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Earthbound Review: A Classic Given New Life

Earthbound, for what it’s worth, is the reason that I’m here today. It sits atop a high pedestal, being the first RPG I ever played and a game I would consistently go back to as I grew up. A charming game that featured one of the best localizations possible in the early 90s, Earthbound attracted a large and devoted fanbase.

That fanbase waited until July of 2013 to finally see Earthbound reach the Wii U’s Virtual Console. After years of anticipation, and being glossed over on the Wii’s Virtual Console, here it was – finally, a legal way to play Earthbound without a cutthroat eBay auction over a cartridge.

Earthbound, despite its age, is a game worth playing. It’s a unique experience, although the game didn’t go out of its way to do many new things. Of all the games in the Wii U’s limited Virtual Console library, Earthbound is the one that you need to go and play. We’ve mentioned Earthbound before as one of the Wii U’s must play titles, but I must reiterate – this game is incredibly close to my heart. It’s a game that deserves to be talked about.

Created in the style of Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest, Earthbound set itself in a modern era to give it its own flavour (although its predecessor, Mother/Earthbound Zero did the same, the settings aren’t identical and both parody different time periods in America). Released in Japan in 1994 as Mother 2, and later making its way to North America in 1995, Earthbound is the brainchild of Shigesato Itoi.

If you’ve never played an early Dragon Quest game, the battle system is fun, yet pretty simple. Earthbound copies it almost entirely, except with slight changes. All actions are menu based, enemies are shown as static images in front of (mostly) psychedelic backgrounds, and your characters aren’t seen. Attack animations are limited to your PSI abilities, and the battles tend to move pretty quickly.

A typical battle taking place in Earthbound.

A typical battle taking place in Earthbound.

Earthbound handles damage and HP differently than other RPGs – one of its interesting features. Rather than the math behind the battle calculations happening instantly, Earthbound has your hit points roll up or down, like a rolling counter. This allows you to heal from attacks that would kill you, as long as you can heal before the counter goes down.

While an awesome idea (that hasn’t been really used outside of Mother 3, Earthbound’s Japan only sequel on the Game Boy Advance), Earthbound didn’t use it as well as it could for one simple reason. It moves way too fast to have any strategic value – you’ll find yourself just mashing the A button trying to get in a healing PSI or item. In Mother 3, the counter moves slower to the point where it’s actually useful – you can choose to take more actions while it ticks down, or heal right away.

Another nice mechanic for Earthbound is the lack of random encounters, an all too common “feature” of RPGs in the 90s and on. Earthbound’s enemies are visible while walking around, and depending on how you touch them, battles can start one of three ways: to the player’s advantage, the enemy’s, or neutral.

Even more useful is a feature that skips battles which the game deems as too trivial for the player – if your level is sufficiently high, low level enemies won’t even try to chase you down, and if you do touch them, the game doesn’t bother with a battle. Instead, you win instantly and reap the tiny rewards.

Earthbound only has four regular party members, although there are a few guest characters who you can’t control. The four main characters, Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, all serve different purposes in battle.

Ness is a physical powerhouse with useful attack PSI but actually serves as the game’s best healer. Paula is physically weak but has the best attacking PSI. Jeff has no PSI whatsoever, but can use specialized items for interesting effects, or even the most damaging attacks in the game. Poo is a nuanced attacker, with good PSI and a nice backup healer. I love RPGs where the characters are set into specific roles, rather than being fully customizable to the point where every party consists of three to four characters who can do absolutely everything.

Earthbound is a colourful game that used an isometric perspective for buildings and the environment, something different than the typical look RPGs used at the time. The sprites are nice and often look a bit goofy, which fits the mostly carefree attitude of the game. Animation, however, is really sparse. There isn’t a whole lot of dynamic movement going on – sprites only have a few walking frames, and little action takes place in battle or on the overworld.

Ness in front of his home in Onett.

Ness in front of his home in Onett.

Musically, Earthbound excels. Not only is there a good amount of it for a Super NES game, it used sophisticated audio sampling for the time to get the most of the hardware and deliver good sounding music. From jazz tunes to some outright weird music, and an awesome final boss theme that rocked as hard as Super NES music could, Earthbound’s soundtrack is a treat to listen to.

Earthbound’s plot is simple, never going too overboard but making sure to wallow in its own insanity when the time comes. Ness is drawn into a battle against the most vile of all evils, an alien invader known as Gigyas who threatens the complete annihilation of the world. Over the course of his journey, Ness will meet three true friends who share the same fate: saving the world from evil.

Not only that, but a bunch of wonderful weird stuff will happen. The game breaks the fourth wall with a precision you didn’t see in games up until then. Earthbound knew it was a video game, and it took advantage of that. It even draws the player into the game, a technique you need to see for yourself.

In the end, Earthbound isn’t just another RPG on the Super NES. It’s a game with a fanbase that would go to war for it, a plot that engages you without being overbearing, and it’s a ton of fun. Earthbound will make you laugh and make you wonder what’s going to happen next.

I suggest that if you’ve never played it before, go turn on your Wii U and get this game. You’re only missing one of the best Super NES games of all time.



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