For close to 20 years EarthBound has remained a distant curio to European videogame players. Launched in Japan in 1994, it was the sequel to the curious Famicom RPG, Mother, a game written and designed by Shigesato Itoi, a popular Japanese author, musician and advertising slogan writer. In its home nation, EarthBound was anything but a curio. Itoi's celebrity status combined with input from Nintendo's best-known game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, as well as the company's current president, Satoru Iwata, made the game an instant success.
Set in a modern American town, here was a game unlike any other in which the hero was a boy in pyjamas whose weapon was a yo-yo and whose enemies were town thugs, mean rats and even local racists; it was a far cry from the knights and dragons that filled most Japanese role-playing games both then and now.
Stuffed with references to brands such as Coca Cola, the Beatles and Star Wars, the game underwent a significant translation before EarthBound debuted in America in 1995. Despite a whopping reported $2 million marketing spend, however, it sold only 150,000 copies in the US and with the Super Nintendo system well into its twilight months, Nintendo chose not to bring the game to Europe.
The Mother We Share
As such, the game's arrival on Virtual Console around the world is something of a momentous occasion, finally bringing one of Nintendo's few remaining lost classics to those it has eluded for two decades. In the intervening years fashions may have changed - after all, the videogame medium discovered an entire new visual dimension soon after its original release - but time has not dulled this game's charms and EarthBound still casts a potent spell on those willing to yield to it.
The magic is, for once, in the mundane; this is a game without lavish spells or outrageous armouries. While its rhythms will be familiar to anyone who has played a JRPG - exploration leads to battles leads to exposition - it's dressed in familiar western clothing. You battle enemies with baseball bats, not swords; your armour is a peaked cap, not chainmail; health is restored by eating cookies and hamburgers, not by drinking potions. Any money you earn from defeating enemies is transferred to your bank account and must be withdrawn from ATM machines in hotel lobbies and you're just as likely to have to convince a policeman to let you through a barricade as you are to defeat a hulking alien monster.
That's not to say there are no mystical elements. Your quest is to collect a number of magical melodies scattered across the world in order to thwart the plans of some nefarious and ancient alien invaders, but the fantasy and science fiction is given a freshness via the setting.
Beyond this, EarthBound's greatest power is in Itoi's script, which shifts with an easy grace between humorous and poignant, delivering one of the medium's strongest and idiosyncratic storylines. The kooky narrative pulls together with a sleek battle system and enticing side-missions to deliver an experience of greater power and potency than many games with far larger teams and budgets. A genuine classic that, at long last, is within our reach.