd) who frequently find themselves in inescapable contracts with greedy venue owners.  Speaking of which, that's exactly what has happened to them again, and they need Ness's help to get out of their contract.  Luckily, if you helped out the miners with their infestation of third-best moles, they pay you back with a diamond, which is enough to bribe the theater owner into shredding their contract and setting them free.

And, of course, this all comes in handy when you're raiding the corporate offices of the Monotoli Corporation a short time later (you may remember seeing the word 'Monotoli' on that building on the Fourside Stage of Super Smash Bros. Melee), because Mr. Monotoli's offices are guarded by a dangerous but clumsy robot (the boss's name in game is literally Clumsy Robot) who continuously restores its health by eating bologna sandwiches.  How is a robot obtaining not just sustenance but medical assistance from bologna sandwiches?  And more importantly, how can you defeat an enemy that keeps healing itself to full capacity?  With a little help from your friends, of course.  Do enough damage, and the Runaway Five will bust in the door to your rescue, leaping quickly into action to... unplug the robot.

In writing this article, I did my best not exaggerate any of the story or situations.  The fact of the matter is that Earthbound's story is so wildly unpredictable, entertaining and absurd that most of the game is spent in situations not unlike the ones I've described here.  Ness and Friends' adventures in the Dusty Dunes Desert and their consequences in Fourside keep the middle of the game fresh and entertaining, adding plenty of memorable scenes and locales to the plot without getting tiresome or filler-esque.  It really shows what a special game Earthbound is that an area of the game that ultimately isn't even particularly important to the plot has so much character and humor to it.


Ness and Friends' adventures in the Dusty Dunes Desert and their consequences in Fourside keep the middle of the game fresh and entertaining, adding plenty of memorable scenes and locales to the plot without getting tiresome or filler-esque.