I bought a copy of Earthbound about ten days ago. I’ve been a huge fan of the series for quite a few years, and I wanted to pay my respects to the creators. I know anything used after such a long time didn’t actually benefit Nintendo, but an actual cartridge felt more solid than any old ROM or hacked Wii download or anything like that. Surprisingly, it didn’t take me long to find a copy. It was an old collector’s gaming store I found in a farmer’s market, full of neat retro gaming paraphernalia and systems. It was a normal copy of the game, really. And in good condition, save for a small singe mark on one of its corners. It was going for $15.99. How could I pass that up? The storeowner clearly had no idea how valuable such a copy of the game was.
So I snatched up the little tidbit and brought it on home. I was excited to play it. Admittedly, I was actually too young to have ever owned an SNES (I was around three when Earthbound first came out), but I had secured a fresh, well-weathered console from eBay. The game went in fine—I had to clean out the cartridge a tiny bit with rubbing alcohol, but otherwise, it booted perfectly.
It was really fun to play Earthbound on its original platform. I navigated Ness through his neighborhood to the meteor, watched Porky have his ass kicked by his parents, met Buzz-Buzz, defeated a Starman, and learned the true nature of my destiny. Though I had done it time and time again in emulators, it was still refreshing and fun. I wandered through the library, grinded for experience on a few spiteful crows, and upgraded my weapons and equipment. Everything functioned normally until my first encounter with a Shark, a member of the town's gang. I ran up to one of them and got myself into the whole “What are you looking at?” confrontation. The fight started. It was one of the skateboarding Sharks. I had leveled up way too much, so I was able to make quick work of him. However, just as I was about to deal the final blow, a dialogue box interrupted me.
“Please, … Don’t.”
I paused, and stared at the screen. That certainly had never happened before. I ignored it, however, and clicked bash again.
“SMAAASH! Critical damage done to the Skate Punk!”
“The Skate Punk disappeared.”
When I had come out of the battle, there was a large crowd of NPCs surrounding me. I talked to one, a man wearing a fedora, who said, “He’s gone.” Another one, “Gone, gone.” And one more, a brunette girl, “I think I may have loved him.” At this point, the weirdness was starting to get to me. I ran through the possibilities in my head. The extremes jumped to the foremost in my mind, namely what the myriad dumb stories on the Internet had told me of demons possessing game cartridges and eating players in their dreams, or something. Was it some sort of warped cartridge hack? There had to be some logical explanation. Thus, I decided to keep moving forward.
The game continued pretty normally after that, but with random, eerie messages spliced into NPC dialogue here and there, like “Help,” or “The pain returns.” Call it morbid curiosity, but this enamored me. I’m stupid that way, I guess. As I pressed on, the messages became more and more frequent. Enemies I encountered would shrink away, as if I were wildly over-leveled or something. Whenever I caught up to them, they would only say things like “Please don’t kill me,” and try to run away. If they didn’t succeed, they never seemed to fight back. They would just let themselves die. And they would always “disappear,” never anything else like “become tame,” or anything like that. And whenever I defeated an enemy, that same crowd of NPCs would swarm around me, each time getting larger and larger. They were beginning to chastise me if I spoke to them, saying things like, “How could you?” “You monster!” “He’s never coming back.”
Just as well, the complaints of pain and suffering dominated NPC conversation. In the Twoson Hospital, around thirty or forty NPCs were packed together, all saying similar things. “It’s happening again, isn’t it?” “Why must it return?” “God help me. This is unbearable. I can’t take it anymore.” Some NPCs weren’t even standing. They were just lying there on the floor, or sitting in a corner and rocking back and forth. No one said anything even marginally story-related anymore. Even the insane cultists acted the same way. Though I couldn’t progress in the plot, everything was open to me, so I ended up simply exploring from town to town.
I don’t know what was happening, but I was beginning to get stressed out by the game. I’d have frequent headaches and backaches, or just general joint pain. I was beginning to have nightmares, but not the vivid kind—they were the kind you just wake up from, sweating profusely and feeling terrified, but not knowing why. And still I played the game. I knew there was something wrong, but I wanted someone to tell me what. I wanted someone to outline it for me. I just wanted an easy answer.
And with one encounter, it came.
I was wandering through Threed, still low in levels, and with no one else in my party, when an old man NPC came forward. He spoke without me initiating conversation, as if it were a cut scene.
“I know you can feel the pain. We all do too.”
My eyes widened. What was going on?
