| The Year is 199X | Onett, A small town in Eagleland | Ness’s House |
EarthBound begins with some sweeping pan shots over Onett, the first town in the game. As the game slowly reveals the area, a few title cards set the scene and lead the player to Ness’s house on the north side of town. Ness is fast asleep in his bed and suddenly a loud crash sounds from outside and shakes the land. The sudden noise wakes him from his slumber and he wanders downstairs to see what is going on.
Ness is greeted by his mother, who seems just as confused to all of the commotion as Ness and the player are. Knowing that her son will sneak out of the window if held back from his adventure, Mom encourages Ness to change out of his pajamas and head out to investigate.
Once outside, everything is sort of eerie and empty, and the music playing doesn’t help to settle the uneasiness that clouds the air. The level design in the northern half of Onett is set out pretty explicitly to guide the player directly where they need to be. Meandering through the forest, Ness eventually makes his way to a blockade and the police won’t let him pass to get any closer. Ness’s neighbor Pokey however, seems to know everything there is to know, and is eager to tell you all about it… tomorrow…
The only thing to do now is head home, as every path is seemingly blocked off. Mom will welcome Ness home and encourage him to get to bed, leaving the lingering topics to linger longer until tomorrow. Back to bed, Ness awaits for the morning to meet with Pokey and find out what the strange meteorite is doing atop the hill.
Later that night…
Someone is knocking at the door. Who could that be? Ness springs out of bed once again and makes his way to the living room. Approaching Mom, she calls out, “My land! Who could be knocking at the door at this time of night? Would you answer it?” It seems like the right idea to have your young child answer the door in the middle of the night while strange things are happening outside, right?
Pokey arrives early but only because he has misplaced his younger brother, Picky. He needs Ness’s help to find him, lest he feel the wrath of two punishing parents. In fact, Ness really has no choice. If the player attempts to decline Pokey’s request, the chubby, little brat threatens the young hero. Ness sets out to join Pokey in his search, but not before once again changing out of his pajamas and bringing his dog along for the journey.
Heading for the door with the newly formed party, Ness is held up just one last time by the ringing phone. Who could it be?
Here, the player is introduced to the game’s save system: a phone call from Dad. Talking to Dad for a moment lets Ness and the player know that calling Dad will give an update on the amount of experience required to reach the next level, a current bank account balance, as well as the opportunity to save the game and take a rest for the time being.
Once the conversation ends, Ness and his party head out the door and back toward the meteorite. Something has changed this time, and now Ness must be more careful of his surroundings. Good thing he has a few pals with him to help him out.
Ness should quickly learn that bringing along his dog was a smart idea, because the dog is the only member of the party who will lend a hand. Pokey will opt for playing dead rather than attacking the opposing force. One by one, Ness will defeat the enemies and make it around the bend, back to the meteorite, finding Picky just beside the crash site.
Waking up Picky from his little outdoors nap will have him join the party, and now it’s time to get the two brothers home. Heading back towards the houses, Pokey will notice some sort of buzzing sound and he’ll want to know if Ness hears it too. Suddenly, a beam of light will rise from the meteorite and a bee will rise from the space rock.
What I love about the opening to the game is how immediate it puts you in control and makes the game as much about you as it is about Ness’s journey. EarthBound is great at showing rather than telling, much like any great story. Rather than telling you to hate Pokey, the game makes you hate him right from your first interaction with him. Instead of telling you to be scared and wary of what lies ahead, the game builds a tone and dumps you into a pretty spooky opening that gives you true terror amidst curiosity.
I love the subtleties within the dialogue that are there right from the start, like Ness’s Mom suggesting you to open the door. It’s just a little off, and just off enough to make your head tilt to the side slightly as you wonder about the “why’s” of this game. Pokey’s little threat is harmless but veiled behind harsh language that is more than a little intimidating. It’s another moment where you’re left sort of waiting to see what is yet to come.
We also get a taste of combat in this opening section, with a general sense of how battles will play out. Much like other turn-based RPGs, there is the “I go, you go” pace to combat, but it’s a little peculiar not being able to see the members of your party during the battle. I think this is another conscious decision made in order to put you in the eyes of the player. It’s just another layer of blending that the designers added in order to blur those lines between yourself and Ness.