EarthBound

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EarthBound (1995)

The SNES was strong on so many fronts: side-scrolling platformers, puzzle games, tournament fighters, action-adventures… of course, if you lived in Europe you were deprived of all RPGs bar the more action-oriented ones. But otherwise SNES players around the world got the chance to play story-driven games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 4 and 6, Super Mario RPG, Lufia and Breath of Fire II. Here in UK and Ireland we had Mortal Kombat and Super Tennis.

Those JRPGs are all well and good. But have you heard of many RPGs with bent town mayors, attacks from the works of Salvador Dali, references to the Beatles, Chuck Berry and The Blues Brothers, 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?

What about one where your protagonist foraging food out of trashcans, and actual bathrooms being used by NPCs? Where critical hits are known as SMAAAASH attacks, with an imitable sound effect? Where kooky secondary characters can ring you and inform you of crucial updates on a special phone which only receives calls?

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, which also consumed me as a child, turned out to be fabulous examples of these RPGs which I’d 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.

I first heard of EarthBound when Ness turned out to be the 12th and final character in Super Smash Bros for N64. In marked comparison to most of the other cast, he looked conspicuously normal. Bland, even. The question had to be asked: how come I never played that Nintendo game as a kid?

It turns out that EarthBound was a game that came out in the twilight years of the SNES in the USA and Japan. 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. But even with all this aid, sales of the game were pretty disappointing. It probably didn’t help that they used “This Game Stinks!” as the advertisement slogan, and went for gross-out 90s humour.

A large box and strategy guide, eh? Yes, and if you’re a collector who wants to buy this mother complete, prepare to have the guts sucked from your wallet. It’s too much money for me naturally, I’m so impoverished I’m forced to sleep under a duvet of NES cartridges to keep warm at night. Make no mistake though, this game has now become a religion of sorts, and Internet popularity from rabid fans spreads the game’s influence.

Everyone now holds EarthBound up as a quirky icon of retro gaming, full of nerd cred. 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, could this quaint lump of grey plastic really change your life?

Well, we’ve all seen ragtag bunches 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.

Young Ness learns of Giygas, the universal cosmic destroyer, and how this evil entity has doomed humanity to eternal darkness, which is not quite cricket. 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 a doodad called the Sound Stone.

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. Ness begins 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, so he’ll be battling all on his lonesome.

Time for a bit more spiel on that battle system. Your typical screen-whooshing random encounters are gone, 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. You also have to watch where you’re going: get caught from behind, and the enemy will hit you with a surprise attack. Catch them from behind however, and you surprise them – or you may even defeat them without battling if your level’s high enough. Now that’s a lot more like it.

It’s 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. And 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 Teleport move to help you move about Eagleland’s vast expanses quickly, which is great.

EarthBound does need a bit of a grind at certain times (most notably at the beginning) 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 are well used to. Concerning the game’s length, it’s a meaty enough adventure, and seeking out all of the wonderfully entertaining dialogue adds longevity. The game does lack in sidequests though, being rather linear.

And it’s true also that EarthBound’s graphics have copped some flak. 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.

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, though, and something that still does impress, is the psychedelic backgrounds of the ingame battles.

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; 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 and eerie themes towards the end as the game’s happy mood takes a dive into terror.

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 sequel Mother 3 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, which can be good or bad depending on your view. The difficulty ramps up quite a bit at the end of the game. The plot is sometimes disjointed, although the terrific characters and great dialogue make up for that.

Still, 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.

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