Earthbound | Ness's Nightmare

EarthBound (SNES/GBA): Pure Artistic Desire (Detailed Review)

EarthBound is a game that has been well received since its introduction, but has only recently received a serious look by mainstream gaming websites in the past few years. We now find it frequently in top-10 lists near the number one spot. The weird thing about this however, is that Nintendo of America has ignored the EarthBound series and has given it no publicity over the years, so what was there to increase its publicity so drastically that major gaming sites started noticing? The answer would be the game’s rabid fan base that is incredibly loyal to the series and have pushed hard to get it noticed. This however has led some to some fans that are really overzealous and give the series a massive amount of hype with great expectations to fill. I myself at one point have been in that same position of near obsession with the series, but it has been years since then and I have moved on and played many other games that have made me just as passionate as EarthBound did.

I recently decided to replay EarthBound and I expected that losing my overzealous passion would make the game’s flaws more noticeable. Despite having a very special place in my heart I expected this review to be one that, while still having a positive tone, was more critical of the game. I was wrong, and being wrong has never felt so right. It turns out that not only in this play-through that I re-discovered exactly what it was that made me fall in love with it in the first place, but I discovered more. This play-through marks the only time that my opinion of a game I already played improved despite being one of my all time favorite games to begin with.

EarthBound | Buying House
EarthBound allows millennials to live out the lavish fantasy of buying a house.

There are many people that claim that EarthBound is intended to be a parody of a typical JRPG due to its odd sense of humor and modern setting. While it does do those things, that does not make the game a parody; in fact the game at points, despite its oddity, does take itself very seriously. That does not mean the game lacks a sense of humor however. I have found myself laughing several times throughout the game at various NPC lines and even at some plot events but those expecting a game made specifically to make you laugh will be disappointed. How I would actually describe the game’s story, world, and atmosphere is a bit different. Now the thing about EarthBound is that its scenarios sound so ridiculous on paper that if you told them to someone, there is no way they would think it could be anything but a parody. That however is what makes EarthBound unique; it plays all of these scenarios straight and makes them work well in context.

Now as cliche as a comparison to drugs sound, it is a comparison that fits the game perfectly. The game’s formula is identical to that of a Dragon Quest game except a lot stranger. For example, the game begins with a meteor crashing near the town of Onett causing our main character Ness to go check it out. When he reaches this meteor, a talking bee from the future appears to tell him that, ten years from now, the world will be left in ruins by a being called Giygas, and that it is prophesied that three boys and one girl are the ones that will, stop Giygas, and save the world from destruction. Aside from the talking bee, it sounds like standard JRPG fair; evil being wants to destroy the world and you are the chosen one who must go stop him. It is the way that this plot is executed that makes it stand out. During Buzz Buzz the bee’s dying speech; he gives Ness a sound stone and says that he needs to travel to eight locations in the world known as the Your Sanctuary locations. Reaching these locations will have the sound stone record a piece of a song, a concept very similar to that of Link’s Awakening, but was first used in EarthBound’s Japan only Famicom prequel MOTHER.

EarthBound | Psi Fire

The reason that I mentioned drugs is because there is a very strange, almost psychedelic, atmosphere that this game possesses. The creatures and locations you start out in are a bit strange but still at least somewhat normal. The further you advance through the game however, things start getting stranger and weirder to the point that the game does not feel like a JRPG set in modern times nor does it even feel like a traditional JRPG set in medieval times. The progression of the game feels very similar to what one would expect from an acid trip. When you consider the fact that there are several instances in the game that resemble the processes of drug trips, it makes one think that the developers might have intended EarthBound to be perceived this way.

The way that random battles are displayed is yet another aspect of EarthBound that can add to this drug comparison. Most JRPGs of this era have a background drawn that is made to look like the location you are currently in, which itself was a step up from the blank black backgrounds of many 8-bit JRPGs. EarthBound has its backgrounds more similar to the 8-bit era only, instead of a still background, you have these strange, psychedelic, wavering patterns that change depending on who or what you are fighting and at some points the creature you are fighting is actually represented by the background itself instead of a sprite.

EarthBound | Squatter Demon

There are several other drug allusions that can be made as well. The music in a lot of battles instead of being either dangerous sounding or fast and upbeat like in most JRPGs, is more ambient and slow paced. These are songs that range from weird noise that is really not good music, to ones that still give off the strange vibe of the game’s enemies yet have the right amount of intensity to make you feel that you are fighting a dangerous foe. There is of course one specific battle theme worth mentioning that towards the end of the game, averts this style to great effect.

The rest of the game’s music is also very well done. The town themes give off the feel of their specific location while being pleasant to listen to, the dungeon themes give off unnerving feelings, and there many remixes of tracks from the first game; MOTHER. The sheer amount of music in the game is something that is impressive in and of it. This game has over eighty tracks, all of which easily fit the situation they are used for and are also a huge part of what draws you into the game’s world. What makes EarthBound feel as surreal as it is not just these aspects alone but the way they flow together? The strange, hypnotic, feel of this game is something that makes you feel as though you are actually a part of its world and that you are not simply playing as Ness, but that you actually are Ness.

