EarthBound. How could it possibly have been so unsuccessful in the West when it was first released? Now it’s considered to be a classic by nearly everyone who’s had the delight of experiencing it. This is one of the most unique and endearing RPG’s on the SNES.
Definitively Nintendo, EarthBound packs a lot of charm, cheerfulness, self-aware quirkiness in its parodying portrayal of Western culture. Its characters are all wildly bizarre but at once extremely lovable and memorable: the Runaway Five, Apple Kid and Orange Kid, the Sanchez Brothers, Mr. Saturn, and Bubble Monkey.
So too its dialogue is wacky and innocently humorous. It’s genuinely funny. Remember the lines: “If they break their contract, they’ll be in deep doodoo with the police. The police would probably say, ‘Hey you guys!’ or something like that…”, “Drown to death in puke! Don’t you think that’s an incredibly masculine taunt to throw at you?”, “Last night there was a solitaire tournament…I lost my shirt…” and…
The game is distinctly American in its setting, with its inclusion of fast food joints, yo-yos, skateboards, baseball, arcades, conspiracy theories, small towns, B-movies, pop culture, cults, hippies, zombies, and UFOs. All of this is filtered through the hysteria of the hysterical late 20th century. Heck, you use ATMs to get your money (dollars, of course) and payphones to save your game! This setting stood in stark contrast to the typically high fantasy, medieval worlds of most RPG’s up to that point. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV, Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, and Breath of Fire II are just a few of the role-playing games on the SNES which drew inspiration almost entirely from “swords and sorcery” type settings, with the occasional sci-fi thrown in for good taste.
Then EarthBound pops on the scene set in its fictional world of Eagleland, an obvious parable of the United States.
And yet beneath this façade of placid, wistful Americana, EarthBound carries hints of darker, more disturbing ideas. The final battle sequence is one of the most horrifying in any game I’ve ever played simply because of a few lines of text and a Lovecraftian concept of hidden, all-powerful evil. There are several other moments in the game when its cartoonishness belies a pervading sense of creeping dread and fear of the “bigness” of its ideas, which only makes the experience of playing EarthBound all the more affecting.
It is as if a child’s painting hid the repressed emotions of past abuse, if you’ll forgive the intense analogy being drawn.
Enough of that. The game is known as Mother 2 in Japan. Logically, that’s because it follows Mother, and serves as a sequel. However, I’m like many of our readers who perhaps also never got the chance to play Mother on the NES since it was never released in the West, not until it became EarthBound Beginnings on the Wii U Virtual Console. I bring that up to say I won’t bring it up again.
I haven’t played Mother so I cannot comment on it. I’ve played through EarthBound several times and a lot of its plot remains vague and mysterious to me, I assume largely in part because I didn’t play Mother. Such as it is, here’s my view of the game.
EarthBound begins in the year 199X in Eagleland, in the town of Onett, with a boy with powerful psychokinetic powers named Ness. Ness wakes in the middle of the night to a loud noise and ventures out of the house to discover that a meteorite has landed nearby. Outside, he and his next door neighbor, a bossy kid named Pokey, run into a blockade set up by the police department. Ness returns home at Pokey’s urging.
Later that same night, Ness is awoken again but this time by an incessant knocking at the door. It’s Pokey. He reports that his brother Picky went with him to see the meteorite and has now disappeared. He wants Ness’ help. You have no choice…
Ness (after changing out of his jammies) goes back out to the meteorite but this time the police are gone and there are wild animals swarming the hillside. The two boys reach the meteorite and find Picky, and suddenly a bright light emanates from the space rock and a tiny voice speaks to them. It’s Buzz Buzz, a time-traveling insect from a post-apocalyptic future 10 years away where he was the sole survivor of the devastation of the universal cosmic destroyer, Giygas, a horrific, incomprehensible, all-powerful, psychic alien extending his malevolent influence into the minds of weaker, base creatures, whose plan can only be stopped before it begins by the chosen boy, who of course is little ol’ Ness…
That isn’t even the least bizarre thing in this game.
Ness and his neighbors are soon attacked by a Starman Junior, a servant of Master Giygas. With the help of Buzz Buzz (and not Pokey, who proves himself a coward), the Starman is defeated.
