EarthBound (Long)

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EarthBound (Review) (1995)

Review, 09/08/13

INTRO

The SNES was strong on so many fronts: side-scrolling platformers, puzzle games, tournament fighters, action-adventures… If you lived in Europe, you were deprived of all RPGs bar the more action-oriented ones, but otherwise SNES players who appreciated slower paced story-driven games were enjoying games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 4 and 6, Super Mario RPG, Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals and Breath of Fire II.

They’re all strong games, some of them being favourites even among people not overly enamoured with the whole JRPG genre. Though not generic, they all tend to conform to the usual RPG settings and tropes – i.e. they are all “medieval”, with heroes and heroines slaying dragons, elves and imps with swords, staves and maces, and with magical power and other fantasy elements commonplace. Transport and technology Is usually limited – ships ferry you from continent to continent, and often later in the game you’ll get an airship or other flying craft of some sort, usually considered to be on the cutting edge of technology.

They’re all well and good. But have you heard of many RPGs with bent town mayors, attacks from the works of Salvador Dali, numerous references to the Beatles, devices used to get rid of troublesome steel pencil and eraser statues, baseball bats and Yo-Yos being used as weapons against big piles of puke, sunstroke and homesickness as status ailments, trashcans being used as pseudo-treasure chests and actual bathrooms being used by NPCs? Where critical hits are known as SMAAAASH attacks, where secondary characters can ring you and inform you of crucial updates on a special phone which only receives calls, where running really quickly in expanding circles allows you to instantly teleport to places?

Surely you haven’t, and surely you’re curious to see how a mid 1990s SNES RPG could buck the established trend so much and attempt to do its own wild, zany thing. Even from the very beginning of the game, when you’re asked to put in the name of your favourite food and favourite thing, when you notice the ATM Card in your inventory, when your faithful dog speaks to you and comes with you to a meteor site before taking fright and running back home, you realise that EarthBound is a very different game to anything you’ve ever played.

Not that all this meant anything to me in the mid 1990s, or even beyond then – me being Eurotrash (or wannabe Eurotrash), and weaned on a healthy diet of Mario, Zelda and F-Zero, I hadn’t got a clue what an RPG was. Secret of Mana and Pokémon (Red obviously, Blue was for the second prizers, although I eventually did get it. And Yellow), which also consumed me as a child, turned out to be fabulous examples of these RPGs which I had previously stereotyped as all being some Dungeons and Dragons nonsense. Back then, as soon as I saw the term ‘RPG’, I would dismiss the game as being some slow-paced nonsense, the antithesis of fun games like Banjo Kazooie and Super Mario Kart (Secret of Mana and Pokémon were ‘different’, of course). These days, I’m not so snobby at all with game genres. In fact, where I used to eat up shooters and platformers 2D and 3D, I’ve now swung back from them towards RPGs, the more immersive the better.

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Don’t you wish overweight mother-hens were this self-aware in real life?

As an aside, allow me to name the 12 characters of Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 as they come to me: Mario, Luigi, Pikachu, Samus, Kirby, Yoshi, Fox, Captain Falcon, Jigglypuff… Donkey Kong… … … … Link! Forgot one of the most famous characters. There’s 11. The 12th and final character was some young lad named Ness, who, in marked comparison to most of the other cast, looked conspicuously normal. From a game called EarthBound, apparently. How come I never played that Nintendo game as a kid?

I’m surely not the only person to ask this. It turns out that EarthBound was a game that came out in the twilight years of the SNES in the USA. It received a huge marketing campaign from Nintendo to give it a jump start, with lots of advertisement and merchandise drummed up for it – even the game itself came packaged in a large, very eye-catching box. There was no manual, either; instead, the game came with a massive strategy guide included, one that told you all you needed to know about the game. Perhaps Nintendo’s way of helping the gamer through this strange new type of game? In a similar vein to the tips booklet shipped with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past that would help those not up to scratch on Zelda? Whatever, the upshot of all of this is that even with all this aid from Nintendo, sales of the game were disappointing, with the “This Game Stinks!” advertisement slogan becoming symbolic of the marketing howlers involved in EarthBound‘s foray into the market.

