In the words of Zero Punctuation, if it doesn’t combine friendship with a hearty dose of God-killing, it just-isn’t a JRPG. That’s fine, if you know your enjoyment always stems from a particular detail, but for me, ignoring a game on the basis of one story-component sounds like the Mary-Berry-stamped recipe for restricting your own enjoyment.
As the gaming nitpicker and aggressively-nostalgic 90’s-kid I am, I loved Earthbound to bits. But almost in spite of itself, it still feels like a game in two halves. While its scrolly HP-counter and lack of random combat was a breath of fresh air, its kookily-addled townsfolk tapped schlocky 90’s stereotypes, and its coming-of-age narrative reeked of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, and just about every other JRPG that helped chisel-out the genre. All told through four plucky pre-pubescents who (wait for it) buddy-up to whack an alien god from possessing your lovely neighbourhood. It’s all very that-bit-in-Final-Fantasy-Legend.
On the face of it, Earthbound seems a prime example of Yahtzee Croshaw’s definition, culminating nicely amid Chrono Cross, SMT and Xenoblade in an anti-theistic crusade. But despite its apparent ‘JRPG-isms’, I wouldn’t argue Earthbound so much embodies the trope, as explores the restrictions of genre itself. All the while laughing in its face.
As my lackadaisical Mother referenced her own NPC weakness by telling me I’d ‘just sneak out of my room anyway’, and the cheery soundtrack was constantly re-hashed into weird-alien-disco-tune, I was kept aware that Earthbound was more than meets the eye; constantly questioning what on Earthbound was really going on. And indeed, its innovations seemed all the more noticeable for it, even if those deviations sometimes felt at odds with the narrative.
However, despite this palpable two-halviness, Earthbound’s key inner argument is one I still respect. An encouragement not to accept things at face value; that while teamin’-up-and-killin’-God might contribute to a game, that classification shouldn’t upstage the idiosyncrasies that can so often make the experience. What if we ditched familiarity for a day? How many promising adventures might cross our path?