Earthbound was released for the Super Nintendo in June, 1995, and I never knew about it. It’s not surprising, I was very much into strategy, action, and (gasp!) sports games back then. I didn’t even hear about Earthbound until around 2003 when I finally did some research on who this strange Ness character was in Smash Bros. Melee. Over the next 10 years, I would progressively obsess about the game because of how drawn I was to the colorful screenshots I would see and, again…this mysterious Ness and his wonderful-looking stage now in Smash Bros. Brawl.
In 2013, I finally went all-in and bought the CIB version of the game in all its big-box glory. I spent $440 which was a bit of a deal for an eBay Buy It Now back then. It was the new centerpiece of my collection. I stared at it daily! The strategy guide had all the scratch-and-sniff stickers and the cover art was mesmerizing. It took me months before I even noticed Ness was up there in the robot’s head.
Sadly, I had to sell it a year later for financial reasons. Except for the few minutes I spent validating that the cartridge worked, I never played it. At some point, I did buy the Wii U version for $10 and although I started it at least a couple times, I never advanced past the first world, Onett.
Yesterday, however…I beat it.
I hear a lot of people talk about how overhyped and overvalued the game is. The cartridge goes for $180 on average. It used to be even more expensive, but the price went down when the Wii U virtual version came out. Since then, it’s gone up again. Why?
People just want to own one of the absolute classics in RPG history.
The game we know as Earthbound is actually a sequel to Mother, a game that never saw the light of day in North America. It was created by Shigesato Itoi, meticulously translated by Marcus Lindblom, and saw a release after an arduous 5-year development effort. The story behind the game is worthy of its own book with two development houses, HAL and Ape, working together with Nintendo on the project. Nintendo’s wunderkind Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Donkey Kong, Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., Pikmin…) supervised the project with HAL’s lead programmer, Satoru Iwata, who would later become President and CEO of Nintendo itself!
Where the first game’s protagonist was named Ninten, Earthbound is helmed by Ness. (You see what they did there?) Asleep one night, Ness is awoken by a loud blast outside of his home. After exploring for the source of the noise, he comes upon a glowing meteorite and his quest is introduced to him by a fly (no, he’s not a fly!) named Buzz Buzz who, sadly, meets an early demise. He’ll explore many different worlds to fill his Sound Stone with memories, essentially, that lead him to fighting Giygas and saving the world. Along the way he’ll meet a ton of interesting characters including a few that join him on his quest named Paula, Jeff, and Poo. (That is not a typo.) Interestingly, you can change their names right at the beginning of the game, many hours before you’ll actually encounter them, along with some other customizations. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, Jeff can fix certain objects while you stay at hotels, but he sucks as a fighter. Yeah, I said it.
Earthbound received a fair amount of criticism when it was released and suffered from poor sales. A big reason for that was Nintendo’s insistence on packaging it with a strategy guide for about $70-$80 at launch. They were convinced Americans would need a lot of help to get through the game and the Internet wasn’t really in place for everybody yet at the time. It probably made some sense then, but it did hurt sales nonetheless. Humorously, critics attacked the game’s “simple graphics.” Today, the graphics are what gives the game its appeal, but when the game came out we were just a few months away from the Sony Playstation release and 3D graphics were all the rage. A 2D RPG seemed antiquated and outdated back then.
My how trends change!
Let’s take a more in-depth look at the game and see why, today, we regard Earthbound in such reverent esteem!
The initial worlds in Earthbound all include a sequential order in their name (Onett, Twoson, Threed, etc.) and display in an isometric perspective. Later, the worlds appear in an angled top-down view (similar to Legend of Zelda) or side-scrolling. You’ll go through about a dozen with each area presenting a set of challenges you must complete in order to advance to the next one. Eight of the worlds have a boss character you must defeat to add tones to your Sound Stone.
The graphics are rich and beautiful and have aged extremely well. To me, they’re the pinnacle of pixelated artistry. The amount of work put into the entire game is astounding. Nothing is recycled. Part of the charm of the game is how often it breaks the 4th wall. When you reach Saturn Valley, the characters “speak” to you in a crazy font that will take a while to get used to. When has a game ever used a barely readable font to parlay the foreignness of a character? It’s ridiculous! When you reach Fourside, a city full of towering skyscrapers, you feel it. You feel small. It’s magical.
Above everything else, the game’s setting is remarkably…familiar. It doesn’t take place in our world, but one just like it. Instead of eating herbs or potions to raise your health, you eat…hamburgers. Or fries. Want to raise the health of your entire party? Eat a pizza! Where do you find it? You call up the pizza shop and have it delivered, of course! It’s all familiar and relatable and it really helps you identify what items will do for you. Whereas a game like Final Fantasy XIII is filled with terminology that is unfamiliar and quickly forgettable (fal’Cie, l’Cie, what’Cie?), I am confident I’ll remember Earthbound forever.
