“Essay Thirteen: Conversation with Steven Abel – EarthBound and Nostalgia”

Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz



bookwarm “The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”


Wesley: So we were just talking about speedruns and that sort of thing. What I’m doing now with EarthBound is almost the opposite of a speedrun… But I was thinking back to when we used to play video games together. Which one of us was better at video games, Steve? Because I think that’s the first thing we need to clear up.


Steven: I think you might have to talk to our friend Michael, who used to give us money for getting stars for him on Super Mario 64.


Which one of us made more money, that’s how we should figure it out?


Yeah. I think he used to pay us a dollar per star.


All right, we’ll consult our piggy banks and our friend Michael from soccer. OK, then speaking of that: we’ve also got a standing agreement that the first of us to make a million dollars is going to share, what, half of it with the other? I forgot already.


It all depends on which of us makes the million dollars first. If you do, then definitely the agreement was to share half. If I do, I think it was only like twenty-five percent… No, it was half! I guess now it’s recorded for all eternity.


Now that we’ve cleared those two little matters up: So when did we first play EarthBound? This is one of those things that’s lost in the mists of time. We were friends from playing soccer together and we would hang out, right, we’d have these sleepovers where we would play video games all night. Was EarthBound a game that we were playing when we were really little, or at what point was it? Do you remember?


I think that we were probably around eight or nine when we started playing EarthBound. I don’t think that was one of those games we played super late. I remember us being a little bit older before we were actually able to stay up all night. I still remember with Final Fantasy X spending all night finding some of those special weapons. With EarthBound, for me my fondest memories were being in your room or your living room, eating Goldfish, and I actually just enjoyed watching you play for a while. I will admit that you were much better than me at RPGs.




I will concede that you were much better at that.


Thank you! Well, you know the reason I was–I mean if I was better–it was because I had friends who were older who taught me how to play those games. You remember Greg and Donald, the neighbor kids, right, they would play them, and then these neighbors that used to live next door to us for a while who were their age also. They would play those games like Final Fantasy II, or what’s Final Fantasy II in the US, they would play that when I was really little. So I would watch them play that and I would think: that’s the coolest thing. Because these are the kids I looked up to. That’s why. I think that made me want to learn how to read better, because so much of role-playing games is just reading text, listening to what people say, and just the amount of time and patience maybe to sit there and figure out what you’re supposed to do next sometimes. Or what do you mean? How can you be better at an RPG? I want to figure that out first of all.


You grew up in an environment which was atypical in the US at that time, in that you had friends who introduced you to RPGs. I don’t think RPGs were necessarily that big in America then. In my household and in my neighborhood it was primarily platformers we were playing: Super Mario World, Super Mario 3, Mega Man. I also really enjoyed Punch-Out. So to me video games were kind of about getting to the endpoint as quickly as possible. There were puzzles in platformers, but they’re not the same kind of puzzles that pop up in RPGs. So for me it was more just about getting it done as quickly as possible. In RPGs you have to explore, talk to people, figure out the clues they’re dropping, and I didn’t have the patience for that. I didn’t enjoy that as much as you did. It was just a lack of exposure to that genre at the time. It wasn’t until Final Fantasy VII. We got our PlayStation and I used to watch my brother play that for hours on end–and then our stupid memory card got corrupted multiple times, so I was pretty familiar with the first, like, twenty hours of Final Fantasy VII. But mostly I grew up with competitive games, you know, Mario Kart, Street Fighter, RBI Baseball or something like that. So it wasn’t really RPG-centric for me.


Speaking of Final Fantasy VII: that’s kind of the big one that bridged those two worlds for a lot of people. If you grew up playing video games like Mario and Street Fighter and you were into the action elements of the games and like efficient gameplay and all that sort of thing and then you see FFVII I remember that was one of the first games I ever saw commercials for on TV, a little cut scene with the train going around Midgar city, and I was like oh my gosh, what is this thing? I was fascinated by that, and I remember your brother had that game before I did. I don’t know if I even had a PlayStation until I was like, oh I have to get this game and play it.


Minor correction: I actually got FFVII for Christmas. I’d never had heard of it before. I think it was one of the games where my brother said to my parents, ‘Steve will like that,’ and then he confiscated it and just played it in his room and left me in another room.


