EarthBound is a 1994 SNES RPG created by Shigesato Itoi as the sequel to 1989’s Mother; a NES game not released outside of Japan until 2015 when Nintendo decided to take the unreleased prototype of the localization and sell it as EarthBound Beginnings. Yep, not only did they localize the wrong Mother game fans have been begging for but they also used the prototype that’s been on the internet for some while and didn’t adjust it. We’re not here to talk about Nintendo’s lack of effort though, we’re here to talk about the fact that EarthBound’s US advertising slogan was “This Game Stinks!” while in Japan it was marketed towards non-gamers. The game sold like shit in the US because of the advertising campaign (costing a total of about 2 million dollars) and the graphical style being received poorly at the time. As a result no official PAL (European) cartridges of EarthBound were made and its sequel was never released outside of Japan. In spite of that thanks to its unique style and setting (Extremely satire portrayal of America, most of which presumably unintentional) Earthbound created a massive cult following for itself which grew bigger as time went on and is probably one of the most nice and undying video game fandoms out there. EarthBound finally got itself a Wii U Virtual Console rerelease in 2013, presumably because of licensing issues thanks to the games’ numerous musical quotations, references and sampling. This release allowed Europeans to play Earthbound without using a emulator but before you do that lets look at the cult classic in question.
-EarthBound’s Beginning (lol)-
After being shown a sort of horrifying screen that has nothing to do with much and being given that lovely title card we get to name stuff: The four party members, Ness’ dog, your favourite food and your favourite thing. Your favourite thing comes into play as Ness’ PSI Special or PSI [Your-Favourite-Thing-Here] to be exact. Just don’t name anything after yourself as the game asks for the player’s own name down the road. The story starts with a meteorite crashing near Ness’ house and after the police are away, Ness’ neighbour Porky Minch knocks on the door and asks Ness to help find his brother Picky near the crash site. Yes, I know the kid’s name is actually Pokey in the US version but not only is that a stupid name but Smash Bros. and Mother 3 use the Japan variant Porky. And because the kid looks like a fucking pig. Ness finds Porky’s brother but a fly-like messenger from the future named Buzz Buzz emerges from the meteorite, telling Ness that he is the chosen one who needs to stop the alien Giygas from causing world devastation (and lots of other weird shit). Giygas is the villain from the first game who booked it after a few kids played a song from his childhood, deciding to become pure evil in order to continue conquest. After taking out the Starman Jr. sent to kill Buzz Buzz (because Final Starmen are fucking expensive) Ness takes Porky and Picky home where its implied the kid gets a good parental beating by his father. Porky’s mother Lardna kills Buzz Buzz because he stupidly flew into the woman’s earshot. With his dying breath (which you can get him to continuously repeat) Buzz Buzz tells Ness to visit 8 Sanctuaries and collect their melodies which will give him the power to stop Giygas. And what is that power? 200,000 XP. From then on the story doesn’t really advance much besides finding the other chosen kids to join Ness and getting through all the weird things each area brings. You’ll be taking out gang members and a police force, fighting your personal dark side inside a surreal mental location, or getting your soul tossed into a robot in order to travel to the past just to name a few but let’s leave weirdness aside for now. Nothing that I can say about the story from now besides Porky turning over to Giygas’ side and becoming 2nd to final boss or Giygas causing weird things to happen to the townspeople, animals and inanimate objects really holds much significance to a reviewers’ plot summary. Some might argue the game’s story pauses until the final dungeon, however we’ve still got a lot of meat to cover here.
REALLY standard stuff for a RPG, with some archaic problems even for its time but convenient additions in areas you wouldn’t expect. EarthBound has you go through different towns in Americaland and areas connecting said towns because fuck world maps. The game was one of the first SNES RPGs to introduce diagonal movement but the main chore of navigation is the lack of any sort of speedy travel. You can only walk everywhere with the only things you get to alleviate this being a bicycle that Ness can only use by himself and you get it not too long before a area where you get your first party member making it a waste of space. You also get PSI teleport around the halfway point that lets you travel to areas you’ve already been through but at that point you’ve already done a REALLY large amount of back and forth to get to that point. At some points you can/have to take the bus through the first few towns but THAT takes time as well. Battles initiated upon contact with a enemy, a pre-emptive if you get them unawares, a sneak attack from them if they get your party from the back or a normal battle circumstance every other time. Its basic turn based battle mechanics, with a couple of exceptions. First the health meter is a odometer, meaning it takes time to scroll down when you take damage. This means if you take a fatal hit but win/heal before death than you survive which becomes very important to take into account in later bosses. When engaging in battle with weaker enemies you’ll end up killing them instantly and skipping the battle. Weak enemies and enemies in completed Sanctuaries also run away from Ness instead of chasing the party. You save the game via telephones which you use to call a number of people but here are the main ones: Your dad to save, your mother to get rid of Ness’ homesickness (yes that is a status ailment exclusive to Ness and it comes up randomly until Lv. 70), and your sister to get a delivery man to collect 3 items and put them in storage. If you get a game over you’re sent back to the last save point you used with half of your money.
