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Retro Review: Earthbound

earthbound

Check out this ragtag bunch of kids out to save the universe.

Earthbound is an old-school RPG that was first released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, before I got into turn-based role playing games. Thus, I never experienced it during my impressionable youth. Over the years I heard a lot of buzz about this game that’s acquired a sizable cult following, so I added it to my “download and play sometime later” retro game list. A month or so ago, Club Nintendo notified me that I could download this game for FREE as a Platinum member. I did just that, propelling Earthbound from near the bottom of my to-play list to “Must Play Now” status.

I have very conflicting feelings about Earthbound. I think it is a very polarizing game; one that many people either really love or really hate. I’m still on the fence about it. It’s one of those games that is great when its great, and terrible when its terrible. To slog through certain parts of the game requires you to be especially patient and familiar with JRPG tropes of the past.

To start from the beginning; Earthbound is actually “Mother 2.” It’s also the only Mother game that was released in North America. Yes, whoever makes these decisions thought it’d be best to only translate and release the middle installment of a 3-part series. This sets a trend for the complete randomness that permeates a lot of Earthbound’s elements.

Before landing into the game world, the menus will ask a few important questions first. Your favorite food, favorite thing, and YOUR name (The game breaks the fourth wall in a crazy way that I won’t spoil). A little different than the standard “Name Your Character” stuff from games of yore. Then the story takes off. If you go by the default name, you play as Ness, awoken from slumber by some crazy happenings in the middle of the night. A meteorite crashes in your town. When you go investigate it, an insect named “Buzz Buzz” informs you of the greater “Save the world from ultimate evil” main plot. Yes, a bug. A time-traveling bug, actually. And this is just the start of the strange events that will unfold in Earthbound.

Ness, who has psychic abilities (because reasons) is, of course, some prophecy’s proclaimed savior who will rescue the world from Mr. Ultimate Evil Alien, Giygas. Psychic abilities serve as magic attacks in the game. The battle system in Earthbound functions much like old-school turn-based RPGs. Like DragonQuest, you don’t even get to see your characters on the screen. They’re only represented by boxes with their names, HP and PP (Psi Points). Which means attacks are just flashes of different colored lights and effects on the screen. The battle system is pretty standard fare. You choose attack, magic, defend, or item, take turns, and take almost-totally random amounts of damage from things. If you make the mistake of equipping yo-yos you’ll miss enemies so much you’ll probably bust your television screen. Yo-yos have this invisible “Worthless Item” stat. Well it’s more like an invisible “Miss” or “Accuracy” rating, but you get my drift.

Enemies will be able to one-shot a couple of your party members with a crit throughout the ENTIRE game. Not fun. Especially since healing items are hard to come by in the beginning and you don’t have enough inventory space to carry the items. The inventory management system in this game is so bad that I get the impression the developers went out of their way to make it painful. Each character can only hold a certain amount of items (a dozen, I think). Equipped items still count as part of their inventory. Like items do not stack. You have to cycle through each character’s menus to find what you’re looking for and give it to whoever you want to equip it; provided that character’s inventory isn’t already full. It doesn’t help that one of the characters, Jeff, is a packrat. His main use in battle is using items, so between his equipment and battle items he doesn’t have room for much else.

There’s two ways to circumvent the inventory nightmare. One is to call Escargo Express and PAY them to take only 3 items at a time away from you for safe keeping. By the end of the game we’d filled that extra inventory as well. Another way to whittle down your full inventory is to put out a For Sale sign. Then, no matter what godforsaken dungeon in the middle of nowhere you’re trudging your way through, an NPC will come running up and offer to purchase stuff from you. It’s all so pointless and frustrating. And weird.

The way this game handles money is pretty similar. Earthbound takes place in a modern day setting and incorporates ATMs and debit cards; another unnecessary inventory slot waster. Killing random enemies will cause Dad (who is nothing more than a disembodied voice you speak to on the telephone), to deposit an allowance, so to speak, in your account. This means you need to go to an ATM to access your money, which you’ll need for shopping, hotel and hospital stays. You don’t want to just KEEP the money on hand, because if you die you forfeit a good chunk of it. The penalty for dying is a bit weird in this game. The dead character’s ghost will follow you around on screen. If there’s no revive spell or items in your inventory, you need to trek all the way back to a hospital to revive them. For a fee, naturally. And sleeping doesn’t remedy status effects; you need to speak to certain “healers” to remove the particularly obnoxious ailments.

In it’s defense, I’m impressed by the unique and strange status ailments in this game. As much as I loathe some of them. There’s a ghost status effect, one that makes a mushroom grow on your head (!), and more realistic ones like sunstroke, homesickness, and having a cold.