And when he needed you to replay the first twenty hours he would have you come in. Man, big brothers… So I was a big brother and you were a little brother, and maybe that’s part of the secret of our success playing games together. I’m starting to see I had a little more patience for certain kinds of games, and I think I would concede that you had more skill. You could always beat me at Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros., those games you were better at.


I think it’s probably more that I played against people with better motor skills than I did so I had to adapt. As a quick aside, you used to kick my butt at Super Smash Bros. for the N64 and then I went to college and played it to where I almost failed out of my freshman year because of it, played Smash probably six or seven hours a day, and came back home and smoked you. So I think it’s just the level of competition that you’re playing with.


Here’s the memory that’s burned into my head: so Ape Escape.




We played it for hours and hours, we were determined that we were going to get a hundred percent on each location on this game. We were like, it’s going to be awesome. And we did a really good job taking turns and playing through and then we get to the very last monkey that has to be caught for the hundred percent and you caught the monkey. You jerk!


Didn’t we later find out that that wasn’t actually the last monkey?


I know, but that’s a technicality. OK so back to EarthBound. You had a copy of that and you lent it to one of our other friends from the soccer team. And then did he ever talk to you again? You never heard from him again, right?


Well, I guess the story was I thought I’d misplaced it–I couldn’t find it–I tore my house apart and couldn’t find it but finally I just woke up one day and realized that I had lent the game to that friend, who shall remain nameless, who by that time was on a different soccer team. I thought, oh this sucks, I’ll never see him again. But then at college I saw him at the bar one time. And I approached him. I said, ‘Hey, what’s up, buddy? How’s it going?’ He’s like, ‘Oh man, long time no see!’ ‘Yeah, you have my EarthBound. Can I have that back?’ And then I never heard from him again.


Well it’s worth a lot of money, right? I mean maybe he sold it. Or maybe he realizes it’s the greatest game ever and he’ll never part with it now that he’s got his grimy little hands on it.


Well, I did get it for five bucks from the Gaithersburg FuncoLand. They used to have those bins full of SNES game cartridges. After watching you play it, I saw it there and I was like, ‘Maybe I want to start playing this game from start to finish, too.’ I was able to beat it before I parted with it, so I still got to experience it.

Image result for funcoland

For a while there it was very rare, and it wasn’t on the Virtual Console. But there was this network of people who had these experiences with the game and really loved it, and so on starmen.net there’s this online community that grew up around the game. They worked really hard to try to get Nintendo of America to finally release EarthBound and its prequel and sequel, and I know that at least the first two are now available on the Virtual Console. Is Mother 3 AKA Earthbound 2? Is that something you can play on a Nintendo system at this point? I don’t actually know.


Not legally.


That’s really sad, though.


I mean, you can always import one and play it if you know Japanese. Unfortunately, we don’t. And I don’t really understand Nintendo of America’s process on it. It could be a huge moneymaker, a huge seller for them if they released it. I believe that the fan translation said that Nintendo could use it if they ever do release it.


I know the fan translations are out there, and I know you can experience the game that way, but it’s different when it’s this fan-led thing versus the actual licensed product, that’s a different world. Part of that, to go back to Final Fantasy VII, was that Nintendo had this great relationship with Square, who made all the Final Fantasy games, and then they weren’t going to have the technology to be able to provide the new Final Fantasy. So Square had to go and find someone else to do it. So by thinking about the connection between the technology and the story that you’re trying to tell or the kind of game that you want to release, that’s where I’m curious about what happens these days when it’s just become so much easier to access content. I guess because we grew up with it we feel a certain way, but how do you have this attachment to Nintendo or Square or some of these big names anymore? I feel like there’s a difference between playing the fan-made version on an emulator versus playing the real game released by the named company, but I can’t put my finger on it. Do you see what I’m saying there? I know that was a lot of different stuff.


Yeah, that was kind of all over the place… I think for me, I just loved Nintendo games. I know that they’re very stringent with their allowable use on different platforms and things. They sometimes go out of their way to shut down YouTubers for copyright infringement, like let’s plays and stuff like that. I don’t know, but to me there’s something to that. I’ve played games on emulators before, and I’ve played things on Steam, but for some reason there isn’t that same kind of nostalgic feeling of playing on a Nintendo console. We were talking the other day about the Super Nintendo Mini that came out, and to me there’s nothing better than having that feeling of pressing the On button, having the games boot up, picking up the controller and playing on a legitimate Super Nintendo on a TV.


