EarthBound
  • Genre:
    • RPG
  • Platform:
    • SNES
  • Developers:
    • Ape Studios
    • HAL
  • Publisher:
    • Nintendo
  • Released:
    • JP 08/27/1994
    • US 06/05/1995
Score: 90%

This review was published on 06/10/2013.

EarthBound is a turn-based, menu-driven role-playing game released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System late in the 16-bit console's lifespan. While it was released as a stand-alone game in North America, EarthBound is actually part of a series in Japan. EarthBound is the sequel to Mother, a Japanese RPG released for the 8-bit Famicom in 1989. Some circles may know Mother by the unofficial title of EarthBound Zero. Because it's the sequel, EarthBound is known as Mother 2 in Japan. I guess Nintendo of America decided that Mother is an inappropriate title for a video game, so they did a name change when bringing it over to the states. Purists might disagree with this course of action, but it makes sense. Not to mention that EarthBound is a cool sounding name. When EarthBound was first released in North America, it went relatively ignored by the masses. This was a problem for Nintendo, because they threw a lot of money into marketing the game for a North American audience. The game cartridge came in a box bigger than the average SNES box, coming with a full players guide for the whole game. There weren't many other games that came with such a killer deal. The player's guide even had a scratch and sniff section, where you'd sniff these stickers to smell smelly smells. RPGs didn't sell well in North America at the time, and EarthBound was just a failed attempt by Nintendo to change that. That didn't change until Final Fantasy VII was released for the PlayStation in the late '90s. EarthBound is no unsung hero, though, because it eventually gained a massive cult following many years later. There's a good reason for that. The game is really good. In some ways, it's more of an experience than a game. Some would say it's a life changing experience. EarthBound is indeed a memorable experience with its contemporary setting and quirky dialogue.

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Many years later, Super Smash Bros. was released for the Nintendo 64, spawning a series that would become extremely popular by the GameCube era. It's partly thanks to this series that EarthBound gained such a stout cult following. I find it ironic that a series of fighting games starring characters from various Nintendo franchises gave popularity to an old SNES RPG. The protagonist of EarthBound is a playable character in all the Super Smash Bros. games, and the popularity of this series prompted a lot of confused gamers to look up who this character is. A lot of gamers then went out to try the game itself, even though it was an ancient artifact by that point in time. That's the story of how EarthBound amassed its cult following. It should be noted that when I say EarthBound has a cult following, that I mean this in the most literal sense possible. They can be a bit nutty. There is almost no other game out there that has rabid fans as dedicated as the EarthBound fan community. A couple of these diehard fans formed a website known as Starmen.net dedicated to EarthBound and the overall Mother series. That site is still in operation today. These are the sort of people who are certain with every fiber of their being that EarthBound is the best game ever made. Not just the best game ever, but many of them treat EarthBound as the second coming. EarthBound is like a religion to some of these folk; a way of life. I can't say that I regard the game as highly as they do, but I can understand their enthusiasm. It speaks volumes that such an old game can get so many people together in a positive way. EarthBound is one special game, for sure.

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Somewhere in rural America during the 1990s, a young boy named Ness sleeps the night away in the coziness of his bedroom inside his home. The peaceful slumber is interrupted by a sudden crashing noise outside. Without hesitation, Ness, our daring hero, decides to venture outside in his pajamas. Before he can leave, however, his mom urges him to change into some proper clothes first. Ness does so and attempts to leave the house a second time. He is successful on his second attempt, stumbling around in the dead of night as he makes his way past townspeople and policemen to find out what all the commotion is about. Apparently, a meteorite crash landed on a hill not far from Ness' house. Ness travels up the hill to meet his annoying next door neighbor, Pokey, who is doing his best job to annoy the cops. The police send the boys back home, but the night does not end there. Now Ness awakes from bed due to an annoying knock on his door. Who could it be? Well, we know of exactly one annoying person. Pokey is at the door, flabbergasted at a recent development involving the meteorite. The flustered Pokey took his brother Picky to see the meteorite, but he, along with all of the police, mysteriously vanished. After changing out of his jammies for a second time, Ness proceeds to follow Pokey into the dead of night to see what's going on. Ness takes his dog along for the ride, too. Don't worry, he checked with his mom first before going. I'm not sure what responsible mother would allow her child to go out on a dangerous night with no adult supervision whatsoever. This is where things start getting strange. Upon venturing outside this time, Ness and his gang are assaulted by runaway dogs and spiteful crows. He fights these ferocious beasts as Pokey stays a safe distance away and watches. Sometimes, Pokey will use Ness as a shield to avoid damage during combat. What a good friend. Shortly after this, Ness encounters a mysterious talking bug that tells him of a great destiny. Aliens are conspiring to take over the planet in complete secrecy, so it's up to Ness and a few other children to save the world. EarthBound has an amusingly surreal introduction to an amusingly surreal adventure.

