Earthbound, Never Homebound
Our brief glimpse into 1994 allowed me to relive a part of my life when things were comfortable and simple. The biggest concern I had was usually what to watch on the new cable system, when to finish my homework, or how I would pay for the newest issue of EGM. It was a time when my world was a few blocks big, arcade machines and comic books where everywhere, and where worries about career, life, and love were abstract, incomprehensible fictions in the face of the playground. 1994 was the last hurrah of childhood—of games during recess, of choosing sides in the Nintendo vs. Sega battle, of pizza, sleepovers and friends. When 1995 rolled over, I had lost family members, lost the friends that had been my elementary school life, and was, more and more, being pushed towards adolescence. 1995 brought quiet school days spent on the bleachers reading, a wardrobe of fat-concealing vests (handy for pockets as well as confidence), and the inexplicable afternoons where I would lock myself away, curl up, and just cry.
Somewhere along 1995’s march to middle school, I ran across EarthBound. That’s not entirely true, though. I had known of EarthBound because of the publisher’s extensive marketing campaign, which leaked a number of ads into Nintendo Power as a lead up to its release. As with other games I knew I would never own, EB was recognizable but not formed. I knew it was an RPG, in a time when Lunar: The Silver Star and Final Fantasy II/III were the only RPGs I cared for. I knew that it had gorgeously quirky Claymation ads, which weren’t part of the game proper. And probably most importantly, there were a number of Scratch-n-Sniff promos for the game that made everything just so silly.
It was a game with humor, and a game that smelled. That's what I knew. Now grown, I understand the importance of sense memory – how, neurologically, scents can enhance recall and, when paired with an experience, cause moments in our histories to become inexplicably conjoined. But as a child, smelly ad stickers were probably the best way to get my attention.
I didn’t know what to expect when I checked the game out of my local videogame store one Friday evening. I couldn’t really explain why a small rental chain would invest in a brand new copy of EarthBound when game was a slow-burn RPG that gave off a kind of goofy vibe. All I know is that I saw the stout Starman on the cover, the game box perched imposingly behind the counter, and knew I wanted to see what all those off-kilter ads were about.
Note: EarthBound has found its way to the Wii U virtual console. Give it a spin if you haven’t had the pleasure!
Of course, the problem with RPGs is that they’re meant to be enjoyed over days, weeks, maybe even months. There’s long dumps of text, hours of grindy combat, trial-and-error pathfinding, stories loaded with character, turns, twists and sideplots. That’s not exactly conducive to a two-day rental. And of course, any progress made can be slashed away by the hyperactive kid that’s next in line to grab the game once it’s returned to circulation.
It wasn’t easy, but I convinced my parents to let me play the game over the course of a week. Good little renter that I was, I would, daily, return to the rental store, bring the game to the clerk, and ask if I could re-rent the game. And again, daily, I would walk back home, plop the game into my SNES, and continue the fight. I braved slime monsters, pepper-dogs, street toughs, crazy cultists, all kinds of whacked-out, humorous characters: a running teleport that left people charred if they ran into a wall, and a very demented, very chubby, former friend as an antagonist. The game captivated me in a way that no game had before.
Part of it was the modern setting and polished presentation. Part of it was capturing a feeling of moving from something very small and insignificant to a world of complexity, oddness, and fear. EB recognized that towns and cities and countries had very weird, very idiosyncratic hang-ups. Because as much as people liked to play music, ride their bikes and tan on the beach, they also got into some crazy problems, dealt with unique obsessions, or were just plain imperfect. The lack of the sword and sorcery trappings of high fantasy didn’t mean the game was devoid of otherworldliness – it just found that otherworldliness in the everyday. A black phone was the stand-in for the main character’s father, physically absent, sometimes providing only money and a reminder to take a break, but always there to say a word to his son. That it was so real and yet so surreal was like nothing else I had ever experienced.
And so it was that on a Thursday night, hands shaking with adrenaline, I pressed the button that committed my final act.
Relieved that I had survived the psychedelic onslaught of a primeval alien mind, Giygas, I put the controller down to enjoy the ending. As I sat there, the experience of breezing through a game — renting it day after day, getting through it all with no help — crashed down. I realized just how lonely the journey had been. There was no one around I could share my victory with. I had no one to reach out with and discuss the journey. No one to pour over magazines and strategize with. My character, Alex, had won the day. But it wasn’t for myself that I named the character. It was for my cousin.
It wouldn’t be till middle school that I would be called Alex – my birthname is a bit longer and more ethnic than ‘Alex’ (thanks, mom and dad). But all through my childhood, I had an Alex to look up in the form of my cousin. He was the one that introduced me to video games, the one that had a collection of comics, the one that wore a cool leather jacket, had a PC with Windows 3.1, watched Star Trek, collected Bruce Lee and Godzilla films, and (most importantly) the one that put up with me. He introduced me to the nerdy, geeky things of life, and for a large part of my childhood had been a friend I could rely upon.