That’s so strange, though. It’s the same game. Maybe that’s the real question, though: how can you love something if it’s just a bunch of electronic circuits? There’s something about the physical console. It sounds like how people talk about the difference between reading an e-book and having an actual paper book. It seems like it’s something like that and maybe it is a nostalgia thing, a loyalty thing to the name, to the company, to that feeling you have, the sensory memories of sitting and playing that game and eating Goldfish, like you said. They’re very strong memories.


To me there’s definitely a strong attachment to physical video games. I mean, I still have all of my video games from back then. I guess I started getting them when I was like three years old. I have Sesame Street One, Two, and Three. I learned math and stuff on those kinds of games, you know. I had a bunch of friends whose parents, any time there was a new console, they would make their kids sell their games to finance the new one, selling them for pennies on the dollar, and it’s not even worth it. I still have my original Pokémon games and the boxes. I don’t know, I think it’s just a strong nostalgic feeling. I like to have something physical. Actually I follow this YouTuber whose thing is to collect cartridges and then use plastic cases–you get the old games’ box art, print that out, put it in the sleeve, and it’s almost like going to Blockbuster. Which is another feeling that I have that’s very nostalgic! I sit around on Netflix, that’s all digital and nothing looks interesting, but back in the day at Blockbuster I feel like I could always find something.

Image result for blockbuster

There’s something different about that browsing in the actual place.


Maybe it’s just the amount of effort that you have to put in, you feel like you’re actually doing something. Or maybe since something is so on-demand you feel like you can neglect it now and you can get back to it whenever you want to. With Blockbuster you either pick a movie and you get it now or you’re not coming back. You have to make a decision.

It’s really weird. Video games take up a lot of space. A lot of them I haven’t touched in years, and probably I will never actually play again. But my parents are actually moving and it’s kind of sad because I have to figure out where I’m going to move my video game collection. Throwing them out is not an option. So it’s probably going to be a storage unit somewhere around here where I’m going to spend like fifty bucks a month just to store my video games.


But it’s so worth it! So about the YouTubers: Like you said, there’s a really strong community of people who are interested in collecting games, who are interested in speedruns and mastering the absolute greatest level of skill, consummate artistry at playing these games–it’s insane to watch these people–and like I mentioned there’s the social element now. You can get on starman.net or whatever other fan site and meet other people through that and talk about the game or whatever. Given all those kinds of things, would you ever start your own little YouTube or podcast or something about video games? Are you more interested in following them, or maybe it’s something you don’t have time to do? What are your thoughts about that?


I actually have another friend who lives nearby who’s also a video game collector, and we’ve talked a bit about making a podcast, or I’ve been telling him that I’m going to make a YouTube channel or stuff like that. I think the problem is YouTube and all these podcasts are so saturated these days it’s hard to find a niche anymore. If I found something unique that I could present to the masses in an informative and funny way, I might be willing to do it, but as of right now it’s all been done. I think even for your reviews, I keep on sending them to you: EarthBound’s been done to death on there. How many more videos can YouTubers make that are interesting that go over the same aspects? Which is one of the reasons that I really appreciate your podcast, because you’re exploring areas of the game that no one else has touched, so it’s new, it’s fresh, it’s not the same stories about ‘the inventory system is bad.’ OK, I heard about it from the other guy who reviewed the game. Or, ‘oh there’s a steep learning curve,’ yeah, OK, I’ve heard that, too.


I like the thought that each person who plays the game would be able to bring something new to it, just based on your experiences and other games that you’ve played. For me it’s a lot of books and academic stuff that I’ve read that I sort of bring in, to try to connect with things that I see going on in EarthBound. So I think I want to encourage you to think about it more, whether it’s on the collecting side or on the review side, in some kind of way I think it would be cool. Then it’s more than just having that storage space full of old games; it’s like you’re doing something with them. You’re sharing that with people in some way. I hope that there’s an audience, but even if not, I think it’s just kind of cool to take what was this big part of growing up and looking at it, and seeing what’s really of value there. How does this still matter? I think you’ll find stuff when you really look at it.

