Those beginning days, when a big stick and being quick on your feet meant you ruled the roost

EarthBound Beginnings (1989)

I took a deliberately slow meander around my old housing estate the other day, the neighbourhood where I grew up. I didn’t have to wait until I moved out before doing this, of course. I could have taken a curious walk around at any time while I lived there.

But after I left, the urge just struck me to come back and have an outsider’s look around the old place. It’s like what they always say: you can live somewhere your whole life, but it’s only when you come back and visit the place that you truly see what it’s like. I think I’ve mangled that phrase a bit, but anyway, that’s what I was up to. A tourist in my old childhood estate, the streets where I used to tramp. And to be blunt, it was a bit depressing.

Don’t worry, the area hadn’t become badly run down or anything. There were a few local yahoos, galoots and bottom feeders still knocking about the place, causing noise and being a general nuisance, but that was fine. No big deal. A chemical plant hadn’t been erected while I was gone, some evil, sterile building looming ominously over the estate. Nor had the land fallen to an army of chavs. In fact, I was almost wishing to see a few chav youths in and around the area.

But that was precisely the problem – there were no kids playing out on the roads, at all. No unwashed lads throwing stones at passing cars, either. This wasn’t lockdown or Christmas day, this was mid-term from school and a perfectly nice day. So what’s going on?

Such was the time that, on any given day of the week, there’d be a whole gaggle of us kids, all out playing together. Usually it was football, the universal game that anyone could play – any type of football, a couple of trees or jumpers for goalposts, boys and girls on either side and you were laughing.

It didn’t just have to be sport though; another favourite was Tip the Can. Remember that one? That was a cruel old game, you know. If you were “on”, you could be right on the cusp of victory before some awful bugger comes rushing from your blind spot to free all. It’s jubilation and celebration for them, while all your hard work up to that point is flung out the window. Bet you don’t remember your last game of Tip the Can, do you?

The age range of all of the kids present didn’t matter all that much either; you could be anything from 6 years old to 14, and be involved in the same game of twenty-a-side football.

It’s a bit ghoulish to say, I know, but it really is one of those things to reflect on. There was some imperceptible moment where it was no longer the done thing. One day, your friends stopped knocking on your door looking for a game of football. Or one day, you went inside and never went back out to your old childhood pals.

The playful days of childhood yore is why a game like EarthBound Beginnings will always appeal – mind you, you may know the game better as Mother. Ultimately, it’s a game that closely resembles the Peanuts comic strip, so much so that its resemblance prompted design changes to some sprites when this game finally got localised.

There’s some crazy, psychosomatic things going on in the world of EarthBound Beginnings, way beyond anything you and your pals saw on your travels in the vast, open world that was your neighbourhood. But ultimately, whatever about the abstract plot, the game is all about a group of young kids going on an adventure together – the way it should be.

It reminds me greatly of what I find to be one of the greatest movie lines of all time, purely because it’s true: Stand By Me’s ending quote, “I never had any friends later on like that ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

That’s the mantra that   the Mother games live by. And wow, there’s a game from way back when: ‘Mother May I’. I’ll always remember that as the first game I ever played with my very first proper group of pals, many of whom I haven’t seen for a very long time.

Or even when I do see them, often in a local den of iniquity, too much time has passed and we’ve drifted too far apart to reminisce about those days. Sometimes you just have to be in the right mood before you get nostalgic.

Anyway, they just spotted me as a 7- or 8-year-old child wandering about near my house one day, invited me over for a few silly games, and got to know each other through play, as kids should. We saw each other and grew up together every single day after that.

But I think we both know why roving bands of children, whose leader you could always find by looking for whoever held the biggest stick, no longer abound the estates. It’s a mixture of indoor technology – tablets, TV, video games.

I’m certainly not blameless in this regard – yes, I used to bring my Game Boy Advance out with me, all the goddamn time. And there were definitely occasions where, while everyone else would be pretending to do WWF Wrestling, I’d be sat in the corner trying to shave milliseconds off my times in F-Zero.

I don’t regret any of that, but you can see how we’ve swung way too far in the opposite direction. I also have a belief that parents are too worried about their kids falling prey to paedophiles, as if there are nonces on every street corner out there. So they won’t let their kids out as often.

It doesn’t stop them posting a zillion pictures of their spawn online, with full details of where their kids go to school, when they’re being babysat, when their house is empty, and all of the other information a budding kiddy fiddler might need.

None of that technology existed in the late 80s, when EarthBound Beginnings took place. And if EarthBound on SNES was obscure, which it’s pretty much grown out of by now like we all outgrew our childhood friends, then EarthBound Beginnings never got a chance to grow at all.

It was meant to be released on the NES outside of Japan, with a full translation completed even, but its US release was cancelled right at the death. Needless to say, Europe never even knew about it. Only in 2015 was this localization made available to a worldwide audience, finally showing us what came before Mother 2 and 3.

And the result? Honestly, you might as well stick with EarthBound, which did most of what EarthBound Beginnings did, but far better. There’s some interesting story here, and Mother series enthusiasts – who certainly exist in droves – will definitely want to see how the series got off to a start.

You have to remember that EarthBound Beginnings, and for that matter EarthBound, is essentially a send up of the Dragon Quest series – synonymous with RPGs in japan, but seen as a bit of a creaking antique wardrobe of some kind elsewhere.

This means EarthBound Beginnings is very much a product of its time, and its general release in 2015 understandably was far more hype than end product – a bit like my performances in the football fields among my friends. Despite our youthful confidence, none of us ever played for Man United like we always threatened.

From a modern RPG perspective, EarthBound Beginnings does an awful lot wrong. Unlike its two sequels, you don’t see the random encounters before they happen. And ‘up the wazoo’ is probably the best way to describe how frequent they are.

None of the SNES game’s psychedelic backgrounds to gaze at either, just sheer blackness. The dialogue and text in and out of battle is a bit more straight-laced than the SNES game as well. It’s all relative though – and had you played this in 1991 it would have shown a lot more levity than nearly every other game around.

You’ll need to grind like hell at times, which is definitely very Dragon Quest, and the end of the game has become infamous for being entirely unbalanced and far too difficult. In similar fashion to EarthBound SNES, the graphics in this game are pretty risible as well.

You should just stick to the Super Nintendo game for the best of childhood adventures. That said, you know as well as I do that the most efficient planning and building committees of all are young childhood gangs – you’ll remember that they got things done, bases built, and they knew how to delegate. And if you didn’t like it or want to be a part of it, you could naff off home in tears.

Well, these gangs of youths have grown up now, and some of them even make up part of the rabid EarthBound fanbase. You should just leave it to them to release a fan remake of EarthBound Beginnings because – like Tip the Can – it deserves a revival of some kind.

13 July 2021

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