Retro Game Review: EarthBound (SNES)
First released in Japan on August 27, 1994 as Mother 2, EarthBound suffered unfortunate circumstances during its localization to North America which prevented similar commercial success. Renamed EarthBound during localization to thwart confusion, since the game’s predecessor Mother had not yet seen an official release outside of Japan due to similar issues with the timing of localization efforts. Nintendo threw down an expensive American ad campaign that drew heavily from the game’s quirky script and sense of humor. Now dubbed the “This game stinks” campaign, it featured scratch-and-sniff stickers with odd or terrible odors that were supposed to represent various elements from the game. Perhaps most damaging to the game’s reception, the US release date of June 5, 1995 was near the end of the SNES cycle. With both the Nintendo 64 and original Playstation approaching release, the focus of most gamers shifted to these new consoles. However, while considered a commercial failure by Nintendo, the game still found its way into the hearts of quite a few gamers and its place of remembrance in its cult status. It is also one of Satoru Iwata’s most beloved games, a game in which he was involved in production.
In EarthBound, players start the game with several options to customize story elements from the game, such as naming all your party members, your favorite hobby (presets including reading, gaming, or rockin’) and your favorite food (which the protagonist’s mother will prepare to restore his party’s health). The story begins as Ness, a young boy with latent psychic powers, awakes to the sound of a crashing meteorite outside of his home. He and his neighbors investigate the crash site and discover the arrival of a visitor from the future. This bee character, who is appropriately named Buzz Buzz, reveals the future destruction of mankind at the hands of the cosmic entity Giygas. He instructs Ness to find eight “sanctuaries” on Earth, record music there, use their song to unite his powers with the planet itself and prevent Giygas victory before it ever occurs.
The odd concepts lend to the overall tone of the story and setting, and is just the tip of the iceberg for the wild country of Eagleland. Silly dialogue pervades as Ness and his friends encounter everything from crazy hooded cultists (the Happy Happyists), to zombies, the Loch Ness monster, alien invaders and even Ness’s own subconscious. The writing is often witty and seldom predictable, with puns thrown throughout in the form of puzzles like giant stone pencils which require the item “Pencil eraser” to clear. It will make you grin at the least, and laugh out loud at the most. Despite the comedy, the game features serious themes such as predestination, camaraderie, and Ness’s exploration of his own psyche. The writer Shigesato Itoi portrays a peculiar and foreign inspection of American and Western culture with parodies of conventions of the RPG genre. The music and sounds are rather far-out with mixes of techno, rock, and simple television static.
As far as RPGs go, at the time of release the game set itself apart from the rest of the genre by eliminating random battles. Instead of randomly encountering enemies while exploring the map, they appear as sprites which may chase the player down, run away if the player is too strong, or simply mind their own business until engaged. Making contact with the sprites initiate battles, which flow the same as most turn-based RPGs. Enemies and party members take turns exchanging actions until either the player’s party or the enemies are all defeated. The party acquires a large array of abilities called PSI and weapons to help defeat enemies and survive strong attacks. Most PSI abilities come with several grades of power such as Alpha, Beta, or Gamma. The player chooses the name of Ness’s most powerful attack by naming their favorite activity at the beginning of the game.
The game calculates damage to the party’s health using a rotating odometer-like meter which counts down from the moment damage is dealt. If a character receives mortal damage, the player may have time to heal that character before the counter reaches zero, creating a certain pace for which the player must be ready to navigate the battle menus. Outside of battles, players inspect objects or talk to people either by opening the main menu or hitting the “R” button shortcut. Like most RPGs, equipment and items can be organized through the main menu. The game presents enough unique features and mixes them well with typical RPG elements to create a fresh experience without becoming too different or too conventional.
The game may seem too linear for some since it presents no true side quests. It also contains some odd decisions; for example, Poo’s only weapon can only be found as a rare drop from a certain enemy in a certain area, with no indication by the game of its existence. To be fair, the game was sold with the player’s guide included, and the developers may have had this in mind at the time. Rarely does the game reward the player for exploring far from the beaten path, usually only with a chest and minor reward. Like many RPGs, enemy power scaling becomes a noticeable issue as the game progresses and the party grows in strength. It starts out fairly hard when the player only has Ness, but even Paula’s added support early on quickly reveals a sharp drop in difficulty. Some enemies will give the player trouble, but in most cases the party survives with basic attacks and healing. While many gamers may have a problem with a lack of general difficulty, the games poses challenging bosses at certain stages which should keep most players thoroughly engaged. The game’s true charm is its presentation; the quirky visuals, strange enemies, and goofy dialogue should put a smile on anyone’s face.
Fans of old-school RPGs should definitely play EarthBound. You will find a host of unique ideas and you favorite staples which drew you to the genre in the first place. It’s so much a love letter to RPG fans even one of the dungeons is themed around how to create a good dungeon design. The game has endured in the hearts of its followers for over twenty years, and better yet Nintendo made the game, and its prequel EarthBound Beginnings, available on the Wii U with the entire official players guide digitized on the web and optimized for use on the Wii U controller. I wholly recommend the experience.