Why trudge through Earthbound’s nightmarish inventory management and unforgiving old-school battle system, you ask? For Steve-O and I, probably the main reason we kept coming back for more torture was the out of whack humor. Take, for example, these hilarious NPC quotes:

Earthboundzombiefunny

In case you didn’t know, Zombie PAPER is a thing. Like fly paper, I’d imagine.

earthboundfunny

The stench  might also have something to do with the garbage can and rat you’re hanging out with.

earthboundcapitalism

Um, what?

This quirky “I don’t know if I’m taking myself seriously or not” humor also bleeds into the battle system. Not so much the item names as the enemy names. Earthbound has the most colorful bestiary of any game I’ve ever played. Here’s a couple examples:

earthboundnewageretrohippie

New Age Retro Hippie… Doing the Pee-Pee dance.

daliclock

If you don’t get the allusion, I have no words for you.

enragedfireplug

I can’t stop replacing “Fire” with “Butt” in my mind.

Other honorable mentions include:

  • Big Pile of Puke
  • Demonic Petunia
  • Even Slimier  Little Pile
  • Extra Cranky Lady
  • Farm Zombie
  • French Kiss of Death
  • Overzealous Cop

And the list goes on. A very creative venture, and one of my favorite aspects of the game. Something I never thought I’d say.

It’s hard to explain the essence of Earthbound in words. Despite its shortcomings and my frustrations with it, the unusual charm of the game is pervasive and felt in every nook and cranny. The graphics aren’t even impressive for a SNES game; it easily looks like it could’ve been on the Nintendo. The music isn’t catchy or particularly pleasant to listen to. It isn’t so much bad as it is atmospheric. Indeed, it is situational and makes sense… but it isn’t something you’ll want to listen to for pleasure. And like I said, for reasons I mentioned and haven’t mentioned, the game seems to go out of its way to annoy the player.

Aside from the silly and strange humor, Earthbound will call your name in indescribable ways. It has overarching themes that I can sense and feel, but can’t quite put my finger on. If I were more knowledgeable on the subject, I’d say it draws on 60’s drug culture, entwined with its own disturbing visions on both mortality and maternity. Also, the way characters speak so casually in some really messed-up situations was jarring to me.

Given the lack of character development, I can’t call it a coming of age story, which I bet is what you were expecting me to say, given the fact that the main characters are kids. Don’t come to Earthbound if you’re looking for a likable or relate-able cast. Ness is a typical silent main character, and the 3 friends you eventually recruit barely speak after their introductions. Earthbound has a female party member that incorporates both gender stereotype tropes but also makes giant leaps forward for its time (except compared to maybe Metroid). On one hand, Paula is a stereotypical soft-hearted girl who takes care of children in a day care and wields a frying pan for a weapon. On the other hand, if it weren’t for her, the entire adventure wouldn’t happen, and you wouldn’t be able to defeat the final boss. BUT on the other hand, she’s unsurprisingly the weakest party member, getting one-shotted every time an enemy looked at her funny.

The difficulty curve in this game is ridiculous. Paula was always weak, yes, with Jeff being the second weakest, but… man. To go toe-to-toe against enemies that always cast AoE magic attacks (as their first turn) that will make a joke out of at least half of your group ALL THE TIME.  And it wasn’t like we were under-leveled, exactly… Ness was 81, if I remember correctly. It’s unbelievable how frustrating the final zone is. I seriously don’t know how people survived to beat the game in the good old days. We cheated, so to speak, by taking advantage of the Wii U Virtual Console’s save state feature. Like playing on an emulator, it will make a temporary save for you whenever you want, and load it whenever you want. It’s how we survived Earthbound, truth be told. On top of how stupidly difficult the final dungeon is, it’s the only spot to farm Ness’ super-rare ultimate weapon. One in a series of 1/128 item drops throughout the game. No thank you, is all I have to say to that.

The reward for trudging through the hell that is the final dungeon without throwing your game system out the window is the final boss fight. The Giygas boss fight is… memorable, to say the least. It’s unique. Different. Something that sticks with you long after finishing the game. Curious, I went online and did some reading. Needless to say, my eyes were opened to a few interesting tidbits. It’s truly a shame at least the first game wasn’t released in North America, because having the background information on Giygas from Mother 1 really would’ve helped me appreciate Earthbound’s main villain.

If you missed the game back in the SNES days when we had more patience for game difficulty and were more forgiving of bad game play mechanics, it’s hard to say if Earthbound will have a lasting, profound effect, or if you’ll ditch it after the first couple of hours. I can’t say I could blame anyone for quitting anymore than I’d high five someone for sticking it through. Earthbound has been around long enough that there are several reliable walkthroughs available to reference and save you a lot of time and frustrations; making it at least worth a shot in my book. Despite Earthbound’s grave flaws, in the end I’m glad we stuck it out to experience this sleeper hit.

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