Unfortunately Buzz Buzz is killed after being mistaken for a dung beetle, swatted by Pokey’s mother. The time-traveling hero tells Ness he must begin his adventure, unite his power with the Earth’s at eight sanctuaries across the globe by recording the melodies into a Sound Stone, and then Buzz Buzz breathes his last.
Ness travels all across Onett and Eagleland, and even into countries far across the seas, and meets many strange and peculiar people. Along the way, he’ll be aided by another child with psychic abilities named Paula in Twoson. Paula will psychically contact the genius son of an inventor named Jeff, who lives far away in Winters. The final member of the chosen four is the young prince of Dalaam in the east, whose name is Poo (wow, Nintendo…).
Solidifying the fact that this is not a traditional RPG, Ness and co. are confronted by a host of ordinary people and animals turned by the creeping control of Giygas. Once peaceful busybodies and gossips, puppies and birds, have become almost insane, driven mad. Their greed, jealousy, selfishness, and hate is tweaked up a notch by the psychic alien influence. They’ll throw themselves headlong into Ness’ path.
The Starmen, the zombies, Master Belch, the Mayor of Fourside, the Happy Happy Village cultists obsessed with painting the world blue… even Pokey himself, driven by a deep-seated envy and prejudice against Ness, serve Giygas.
Pokey figures in as a secondary antagonist, though he isn’t seen through much of the game. Giygas himself (itself?) is much like Sauron of The Lord of the Rings. His power is always felt even if he is only barely encountered. Both of these villains are extremely poignant to me. Pokey becomes a twisted, horrible blue-skinned husk of a child feeding into the powers of Giygas. Pokey describes the alien as an “all-mighty idiot”, with the revelation at the end of the game (spoilers: highlight to reveal) that Giygas has exerted so much evil power that it has destroyed his mind and self-awareness, making him unaware of what he’s doing, like a cosmic wildfire that’s way out of control. The battle itself against Giygas’ inconceivability is one of the strangest and most frightening Nintendo has ever produced.
It’s the big concepts like these in EarthBound that jar (not unpleasantly) with its childish exterior and make for some really frightening undertones. Another example of this would be the Mu training Poo undergoes where the spirit of his ancestor tests him by tearing off his arms, tearing out his eyes and ears, and telling him to accept it until he is nothingness. Dark. And that’s just to cite a few samples.
But you know what? EarthBound isn’t some sick Tim Burton-esque fantasy. It isn’t dark for darkness sake. There’s a lot of levity and childlike hope in here which stir the heart with EarthBound’s adorable characters. Perhaps the best example comes in the form of the harmless alien race called Mr. Saturn, which speak like babies and have a culture completely ignorant of war and danger. Franchise creator Shigesato Itoi has even said that Mr. Saturn represent innocence in the game.
It’s this range of emotions and characterizations which makes the game such a memorable classic. It excels at poking fun at RPG’s and breaking the fourth wall to tease even itself. There are so many iconic moments, despite the unusual setting, and so much that’s wonderful about EarthBound that I could stand to write a whole slew of posts about these characters and what they mean and what they mean to me. But this review shall have to suffice, for now.
The 8-bit Review
Let’s just call it like it is.
The graphics are not the best, especially in comparison with other games that the SNES featured. However, I doubt this was unintentional. In fact, the highly simplistic visuals have become distinctive over time. You can recognize what game they belong to at a glance. The battle sprites may look like they’re drawn by a right-handed person on Microsoft Paint with their left hand but charm is something EarthBound has in droves, and that spills over into even its poorest of pictures. Just check out those battle backgrounds! Psychedelic!
While it may be argued that the visuals suffered for the sake of unique presentation, the same cannot be said of the music. Has there ever been a soundtrack more appropriate for its game before? Though not always pleasant melodically, this soundtrack is everywhere: warm, upbeat, catchy, cheerful, menacing, and just as bizarre as everything else. The OST departs from the typical RPG soundtrack, obviously. You’ll find a selection of jazz, techno, and hip hop beats, played on any number of instruments in any number of styles. The careful selection of tracks below illustrate the range of its sounds, from the inviting suburbias of Onett and Twoson…
…to the quirky homes of the funny citizens who dwell there…
…to the music of monsters and childlike aliens…
EarthBound is still an RPG. The traditional elements are melted down and highly streamlined, making the game one I recommend for those new to the genre who’d like to break into it with an accessible classic. However, there are a few things which set EarthBound apart and lend it its different presentation.
