Gaming’s Greatest Cult Hit Gets The Treatment It Deserves

The minds behind Boss Fight Books discuss EarthBound, game speedruns as performance art, and the stunning rise in price for old-school Nintendo cartridges.

When EarthBound debuted in America in 1994, it immediately stood out from its peers. Unlike the other role-playing games of the day — Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Lufia, or Dragon Warrior — the quirky EarthBound eschewed the familiar fantasy settings of knights and wizards, opting instead for a strange, fun-house reflection of ’90s America. Gone were the swords and serpents, and in their places were baseball bats and new age retro hippies. The game was hysterical yet touching, and perhaps it was all these divergences from the norm that turned EarthBound into a sales flop/cult favorite. The EarthBound community here and abroad has grown so large that it routinely pelts Nintendo of America with dense pleas begging for the powers that be to re-release the game and its never-before-seen-in-America predecessor and sequel. They finally scored a win last year when EarthBound was rereleased on the Wii U’s virtual console.

Thus it should be no surprise that for Boss Fight Books’ first foray into the world of video game criticism, it chose EarthBound, a title so weird, so genre-defiant, that it’s still revered by gamers young and old to this day. Baumann’s book is as peculiarly wonderful as the game it shares a name with. In mere paragraphs it circles from Baumann’s complicated relationship with his brother to the work of architect Adolf Loos to a dense examination of how the town of Summers in EarthBound satirizes the 1 percent. It’s a book that aims to mirror the segmented, bizarro structure of EarthBound, and it’s a book that succeeds.

Can you guys give a quick rundown of the genesis behind Boss Fight Books? Was this a passion project you guys had been thinking about for a long time? Did you expect the kind of overwhelmingly enthusiastic reaction you received via Kickstarter?

Ken Baumann: Gabe and I need to coordinate radically different origin stories to mix it up, but it happened like this: We ate pho. We talked about video games. Gabe asked, “Why isn’t there a 33⅓ series but for video games?” I said, “It has to already exist.” We googled that but found nothing. Then, maybe a week later, after walking around Los Angeles with smoothies, I urged him to make it: “Make the 33⅓ series but for video games.” He said, “I’ll do it if you write the first book,” and I said, “Deal.” Then we leapt into traffic and tossed a few cars into the air, exercising our newfound power together.

Gabe Durham: Ken has enthused his way to being there for the genesis of the idea, but in the real story I’d been kicking it around all week. I’d just read a book about Nintendo, and while I enjoyed its scope, it occurred to me that several chapters could slow it down and be entire books. That’s when I had the big idea — 33⅓ for video games — but when I got online, I was really surprised to see the series I was imagining didn’t exist. I kinda pitched the idea to a couple people, first of whom was my wife, who I think went away from the conversation believing I wanted to make strategy guides. But I kept researching/developing the idea.

Then I met up with Ken for an afternoon of pho and books and smoothies, and at the end of it (I’d almost forgot to even mention it), I went, “Oh! I’ve got to pitch you the new idea.” Ken got it immediately, and was as surprised as I was that it doesn’t exist. And we dared each other to follow through with the idea later that day. But the rest is true, especially the car-tossing.

EarthBound is organized in a really interesting way. It’s not 200 pages exploring the themes and idiosyncrasies of the Super Nintendo classic. It juxtaposes the analysis with Ken’s extremely compelling autobiography detailing everything from his ascent as a successful teen actor to his fight with Crohn’s disease. In a way, the structure reminded me of Grant Morrison’s Supergods, which juxtaposes comic book criticism with autobiography, and Matthew Berry’s Fantasy Life, which takes the same tack toward fantasy football. Did you have this approach in mind when you sat down to replay the game? Why do you think this structure is growing in popularity? What makes it so successful?

GD: I’m glad to see the approach bubbling up more for how natural it is. The more important a work of art is to you, the less you can talk about it without talking about yourself. And yet in so much criticism, you see the critic doing backflips to appear objective in a way that doesn’t exist. Some of my favorite books I’ve read in the last few years do just what you describe: Nicholson Baker’s U and I, David Shields’s Body Politic, John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, and Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. And from 33⅓: Wowee Zowee and Let’s Talk About Love.

KB: I need to read those books. But yeah, I knew I wanted to write a book ostensibly about my favorite video game, because to me, all the best books about X, Y, or Z are always only ostensibly about them; the magic of investigation is how far it leads you away from your original lead. And to me, a long essay doesn’t get much more compelling or whole-feeling than Montaigne’s long essays, which makes sense considering he birthed the entire medium. You know what Montaigne does? He rambles. He second-guesses himself. He forgets his train of thought; he apologizes to the reader; he prods them. In Montaigne’s complete works, you feel an entire person via his unflinching willingness to present himself as a messy intellectual process. On the flip side, I admire the hell out of About a Mountain by John D’Agata; you feel John in his book too, but that book creates a much more totemic, fixated (and alien?) aura that is also staggering and unforgettable. There’s room for both. I think the former structure is only seemingly growing in popularity, though; I mean, there is plenty of confessional, autobiographical ancient literature; our desire to communicate without (much) agreed-upon artifice is as old as our desire to write. But there are just so many people writing today, and it is much easier to get published.

I was obsessed with EarthBound in ‘94 but haven’t played it since. After reading the book, I immediately sat down to play the more ambitious but less fun sequel, Mother 3. I’ve been struck again and again by how odd it feels to play through it as an adult, the sense that the programmers knew this game, which on the surface is for children, is really being aimed at the now-grown fans of the original. Do you have any intentions of playing the sequel, or do you think it’s better to leave the experience of EarthBound to memory?

