Monday, October 22, 2018

The Earthbound / Aphex Twin Connection

June 2017: We recieved an email from Walmart telling us that an item on our wishlist was finally available for pre-order. That item was the SNES Classic Mini.

September 2017: We were among the thousands who received yet another email from Walmart telling us they were cancelling all pre-orders because they accidentally announced too early or something.

We had never owned a SNES. By 1993, our family wasn't rich enough to splurge on every Nintendo consul, and so we continued playing regular-ass borrowed or used NES games throughout the mid-90s, eventually graduating from NES straight to N64 around 1998.

Obviously the SNES Classic Mini was intended as a nostalgia purchase for us, but we're the odd types who get nostlagic for content we missed the first time around.

June 2018: Our 2nd attempt at a purchase finally arrives. Our first instinct was to search around for games that felt unfamiliar.

We had never heard about Earthbound, and so we blindly started playing out of curiousity. After 2-3 hours, it seemed like a cute little adventure-based RPG with kids exploring around their neighborhood. Its warped, innocent universe felt so alluring, enhanced by an unusual soundtrack. We immediately fell in love with it and wanted to continue revisiting, but we weren't exactly sure why.

Some internet digging ensued a few hours later. It seems like lots of other people also accidentally stumbled upon Earthbound or revisited it over the past year since it was probably the SNES Classic package's most coveted rarity (with cartridges in the original packaging regularly sold on eBay for upwards of $800).

The game took 5 years to create, and it includes what might have been that era's record holder for the largest amount of coding to fit onto a single Nintendo cartridge.

Finally released a year behind schedule in summer 1995 (only a year before N64 arrived) with a $69.99 price tag, Earthbound had an oddly off-putting TV ad campaign that failed to generate initial excitement. Nintendo did not earn a profit from Earthbound, but the game built a strong enough cult following in subsequent years to make the cut for the "Classic Mini" canon. Ness, the game's chief protagonist, is one of the few who later were in every version of Smash Brothers.

After this discovery, we made the mistake of watching the Angry Videogame Nerd's ultra-spoily Earthbound review. We kinda forgot that AVN existed and hadn't watched much of his reviews since 2009ish. We're guessing it popped up because it was coincidentally posted only a few weeks prior. Approaching 40 minutes, his Earthbound review is 2 or 3 times longer than his other videos and has surprisingly large production value. (It states in the description that the review had been in production from October 2017 until April 2018.)

We did not check out the review to have the game spoiled for us. Rather, we were hoping to casually check out a few hints of what might happen later in the game since we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We did not expect AVN's video to be one of the most engaging game reviews we've ever seen, more or less consuming our attention by the 5 minute mark. So we kept watching as he explained basically every unexpected plot twist. The experience of quickly absorbing that much left-field content honestly made us feeling like we might have been dreaming. This couldn't really be what happens in this cute little RPG for children, could it?

Should we even get into it? *SPOILER WARNING??* Heavy drug references (with intent to sell), crazy religious cults, time travel via suicide pact, fighting a boss after travelling through a woman's uterus. There's more, but these premises stand out the most. *END OF SPOILER??*

So now we've been on tour for the past 2 months. When we last left off (late August), we were (probably) about 40% of the way through the game. It feels like an eternity ago. Time has been standing still out here.

In true masochistic fashion, we also decided to spend three months' paycheck out of pocket on the cost for an unrelated Masters class that will eventually complete the MLIS program's remaining requirements. The process of writing a research paper while traveling around the world needs the type of focus that requires sensory exclusion, pushing out the clutter, removing oneself from the Twitter clickbait relays. We don't have time for news-feed outrage or celeb gossip right now. Without earbuds and stoner metal, we would have stabbed our eyeballs weeks ago. We finally got to revisit Les Rallizes Denudes for the first time in years. That new Bongripper album works wonders for productivity.

October 2018: On a Sunday afternoon, we eventually made our way to listening through Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works: Volume 2 for the first time ever. We consider Aphex Twin to be the most helpful "study music" we've ever heard. Upon first listen, something felt familiar.

We couldn't help noticing SAWv2 was released 6 months before Earthbound in Japan and 15 months before it came to the states.

Earthbound had effectively prepped us for SAWv2. The untitled track on Disc 1 Track 7 (they're all untitled, although fans refer to this one as "Curtains") could have easily been played as Ness traveled through underground tunnels. In an alternate timeline, Disc 2 Track 10 (titled "#22" on Spotify but also known as "Tassels") might have built tension as Ness approaches some bosses later in the game.

Despite our suspicions, a simple Google search does not reveal any crossover between Aphex Twin and Earthbound.

With that speculation aside, "#23" (also creepily known as "White Blur 2") struck us as especially eerie. It begins with a loop that could have accompanied one of Ness's trips through any given underground lair in his extended neighborhood. Otherwise, we picture an outsider's adult perspective of 3rd or 4th graders playing on the swings at recess.

A child's laugh loops ad nauseam. It expressively translates in any language, resembling the reaction a young person would have to an older person's (possibly back-handed or creepy) compliment. Sounding innocent at first, it starts to sound more and more like a nervous reaction as the loop continues (occasionally pitchshifted). This isn't a LOL at a hilarious joke, but a natural subconscious attempt at deflection. The darkness seems to grow as the song progresses, building in intensity only slightly and removing layers just as frequently as they're added. Like Earthbound, the atmosphere surrounds and consumes. This generates a weightiness that may not be realized until physically looking down at the CD player's display and realizing that this is an 11 minute song - one of RDJ's most unheralded epics.

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