Several other aspects also greatly contribute to this state of immersion. Every time you reach a Your Sanctuary location you are accompanied by serene music that upon hearing takes away all feelings of stress and tension. Then you hear part of the sound stone melody which is followed by a text description of Ness seeing images of his past when he was a baby. Another example is that there are some points in the game where you are offered a cup of tea or coffee. While in most JRPGs, this would just be an instant HP recovery point, EarthBound instead cuts to a psychedelic background not unlike those seen in the battles with serene music playing while text scrolls down, speaking directly to Ness about how far he has come and giving encouraging words to him. After this the game never acknowledges anything about what happened or who it is that was speaking.

EarthBound | Coffee Break
It’s a gif, but if you played the game you can hear it anyway.

It is quite easy to tell that EarthBound is a game that focuses heavily on immersion and atmosphere as the game’s plot is pretty simplistic and straightforward if examined on its own and there is not much character dialogue or development. The basic formula of the plot is, for the first half of the game, each town has a problem. You then go and fix said problem and then find a Your Sanctuary location. This happens until you locate the main enemy that has been involved in all previous problems and defeat him. The second half is mainly focused on finding Giygas and the rest of the Your Sanctuary locations while occasionally stopping to rescue people from his minions. EarthBound is not a game where the plot occurs in a traditional manner. The plot is meant to accompany the atmosphere and not the other way around.

In addition to these it is worth mentioning that the NPCs in EarthBound are among the best written in any JRPG. The things they say are usually very interesting and make you want to seek all of them out regardless of how out of the way they are. It is through the NPCs that the game’s world is built and you learn about most of the towns and people through them. There is also a lot of consistency between NPCs in the game. For example, early on in the game’s first town there is an NPC that talks about a future party member. If you come back to talk to him after recruiting this party member he has additional dialogue despite the fact that it is not even likely that one would even return to the game’s first town until much later. Another example is of an NPC in one town that is kept from seeing her boyfriend in the next town and when you resolve the problems she appears in the next town only to hilariously find out her boyfriend was with another girl.

It is very easy to list all the little details that EarthBound has in terms of its plot, atmosphere, and world, but there is also the element of EarthBound that does not seem to be discussed or talked about all that much, that being the game-play. It seems like a lot of the time when people talk about the game they speak very little of the game-play even when they really like the game. At first I thought this might have been because EarthBound was a game that won people over through atmosphere alone and that its game-play was not up to par. When I re-played it however, I realized that it was much better in terms of design than I expected.

EarthBound | Released yet

As I have stated, EarthBound is heavily inspired by Dragon Quest and it shows most in terms of the game-play. It has nearly everything that is in the Dragon Quest games. A command window that pops up when pressing the A button that lists the options, each character having their own separate inventory, random stat growth upon gaining levels, the menus turning blood red when a character falls in battle with their sprites becoming angels that follows you on the over-world (although in Dragon Quest they were coffins), are all in EarthBound and other common mechanics are given a more modern twist. Instead of gaining money right after a battle it is added to a bank account which you withdraw with an ATM card, dead character are revived at the hospital instead of the church, and various random food items replace the medicinal herbs traditionally found. I personally find that there is a bit too much praise put on these elements as they are commonly cited as elements of the game that make it a parody which it is not. I will still say that these additions do still fit the atmosphere of the game and even though they still work the same as in most JRPGs the idea is still creative in its own right.

It should be noted that not everything in EarthBound is lifted straight from Dragon Quest. EarthBound possesses its own multitude of innovations that separate it from other games of its genre and prove that it can easily stand on its own two feet. Instead of random encounters, enemy sprites appear on screen and you enter battle with them by touching them. However you cannot just walk right by them. If you do the sprites will run towards you once you come near them, and once a battle is instigated every other nearby enemy will also try to run towards you. What makes this interesting though is that some enemies will not make it to you before the battle starts, and they will not be fought in that encounter, but after you are finished fighting your current battle they will still be in the same spot they were before the battle started.

EarthBound | Final Collapse of Capitalism

This goes into another important element of EarthBound’s battle mechanics in that the way you approach an enemy is itself an important factor in battle. If you manage to attack an enemy from behind on the over-world you will get the first strike, and if an enemy gets you from behind they get the first strike. Also of note is that if you get into a battle with an enemy that the game detects is below your level, the battle will instantly end right there and you will still get the experience, money, and item drops. This is further involved with the aforementioned mechanic of approaching an enemy from behind because getting a back attack makes it much more likely that you will get this instant win, which is not only convenient for you, but also feels really satisfying. To add to this even more, enemies will actually start to run away from you on the over-world once you have defeated the boss of a dungeon, meaning that on the way back through the dungeon you can get a lot of extra back attacks on enemies. This makes EarthBound one of the few games where backtracking through a dungeon is actually enjoyable. Even if you don’t want to fight them, the enemies are now out of the way and you can easily exit the dungeon without having to deal with random encounters.