KB: I’ve played it, but it didn’t intensify my love for EarthBound in any way. Not that that’s its sole purpose. But still: I found myself getting bored and yearning for EarthBound’s levity.

GD: I’d love to see more series start with kids in mind and grow up with you. That’s probably one of the reasons the Harry Potter series hits kids so hard. It asks the reader to grow up along with it. From what I know about [game creator] Shigesato Itoi, I could see him thinking that way: OK, you followed me through EarthBound? Now see if you can handle THIS.

Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives is often, and rightfully so, touted as one of the first great examples of what video game criticism can be. It goes beyond the reviews we might remember from GamePro or Electronic Gaming Monthly and aspires to something more. EarthBound is very much an evolution of that book. It’s analysis, but the autobiographical sections make it so much more. How do you see all this video game criticism evolving?

GD: I didn’t read Extra Lives until I began doing R&D for this series last year. One of the questions I asked myself was, “Would a book about a video game be good? Is there enough to talk about?” And Extra Lives was an emphatic YES. Game journalism’s been stunted by the idea that video games are an island unto themselves. One of the things Bissell does so well is bring books, movies, and music into the conversation. He allows himself to draw connections that have been there all along. (Just as a reviewer should feel the freedom to talk about Spelunky in a review of a book of poetry, if it’s relevant.) To me, that larger conversation is the one worth having. It legitimizes everybody.

KB: Bissell knew that autobiography is a potent portal (and shortcut to legitimacy) for a nascent medium; I mean, the final essay in that book details him bingeing on coke and Grand Theft Auto IV. Weird or remarkable autobiography is a cheat code for literature; it helps you get to the good bits faster. (And it keeps its interwoven criticism from falling into the traps of dominantly academic criticism — i.e., boring shit.) But I don’t know where video game criticism will be in 80 years. Where film criticism is now? (Which is where?) But sure, I hope there are hardcore, scholarly video game theorists; the medium is massive and will accommodate as many eyes as can be cast at it. I wouldn’t be surprised if video game criticism becomes exponentially more read than literary criticism, though; it probably already has.

In my novel Last Call in the City of Bridges, the protagonist obsesses over retro video games and often turns to familiar games like DuckTales or Mega Man 2 during extreme moments in the plot. More and more it seems like men and women in their late twenties and early thirties are returning to the video games from their youth. The price of NES games in particular have skyrocketed in the last few years so that rarer games like Flintstones 2 or Bonk’s Adventure can fetch between $500 and $1,000 on eBay. Why do you think this is? Is there something specific about our generation that’s sending us back to the comforts of our youth as we approach middle age, or is that true of every generation?

KB: I like this tweet by Paul Graham Raven:

I think it’s apt. Every generation is nostalgic, but each successive generation is farther from home.

GD: There are many reasons! I like that I’m still good at my old games. I like to be surprised by what I still know — the long-buried sense that if I bomb THAT part of the floor or throw a barrel through THAT wall, something amazing will happen. Nostalgia’s big, sure. Might as well say the most obvious thing of all: I like to play my old game because some of them are so much fun.

But I also like to discover new old games. I was reading up on Popeye (one of the first games for the Famicom), got curious, played a ROM of it, and it was really fun. It’s a perfect spiritual sequel to Donkey Kong, and even apes a few of Kong’s sound effects.

As for $1,000 for Flintstones 2: I think those prices are being driven up by completists like yourself, not because Flintstones 2 was one of the greats. I understand that compulsion too: There was a voice in my head when I was a kid that told me, “When you’re grown-up, you can buy all the games you want.”

Ken, can you talk a little bit about your upcoming projects? Your novel SOLIP was just released in 2013. What was that experience like, and do you see yourself more as a fiction or nonfiction writer? Is it foolish to even try to classify that way?

KB: Having SOLIP exist as a fondleable, fetish-feeding object is great. I enjoyed reading from the book to lovely crowds. I enjoy reading notes about the book, both critical and praiseful. I want hate and love for my books; everything in the middle is tepid and likely a sign that you’re not doing your job properly. Say, Cut, Map, another novel, is also out. Both are specific and uncomfortable parts of me, and I’m glad they’re both excised and able to work on other people. But no, writing is writing. I have no idea what’s next. Wait, yes: quiet.

Over the last decade, the stigma of gaming has somewhat eroded. Despite what Roger Ebert had to say, there are many people who believe that video games can provide artful experiences as rich and complex as film or even literature. After writing EarthBound and starting Boss Fight Books, do you guys agree?

KB: Of course video games can be art; Ebert was fun to read and often brilliant, but HOLY SHIT was he wrong with this old-guard garbage. Many video games are artful enough to move people to tears, incite them to change their lives, make them drop everything to make video games, etc. Video games are capable of emotional affect, philosophical change, and on-the-ground structural rejiggering in the name of more video games (the artistic impulse as pyramid scheme); i.e., ART. But it’s a new medium; I wouldn’t sacrifice a foundational reading experience for any particular video game. Not yet.

GD: I’ve been interested lately in how a player could turn the performance of play into art. What’s a Zelda no-sword run but a tiny piece of performance art? You can memorize a game and speedrun it like a violin prodigy hitting every note just so. You can use Rocksmith to learn a real song on a real guitar. You can make a sculpture in Minecraft. Watching that YouTube video of Bananasaurus Rex’s solo eggplant run, I was so impressed to witness a true artistic collaboration between a brilliant game and a clever player who was able to exploit the game so that he could accomplish something that should not have even been possible. Games have always been art. It’s just that for a while we were all having too much fun to care.

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Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, The Collagist, and elsewhere. He’s an assistant professor of English at the University of Indianapolis and can be reached @salpane.

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