EarthBound Handbook

earthbound-handbook

Title: EarthBound Handbook: Travel Eagleland the EarthBound Way
Art Direction: Audrey Waner
Editor-in-Chief: Dan Moore
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: Fangamer
Pages: 260

This guest review is written by Lance Mulcahey.

To call EarthBound Handbook: Travel Eagleland the EarthBound Way merely a charming guide to EarthBound (Mother 2 in Japan) would be an injustice to Fangamer, whose staff clearly put their creative heart and soul into this book. Much more than a simple illustrated walkthrough, the Handbook assumes the guise of a travel guide akin to something like Lonely Planet, with a chapter-by-chapter introduction to all the unique locales of the EarthBound world, complete with maps, shop info, enemy stats, and game tips.

However useful, substantive information is not the main goal here, as each chapter seeks not to lead a player through each in-game task and battle but rather to deepen the established EarthBound world and immerse the reader within it through humorous articles and beautiful models and artistic renditions of characters and places. What brilliantly separates the Handbook from other fan materials is that it does not parade itself solely as an artifact from its respective game universe but an actual travel guide for the “real” Eagleland to help fans of the “real” EarthBound game experience the “real” inspiration for the game… except the reality of Eagleland seems closer to the fictional events of EarthBound more than you’d think!

The Handbook is divided into fourteen chapters, each of which is roughly equivalent to one of EarthBound‘s levels. True to the book’s travel guide billing, each chapter begins with an excerpt from a news bulletin, highlighting each region’s local news as if the reader were a tourist picking up a newspaper. The chapters proceed with day-to-day itineraries that closely follow Ness’s adventure. These sections have a wide variety of content but usually contain various ads for local shops (complete with items and pricing) and activities that give a subtle nod to in-game events or locations, like Scaraba Tours or an ad for the Egg Deboiler. There are also a number of “Get to Know!” NPC profiles scattered about, highlighting “local personalities” with true-to-life pictures and interviews. Of course, no itinerary would be complete without an artistically rendered map and depictions of numerous enemies in the form of trading cards. Each chapter ends with a “Talk Man 9X” fictional cassette-based self-guided tour segment that offers a short retelling of the in-game events of EarthBound and adds a surprising but welcome emotional flair. The last two pages of each chapter contain a scenic photographic spread of models of the area’s Sanctuary location, whose meticulous details jump off the page.

The Handbook is clearly the product of a Kickstarter campaign – in a good way! – in that it’s clear that a group of extremely dedicated and passionate people came together not only to write a love letter to a beloved game but also to deliver a romantic treatise that miraculously captures that unique style and wit so characteristic of the Mother franchise. It makes a fine addition to the already extremely rich body of fan media inspired by the games, but, more than that, the book’s creation served as a rallying cry for Western EarthBound fans, eventually funding the Mother-centric Camp Fangamer convention and bolstering the #ThisIsEarthBound campaign during the Nintendo Virtual Console releases. Clyde Mandelin of the website Legends of Localization also joined the Kickstarter campaign as a stretch goal for a Legends of Localization 2: EarthBound edition. All of this activity underscores how integral fan support and the fan experience is for an aging property like the Mother franchise, as it allows for active participation and engagement with the source material over decades.

While the EarthBound Handbook isn’t as helpful as the detailed walkthrough on Starman.net, it doesn’t need to be. This is a loving homage that feels more impressive each time I pick it up. Reading through it, I experienced the magical spark and sheer joy of EarthBound right on the page, which is no mean feat. The Handbook doesn’t feel like a throwaway coffee table book, with its sturdy hardcover and tasteful silver etching – even the dust jacket is an artistic showcase. The appeal of this book extends beyond the purview of the hardcore EarthBound-ophile, as its artistry begs to be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in gaming. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this guide for anyone seriously looking for a walkthrough, but EarthBound is best experienced with as little handholding and as much fan participation as possible.

. . .

Lance Mulcahey is a not-so recent graduate from UCLA with an MA in Japanese Studies. His time there included research on Japanese folklore, the formation of Kamishibai theater, contemporary homosexual identity in Japan, and neo-colonialist practices in postwar Japan and the U.S. He currently lives in Chicago and works at small Japanese plastics company. His love of Japan and gaming keep him engaged as an amateur translator, and he has a deep passion for all things Nintendo. You can find more information on his LinkedIn profile.