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Ness' goal is to find a number of mysterious locations that will help him unlock his hidden potential. Along the way, he will meet a few kids who'll join him on his quest to stop the evil Giygas from taking over the planet. These friends include Paula, a girl with amazing psychic abilities, Jeff, a boy genius who invents snazzy gadgets, and Poo, the weird Asian kid named after excrement. A lot of EarthBound may seem happy and cheery, but there's always a sinister underpinning to it all. That's because the conspiracy of Giygas, the alien fiend trying to conquer the Earth, is constantly at work. The people of EarthBound are totally unaware of the impending alien takeover, which is why everything appears peaceful at first glance. It's not until very late in the game when the general public become privy to the alien take over, and even then, only some people know about it. I get the feeling that if a real alien takeover were to take place, it would happen the way it does in EarthBound. This all just adds to the premise of the game. Nobody knows that these kids are trying to save the Earth, nor are they aware of the Earth's impending doom. As dopey as this might all sound, the game has an eerie way of grounding you in its reality. I feel like this premise would make for a great movie. It certainly makes for a great game.

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The big thing about EarthBound is its unique setting. Back then, most RPGs took place in medieval times with fantasy settings that take heavy inspiration from Tolkien. Even now, RPGs can't get enough of swords and sorcery. With RPGs, the setting is usually either fantasy or science fiction. EarthBound chooses to go somewhere in the middle with a totally contemporary setting. Instead of swords, you use baseball bats, yo-yos and frying pans as weapons. And instead of blacksmiths, you go to drug stores or department stores to buy your equipment. Magic has also been replaced with psychic abilities. Want to save your game? Then have a chat with your dad on the telephone. Don't forget to deposit your cash into the bank with your ATM card. Remember to find a hotel if you're low on health, because inns are too old fashioned. You may want to look both ways when crossing the street on your way there, since cars will occasionally drive by. I think you get the idea. If you're the sort of person who had no issues with the medieval setting of most RPGs and want more of that, then maybe you'll find EarthBound's setting off putting. I, however, really enjoy this setting, and plenty of other people agree that it's great. I wish more games would go for the contemporary thing. The fantasy setting was already overplayed in the '90s. Whether you love it or you hate it, one thing everyone can agree on is that EarthBound's setting is a deviation from the norm. RPGs almost never go with this kind of setting, not even in recent times. EarthBound's setting is unique even to this day.

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Besides the setting, the other really big thing about EarthBound is the dialogue. The writing in games back then was generally not very good, especially games that were translated from Japanese. EarthBound stood tall as a shining example of how to do writing well in video games. The game rarely takes itself too seriously, so the dialogue revolves around making fun of RPG tropes and cliches. Some of the dialogue also pokes fun at American culture, which might have offended folk back then if anyone actually played it. I doubt that would be the case today. Americans love being made fun of. Okay, maybe not. There's a surreal tinge to the humor in EarthBound's dialogue, which may not be everyone's cup of tea. It sure seems to be in a lot of people's cup of tea, though, since the game is now almost universally praised for it. A good example of the quirky writing in EarthBound comes from the nonchalant way Ness' parents react toward his quest. They're very supportive of his adventure, never asking any questions. Mom will even cook Ness a nice meal if he drops by. The bumbling idiot police force of Onett is another good example of comedic dialogue. Talking to these guys is a treat, because they always have something funny to say. In fact, talking to just about anyone in the game is a treat. One character I particularly like is the hint guy. He can be found in various places in the game holding up a giant sign with the word "HINT" written on it. As you can guess, you go to him for hints about the game. The game even makes fun of common RPG mechanics, like status ailments. Most RPGs have negative status ailments like sleep, poison, paralysis, etc, whereas EarthBound has night-time stuffiness, homesickness, mushroomization, and other crazy stuff. In a lot of ways, EarthBound acts as a spoof of other RPGs. You might not catch some of these if you haven't played a lot of RPGs, but for the RPG veteran, the jokes will be crystal clear.