All of this and we have not even gotten to the main battle mechanics yet. Again there are the obvious elements of Dragon Quest that are included here as well, such as turn order being determined by a character’s agility stat, and each of your own characters having their own fixed level at which they gain spell. So as a result of being similar to Dragon Quest’s mechanics, EarthBound is a game that is difficult in its own right yet offers a fair challenge that can be overcome with the right amount of planning, not unlike that of the Dragon Quest series past the second game. Now the proper way that battles should be dealt with seems to be something that has gone over the heads of a lot of people who played this game. There is a certain stigma with JRPGs that status ailment spells will never be useful against enemies and people will resort to simply going after enemies with brute force. The reason this myth got started is likely because this was the case with many of the Final Fantasy games which people in the west were far more familiar with, unlike Dragon Quest where these spells are actually really useful and is what EarthBound’s battle mechanics are influenced by.

The way to succeed in EarthBound is to use these abilities to your advantage. One of your characters in game has the ability to look at an enemy’s weakness, which will include which magic attack type will do the most damage, and which status ailments it is susceptible to. Using status ailments against enemies in this game is important because certain enemies can hit hard and are capable of inflicting massive damage to you with only a few attacks. So that means it would be best to either use what you have in order to make sure you kill the enemies before they kill you, or do something that will keep them from attacking. One thing to note is that the ability PSI shield is particularly useful in nullifying powerful PSI attacks and is pretty much necessary late in the game against certain enemies.

EarthBound | Rolling HP

Another important element of EarthBound’s battles is the game’s scrolling HP meter. Unlike in most JRPGs where the damage you receive is instantly subtracted from your current HP and instantly kills you if the number reaches zero, your character’s HP meter will scroll down at a specific rate giving you the chance to heal the character or end the battle before the meter scrolls down to zero which. There are certain enemies that are designed with this mechanic in mind, some being enemies that self destruct when killed which will deal massive damage, usually enough that it would be enough to kill at least one party member. So the appropriate strategy for dealing with these enemies is to kill them last and use status ailments so they don’t bother you while you are dealing with the rest of the enemies. Keep in mind that these are just the normal enemies.

The bosses in EarthBound are admittedly a bit too easy in the first half of the game with the exception of a few but later on the game decides it is done fooling around and starts throw some really difficult situations at you. The late game bosses are ones that require you to use creative strategies against them instead of brute force and will have you barely winning by the skin of your teeth… unless you use the game’s ridiculously abusive attack items to kill bosses faster, but I would recommend not doing that as it just makes the game less fun.

EarthBound, while it receives a huge amount of hype from its fans, is a game that has a really good chance of living up to its hype? It is a game that has an incredible feeling of immersion and has battle mechanics that offer new interesting twists on what was already a well working formula to begin with. While I am one to normally focus on the positive aspects more than the negative, I will acknowledge the negative and will not sugarcoat games with a lot of problems. With that said EarthBound is a superb masterpiece and the only negative things I can say are incredibly minor nitpicks that honestly do not have any real effect the game.

EarthBound | Titanic Ant

It turns out that, just recently, Nintendo of America just brought EarthBound to Wii U’s Eshop after all the years EarthBound fans have been trying to get Nintendo of America listen. Thankfully this means that people will finally have the opportunity to play EarthBound legally without having to spend a ridiculous amount of money on an original SNES cartridge. There is nothing more I have to say other than that even without my nostalgia, EarthBound has proved itself to me that it is indeed one of the best games of all time and one that everyone should give a chance.

Further Thoughts

This was the second review I ever wrote. It really has been quite a long time hasn’t it? While I do still think this review applies as is, I do feel I should add a bit more to explain why this game is still my favorite of all time even above games like Undertale, NieR Automata, LISA: The Painful, The Beginner’s Guide, Saya no Uta, and Persona 3.

The reason why is because many of those games may be “deeper” than EarthBound, have a stronger story or characters than EarthBound, I find that EarthBound is one of the hardest games for me to find genuine fault in. In a way I find it to be the most pure expression of artistic desire I have ever experienced. The fact that this was made by someone with no experience making games who wrote every line of dialogue. Everything about EarthBound is the exact opposite of what one expects from the commercially driven nature of video games or art.

EarthBound | small cute puppy

But despite this… EarthBound is still the game that I just enjoy playing the most. Maybe this might not apply to those who just don’t like menu based RPGs and prefer something look flashier or have more interaction, but I’ve always emphasized substance over aesthetic. Although that is not to say that EarthBound lacks aesthetic but it CAN be argued that it has less then other well known JRPGs at the time like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI.

That may be why it didn’t make a profit in North America… you know aside from that stupid ad campaign. Thankfully EarthBound AND Earthbound Beginnings have been highly successful in their virtual console rereleases and have thus righted the wrong that occurred when it was originally released in North America. If you have yet to play it then you also have a wrong to right.

This review was originally posted to GameFAQs on June 28th of 2013 and has since been re-edit with enhanced presentation.

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