There are no random encounters. Monsters, animals, deranged people all approach you on the streets and in dungeons. And by the way, there’s no world map so you actually walk from city to city (or take boats or teleport, whatever). If you manage to catch a monster from behind, you get a preemptive strike, but the reverse happens if you’re attacked from behind: you lose your first turn of combat.
Battles take place from a first person perspective rather than the typical side-view popularized by the Final Fantasy franchise. HP and PP (again, Nintendo?!), which are Psychic Points, are displayed on an odometer-like counter which scrolls down at a set pace when points are used up, such as after sustaining a hit. Only when the counter reaches zero does a character die, which means you can actually heal a character if you’re quick enough and save them from an otherwise mortal blow. Neat.
Each of the four playable characters have their own distinctive attacks and abilities, too.
We’re talking about a fairly standard role-playing experience, otherwise. There are still weapons and accessories to purchase and equip, too. Gameplay might be the only thing about EarthBound that is generally typical. If only that didn’t mean getting such a small inventory! Each one of the four characters can only carry a set of items and inventory must be traded between them. It’s… more realistic I guess but it was aggravating enough to keep the score for Gameplay from a perfect 10.
Oh yeah and having the select “Talk to” and “Check” to interact with people and objects is unnecessary if not hugely tedious. As is having to get to a phone so your dear old dad can deposit some cash into your bank account, rather than just getting moneys directly from monster drops like in other lazy RPG’s.
EarthBound succeeds narratively because of its characters. It’s a simple fact that its details are predictable and trite, from the all-consuming, nihilist evil to the legends of the chosen one to the theme of friendship. If those were its sticking points, EarthBound would sink like the Titanic. But they aren’t. Eccentric, outlandish, zany people and situations keep the game afloat and driving forward. Ness may not speak a word, and he’s an ordinary Marty Stu, but even he grows on you. Nintendo has always been big on heart and heavy on the charisma. EarthBound is no exception. It’s easy to see why it became a cult classic and went from that to a veritable classic once everyone gave it a chance.
EarthBound is deceptively “kiddie”. There’s nothing here for children, so far as the difficulty level is concerned. Expect to have to stop and grind out some experience points. Hopefully that doesn’t bother you because it’s absolutely necessary to beat some of these bosses. Even the first guardian of the first sanctuary in Onett, the Titanic Ant, is pretty hard to fight solo with just Ness. You’ll need some levels under your belt.
Thankfully, there’s a neat little system set up if you gain several levels over the typical monsters in the area, they’ll run away from you and if you give chase and get a preemptive strike on them, you’ll defeat them automatically and bypass the whole battle screen! You still get the experience points and everything. It’s a quick way to grind. At least they saw the need for that.
I’m not exactly certain what it is that makes EarthBound something I’ve wanted to return to several times but I think I’ve beaten it thrice or frice. The game is a long one, even by RPG standards, and there are many things to see so maybe that’s why there’s an element of freshness every time I’ve come back to it. And that’s even without a ton of sidequesting that other RPG’s rely on to increase replay value and lifespan. But every playthrough, I seem to notice something I missed previously, or maybe I just forgot about it and rediscover it.
If I haven’t already convinced you of EarthBound’s uniqueness then probably nothing I can say will. Short of playing the game for yourself, you may never see what makes this one so special. I’m sure everyone who has played it to the end can attest to just what a different kind of game this truly is, for all the many, many reasons I’ve touched on above.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Perhaps even downright experimental (if not for its prequel), EarthBound has become an iconic SNES game. It’s one of my favorite RPG’s on a system full of ’em, but it’s this writer’s sincerest hope that this review has remained as objective as possible in explaining what makes EarthBound wonderful. I’m convinced it is impossible to play a huge chunk of this game and not come to appreciate its peculiar whimsy, if not actually fall in love with it. I’m also convinced that this is a prime example of a game that can be highly enjoyable and highly successful without having to feature cutting edge graphics.
I know that nostalgia hasn’t given me rose-colored glasses in the case of EarthBound. This is a game I enjoyed as a child and then picked up again to play through with my wife. I can’t wait to go through it again with my own child once he’s grown up a bit. I’m sure I’ll need to console him with the words I told myself when I was a lad: “Don’t worry. Don’t adjust the TV. This game is supposed to be like this.”
Aggregated Score: 8.8