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Shinto and Environmentalism in The Legend of Zelda

Koroks from The Wind Waker

I recently published another essay on FemHype, one of my favorite gaming websites. This one is about how Shinto, as an influence on video game creators, is complicated, nuanced, and mixed with other elements of Japanese cultural history. I demonstrate that Shinto is somewhat nebulous as a creative influence, and I argue that grassroots movements and an international interest in the themes and tropes of high fantasy are equally influential in the development of Japanese games in the 1980s.

Here’s a short excerpt:

What are “the teachings of Shintoism,” exactly? And what do they have to do with Japanese video games? I’d like to demonstrate that Shinto—as a broad amalgamation of local folk religions in Japan—is not particularly well-defined as a cultural influence on video games. Moreover, Shinto is only one of the contributing factors in Japanese attitudes regarding the environment.

Although it would certainly be interesting and productive to identify the specifically Shinto elements in The Legend of Zelda series, I think it also makes sense to place the games within the context of ecological conservation movements in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, it’s worthwhile to consider the more universal elements of international fantasy storytelling that appealed to people in the nascent console gaming industry.

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Yoshi’s Woolly World & Mellow Mode

Yoshi's Woolly World Bowser Fight

I have fantastic news! An essay I wrote on accessibility and gaming has been published on FemHype, one of my favorite gaming websites. I argue that different people play games for different reasons and that the customization of difficulty settings both accommodates a diversity of players and broadens the potential of the game itself.

Here’s a short excerpt:

As video games continue to evolve into ever more gorgeous works of visually stunning storytelling, it’s only natural that they have begun to attract larger and more diverse audiences. These players will have different skill sets and expectations, and many of them may come to gaming with goals that have nothing to do with high scores or kill counts.

This is why I believe that built-in gameplay features such as the Mellow Mode in Yoshi’s Woolly World are important in making games accessible to people who fall outside of the narrow parameters that currently define many industry standards regarding who gamers are and what they want from the experience of gaming.

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Hyrule Historia

Hyrule Historia

Title: The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
Japanese Title: ハイラル・ヒストリア: ゼルダの伝説 大全
(Hairaru hisutoria: Zeruda no densetsu taizen)
Japanese Editors: Aonuma Eiji (青沼 英二), Shioya Masahiko (塩谷 雅彦)
English Editors: Mike Richardson, Patrick Thorpe, et al.
Translators: Michael Gombos, et al.
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Dark Horse
Pages: 280

Hyrule Historia is divided into four parts. The first part, titled “The Legend Begins: The World of Skyward Sword,” is a collection of artwork and design sketches from the 2011 Wii game Skyward Sword. The second part, “The History of Hyrule: A Chronology,” runs through the plot of every game in the Legend of Zelda series and demonstrates how they are all connected. The third part, “Creative Footprints: Documenting 25 Years of Artwork,” is a collection of art and design sketches from the entire series with a strong emphasis on Twilight Princess. The fourth part is a 34-page manga (of which ten pages are in gorgeous color) about the mythology of Skyward Sword by Akira Himekawa, a two-person team that has drawn the official manga adaptations of many games in the Legend of Zelda series.

The “History of Hyrule” section, which is about seventy pages long, gives the book its name. When the series timeline from this section was released and translated into English, there was a bit of a kerfluffle in certain circles of video game fandom that had gradually been building their own theories and didn’t appreciate the retroactive continuity implied by the official version. That being said, the timeline laid out by Hyrule Historia makes sense (inasmuch as anything involving time travel makes sense) and should be interesting to a fan of the series. The main bulk of the section, however, consists of condensed versions of the plot of each Legend of Zelda game. These plots are more or less what appears in the game manuals with very little extra or “never before revealed” information thrown in for flavor. Unfortunately, the basic “Link must collect items in order to earn the right to wield a special sword so that he can save Zelda after she is imprisoned by an evil entity” story begins to grow stale as it’s continually repeated across two dozen three-to-four-page increments.

The main draw of Hyrule Historia is its artwork. In the first part of the book, which is filled with artistic development materials for Skyward Sword, the reader can witness the incredible attention to detail and world building that went into the game. These images are accompanied by myriad creator notes, which are often surprisingly humorous. Thankfully, unlike the Japanese original, in which many of these notes were handwritten in tiny characters, the typeface used to convey the creator notes in translation is large enough to read easily.