“I know you’re there. You’re not the inane, pointless Ness that wanders around aimlessly. You kill. You remove our friends from existence. Word has gotten out. Every time some player like you uses Ness, the suffering returns to all of us. You think you feel the worst? We all feel the same way tenfold! I can hear the groans where you can’t. I can see them writhe on the floor. And everything’s your fault! You’re a monster! You’re a murderous, selfish monster!”
I stopped the game and ripped out the cartridge. I didn’t care about properly ejecting it—I just took it out and threw it at the wall. I was sweating. My face was contorted into rage. I grabbed a hammer from a nearby drawer and rushed the cartridge. However, I stopped when I saw the singe mark on its corner. What was I doing? I suddenly felt ridiculous. I dropped the hammer and put the game back on my shelf. I turned to look at the clock, and in the darkness, the green numbers read “3:53.” I rubbed my face. I hadn’t even realized it was the middle of the night. I decided to retire to bed, and try to think things over in the morning.
That night was when I first heard the screams. They were distant, but blood curling. They echoed down corridors, and bounced off the walls of my room, making my hairs raise and my eyes widen. At first, I had tried to search them out, and find their origin, but everywhere I went, the screams were just as faint. Were they all in my head? There weren’t only screams either. I could also hear gunshots, and the tightening of ropes. I could feel wind flying by my face in my own room, wind that would accelerate rapidly and stop abruptly, and then repeat. And with every passing hour, the screams grew louder. They were depriving me of sleep. And anytime I did sleep, I had those night terrors. And the pains shooting through my body became even more intense.
I eventually put the cartridge back into my SNES. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to tell my friends, because I knew they’d think I was crazy. I probably am. The game and the NPCs felt like the only people who understood me. The old man had said he knew why I was experiencing the pain. So, I went back into the game, intending to search him out. I didn’t need to go far, though; he found me again and came over.
“You almost destroyed the game, didn’t you? I could tell. You left for a bit.”
I just sat there with my arms wrapped around my legs, trying not to cry as my head split apart.
“You’re a fool. You’re a damned fool. Don’t you understand that these are people yet? Living, breathing, conscious people. If you destroy this game, they’ll cease to exist. And you will be responsible for that. And guess what? You’ll have to bear the pain they all bear right now. You’ll take that responsibility. It won’t end. It will follow you until the day you die.”
I wasn’t trying to hold it back anymore. I was openly sobbing. Everything in my body felt like it was on fire.
“The only way you can end the pain is by joining us.”
I stopped crying for a second and wiped my face. I leaned closer into the T.V. screen. At this point, a small crowd of NPCs had gathered around.
“It’s the only way,” another commented.
“The only escape,” someone else concurred.
The old man moved closer to me.
“Player, only you can end it. And you have to make sure no one can get this cartridge. If that’s done you will join us, and all our suffering will end. The world here is small, and you’ll never escape it, but there’s no other option. I think you know what it is you have to do.”
My eyes widened. I stood up and stepped back. I could feel my legs quaking as I struggled to maintain balance. On any other day I would have blown the pain off as coincidence and sought medical attention, or tried to view it rationally, but nothing made sense to me anymore. So far, the NPCs had been correct, so I wasn’t sure if I had reason to doubt them. I’m not sure if it was my sleep deprivation, or the constant pangs of this damned headache, or the emotional fatigue of this past week, but it all made sense to me then and there. Everything made sense.
And it still does. I know there’s only one way. If I just destroy the cartridge, I’ll kill everyone there. Who knows? I may kill thousands. And I’ll bear that pain to the day I die. If I just abandon the cartridge somewhere far away from me, what will come of it? Would I submit another human to this level of pain, whilst I still go mad from this continued agony? No, I couldn’t allow that to happen. I couldn’t take another life, or force such suffering onto another friend or stranger. I had to lock it away, where no one else could see it, hide it from the world. But where? I had nowhere, and I still have nowhere. Whatever I leave behind, people will get a hold of. My belongings will be resold. No one understands the significance of a slightly singed Earthbound cartridge, after all. And if I put it somewhere where it can never be retrieved, would I be willing to endure the pain my entire life, and how could I let those people inside go on in constant torture?
I’ve come to realize that there’s no other way. The cartridge lies tucked away under folds of clothes in my drawer. The window out of my apartment hangs open, beckoning to me. It’s a bit breezy outside. It seems, as I grow more assured in my decision, the screams grow quieter. The pain is slightly less intense. There’s really no other way. Please, I just hope you understand why I’m about to do what I’m about to do, and that you don’t think anything bad of me for it. I like to think I’m a nice guy.