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Earthbound and children at play


This is Making Time, a column about the games we've always wanted to play, and the games we've always wanted to play again.

Earlier this month, a friend on Twitter asked his followers to name a "perfect game." The resulting conversation was fascinating, as hordes of players listed games while also admitting that each had "flaws," or that the plot wasn't strong enough to be considered perfect. Some refused the notion that a perfect game could ever exist, or argued that it shouldn't exist, because perfection is unattainable.

After spending time with Earthbound's recent Wii U Virtual Console, I've come to think otherwise. Earthbound is perfect. To be clear, it's not perfect because it's a flawless product, but because it expresses a coming-of-age adventure in every ounce of its code. At its roots, Earthbound (Mother 2 in Japan) is like a group of children at play, in a world much larger and darker than themselves.

Gallery: Earthbound (Wii U) | 5 Photos

Created by HAL Laboratory and APE Inc. (led by Shigesato Itoi) Earthbound has players assume the role of a boy named Ness (or whatever they choose to name him), who wakes up one night to the loud crash of a meteorite in his hometown of Onett. Before long, Ness must travel to eight "sanctuary" locations – picking up other "chosen" friends along the way – to build enough strength to stop the evil alien Giygas.

Earthbound is an RPG, and an incredibly simple one at that. Ness and his friends Paula, Jeff and Poo each have four equipment slots, a personal inventory section and their own strengths and attributes. Ness and Paula are capable of psychic attacks and support commands (PSI) that use psychic points (PP), and each character has a health/hit power (HP) meter. Earthbound's simplified RPG style draws many comparisons to other Nintendo series, such as Pokemon. But where Pokemon captivated youthful audiences for years, Earthbound captured what it means to be a young, playful child.

Earthbound is my favorite game of all time, but this headline isn't
If you've ever observed, or have been a part of a group of children slaying imaginary enemies, you might have noticed how they narrate each action, starting with the initial encounter of an adversary. Earthbound mirrors these innocent battles, with characters using pans, yo-yos and baseball bats to destroy villains. The quests Ness tackles in each town become increasingly absurd; one minute Ness is dueling with "New Age Retro Hippies," the next he's chasing down ghosts and fighting possessed circus tents. He uses a wad of cash to pay off a theater owner, allowing the Runaway Five (a six-man musical group) to transport the kids to the next town. At one point, to progress through a cave, players must give a piece of bubble gum to a monkey so it will blow a bubble and drop a rope ladder. That, among many other puzzling solutions, are simply a part of Earthbound's signature style.

Often boring RPG elements are delivered from a child's perspective. Need to save your game and get money to move forward? Call your father. Are your pockets too shallow in your inventory? You need to share items with your friends. Are you homesick, so much that it affects you during battle? Call your mother. Even the game's quirkiest elements – like the "pencil eraser," a machine that can only erase pencil-shaped objects from existence – is the equivalent of an ordinary twig becoming a magic wand in a child's hands. Earthbound doesn't just ooze imagination, it envelops players within it.

Using those creative trappings, Earthbound also delivers on a number of themes, namely friendship, courage and faith, and although the game is nearly 20 years old, I'm hesitant to spoil the adventures of Ness and company. Suffice it to say that it evolves into a plot far too big for a group of kids, and that seemingly meaningless things can become a crucial part of the story. Earthbound still makes me laugh, and it still makes my heart heavy whenever it wants to. Without ruining the truly important parts of the ending, consider what kids do when they're done playing for the day. The simple answer is that they go home to their families. If that doesn't put the perfect cap on a children's adventure tale, I don't know what will.

Earthbound is my favorite game of all time, but this headline isn't
The Wii U is a great home for Earthbound. Sharing screens on the Miiverse community is a fun way to socialize your adventure, and the Virtual Console's quick-save options are very welcome. The ability to play on the TV or the GamePad is also a great addition, and Earthbound is well suited for handheld play. I did notice a number of moments where the game slowed to a crawl for about 30 seconds at a time, particularly in Mr. Carpainter's domain in Happy Happy Village and in Threed, primarily when there were a lot of sprites or enemies on the screen at once. It doesn't ruin the experience by any means, but it's a noticeable flaw.

This minor issue aside, no one should question the game's $10 price on Virtual Console. Earthbound is rare, both as an elusive physical product and as a masterful, expressive RPG. $10 is an absolute steal. Strolling through the Miiverse channel for Earthbound, I was thrilled to see a few messages from fellow players expressing their excitement over playing it for the first time, a strange empathetic feeling I've had with no other game. In short, Earthbound is essential, an expertly-balanced experience that allows players to either cruise through Ness' journey with lighthearted enjoyment or stop to consider its deeper themes. Either way, you'll have plenty to appreciate.

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