I finally played through Earthbound, and I was honestly surprised. Sure, I’ve heard countless wonderful things about the game, but I had no idea it would live up to just about every one of those expectations. Earthbound was fantastic, and despite having a Dragon Warrior like battle interface, I loved it. I didn’t play Earthbound as a kid, but I was fully aware of the game when it was released. Nintendo Power promoted it heavily and I just wasn’t interested. Do you want to know why? Because the marketing campaign relied on gross out humor. I’m not a fan of gross out humor. “This Game Stinks” and all the other food or bad smell related ads completely turned me off to playing this game, despite the fact that by this time, I was an RPG fan.
It wasn’t until emulators started becoming popular to use that I played this game. I’d play only the very early parts of the game, didn’t like the battle interface, and just never got any further into the game. Emulation did this to me a lot. I never really sat down with games I didn’t know very well, instead opting to replay games I loved thousands of times over. Earthbound just didn’t get a chance. I’m sure that my story echoes that of a lot of other gamers from the 90’s, and is the biggest reason why Earthbound failed here in the U.S. and we never saw a release of Mother 3. I fully blame Nintendo’s marketing efforts for this game not being bigger than it was here in the U.S.
Earthbound is an incredibly absurd and surreal game. It even nods to surrealistic and abstract art by including enemies such as Dali’s Clock and well, Abstract Art. The story in this game takes absolutely nothing seriously, but kinda does take things seriously as well. It’s an odd juxtaposition that really helps keep your attention to the story the whole way through.
I’m constantly seeing other people talk about how they really connected with the main character, Ness, and his friends. This helped them become emotionally attached to the story and themes presented in the game. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really feel that same connection. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown bitter over the years and I no longer have a heart. I understand where they are coming from, however. Ness having to call home to his mom whenever he’s feeling homesick or the genuine friendship between Jeff and Tony are examples of story elements grounded in reality that can resonate on an emotional level.
What kept ME attached to the story were the incredibly absurd things that happens to Ness and his friends throughout the story. I mean, things start out pretty predictably for an RPG at the start, minus a certain time traveling fly-alien named Buzz Buzz. You investigate a meteor crash, then you are told you are the chosen one and must save the world, but before you can leave town to start your journey, you have to take care of a gang that’s taken over the arcade in town. Pretty normal RPG sounding stuff, with the inclusion of some pretty hilarious dialogue of course. I first knew that this game was going to get really weird when I was taken to the police station in Onett, then attacked by 5 police officers. I’m a freaking kid, and CPT Strong wants to take me into the back room of the police station and beat me? What the hell is going on with this game?
Another point of interest is when you follow a “zombie chick”, who honestly looks more like a stereotypical prostitute, into a hotel room only to be ambushed by zombies. I mean, this game is freaking absurd to the point of insanity. Who does this stuff to a kid? It was hilarious and I constantly had to know what was going to happen next. Sure, some of the interactions between Ness, his friends, and his parents were sweet and touching, but that just wasn’t the main draw to me.
The battle system isn’t particularly deep or innovative in terms of combat mechanics, but the humor from the story is injected into each battle as well. You’ll fight tiny UFOs that shoot laser beams that will give you colds, or new age hippies where you fight to the tune of Johnny B Goode. The combat mechanics are pretty standard. You select commands from menus for each character, choosing a physical or psychic attack, or a small number of special moves. Ness is your standard powerhouse jack of all trades who can do a lot of damage physically or psychically, heal characters or use a number of utility moves that can inhibit the enemy’s actions. Paula is your primary offensive “magic” user, who can also hold her own physically to an extent. Jeff has no psychic abilities, but is able to use his inventions to do a number of different things to the enemy. Poo, who comes into the game late, is a monk type character that also uses psychic abilities to attack, heal, and defend.
Enemies can be pretty tough if you don’t prepare properly, but if you level enough and keep your inventory stocked with healing and offensive items, you shouldn’t have any trouble. I never found myself having to grind much to keep up, though I didn’t really run from any battles through my journey. Honestly, I tried to run several times, and it never seemed to work, so I just decided never to rely on running. The overall gameplay experience is good, but nothing particularly groundbreaking. The real appeal here is the story and atmosphere.
At first glance, the graphics seem pretty simplistic. The game is bright and colorful, but it doesn’t appear to be pushing the limits of the hardware at all. The sprites are all done in a style that appears a bit sloppy, like it was drawn by a child. The NPCs have funny little faces, with some no more than a circle and with a smiley face drawn in, while others, like the lady carrying shopping bags, look pretty deranged. The enemy sprites definitely carry on the theme of being hand drawn by a kid. Some enemies have little blood splatters on them, just like monsters I would have drawn when I was growing up. The Kraken is the perfect example, with blood soaked teeth. You learn to love and embrace the graphics because they fit so perfectly with the tone and theme of the story.
I didn’t realize how much I was enjoying the music until I had been playing the game for a good chunk of time. Tunes range from happy and innocent sounding, to weird and unnerving, to downright disturbing. The battle music is great, particularly for a lot of the bosses. I love the hip hop and jazz style drum tracks the game uses. Every area and battle in the game has carefully selected music that fits the tone of the scene, and really adds to the overall experience.
I have a lot of problems getting into older RPGs that I hadn’t played before, mostly because I have a shorter attention span than I did as a kid. I typically prefer games that are easy to pick up and play and put down after a night of gaming. Platformers and shooters are really my go-tos these days. Earthbound sucked me in like I hadn’t been sucked into a 16 bit RPG in a long time. It still holds up amazingly well today, and I am fully onboard the Fuzzy Pickle train now. I can’t wait to try out Mother 3, and maybe even the original Mother that was released on the Famicom.
I encourage everyone to try this game out, especially now that you can get a legit copy of it on the Wii U virtual console. Obviously, the physical copies on the SNES go for way too much these days, and chances are, you’d rather pick up several games for the price that you’d pay for one Earthbound cart. Play Earthbound on the Wii U. Purchase the game so Nintendo knows people are interested in the franchise and want more. Normally I have no problems with people emulating games, but since we have a way (money) to show Nintendo how much we want these games, we should use it. After all is said, I absolutely loved this game and I know it’s going to be one I’ll play many more times in my life. Earthbound rules and I’m glad I finally got to experience the game.