When you defeat monsters any money you get is sent to your bank account which you access via ATMs so if you’re done with money put at least most of it away to avoid losing a lot of it. One of the infamous problems with this game is the fucking inventory. Nothing stacks, your equipped weapons are treated as separate items that take space and each character can only hold 14 items each INCLUDING key items. Needless to say in a RPG this system becomes a massive pain in the ass to sort out, especially since other RPGs of its time didn’t have something as backwards as this. You do have the item storage I mentioned earlier for useless key items and such but even that has a limit and you can only store and take 3 items at a time when using the delivery service which takes time to get to you in the first place. Status ailments can be annoying to cure at first with some needing specific healing requirements but stops becoming a major issue once you get the better Healing PSI
Characters can only hold one weapon and 3 pieces of equipment to boost their stats, with shops allowing you to automatically equip purchased items and sell old ones which is a convenient feature in the face of the inconvenient item management. As it may be obvious baseball bats and psychic powers replace swords and magic which doesn’t mean too much to me, they do what they need to do in this type of game. Each character is unique in certain ways:
Ness- Main Physical Attacker and Healer with PSI Special coming in for crowd control
Paula- Main PSI Attacker, learning lots of useful PSI attacks but is incredibly weak to attacks when you get her. Grind her levels up for a easier time since every character starts at Lv. 1 when you get them and she has the weakest defence and HP.
Jeff- Good Physical attacker, can’t use PSI and can take advantage of one use items he either purchases or fixes if his IQ is high enough. Said one use items can BREAK BOSSES EASILY so Bottle Rockets and Big Bottle Rockets are a goddamn must.
Poo- PSI attacker that comes in halfway through the game but he has a number of drawbacks. He can only wear 4 special pieces of equipment you’ll most likely miss in the whole game and a lot of items don’t have much effect on him like fast food. The only time he can get close to eclipsing Paula’s PSI range is his unique PSI Starstorm he learns late game.
Different PSI is learnt after reaching different levels and can make bosses and enemies easier if you grind to them….which the game can make you do on a number of occasions. There are some areas and dungeons halfway through the game that can rip you in two quickly if you don’t rip them in two first. In fact the start of the game is technically you just grinding enemies near Ness’ house until you can beat the gang members and their leader because they can do heavy damage if you walk to them straight away. Something useful to note is that if you exit a room and re-enter it/move far enough away you can reload the enemies in that area into either a different formation or type which makes avoiding dangerous or speedy encounters feasible.
My experience with this game can be summed up as such; I had fun until the halfway point. Its then when all of the design problems this game has starts building up. Backtracking is rampant at certain points, particularly when trying to get into the fucking Monotoli Building in Fourside and having to do a few backtracks to the desert especially obvious in a cave FILLED with fetch quest monkeys although it does start to thin out over time. A number points of the game can be cryptic on what to do and the townspeople only do so much when they’re not giving you the weirdest dialogue you’ll ever hear in a RPG but I can’t really complain about it because 1. There’s a guy in certain areas of the game that gives hints and most importantly 2. Every copy of EarthBound comes with a extensive strategic guide, including the Wii U version. Getting lost is kind of difficult with that stipulation but I’m not really a fan of that type of design if the game was indeed packaged with a guide in part to clear cryptic and annoying parts aside but I doubt it.
Is EarthBound beginner friendly? Yes, despite the need to grind on occasions. Is it good for veterans? In my opinion, HELL NO the gameplay just doesn’t hold up well enough to compete with many RPGs, including the ones out at that time. The deciding factor for many on why they love EarthBound is its presentation.
The game’s simplistic cartoony style is appealing whilst allowing it to age better over time but SNES games didn’t tend to age badly in my book. The only time the style annoys me a bit is when the perspective can get wonky, especially in Fourside. The sprites are OK, I’m more a fan of the enemy sprites in battle which are really nice looking in this style. The battle background is another story. This kind of thing is never too intrusive to the eyes but you have to wonder why they decided to get trippy with it, maybe to make the game have more of a identity than it already had since I don’t want to think about if this is Ness’ actual vision. The music is really catchy stuff and I like a lot of the battle themes despite a good bit of it being a SNES sound chip and a theremin having rough sex but eerie, atmospheric and funky battle tunes all the same. I’ve mentioned the insane amount of weird shit and dialogue previously, and while that is a humorous turn on for some I find it rather unremarkable after the halfway point where I realised this is all I’m hearing from these people not to mention the aged gameplay taking me out of it. I think this weird kind of plot can be done with endearing writing, something I have a hard time spotting in the dialogue. The creepy shit that happens with Giygas at the end of the game shook me out of my bored stupor but I went right back in when the method to defeating his last form came about. After playing Mother 3, a game I think manages to balance its good writing and characters with its weird, wacky and unmistakably humorous side I found it to be the better game between the two because I felt a reason to keep going with the game. I know many EarthBound fans think otherwise but that’s how I think about it.
For myself I feel EarthBound has managed to build itself up as a popular experience than a game. It does things uniquely but only in the ways it wants to and whether or not one likes the game is a question of if they can find endearment in its wackiness because this gameplay does shit for anyone. Sure its fine for first timers but why start a first timer with something so limited? When I don’t feel satisfied from a gameplay view the story and characters were what usually have me press on but I didn’t find it appealing enough to stop the drag that the game became till the end after the halfway point. Well, besides the catchy soundtrack.
It’s up to the person from there, but I doubt anyone whose played many other RPGs will have a easy time trying to see for themselves. Who knows, maybe watching a LP or something might get a craving going for more of its silliness but I think it’s done much better…in its Japan-only sequel.
Hey, at least I can say I love the fans of the game and what they do in their spare time.