So you recently sent me the Angry Video Game Nerd review which is in some ways just another review, but he’s so famous and he puts so much time into his videos. And it’s got I don’t know how many millions of views now, but a ton. I have some thoughts about this, too, but what were some parts of his analysis that you found either new or particularly well done about EarthBound?

Some of his theories I really appreciated. I think he said something about Buzz Buzz actually being Ness from the future, coming back to try to get his journey started. I don’t know how much I believe that, but I thought that was an interesting new take that I hadn’t really thought of or seen anyone else present. I also really appreciated the way that he examined Magicant. Going through that he pointed out the one quote, I forget what it was–


About the snowman, right? ‘You made me one winter’s day,’ or something.


‘…and then I melted, but I still exist in your memory.’ Something like that. I don’t even know if I talked to the snowman; I’m not even sure that I knew that you could talk to the snowman. But the fact that he pointed that out and it seemed so poignant, especially given the environment that you’re in… Aside from maybe Moonside that was obviously the trippiest part of the game, with the constantly changing backgrounds and all the people that you run into, but I really liked his examination of memories and how all that had to do with the game.


That’s what I found the most interesting about it, too. The way that, since he’s really good at making videos, he did that part of his review as kind of a remake, a version of Magicant for himself. He was walking through this place almost like a side-scrolling video game world. He was walking along and he was meeting these characters from his own mental world and talking to them, interacting with them. So I thought that was so interesting. He nailed it: that’s the game in a way reflecting this very process. What we’re doing right now, talking about our memories of playing video games, well that’s where the video game is like looking at your memories as a character within the game. It’s this reflection of what you’re actually doing as you play the game. He made it with his own skill-set, he recreated that and made it his own. I just think that’s such a cool new way to think about video games, you know? There’s more to them than just entertainment or a sort of pastime. I think there’s more there. It’s tough, because my tendency is to get maybe too–the theories that you come up when you start thinking about things too much, they might be a little over-the-top and overthinking things. I want to try to avoid that if possible, but there is sort of a fine line there, too. Maybe there only is something there if you do sort of create it. Maybe it’s not necessarily something that the game developer intended, but it’s still a valid way to to think about the game.


Absolutely! I remember I was talking to my friend back in the day, she was really into art and we were looking at this piece. She was explaining what she thought about it, and I said, ‘But do you think the artist really intended to do this? All these little strokes?’ And she was like, ‘Well, does it matter?’ And that really resonated with me. It doesn’t really matter if the artist intended to do something if you see it and you can interpret it in a meaningful way. I think, who knows what Itoi was really thinking when he made this game? Who knows? He’s apparently one of the biggest renaissance men in Japan. He has such a charmed life. He’s on Iron Chef like one week, he’s in the newspaper writing articles or short stories, making video games–he just does everything! So I don’t know how much he actually intended of this kind of self-reflection in the game, this kind of meta-message, but I don’t think it matters at the end of the day because it clearly resonated with people. With that said, I… I don’t think the ‘Giygas is a fetus’ theory held any kind of water. I don’t think anyone who–


Yeah, I didn’t want to go there….That didn’t convince me. But even more so, at a certain point I don’t know if it’s just a matter of trying to say something provocative. It’s interesting, OK, but it’s also… there’s a point where you draw the line and say, well that’s just more getting a reaction out of people. Or maybe he really genuinely was taken with it.


I’m not sure how familiar you are with it, but that’s a theory that’s been around for a long time. I think he was just trying to address it, and if I remember correctly he basically dismissed it. As players, as people who enjoy the game, if someone sees something and we don’t, we can dismiss it and that’s fine. It doesn’t have to hold with our personal experience.


When I think about it as a teacher, though, there is a real danger. If you come up with a certain interpretation that’s so distracting, or so undermines the virtues of the game, then it is kind of dangerous to include that in your lesson, so to speak. So it’s tough. Maybe to think about it that way is to take another step. But if you were to have EarthBound instead of reading books all day in school, you played video games for part of your school day. That’s what I imagine. So you play EarthBound as part of your class. What are the things that you want to focus on with that class? Well, probably not the ‘Giygas is the cosmic infant of destruction’ theory.


No. It’s kind of like what we’re going through in our politics: fake news.




If you start flooding the ideas with these falsehoods or outlandish claims it really muddies the water for the better stories, and it is distracting. So yeah, I can understand it.


