Game – Earthbound
Version – Wii U Virtual Console
ESRB Rating – T – Teen
Price – $9.99
Release Date (original) – 5/6/1995 (North America)
Release Date (Virtual Console) - 18/7/2013
Publisher – Nintendo
Obtained – Purchased from the Wii U eShop
In terms of video games, Earthbound (Mother 2 in Japan) is the perfect example of a cult classic. The game’s initial North American release was met with poor sales, but those who DID play it fell in love with its strange sense of humour, which translates over to every aspect of the game’s design, from the story and gameplay to its music. Years passed, and the game’s price skyrocketed – you can currently purchase a standalone cartridge (without the instruction manual and box) on eBay for upwards of $150. As such, it became very difficult for gamers to legally obtain Earthbound for a very long time. Dedicated fan sites, most notably Starmen.net, worked desperately to convince Nintendo to re-release Earthbound as well as the other games in the series outside of Japan. 18 years later, Nintendo fans finally have a chance to enjoy the game at a reasonable price – only 10 dollars on the Wii U eShop.
Earthbound begins as a young boy, Ness, is awakened at night by a meteor that crash-lands near his home in Onett. Upon further inspection, Ness finds that this meteor is host to a messenger who warns him of the enslavement of the universe by an alien known as Giygas, as well as how to stop him. The messenger’s name is Buzz Buzz, and he is a powerful time-travelling extraterrestrial from the future who has disguised himself as a bee. The game starts off on this odd note, and only gets weirder and more humorous as the game progresses.
Most RPGs have the player visiting locations that are so common amongst games that they have become tropes – deserts, cities and caves, but in Earthbound even the most obvious locales have unique twists – the desert features monkey-infested caverns, the city leads to an insane, nightmarish version of itself, and one of the many caves leads to an underground jungle full of gigantic dinosaurs. Along the way you’ll fight hordes of ridiculous foes like insane cultists, abstract art, piles of puke and angry old ladies. Earthbound provides so many new and exciting experiences that simply progressing through the game to find out what never-before-seen thing will be introduced next becomes an absolute delight.
The game’s characters and dialogue are equally strange and hilarious. One of the funniest bits early on in the game is the Onett police force, who is constantly blocking things off. This is, of course, meant to prevent you from progressing further than you need to, but the game makes recurring a joke of it, too. Characters will shout out lines like “Onett is famous for roadblocks!” and “The road’s closed again. It’s Onett’s claim to fame!” as you wander through the town. There’s even a sign posted to recruit police officers in order to put up more roadblocks. Even the characters that are just standing around have completely random things to say, like “Last night we had a solitaire tournament. I lost my shirt.” and “Kidnapping is wrong! I’ll be careful not to kidnap anyone” that make talking to characters to find information less taxing.
Saying “cheese” when one takes your picture is so overrated
All the game’s locations and characters are complimented by its stylistic design as a Japanese take on America and American culture. For example, the game takes place in the not-too-subtly-named country of Eagleland. Rather than consuming potions to recover health you shovel down burgers and fries. There are a multitude of references to American pop culture to be found throughout the game, including a few that had to be removed for an American release including a logo similar to that of Coca-Cola, a flying machine called the “Sky Walker” and the hospital’s use of the red cross. Walking through the game and spotting characters that look like Mr. T and The Blues Brothers, and watching a character call you “a real Rambo type” make venturing through the game all the more enticing and rewarding.
In terms of its story, EarthBound presents not only an interesting narrative, but also compelling locations, characters and dialogue. Because of all the never-before-seen locations and story events, EarthBound feels fresh and entertaining from start to finish.
Gameplay & Controls
Earthbound controls like a typical RPG, with a few twists that make the gameplay even more engaging and reduce some of the tedium one finds in typical JRPGs. As you wander around the overworld, battles are not randomly generated. Rather, they commence when you make contact with an enemy that is walking around. When you have defeated the boss of an area, enemies will run away from you, speeding up your travel through that area. The battle can also be influenced by how you make contact with the enemy: hit them from the back, and you’ll launch a “surprise attack” that prevents the foe from retaliating on the first turn. This can also be used against Ness and his team, however, if the enemy sneaks up on you. If your level is high enough, you can skip battles altogether by automatically defeating weak enemies you make contact with on the overworld.
The battles are turn-based and seemingly simple, but as the game progresses its depth becomes more and more apparent. As you are damaged, your health does not automatically deplete by that amount, but “rolls down” in a fashion similar to an odometer. This gives the player a chance to replenish their characters’ health before it depletes to zero and they collapse, and adds a new level of excitement to battles. Each of the four characters have different abilities and benefits that can be used in and out of battle: Ness can fight with a variety of different weapons and has very high health, Paula can use many powerful psychic attacks, Jeff can create special items and use them in battle, and Poo can mirror the forms of his enemies to fight them. The differences between each character add layers of strategy to each battle.
Battles in Earthbound aren’t much to look at, but they sure are fun
In many ways, Earthbound’s gameplay transcends many of the faults people find in JRPGs like random encounters and tedious battles. With the exception of its clunky menu navigation, Earthbound is an excellent game that manages to stay exciting for nearly the entirety of its 40+ hour course.
Visuals & Sound
Earthbound has a very simplistic art style, and may not have pushed the Super Nintendo hardware to its limits, but it is still endearing in its own way. The characters are cutesy, and the angled perspective is something one does not typically see in video games. The game plays with its visuals in a variety of interesting ways throughout the game, but one of the best is the change in font while talking to creatures called Mr. Saturns. It becomes large and messy, somewhat hard to read, and reflects their strange personalities and ways of life.
Mr. Saturns are the perfect example of Earthbound’s oddball sense of humour
The enemy designs stay true to the weirdness of the game, but the battle screens become a bit boring when you’re simply staring at a monster and a rippling background for hours at a time.
The music in Earthbound has a great mix of catchy tunes and ambient sounds. It does an excellent job of creating mood in the game – a bright, happy song plays as you walk through Onett, echoing, whistling sounds persist as you travel through caves, and a wide variety of battle themes play throughout the game. The American theme crosses over into the music, too. For example, the beginning of the battle theme that plays when you fight street punks sounds peculiarly like the start of Johnny B. Goode, and the first few bars of “Good Morning Good Morning” by the Beatles plays as you wake up in a hotel. There are multitudes of these musical “easter eggs” to find throughout the game, and many of them are balancing on the very fine line of legality, but that’s less of a problem for the player and more of one for Nintendo’s lawyers.
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Earthbound is an incredible gaming experience that proves to be heartwarming, humorous, strange, and even at times a bit dark. The gameplay is fresh and exciting, and with the exceptions of tedious menu navigation and boring battle screens, you’ll find a lot to love in the game.
+ Unique and interesting story
+ Incredibly quirky and humorous
+ Great soundtrack
+ Clever use of visuals throughout the game
+ Innovative RPG gameplay
+ Characters with unique abilities and functions
- Slow, clunky inventory management and menu navigation
- Boring battle screens
Alexandre Trottier firmly believes that Earthbound has altered his sense of humour to a point where nobody understands him anymore. He loves RPGs, eraser erasers and fuzzy pickles. Rather than locking his doors, he puts up road blocks and assumes that nobody can enter. When he grows up, he wants to be a Mr. Saturn. If you want to get a hold of him, you can tweet @NF_Alexandre or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To continue the Earthbound talk, head over to the NintendoFuse forums, and scroll down to use the “share” buttons and leave a comment!