EarthBound has a pretty legendary reputation, although along with everyone else in Europe my experience with the game didn’t extend beyond a fondness for Ness in Super Smash Bros. Whenever playing an older game with a reputation like this, I always get a little bit nervous, wondering whether it will have stood the test of time, and live up to its hype. Although it took me a few hours to really ‘get’ it, EarthBound lives up to the hype and more, providing an experience which I just cannot stop thinking about.
Ness, a young boy from the town of Onett, awakens one night to find a meteorite crashed near his house. There, he meets a miniscule alien known as Buzz Buzz who warns Ness that, in the future, an alien force known as Giygas has conquered the Earth, and that Ness must embark on a quest in the present to stop him from becoming too powerful. Ness gains telekinetic abilities, known as PSI powers, and sets out on his bizarre journey, to visit the ‘Eight Sanctuaries’ and record their songs so that he may access the power to stop Giygas. Along the way he meets three other heroes, Paula, a PSI adept and local celebrity, Jeff, a technological genius abandoned by his scientist father, and (ahem) Poo, a warrior prince from the nation of Dalaam.
EarthBound, unlike the traditional fantasy JRPGs of the time, takes place in the modern day, primarily in Eagleland, a parody of America, although there are other locations as well. EarthBound takes place in a setting unlike any other JRPG I’ve played, although the closest may be Pokemon. EarthBound has a lot more fun with its setting though, with countless jokes and digs at America’s expense. I absolutely love seeing how nations familiar to us look through the perspective of one less familiar, and EarthBound is very much a Japanese view of the US. There’s a huge amount of variety in the areas, and the eschewing of a fantasy setting mans that we lose the cliché areas that we’ve all become used to, in favour of areas which feel much more organic and interesting.
The plot is fairly thin, and there’s not an excess of explanation as to just what is going on. It’s difficult to describe what makes EarthBound’s plot so compelling, but I think the key lies in the excellent sense of place this game has, and the incredible writing. A huge amount of credit is due to the translator, providing a script which is frequently hilarious, but also delivering some truly sinister and emotional moments. EarthBound can get very creepy at times, and is a really interesting coming of age story for Ness. If there’s one weakness to the game’s narrative, it’s the lack of character for Ness’ fellow adventurous. Although they’re not silent like Ness, they don’t talk much after they join the party, and it’s a shame as there’s a lot of potential interest in these characters, particularly in Jeff, whose story could have had a real emotional payoff that doesn’t really work. Again, it took a while for my interest in the story to really kick in, but when it does EarthBound is continually striking, bold and interesting, and willing to go to those dark places that Nintendo seems scared of these days.
EarthBound is, from a gameplay perspective, a fairly traditional JRPG, with turn based battles and lots of statistics levelling up etc. The main innovation in the combat over its turn based friends is the sliding health counter; when Ness or his team take damage, the damage counts down rapidly, meaning that mortal damage can be offset with a rapid healing move or a quick defeat of the enemy, lending a frantic pace to the battles which is more effective than any gimmicky button inputs and real time elements can ever be. Enemies do appear on the map, but avoiding them isn’t really an option; however the fight rate is just right and never becomes as irritating as it can be in some games. One of my favourite little quirks is that when Ness encounters a much lower level foe, the battle is skipped, so there’s no need to plough through weak enemies when one encounters you. It’s a tiny thing, but something I cannot believe hasn’t been widely stolen by all JRPGs that followed, they really should have done.
EarthBound just feels good to play, in a way hard to describe. Perhaps it’s the way that with every level up and stronger piece of equipment the characters feel notably tougher, rather than the gradual glide in difficulty more common in JRPGs. That said, the difficulty curve in EarthBound is easily its biggest flaw. When criticising an older game’s difficulty, you usually get a load of people lambasting the writer as soft, because real gamers relish the difficulty in older games. The problem with EarthBound isn’t the difficulty, but the poor difficulty curve; if the first boss is one of the hardest in the game, and requires huge amounts of grinding to beat, you’ve got a problem. Still, once you get over the hurdle of the first couple of hours, things even out very nicely, and the pace settles out. It’s not easy mind you, but it’s challenging for the right reasons, which isn’t the case for the early hours.
EarthBound is a charming looking game, colourful and vivid, full of great enemy designs and beautiful areas. There’s an irritating amount of slowdown during more packed scenes, which is inexcusably still present in the Wii U port, but it’s a small price to pay for this beautiful game. The real star of the presentation has to be the music though; EarthBound’s easily soundtrack stands alongside the best of that era. This is a soundtrack to rival Super Mario World, or A Link to the Past, filled with tunes catchy, creepy and downright emotional. The music perfectly conjures the tone of each place you’re in, and ends up being one of the best of parts of this game.
EarthBound is a strange, hilarious and unsettling experience, which refuses cliché and charts a bold path of its own. In some ways it shows its age, and it lacks some of the refinement of modern gaming, but it’s also thoroughly ahead of its time in others. EarthBound is a must play for anyone with a love of JRPGs, an interest in a vital part of Nintendo’s history, or really anyone who enjoys games.