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Review - Earthbound and Chrono Trigger


   Boss Fight Books publishes books about games. Their initial lineup includes books about EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, Galaga, ZZT, Super Mario Bros. 2, and Jagged Alliance 2. Based on the two books that Iíve readóEarthBound and Chrono Triggerótheir M.O. is looking into the way games effect individual lives. Each book is a grab-bag of game description, personal anecdotes, and contemplation. Sometimes this contemplation is connected to the gameís plot, while other times itís only thematically similar. Anyone looking for a definitive collection of background information on a favorite game will be disappointed. On the other hand, anyone who has nostalgic, deeply personal feelings for a favorite game should be able to find something to relate to in these narratives. Even if the specifics of the authorsí lives are foreign, the passion which they relate to their favorite 16-bit games is familiar.

   The conversational tone of each book gives the authors as much space as the games on the title. These are personal stories. Reading them is like listening to a passionate speaker at a party, with the benefit of being able to pause at chapter breaks or skip around. The games' plots serve as temporal skeletons for stringing together essays and extended asides. Ken Baumann uses Fourside as a springboard for discussing the difficulties of being a child star. The battle with Giygas leads into his battle with Crohn's disease and the importance of secular prayer. Michael P. Williams' Chrono Trigger links the bombing of Hiroshima, Godzilla, the Aum Shinrikyo subway gassing, the Fukushima earthquake, and the Day of Lavos. If the party metaphor doesn't work for you, try thinking of reading these books like a rail shooter version of the Internet: the driver could drop any sort of knowledge at any time, but you're going to zip right past it to the next connection.

   I started my Boss Fight Books adventure ride with a copy of EarthBound. To say this book does the game justice is misleading. EarthBound (the book) is about EarthBound (the game), but not primarily. Itís about Ken Baumannís childhood and maturation as viewed through the lens of the game. The author talks about Shigesato Itoi,, and American pop culture influences on EarthBound. However, the result is not nearly as comprehensive as Starmen.netís EarthBound anthology. Expecting a similar level of detail would be like hating a mountain for failing to sing. Mountainsíre nice, but they canít be everything for everyone. Mountains gotta do their own thing, man.

   For example, rather than talking about Brickroad, Baumann discusses his relationship with his brother and noodles about existence. His irreverent tone is reminiscent of Chuck Klostermanís technique of using popular culture as a springboard for ironically exploring "serious" issues. "If Dadaism, waterlogged funhouse music, neon lighting, and creepy black velvet paintings all fucked and had a child, it would be Moonside," Baumann writes. This is the boundary between light-hearted, innocent EarthBound and the challenges of the game to come. Moreover, it is the division between childhood and adulthood, memory and pain.

   Michael P. Williams' Chrono Trigger also draws on the author's life experiences. However, Williams is more likely than Baumann to use his life to interrogate the game. He draws on his experience as an English instructor in Japan to discuss cultural interpretations of the Chrono Trigger universe such as its depictions of race and gender. Although Williams draws on critical theory, he never gets so deep within it that the game becomes secondary.

   Chrono Trigger contains original statistical research and language analysis. I was familiar with the American shift from Vinegar, Mayonnaise, and Soy Sauce to Ozzie, Flea, and Slash; however, Williams' explanation of how this influenced the game's puns was new. Likewise, the discussion of creative translation practices added a new dimension to the classic game. Interviews with Ted Woolsey and Tom Slattery build on Williams' research with input from the lead translators from different times.

   Overall, enjoyment of the first two offerings from Boss Fight Books is going to be grounded in readers' appreciation for their scattershot style. These arenít books of strong theses; theyíre guided journeys through the lives of two games. The elements of a favorite game that appeal most to the authors receive plenty of attention, while those that fall outside their personal experiences fall by the wayside. When these books are at their worst, their links between game, emotion, and the outside world are weak. Even when the emotions are honest and painful, they can feel like rambling personal blogs rather than reflections grounded in video games. Thankfully, both books are quick reads with enough amusing anecdotes to bolster the slow sections. Neither is more necessary than another playthrough of EarthBound or Chrono Trigger, but to those with stories similar to Williams' and Baumann's, not much is.

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