Hyrule Historia Skyward Sword Townscapes

The artwork on display for the other games in the Legend of Zelda series in the “Creative Footprints” section is also quite interesting. There are all sorts of designs for the main characters, secondary characters, enemies, weapons, and items. There are also rough drafts of dungeon maps, enemy treasure drop charts, and other developmental materials, such as different drafts of promotional concept art. Some of this artwork shows exactly how enemy wings, tails, and teeth work, with suggestions for how different designs accommodate different movements. There are fewer written notes in this section than in the first section on Skyward Sword, but there is still enough text to draw the reader into the image details. I particularly enjoyed the architecture and island sketches from The Wind Waker, as well as the full designs of the stained glass patterns that appear in the game’s building interiors. I also enjoyed getting a sense of the evolution of the Link character in each Legend of Zelda game, as different designs show him as younger or older, or more or less serious, or wearing entirely different sets of clothing and equipment.

Hyrule Historia Spirit Tracks Link Designs

You can’t really see this in the scans I made, but the image quality in Hyrule Historia is impeccable; the book is something that you need to hold in your hands in order to fully appreciate. The emphasis of Hyrule Historia is obviously on Skyward Sword, but all of the Legend of Zelda games get multiple pages of attention. A great deal of the book’s text feels like it’s selling the series, especially in the “History of Hyrule” section, and it can sometimes be a chore to read. Still, artists and art appreciators will love the incredible array of sharp and colorful images, and the physical book itself is sturdy enough to handle all manner of wear and tear that may occur over the course of reference use. Dark Horse did an excellent job with this gorgeous book. If you’ve been on the fence about buying a copy, Hyrule Historia is absolutely worth your time and money.

Pokémon as Japanese Literature

Even though plenty of scholars have written essays about the Pokémon franchise, almost no one seems to take it seriously as literature. Despite this academic trend, I think the Pokémon video games can and should be read as Japanese literature, by which I mean that we should look carefully at their content and worldview as they are transmitted through gameplay and in-game text. I believe that, if we can look deeper than the transnational economic implications of the games and the “gotta catch ‘em all” ideology used to market them, it’s clear that they deal with some interesting issues. Here are three of these issues:

(1) Human society must constantly negotiate its paradoxical relationship with the natural world.

The theme of pokémon acting as symbolic stand-ins for natural resources has always been present in the video games, but it has become more clearly defined with each successive generation. Each of the games is set in a region loosely based on an area of Japan (or, in the case of the most recent generation, New York City and its suburbs), and each of these regions spreads out around a central urban area. Pokémon (usually) cannot be found in cities or towns, however, but must be sought out in the green spaces of each region – the fields, the caves, the mountains, the rivers, and the seas. Although some pokémon are similar to domestic animals, the majority are closely linked to nature. Some even have control over natural forces such the tides, the winds, and volcanic eruptions. In other words, pokémon are not creatures that are somehow separate from nature, such as dogs or cows (or digimon), but they in fact are nature.

While some pokémon are regarded as companions (nakama), there is a running discourse throughout the games that wild and semi-wild pokémon must be protected (mamoru or hogen suru). The villains of the games are criminal or terrorist organizations that selfishly and inhumanely employ pokémon for their own purposes. For example, Team Rocket, an organization present in first generation of games, sells pokémon for money as if the creatures were no more than consumer goods. This behavior is very clearly marked as evil, and its negative consequences are visibly demonstrated. The most recent generation, Pokémon Black/White, features villains who attempt to manipulate people by shaking the very foundations of their relationship with the world, telling them to release their pokémon from bondage, thereby allowing them return to nature. Your player-protagonist, however, restores balance by demonstrating that human beings and pokémon are meant to live together in harmony. Thus, exploiting nature is obviously bad, but living in a world separated from nature is also undesirable.

The primary goal of the player-protagonist is to travel the world and collect pokémon in order to complete his or her pokédex (pokemon zukan). If pokémon represent the natural world, such a project implies that human beings can break up this world into bite-sized chunks, consume it, and thus know it completely. Such arrogance is troubling. Also troubling are the pokémon battles that trainers use to develop the abilities of their pokémon, who are otherwise stored safely away in small capsules called pokéballs. It is difficult to read these two central aspects of gameplay as a positive analogy of the human relationship with the natural world. I would argue, however, that copious amounts of text in all of the generations of the games establishes pokémon battles as mutually beneficial to both the pokémon and their trainers, who are repeatedly reminded not to take their pokémon for granted and instead to respect and value them (taisetsu ni suru). Moreover, despite the grubbingly acquisitive nature of the task of pokédex completion, the text within the game justifies this project by positing that the better we understand pokémon, the better we will be able to share the world with them. According to the central ideology underlying the games, then, “catching ‘em all” is a scientific project designed to inspire curiosity towards and appreciation of the natural world.

