With the release of Earthbound Beginnings on the Wii U e-shop, Nintendo of America has corrected a 26 year old mistake on their part. Earthbound Beginnings is the prequel to Earthbound on the SNES that was not originally released in Japan. The game was originally intended to be localized but was canceled despite the localization having already been fully completed. Until now the translated version of Earthbound Beginnings (which was otherwise known as Earthbound Zero) could only be played via emulation or a reproduction cart. Nintendo just now released the translated version for the Wii U e-shop making it available more easily and and legally.
Earthbound Beginnings is different from its successor in plenty of ways and is mostly an inferior game, but this is usually to be expected in terms of sequels. Even if one were to hold Earthbound Beginnings to the standards of a lot of modern day games it still handles things far more competently than most and is an amazing game on its own.
Story wise, Earthbound Beginnings is rather minimalist. Unlike later RPGs that would tell their stories with copious amounts of dialogue and cutscenes, Earthbound Beginnings uses it very sparingly. When you start the game up, you are given the backstory about our main character Ninten’s grandparents in a quick yet very effective manner.
I felt the need to mention this simply because it shows a level of subtlety that is absent from a lot of today’s games. Chances are if Earthbound Beginnings were created today, this backstory would have been told through an hour long sequence of cutscenes and flashy set pieces. All that Earthbound Beginnings needed, though, was a single screen and its haunting title melody.
After this one can consider the tone for Earthbound Beginnings set. There is little dialogue or cutscenes in Earthbound Beginnings but this game ensures that all of it counts. Our main characters manage to have well developed personalities despite one being able to count the amount of lines most of them have on one hand. Yes one could nitpick aspects of the story for being “unrealistic” such as the fact that Ninten never really questions what he needs to do in terms of his quest, but one could do so with just about any game if they wanted to.
Earthbound Beginnings relies heavily on a sense of atmosphere and immersion. While the NPC dialogue is not as amusing or funny as its successor, nor as plentiful, it still has a very unique flair and personality to it. One of the more memorable ones include a random NPC whose line is “don’t take me for an ordinary man, although I am an ordinary man.” Normally, a line like this screams, “I’M IMPORTANT TO THE PLOT, TALK TO ME LATER,” but in Earthbound Beginnings he actually is just an ordinary NPC. He also has a daughter in the nearby school who has a line about how her dad always says that. Others include the swimming cat in Magicant (and later its even more wacky counterpart, the cat who swims in the ground), as well as a woman who offers you a drink (only for it to be alcoholic which gets you arrested) and children in Youngtown who perfectly express their in vain attempts to convince themselves there is good in their parents being taken away.
Graphics wise Earthbound Beginnings looks a lot less lively than its successor. A majority of the colors in the game are dull and lifeless, which I suppose makes the game ahead of its time in some aspects. The in-game enemy sprites look fairly well drawn,but that isn’t saying much since there is no animation in battle and just a blank black background. It should be noted that Earthbound Beginnings does still have some nice graphical effects though.
One notable aspect of the game’s art direction is that unlike in the first few Dragon Quests and Final Fantasies, the scenery on the overworld map uses proper perspective drawing. What this means is that buildings and certain parts of backgrounds actually have a 3D appearance to them despite being 2D sprites. As a result Earthbound Beginnings is a lot better looking than most other RPGs on the system and is even superior to some 16 Bit rpgs in that regard.
Unfortunately there are a lot of graphical glitches when one is using the run command. The reason for this is likely because the run command was initially added in solely for testing purposes during localization but was left in because it made things more convenient for the player. While the run command is a very useful feature in and of itself, it has the unfortunate effect of causing certain images to blur while using it.
Audio wise Earthbound Beginnings is handled fantastically. The sound effects are all very well placed in both battle and in storyline sequences, and they make said sequences far more effective than if they had inferior sound effects. The game’s sound engine is also very advanced in terms of its strong use of percussive beats that sound like actual drums. This is most present in the tracks “Poltergeist” and “Roving Tank.”
On that subject, the music itself is absolutely astounding to the point where as of writing this I do not even know where to begin. Earthbound Beginnings has already provided some of the most memorable songs in gaming from it’s haunting title melody “Mother Earth,” the majestic yet soft “Wisdom of the World,” the simplistic yet fiercely intimidating final dungeon theme “Mt. Itoi,” and the absolutely breath taking “Eight Melodies.” It is almost easy to forget about a lot of the more underrated atmospheric tracks such as the themes to the graveyards and factories. I could go on about this, but I believe I have made my point.
Earthbound Beginnings is often made out to be a very difficult game, often unfairly so. I was surprised to find out that Earthbound Beginnings was not nearly as unbalanced as it was made out to be, or at least most of the time. Aside from a few enemies that simply have very overpowered moves (such as the Mad Truck, that spews out exhaust fumes that causes paralysis at a point in the game where Ninten is your only party member, thus meaning you can’t counter it), the game is fairly balanced and simply requires one to have proper equipment set ups and use the available spells. What is also very helpful is that you do not lose any progress you made upon getting a game over and that you are just sent back to the last place you saved and lose half of your current money (which even then is barely an issue because money gained from random encounters just goes into Ninten’s bank account where it is safe)
However, things end up changing when you get to the final dungeon of the game Mt.Itoi. Infamously the developers were too rushed for time to finish balancing out the final dungeon which resulted in Shigesato Itoi simply responding “whatever” to being asked about it. The enemies are so powerful that the most efficient solution is to run from every battle and just make a beeline for the final boss (who while challenging in its own way is nowhere near as difficult as the area beforehand).
I am unsure how to feel about Mt. Itoi in terms of overall contribution to the game. From a design standpoint it is poorly balanced and badly designed. On the other hand it greatly fits the tone of the game given the serious intimidating music and the fact that the monsters were said to have killed another party member’s parents. As a result it gives the dungeon and the game itself a unique feel to it that makes getting through said dungeon all the more satisfying.
In terms of dungeon design Earthbound Beginnings is well executed for the most part. With the exception of the infamous Duncan’s Factory level each dungeon is easy enough to get through if one pays attention, and they all have their own unique look and feel to them as well. However what really disrupts the game’s flow is its absurdly high random encounter rate. Sometimes one can go for an extended amount of time without an encounter while other times you will get into in encounter after literally one step. This ends up getting irritating rather quickly, especially in areas with enemies you are multiple levels ahead of.
While there are a few areas where Earthbound Beginnings is somewhat archaic such as an overly mazey dungeon or an overpowered enemy, and some areas where it suffers from the common design flaws of the time such as a character losing a turn if the enemy they were set to attack is killed beforehand; this game still succeeds in way too many areas for it to be ignored. It offers a mostly fair difficulty curve, very nice and varied locations, a powerful soundtrack, and a very immersive and well executed atmosphere.
Honestly the only real negative I can give against Earthbound Beginnings that its successor if both a stronger game and more accessible, but that speaks more in Earthbound’s favor than against Earthbound Beginnings. Overall I can easily recommend Earthbound Beginnings to just about anyone who enjoys turn based rpgs.
This review was originally posted to GameFAQs on June 14th of 2015 and has since been re-edited with enhanced presentation.
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