I don’t own a copy of the game, yet. In fact, I don’t own many NTSC SNES games at all, and certainly not something as sought after as EarthBound. If you want this sucker complete, prepare to have the guts sucked from your wallet. Why did this game, still relatively obscure, explode in desirability? I suspect several reasons why, although it would be too tangential for this review’s purposes. Probably the two primary reasons would be the surge in popularity of the Super Smash Bros. games (all three selling hugely, and all featuring Ness with Super Smash Bros. Brawl also featuring Lucas from EarthBound‘s sequel, MOTHER 3) as well as the naissance of young adults who have joined the workforce and want to play and collect memorable games of their youth. These two factors, if they’re accurate, are surely the driving force between the starkly rising prices of the game in the last 5+ years. Internet popularity from rabid fans as the game’s influence has spread retroactively completes the puzzle. Of course, the deadly sin for collectors is to assume that expensive games are automatically top notch. Say you had over a hundred US Dollars to drop on even just a cartridge of EarthBound? How could this quaint lump of grey plastic change your life?

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Weird? Oh, this is NOTHING

If it wasn’t already clear,  I haven’t exactly played this game on the original hardware. A glaring old gap in my already paltry SNES RPG collection (currently standing at the wonderful Secret of Mana, the whimsical Terranigma, the unfortunately mediocre Secret of Evermore, and the harmless Mystic Quest Legend. And if you wanted to be really cheeky, Illusion of Time. Most of them don’t even count!). To be sure, that’s the problem with being impoverished. As it is, I’m forced to sleep under a duvet of NES cartridges to keep warm at night. As for how I did play the game… well, emulation is such a nasty word. Let’s just say I memorised several Let’s Plays of the game and therefore am acquainted with every single one of EarthBound‘s gameplay quirks. Alright?

PLOT

It’s well and good having a ragtag bunch of swordsmen and mages go up against some evil magician or dragonlord in medieval RPGs. But if the protagonist of EarthBound is a boy of about 13 living in what’s taken to be American suburbia, what kind of plot could they possibly rustle up for him and his similarly-aged eventual party members? Aliens, of course. The plot of the game begins with a meteorite crash from space near Ness’s house on the outskirts of the town of Onett. Still in his pajamas, Ness goes to investigate, but its all cordoned off by cops. He goes up to the meteor site again later with his next door neighbour Pokey, whose brother Picky hasn’t returned home. On top of the mountain, a bee (forgive me – a bee-like creature) named Buzz Buzz emerges from the meteorite and explains to Ness that he has come from the future, where “all is devastation”.

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I can’t afford NOT to buy the bubble gum!

Buzz Buzz tells Ness of Giygas, the universal cosmic destroyer, and how this evil entity has doomed humanity to eternal darkness. Legends tell of three boys and a girl whose destiny it is to destroy Giygas – Ness, Paula, Jeff and Poo (quiet down the back, please). In order to do this, Ness must first fully understand his magical PSI powers. And to do that, he’s got to travel to eight Sanctuary locations around the world of Eagleland and record short melodies onto the Sound Stone that Buzz Buzz gives him.

What follows is a crazy adventure of all kinds of small-time villains, where Giygas’s influence over the people of Eagleland becomes far-reaching and you’re not sure who to trust. With a large cast of diverse characters, reams of funny dialogue and some of the strangest enemies to encounter and items to find, Ness’s journey with his friends will take him all over the oddest reaches of Eagleland as he learns the power of courage, wisdom and friendship.

GAMEPLAY

You know the jig with JRPGs: Accumulate a team of party members, get in hundreds of random encounters with enemies, overpower them constantly before siphoning experience points and currency from them, buy and equip upgraded gear, get through basic dungeons and try to maintain interest in the typically feeble story. All established traits of the genre – to go against them would typically amount to sacrilege. Right? Well, perhaps not. Perhaps it’s important for us to judge EarthBound as a new take on the JRPG genre. After all, Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger provide serious competition – but EarthBound isn’t trying to be either of those games, is it?

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Ness can and will eat hamburgers dug out of trash cans. And they’re just as wonderfully nutritious!