The relationship between human beings and pokémon is presented as mutually beneficial, although humanity must constantly check its excesses in an effort to ensure that pokémon are protected and treated in a humane and respectful manner. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that the worlds of the Pokémon video games are filled with grass, trees, and flowers. Boats, trains, and bicycles help people get from one place to another, but cars and airplanes are notably absent. Pokémon Diamond/Pearl even features an electric power plant run entirely by wind power, whose giant white windmill turbines exhibit one of the most beautiful and striking uses of the Nintendo DS console’s graphic capabilities. A world that respects its pokémon, then, is a world of lush greenery that can still accommodate all the conveniences of modern technology and an urban lifestyle.

(2) A “gender-free” society is not as far-fetched as we might think.

As soon as a player begins any one of the Pokémon video games, she must create her player-protagonist. Even before she can name this character, however, she is asked a simple question in one of the series’s most iconic lines of text: “Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?”

The player’s answer to this question has almost no ramifications on gameplay. The boy protagonist is equipped with a backpack, while the girl protagonist is equipped with a messenger bag. The boy protagonist wears a beret, while the girl protagonist wears a beanie. The boy protagonist gets a blue cell phone, while the girl protagonist gets a red cell phone. The boy protagonist wears cargo pants, while the girl protagonist wears cutoff shorts.

Aside from these minor differences in in-game graphics, the gameplay experience is exactly the same for a male protagonist and a female protagonist. The male protagonist has a competitive rivalry with a childhood friend, and so does the female protagonist. The female protagonist has a close relationship with her mother, and so does the male protagonist. The male protagonist can ride around on his bicycle at all hours of the night, and so can the female protagonist. The female protagonist is bullied and treated condescendingly by the male villain, and so is the male protagonist. With very few exceptions (such as the chan or kun suffix used when other characters address the protagonist), there are no gender-dependent differences in the way the people in the games’ universe treat your character. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence to support the claim that the stories are written for a male protagonist, with a female protagonist being tacked on as an option with no other purpose than to give the game more color and variety.

Besides the protagonist, his or her rival, and the main villains of the story, the characters with the most distinct personalities and graphic designs are the eight gym leaders whom your character must battle in order to advance in each game. After your protagonist has defeated the eight gym leaders, s/he becomes qualified to battle the “Elite Four” (shitennō), who serve as gatekeepers to each game’s most challenging opponent, the regional Pokémon Champion. The gym leaders, the Elite Four, and the Champion all have distinct personalities and character designs. In the first generation of the games, the personalities and designs of these characters tended to fall along gender stereotypes. The gym leaders specializing in defense-oriented water and grass pokémon were female, and the gym leaders specializing in attack-oriented rock and electric pokémon were male. As the series has progressed, however, the gender stereotypes that characterized the gym leaders and the Elite Four have gradually faded away. A gym leader specializing in dragon pokémon and regional history can be female, and a gym leader specializing in insect pokémon and art exhibitions can be male. The regional Pokémon Champion can be female, along with the Pokémon Professor who initially gives your protagonist his or her pokédex.

The gender of each of the game’s characters therefore has very little bearing on that character’s interests, talents, or personality. In fact, the gender of these characters often seems little more than window dressing. The various generic trainers whom your character encounters come in male and female varieties, and there is almost no gendered difference in their choice of pokémon, fighting ability, clothing, or dialog text. (There are a few exceptions, such as the gender-specific trainer categories of yama otoko and otona no onēsan, but these exceptions are relatively minor.) In the pokémon universe, then, it seems that there is no social, political, or cultural discrimination between genders. You can choose to be a boy, or you can choose to be a girl. Outside of your own personal choice, the games are almost entirely gender free. This is part of what makes them fun.

(3) There are as many versions of a text as there are readers who engage with the text.

Just as a player is free to choose the gender of her player-protagonist, she is also free to choose her path through each of the games. The narrative progression of the pokémon games is more or less linear – defeat the eight gym leaders and then battle the Elite Four to become a Pokémon Master (dendō iri) – but the player can follow or deviate from this linear structure as she chooses. The opening chapters of each game shuffle your character from one gym battle to the next; but, around the halfway point of each of the games, the player is given significantly more freedom to set off on her own and explore the world around her.

