Japanese roleplaying games have earned themselves the dubious distinction of sharing any number of stale tropes - the dreaded trifecta of big hair, big swords, and big speeches. So commonplace are these elements, it seems like writers often stumble over outlandish premises to make their stories distinct. The main characters are mercenary-space-orphans bioengineered in vats to one day kill God? Take a number and get in line. The whole thing was the ghost of a memory's dream? I think I remember that from Dallas. Yet for all this wackiness, one of the most bizarre vistas ever visited in a JRPG is not some medieval field or far-flung space station, but someplace far wilder - the suburbs of anytown U.S.A.
Nintendo's EarthBound trades the standard sword and sorcery of traditional fantasy for the domestic charms of small-town life. It takes place in "Eagleland," a country cobbled together from calming, Rockwellian portrayals of Americana. The game is set in "199X," but it harkens back to a simpler time: Dogs wander about, 50s-style diners line the streets, and kids play together on the curbside. Everything seems picture book perfect - that is, until the indestructible robots from space attack.
The strange happenings begin when a meteorite crashes down outside of town. A young boy, Ness, hops out of bed, arms himself with his trusty bat, and heads outside to check investigate. Once the cops patrolling the area disperse, he finds a pulsing stone that cracks open to reveal ... a bug. And it talks! And it's from the future! The meteor-future-space-insect, who introduces himself as Buzz Buzz, brings dire portents of a future in ruins, an ultimate evil destroyer hatching plans upon the earth, a "chosen boy," an ancient prophecy, and the importance of "wisdom, courage, and friendship." Here is one talking bug with a lot on his mind. It's a good thing he gets all this off his chest, as he is squashed by a shrieking mom mere minutes later. If only every game got rid of its speechmaker so handily, once they wore out their welcome.
From this premise, EarthBound has all the trappings of a standard JRPG - the vague words about humble heroes and big destinies, the threat from beyond stirring otherwise simple folks to adventure. We've heard all this before. But set within an ostensibly normal suburb, even one as broadly fictional as Eagleland, the proceedings take on a certain verve. Instead of arming themselves with swords and shields, the neighborhood kids take up baseball bats, yo-yos and popguns to confront the extraterrestrial threat. Rather than slaying goblins and trolls, they face more urban fare - crazed cultists, deranged hippies, out-of-control taxicabs, and the occasional big pile of puke. Sometimes, EarthBound offers up straight suburban analogs for standard RPG mechanics - pretty soon, you'll become used to saving your game at telephones, or speeding around on bicycles from town to town. But often this change of scenery turns these assumptions on their ear, and forces the player to think twice. I know, for example, deep in the cockles of my heart, that a red slime is tougher than a blue slime. But what about an Overzealous Cop vs. a Cranky Lady? And how many HP does a New Age Retro Hippie have?