Once Picky and Pokey are brought home safely, and poor Buzz Buzz gets swatted away like a noisy dung-beetle, it’s time for Ness to begin his quest alone. Indeed, while most JRPGs tend to give the main protagonist an aide early on (usually a weak healer or a mega-powerful temporary character who later becomes a mid-level villain), Ness won’t be seeing Paula, his first companion, for quite some time.

This is fairly appropriate in its own way; Ness is just about capable of getting through the entire game by himself. He performs every duty expected of a JRPG dogsbody and then some: he’s got pools of HP and PP, learns attacking, support and healing PSI moves, and has great attack, defence and Guts (a stat pertaining to critical hits and ability to survive what would be mortal blows). The only thing he’s really lacking in is a little speed, a weakness that doesn’t always manifest itself thanks to the way the battle system works.

Ness’s adventures through Onett are hampered by yet another roadblock set up by the Onett Police (they proudly admit that they’re going for the world record). After routing the local gang of ruffians known as the Sharks, Ness is bestowed with a key to a shack that leads the way to his first Sanctuary location. There, he records the beginning of a melody and experiences some nostalgic feelings. These disorienting feelings of his youth are quickly shaken from his head by a mob of Cops, who attack Ness for going somewhere he shouldn’t have. After defeating them comprehensively, they allow him passage to Twoson.

In Twoson, Ness quickly learns of Paula and the reverence with which she is treated. She apparently has strong psychic powers and can even contact Ness telepathically. However, she’s been captured by blue-obsessed cultists from the Happy Happy Village, and it’s up to Ness to rescue her. After doing so, Ness meets Pokey again, who appears to be brainwashed or simply enchanted by the evil influence of Giygas and his minions. Paula joins Ness in his quest (frustratingly at Level 1, but she soon catches up) although she doesn’t offer a whole lot more than a damage sponge, risky and cryptic Pray command and some attacking PSI – admittedly strong, but PP recovery can be tough to come by in EarthBound and her physical attacks don’t amount to much after that.

Actually, this dependency on Ness is something that lasts for much of the game. Ness is everything an RPG team needs: the tank, the healer, the magic user… the best Paula can do is follow up with some cost-effective magic. Jeff won’t do much until you figure out his Bottle Rockets do evil damage, even against bosses – but he can’t hold that many. Poo is a decent Diet Ness but you really don’t get to use him all that much. Proper party diversity would have been nicer, especially against the nasty late-game enemies. The strategy of the battles suffers as a result.

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An RPG with an honest-to-God toilet! And someone’s actually using it! Well actually, it’s a jail cell, but…

 

Later in the game, after Jeff joins from the snowland of Winters and Poo makes contect with them all the way from the Far Eastern region of Dalaam, Ness finally reaches all the Sanctuary locations. With the Sound Stone melody complete, Ness visits Magicant, a sort of haven inside his own mind where he finally realises his true power.

Then it’s time to go and fight Giygas, who has become one of the most notorious final bosses around these days. The whole ending sequence has to be played to be believed; after a mostly upbeat game, the action turns more surreal in Magicant before it lurches towards the creepy, almost the Lovecraftian, by the game’s end. The whole final stretch of the game is almost worth the price of admission alone (actually, considering EarthBound‘s cartridge price, it probably isn’t). The epilogue is even fully playable, with all kinds of new dialogue! Absolutely something that more games ought to do.

Time for a bit more spiel on the battle system. Your typical screen-whooshing random encounters are gone (the type employed by MOTHER, EarthBound‘s Famicom predecessor), which is a plus point. Aren’t random encounters such a poor idea? Their compulsory nature just seems so forced, as if the game is deathly afraid you’ll go up against a powerful boss a level too low. Far better to actually see the enemies you’re dealing with, so that you can apply a bit of strategy as you move through the overworld. Speaking of overworlds… there isn’t any. All of the areas are interconnected, leading to large maps – a great plus as you explore the vast reaches of the city of Fourside or the Deep Darkness swamp. You later learn a Teleportmove to help you move about Eagleland’s vast expanses quickly, which is great.