The game opens up to the player in two ways: through the acquisition of skills and through optional side quests. As your character wins gym battles, s/he gradually becomes able to train pokémon to remove obstacles such as large rocks and impassable underbrush. An astute player can remember the locations of these obstacles and return later in order to investigate what lies beyond. The ability to move across the surface of water also opens expansive areas that the player may choose to either explore or ignore entirely. Along with the ability to access more of the in-game world, the player is also offered the option of visiting out-of-the-way areas such as ancient ruins, wrecked ships, steel welding plants, mountain valleys, and underwater caves. Although visiting such areas will yield tangible benefits to gameplay, such as useful items and an opportunity to test one’s pokémon against a wider variety of trainers, it is absolutely not necessary to the game’s plot or progression that the player do so. Instead, the thrill of discovery and the adventure of venturing into the unknown drive the player to complete tasks that have nothing to do with defeating the bad guys and challenging the Elite Four.

It stands to reason, then, that every player will follow a different path through the games. It is also possible that different players will encounter different variations on each game’s story. These stories are told mainly through choreographed cut scenes over which the player has no control, and the player is not able to affect the outcome of the game in any way. Supporting this main story, however, are dozens of smaller stories that are fleshed out through the player’s interaction with the various NPCs (non-player characters) that inhabit the world alongside the player-protagonist. Each city and town that the player visits, for example, is populated by people willing to talk to the player-protagonist and even invite him or her into their houses and apartments. The player can choose to seek these people out and engage them, or she may simply ignore them and continue to advance the game’s plot without being bothered by such details. Likewise, the player may enjoy visiting the maritime museum and learning about sea currents and ship buoyancy in Poké Ruby/Sapphire or visiting the library in Pokémon Diamond/Pearl and reading short stories based on creation myths from the Hokkaido region, but she has no reason or motivation to do so besides her own curiosity. As a result of this type of open-ended gameplay, each player’s experience will be uniquely her own.

In other words, each of the games in the Pokémon franchise is an open text from which the player can gather bits of information according to her interests and desires. It could also be argued that the minimal characterization of the blank-slate protagonists also allows the player a significant degree of freedom of interpretation, as well as an augmented ability to insert herself in the world of the game. The Pokémon games are not true “sandbox” (complete open world exploration) games, however, but are driven by a fairly linear narrative of personal advancement and good triumphing over evil. In this way, I think, they are able to serve as experimental models of the way people read literature: not as slaves chained to the words on the page and the intentions of the author, but rather as empowered agents capable of making their own choices regarding interpretation, character identification, emotional investment, and non-linear progress through the story.

I believe that the Pokémon games thus serve as an excellent analogy for the ways in which we consume, digest, and reproduce narratives. A large part of the appeal of these games, which are bought and played by many people much older than their intended demographic, is the combination of a compelling story and a rich and detailed world in which to play. Numerous studies on fandom from both sides of the Pacific suggest the same thing: It’s not just the story that draws in readers, but also the setting, which has the power to generate even more stories. The appeal of the Pokémon franchise is the appeal of something like the Harry Potter franchise; and, the more we understand how such narratives work, the more we will understand the process of reading, interpreting, and communicating the stories that shape our lives.

*****

In conclusion, I think the Pokémon games are a pretty big deal. I also think video games in general are a pretty big deal. The past five years have witnessed an influx of groundbreaking academic studies on titles like Halo and Everquest, but scholars involved in Japan Studies seem to be stuck on treating Japanese video games as an economic and anthropological phenomenon. These new media narratives are so fascinating and complex, however, that it’s a shame not to treat them as literature as well. I have high hopes for the rising generation of scholars, and I’m looking forward to reading the academic articles on Japanese video games that are already starting to emerge.

Some of the most interesting academic work done on Pokémon in English can be found in Anne Allison’s anthropological study Millennial Monsters, which also covers topics like Sailor Moon and the Power Rangers franchise. Pikachu’s Global Adventure collects eleven essays on the Pokémon franchise written from various perspectives, such as marketing and early childhood psychological development.

One of my favorite essays on the Pokémon games as literary narratives is Yagi Chieko’s “Monogatari wa kawarieru ka: Seichō monogatari toshite no Pokemon o yomu,” which can be found in the 2006 issue of the journal Joseigaku Nenpō.

The April 2009 issue of the journal Eureka, RPG no bōken, is all about video games, and it contains an interesting essay by Shina Hidekuni titled “Pokemon to Monhan no yasei no shikō.” Shina is a fun writer, and he co-edits a journal called Game Maestro that I will definitely be checking out during my next research trip to Japan.