Well, before we run out of time, I did want to also thank you again for introducing me to the idea of the virtual novel. I think it’s been around for a while in different forms, but especially the 999 series was the one you got me into. Have you heard any more news about that? Are they making more of those games, or have they released the last of those and is that sort of finished up at this point?


There’s 999, Virtue’s Last Reward, and then Zero Time Dilemma in a trilogy. Everything that I’ve heard is that Zero Time Dilemma was the last game in the series. I’ve been checking the news and there is this, that the creator/author of the series has a new project coming out, but I haven’t checked in on it recently. There was speculation that it might have to do with 999. Not necessarily a direct sequel, but potentially like a spin-off or something like that, but as far as I know that story is complete, as satisfying or as unsatisfying as some people found it. There was quite a bit of backlash when that Zero Time Dilemma came out, I will say that.


I never fully wrapped my head around everything that was going on in the game. I always found the concept super interesting, though. The idea basically is you have a kind of Escape the Room situation, and your character is one of nine people who’s in this isolated, detective story scenario where you have to solve puzzles and piece together different kinds of clues to figure out what’s going on and how to survive. In the first game you’re on a Titanic type of ship right?


Yeah, it’s supposed to be the sister ship of the Titanic.


So that’s the setting for that. The later games have a more futuristic kind of thing going on. I didn’t follow them as well. And we don’t need to spoil the story exactly, but there’s like time travel and mind control and a lot of wild stuff. But what I really liked about the games is that you’re given the opportunity to reflect on: What does it mean to play a game? What is the moral dilemma that enters into this? And it draws on a lot of really interesting historical, psychological stuff into the mix, so I think that would again be a really cool project to think about. Like how to make a game like that, or if not a game like that then how to tell a story in that way, using some of these new media that are out there. I don’t know. What are your thoughts on that?


I think 999 is probably the best use of the dual screens on the Nintendo DS ever created. It utilizes them perfectly and from a narrative standpoint it makes perfect sense as to why there’s two screens. The author, Uchikoshi, basically designs the entire game around having dual screens, so I thought that was very interesting. The way that it sets up and culminates is just perfect in that game. It’s kind of a shame because since that was a DS exclusive he could create a story that was able to be told in a very specific way, because of the technology he was using. Now the second game that came out, Virtue’s Last Reward, that also gets ported to the PS Vita, so now you’re kind of hamstrung and you could no longer–you’re kind of limited in your choices on how you are going to be able to tell that story. So I think the very impressive thing to me was, at least in the first game, how he was able to use the medium he was given and create such a compelling story that made sense and made such great use of the storytelling tool.

But it’s funny that we’re talking about that and the YouTube channel, because I think if I was to do a YouTube channel that would be probably one of the first things that I tried to analyze or go through or review, I’m not sure exactly what. Just because it’s so ripe for interpretation and like you said, there’s just so many serious philosophical and even economic theories in the second game. There’s just this huge confluence of different theories that are being thrown around and it really makes you think and reflect about the choices that you make. These games are kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure type deal so you’ll have branching paths, and depending on the decision that you make certain good or bad things will happen.


Exactly. Things that seem like a good thing to do at the time, when you have more information and the whole picture comes into focus… the way it culminates is just so awesome! All right. Well thanks again, Steve, I’ll let you go, but I’d love to have you back on the show later. We didn’t actually talk a whole lot about EarthBound this time. There’s always more stuff to discuss. As I get further into this project I’ll be wanting your collaboration more, and we’ll keep in touch!


Thanks for having me, it was a pleasure!


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Categories: Opinion

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1 reply »

  1. Sorry for the delay on publishing this. I thought it became most interesting where you and your guest expressed differing views on theories of interpretation. I think that personal interpretation is less important than express interpretation, that is, what is based on what is known of authorial purpose. I think personal interpretation is valid so long as it’s based on the actual properties within the subject itself, so I don’t give much legitimacy to fan theories that get as wild as “My Neighbor Totoro is about time travel!” Personal reflection is completely valid as to the emotional responses that people receive from a work, but interpretation that goes as far as saying something is “about” XYZ should give a little more cause for concern. It sounds like I’m more in your camp on this one, in that I wouldn’t teach the fetus theory either haha!

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