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The – ah – dialogue, gets a bit chirpier than this, trust me

 EarthBound does need a bit of a grind at certain times (most notably at the beginning of the game in Onett) and sometimes Lady Luck dictates that a battle will go badly wrong on you, necessitating frequent saves – but that’s no problem, it’s something RPG players should be well used to. Players just need to be wary that there’s not much of a difficulty curve in EarthBound, particularly at the end of the game.

You’ll have a few recurring characters throughout the game that’ll help you out. Unfortunately, this is the closest EarthBound really gets to having solid character development, since the four heroes almost never talk among themselves, and Ness is a silent protagonist to boot. The diverse cast and the fabulous dialogue makes up for this, so it’s no problem that not many of the characters really endure. Those looking to invest in the main protagonists, however, will be left cold by EarthBound – full of charm it is, but the people who matter aren’t much more than young magic (or technology) users who just so happen to be fulfilling a destiny.

Concerning the game’s length, EarthBound is a meaty enough adventure, and seeking out all of the wonderfully entertaining dialogue adds quite a bit of longevity. The game does lack in sidequests though, being rather linear. 1/128 runs are popular, which involves getting every rare item or at least every rare equippable item in the game – the ‘1/128’ part meaning that certain enemies in the game have a one in 128 chance of giving out the item in question.

Not exactly Shiny Pokémon or Final Fantasy IV‘s Pink Tail odds, but it can become a daunting task for those looking to get at least a few of these items – especially when you consider that Poo’s only beneficial weapon is one of these 1/128 items, the infamous Sword of Kings, and it’s gone forever if you don’t get it before a certain point. Without that Sword, Poo looks sadly naked. Maybe I’m not much qualified to talk about EarthBound without owning it in physical format, but I can at least say that I’ve gotten the Sword of Kings – and on an emulator with no fast-forward feature, no less! It’s just unfortunate that this is all EarthBound really has for sidequesting – the game, as mentioned, is not glaringly short but a bit more to do would have been ideal.

GRAPHICS

It’s true: EarthBound has come in for its fair share of flak regarding its graphics. Take Chrono Trigger, released only a few months later, and the difference in aesthetics is chalk and cheese. If you’re looking for graphical marvels, then you’re certainly in the wrong place here. It’s difficult to be objective regarding the graphics of video games, but you’d have to say that EarthBound‘s overworld graphics don’t exactly inspire compared to Squaresoft’s titles.

But why can’t EarthBound trade on its own style? The game does have its own tricks, even if people seem determined to overlook them. The sprites aren’t hugely expressive, but there is a wide variety of them to cater to this game’s kooky cast of characters. One of the game’s most unique facets, and something that still does impress, is the psychedelic backgrounds of the ingame battles. The buildings and greens of the first half of the game might be a little samey, but it’s awesome to travel around urban environments in an RPG for once. The graphics might prove to be a stumbling block for some, but they shouldn’t. It’s not as if they stem from lack of effort or care – they’re simply a step forward from MOTHER‘s graphical style.

MUSIC AND SOUND

Of EarthBound‘s many shining lights, one of its very brightest is the soundtrack. It’s one of those quirky soundtracks that wouldn’t really bear an awful lot of listening outside of the game, but it suits the game’s unique atmosphere perfectly while you’re playing. There’s tons of tracks: at least ten distinct battle themes, differing dependent on the enemy in question; unique themes for each of the towns and cities; a few different cave themes; and various other situational themes. Most of the games are whimsical and upbeat, with a few tense tracks (such as the Sanctuary Boss theme) and eerie themes towards the end as the game’s happy mood takes a dive into terror. Highlights for me include all four of Onett, Twoson, Threed and Fourside’s themes, most of the Battle Themes, Pink Cloud, the Tenda Village, Summers and the Coffee Theme.