When you want to sleep and regain all your health and magic, you go home and your mom feeds you nachos. (My favorite food is nachos, anyway.) To save the game you call your dad and he’ll lecture you if you’ve been playing for too long. Your sister is who you go to when you want to store items. The game fits into your world. It’s so easy to navigate and remember who you need to talk to when their names are easier to remember and the environments are familiar.
The music in the game is amazing, too. Each world has its own music and every one of them is hummable. The music in Onett is absolutely classic. I was almost sad when I made it to Twoson and the music changed. I wasn’t done humming da-da-da-dunnana-doo-doo. The sound effects are epic, too. I’ve heard a few of them on various YouTube shows for sure, especially the little ditty that plays when you gain a significant item.
Earthbound is a game that is wonderfully, and most importantly lovingly, crafted.
While Earthbound is an RPG you play for the story, the combat works pretty well, too.
First of all, the big winner here is that there are no random encounters ala the older JRPG classics. Every enemy you fight will appear in the world and you have a chance to avoid them if you want to, although that’s not always easy. But, you know it’s coming.
The fights themselves are straightforward and familiar, but the big innovation is the rolling hit counter. Here’s how it works: say you have 500 health and an enemy damages you by 300. Your health won’t immediately drop to 200 but instead rolls down slowly. I’d estimate it would take about 20 seconds to go down. In this time, if you can end the fight your health will stop reducing. This is very handy for short fights with strong characters later in the game and becomes a part of your strategy. It’s possible that your 500 HP character can take 1,500 worth of damage and not die. You often can simply wait til the health reaches 150 or so before you restore it. It’s an interesting mechanic.
You’ll also find that the fight dialogue is ridiculously funny. Every action is explained in full detail, often reading like a story. A character doesn’t just become incapacitated, they’ll just start crying and not be able to stop. Instead of just getting poisoned, they’ll catch a cold that will cause frequent damage. The enemy names are kooky as well. You’ll take on Beautiful UFO’s, Criminal Catterpillar’s, and even a Hostile Elder Oak. The names are very judgemental, aren’t they?
Lastly, there’s also the auto-win mechanic. When you fight an enemy that’s far inferior to you, the fight cuts out right before it starts and you’re awarded the experience points immediately. This happens fairly often when you go back to older worlds. It’s a big time saver and great addition to the combat system.
I’ll be honest, Earthbound is not without its flaws. For the RPG enthusiast, especially, they’ll have a hefty share of complaints about the game.
My biggest complaint is that, unless you use the Internet or maybe the strategy guide, you don’t know what an item does until you own it. Say you’re at a store and a Protein Drink is for sale. There’s no way to figure out what it will do until you buy it and it’s in your inventory. This is tolerable for cheaper items, but obnoxious for expensive ones. You might drop $1,000 on an item that doesn’t fit your strategy. Annoying. If it really bothers you, though, you can just find a list online.
In combat, attacks sometimes miss, yours as well as enemies’. This prolongs some fights for far too long than they need to be. During my playthrough, I picked up an item called the Casey Bat that promised a much stronger attack than what I had before. I had the new weapon for 2-3 hours of gameplay when I noticed that Ness was missing his attacks very often. I finally realized it was the weapon itself when I read the description and it noted that “You’ll whiff a lot with this.” Gee, thanks! Even more annoying is that many characters will miss with items they use. Shoot a rocket at an enemy and it may say your character can’t use it very well. Well there goes a few hundred dollars down the toilet! You can’t really know that Ness sucks using a rare and pricey Multi-Bottle Rocket until you waste it in a battle a couple times.
Finally, by bar, the worst aspect is the inventory system. Each character can hold about a dozen items or so. This isn’t very much, but the problem is magnified by the fact that 4 of these items are equipped for the user. That means you can only hold about 8 items more. Plus, Ness needs to hold an ATM Card to be able to get money throughout the game. I wish this didn’t take up a spot. So, how do you manage the inventory? Well, you can call your sister and she’ll send someone to pick up and store some items for you. This takes a lot of time and you can only store 3 items for each visit. It’s all terribly cumbersome and unnecessary.
These flaws aside, the game is still as wonderful an RPG as I’ve ever played.
A Defining RPG
It’s easy to get sour on Earthbound without playing it. At $500 complete, it’s obviously way overpriced, sure. It’s a great game, though, and for anyone who hasn’t played RPG’s, this is the one that will get you into it. You won’t be overwhelmed with complexity, the story is wonderful and the characters will stick with you when you’re done. The photographer that takes pictures of you during the game shares them at the end…and you, the player, yes you yourself, are even pulled into the story. Everything wraps up nicely at the end with everyone you’ve met helping you in the final battle all the way down to your escorting Paula home.
Kudos to the team that spent those 5 long years to give us Earthbound. A legendary game in our time!