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Fights might be EarthBound's greatest weakness, if it has any at all. There are good things about the battles, but there are also a lot of bad things about them. It'll be up to you whether the good outweighs the bad. When it comes right down to it, this is the one thing that will either make or break the game for most people. EarthBound's battles take a lot of inspiration from the Dragon Warrior series, known as Dragon Quest in Japan. Actually, the whole game is like a parody of Dragon Quest. They're turn-based, menu-driven affairs that have little to no animation. The enemies are all static portraits, and you don't even see your own characters in battle. Enemies will flash when they've taken damage, unless a psychic attack is used. The psychic attacks are the only thing that's animated in battle, pretty much. All actions in battle are instead conveyed via descriptive text, kind of like the stuff you'd see in a novel. This is where it becomes abundantly apparent that EarthBound's main strength is its text. The descriptive text in battle is just as humorous, if not more so than the text outside of battle. Part of it is the type of enemies you fight and their names. The hilarity never ends with names like, "new age retro hippie," the "unassuming local guy," the "annoying party man," or my favorite, the "extra cranky lady." As boring as the battles can be from a mechanical standpoint, there is always the livid anticipation of what crazy foes you'll encounter next. Another interesting thing to note about the relatively uninteresting battles is the music and backgrounds. I'm not exactly sure what the designers were on when they conceived this, but the psychedelic, swirly backgrounds mixed in with the trippy music makes me feel like I'm on an acid trip. I've never seen any other game have an atmosphere like this. It's so strange, yet so brilliant. Not everyone will like it, though. The last positive thing to note is that, thankfully, there are no random encounters. In addition to that, there is a system in place that allows you to skip battles if your characters are strong enough. You simply walk into the enemy and they get defeated instantly, granting you free experience points. I wish more RPGs did this. EarthBound's battles may leave a lot to be desired from a mechanical standpoint, but the comedic textual descriptions coupled with the psychedelic music and backgrounds make up for it.

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Magical spells have been replaced with psychic abilities that cause the same sort of effects. These psychic moves are referred to as PSI. Instead of using up MP, your PSI moves use up Psychic Points or PP. Yes, it's referred to as PP. Don't laugh. Your characters get stronger from leveling up, like in any RPG, but they also sometimes learn new PSI moves. PSI is divided into three categories, offense, recover, and assist. Offensive PSI moves are attacks that target either a single unit or multiple foes, doing electrical, fire, or ice damage. Recover PSI moves are pretty self explanatory; they restore HP, cure negative status ailments, and revive fallen comrades. As for assist PSI moves, those consist of buffs and debuffs that can either boost an ally's stats or decrease the stats of an enemy. Assist PSI is also where you'll find stuff that allows you to inflict negative status ailments on enemies, which can be quite handy. All of this will sound familiar to you if you're at all familiar with RPGs. Each PSI "spell" has several levels to it, represented by letters of the Greek alphabet. The label "PSI," in itself, is also derived from Greek. For instance, Fire Alpha is the first fire ability and Fire Beta is the stronger variety that consumes more PP per use. It may initially seem complex, but it's an easy enough concept to grasp. What I truly find unique are the teleportation PSI abilities. Ness learns these via the story instead of the conventional leveling up, and they allow him to teleport to any major locations he's been to. There's a catch, though. Ness needs enough running space in order to make the teleport, kind of like how the car from Back to the Future needs to travel at a certain speed to time travel. It's actually kind of inconvenient, though the concept is very interesting. EarthBound's PSI doesn't differ from magic functionally, but the idea of kids using psychokinetic powers to fight off evil is pretty darn cool.

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There are many awesome locations to see and explore in EarthBound. You start off in the simple suburbs of Onett, but you get to visit plenty of other areas as the game progresses. Each city or town has its own tale of woe and resulting intricacies, lending the locations a nice dose of personality. Onett's main problem is a gang of ruffians referred to as the Sharks, led by a nasty gang leader who holds himself up in the arcades. The Onett police have been trying to deal with this gang to no avail, which is mostly due the incompetence of the cops. Twoson is the town with a park that's like a flea market at its center, where many unsavory deals take place. Threed is a town that is completely overrun by zombies, because that's par for the course in EarthBound. And Fourside is the big city where mysterious happenings take you to a surreal alternate version of the city known as Moonside. Oh, and then there's the Happy Happy Village, a small place inhabited by mad cultists known as the Happy Happyists. There are many more locations in EarthBound, ranging from slightly unsettling to downright creepy. You won't find locations like this anywhere else, folks. The areas EarthBound's journey takes you to get more and more surreal as the game goes on. At some point, you discover a secret, prehistoric land where dinosaurs still roam. If that's not surreal enough for you, then maybe you'd like to see the barf factory, which is literally governed by a giant pile of puke. Okay, that last one is a bit gross, but still. Dinosaurs, aliens, kids with psychic powers; this is all music to my ears. Not to mention, EarthBound has a killer soundtrack, with an awesome tune to accompany all of these exotic locales. EarthBound has some wacky places that will appeal to wacky people.

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EarthBound is like no other video game I have played. Many games have been released since then, yet none have been able to capture EarthBound's unique atmosphere. The writing, music, and graphics all contribute to the game's incredibly surreal feel. It's true that the battle system is very nonchalant from a mechanical perspective, but that doesn't ruin everything else the game has going for it. However, not everyone will be able to withstand the battles or appreciate the surreal atmosphere. I recommend everyone give the game a try to see if they'll like it or not. EarthBound is definitely an experience worth experiencing if you're in the market for surreal experiences.

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