Even the sound effects are highly unique – the raspy sound of SMAAAASH attacks is infinitely imitable and the other noises that crop up occasionally during battle are nice as well. Beyond that, there isn’t much in the way of sound effects, but I’ll give you a little sound detail that I still find wonderful: if you bring the Bicycle (an item which is rendered unusable early on and quickly becomes forgotten) back to the Deep Darkness swamp at the end of the game, its pedals will make a different sound to their usual one when submerged under the swampy water. The teeniest of tiny details – somehow always the ones worth mentioning. The music is so varied that the lack of sound effects is more than excusable anyway.

PLUSES AND MINUSES

+ Maybe toilet humour should never be a plus, but it’s good to see a few references to farts and turds in the dialogue, alongside some mild swearing, unusual for a Nintendo game – expect to see damn, and even crap! Almost all of the dialogue is fabulous regardless of school pupil funnies, and localised really well.

+ No random encounters is good enough already, but if you catch enemies on the overworld from behind or if you’re vastly more powerful than them, the battle will usually end with a flash before it even starts – and you get all the experience and possible items from the encounter. When you’re powerful enough to blow enemies away, their experience points don’t really make much of a mark but it’s a great mechanic and saves much time on overworld travelling.

+ It’s exciting to see an old Super Nintendo game with so many popular culture references – it adds to the authenticity of a game based on an urban Western area in the 1990s. The most renowned examples of these references are to The Beatles, but if you’re paying attention you can see and hear references to Salvador Dali, The Little Rascals, The Who, Monty Python, Chuck Berry and the Blues Brothers. Well, for most of them you don’t need to pay an awful lot of attention at all, but…

+ The frightful atmosphere at the business end of the game is in marked contrast with the offbeat, sometime even goofy nature of the bulk of EarthBound and makes for one of the most memorable and chilling conclusions to any game out there. It’s hardly a glowing endorsement of a game to advise people to play it based on its last couple of hours, the death-rattles as they say, but in EarthBound‘s case it may actually be worth it.

– Some people might enjoy the challenge it poses, and might even give credit to the game for being closer to realistic (realistic? EarthBound?), but the lack of storage space available for items becomes a tedious obstacle time and time again. Each of the 4 characters (whenever you have them all together) can hold only 14 items each, and that doesn’t count repeats – no buying 99 Mid Potions at a time for you this time. Those 56 total spaces get swallowed by up to 16 spaces for equipment and a few more get lost to necessary key items. There is an item storage service that you can call in – but what’s the point? Even their warehouses are limited.

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If it wasn’t already clear, that wee black pixel is indeed a high-smelling turd

 CONCLUSION

These kinds of games are always difficult to appraise. I’m not blinded by any nostalgia, but there is such a large host of online hype and admiration for this game nowadays that it’s easy to get duped into thinking that it’s the best thing since sliced bread – or conversely, for cynics like me, that it’s not worth even one tenth of the talk.

Given its unfortunately unsuccessful initial release and its surge in popularity over the last number of years, it’s easy to romanticise EarthBound somewhat.  And in doing so, you run the risk of glossing over EarthBound‘s slight faults. That is understandable – after all, it has a uniquity that most other games don’t match (even its eventual Game Boy Advance sequel didn’t manage it, in my view).

But, as it’s always been, you’ve got to take each game on its merits. EarthBound has a compelling setup, an immersive soundtrack and I’m well prepared to give it a pass on its graphics. The battle system isn’t particularly complex – not a bad thing as such, but you’re safe enough in just leaving the game on Auto-Battle for the most part so long as you’ve got the levels. The difficulty ramps up quite a bit at the end of the game, when Paula and Jeff in particular will be easily chiefed in one hit by the regular mooks (in this game’s case, you actually face enemies called Mooks) as Ness carries the team, sometimes aided by Poo. The plot is sometimes disjointed, although the terrific characters and great dialogue make up for that.

Really, it’s easy to make excuses for the points in EarthBound when its legs become a little tired. And rightly so, because it’s a game that everyone should at least check out, if even just because it’s alternative and could never be accused of being generic. But I couldn’t see those who tend dislike or distrust JRPGs having their minds changed by EarthBound, where they might be by Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VII. For that reason, it just wouldn’t be called a top-tier RPG, worthy of a place alongside those titles. But it makes for a damn good second-string player.

SCORE: 8.5/10

– Burkeyoh

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