Alex was four years my elder. He lived in a leisurely suburb in The Valley, outside of the tumultuous core of Los Angeles. He slept on a water bed (later, a futon), owned a replica Batman ’89 cowl and Darth Vader helmet, had a science experiment kit, a PowerGlove, stacks and stacks of comics, a mini-fridge in his room and enough G.I. Joe figurines to create an action figure burial ground in his backyard. If that wasn’t enough to make him the Alpha Nerd, he also lived in a home with a pool – and a water slide.
Initially, I emulated his interests. Video games were a given, but sci-fi movies? Hong Kong action sagas? Comics? WWF wrestling? Trading cards? These things were foreign to me, but if my cousin liked them, I figured there was substance to them. And substance there was. Beneath cheesy sets, bad cinematography, and a host of other technical missteps, the things he enjoyed were engaging. Wrestlers were larger-than-life cartoon humans. Their matches were Homeric epics played on a squared stage. Japanimation explored themes and visuals unmatched by western counterparts. Bruce Lee movies, though uneven, were a showcase of physicality. The more science fiction I read, the more I was interested in the unknown. Alex was a gatekeeper to the niche, the fandom, and his own interests spurred my own forays into science, art, literature, and popular culture.
Whenever possible, I would ask my parents if I could sleep over. There, we would stay up into hours of the night previously unknown to me. We would watch movies, share comic books, trade NES cartridges, all in an effort to keep sleep at bay. At these sleepovers, I played my first WinDOS games, solved puzzles in Star Trek: The 25th Anniversary, saw the endings to Ninja Gaiden and a litany of other classic NES games. If our stores of entertainment ran out, we’d flip to the television and catch late-night shows, stumbling across The Chevy Chase Show or Arsenio Hall, eating saltines and slices of turkey meat slathered with mustard and honey, hoping for a new Twilight Zone or Tales From The Darkside rerun.
Throughout 1994, things became strained. The childhood sleepovers stopped. There was hardly time for playing video games, or trekking to the local comic book shop. Part of this was Alex’s bustling social life: Jeet Kune Do tournaments, high school coursework, and a host of other obligations unique to teenagers that just didn’t make sense to me. But there were equal parts animosity and familial angst to be found: less participation in birthdays and barbecues, more pointed questions toward his father.
I could understand. My uncle was strict, direct, and didn’t take any sh*t. He was a great uncle, but as a father? Probably not as enjoyable. I remember playing a beat-em up on the Genesis in my room when my cousin turned the subject to hating his father. Not just being annoyed. Not being upset. Hating. I did the best I could to handle the conversation, empathizing, rationalizing, then turning it to something neutral, but being 11 I couldn’t offer much. My mother knocked shortly after and he began to leave. I started wrapping the cord to his fancy new 6-button controller, but he stopped me.
“Don’t worry about it. You can borrow it for a while, man.”
It was the last thing I remember him saying to me.
Sometime in December of 1994, there was a falling out and he left. In January of 1995, I returned from a trip to visit my grandparents and was told that he wasn’t in my life anymore. Just like that. But he wasn’t just gone. In fact, his brother lived in a duplex just around the corner from my yard. I could stand in front of my kitchen window, look over, and see into the yard of his house – remember, for instance, the day I played Sonic CD there, or the day we watched some of Akira. He was out there in the world, living each day, enjoying the things we had enjoyed. And on some days, he was just a fence away. But by some ill-defined circumstance, we weren’t family anymore.
That feeling didn’t settle into normalcy those first few months of 1995. It wasn’t until July, with the bustle of middle school, the upheaval of my elementary school habits, and an uneventful trip to the ER, that my cousin’s fractured absence began to be smoothed over by routine and by new anxieties. By then, the PlayStation had made small waves, and Sailor Moon was in my living room every morning. The stuff of childhood receded a bit more and more as the days passed.
Finishing EarthBound, with its affirmation of hope and community, served to stress just how different — how much more solitary — the first half of 1995 had turned out for me. EB was the first game I finished entirely by myself. It was the first gaming experience I internalized, the first time my reactions were not colored by someone else, the first time I could explore the story by myself. It was rewarding beyond measure, engaging on a deep level, and entirely my own. There was a certain significance to finishing the game before I entered middle school — perhaps some cheery foreshadowing about making unlikely friends, or persevering in the face of uncertainty. It became a reminder about childhood being filled with nonsensical things accepted as gospel. It became the latest in a series of goodbyes that had littered the last year. Returning to a life without EarthBound was lonely. After all, I had lost a mentor, role-model, and close friend. The only thing left was silence.
On my final trip to return the game, I looked at my neighborhood and realized that the houses on my block were just a little bit different. My half-cousin’s duplex was just another house now, with a tenant that I had once known, and now pretended not to know. It was a place that had revealed the Sega CD and the wonders of import anime, now just another house with people that were oddly familiar but not family anymore. Try as I might, I couldn’t help but wonder if my cousin was there playing some game, watching some movie, or …
I hope, at least, he got the chance to try EarthBound some day. If he did, though, he wouldn’t be able to name one of the characters after me. My name’s too long to fit.