There are few games with as dedicated a fan base as Earthbound. At first glance, it may be difficult to understand why. It's actually the English-language release of a Japanese game called Mother 2. The original game and its GBA sequel, Mother 3, were never released in Western territories. Even Earthbound was obscure at the time of its release, and despite a hefty marketing campaign, it sold poorly. Copies of the original game now go for upward of $200 on eBay, and more people probably know the protagonist Ness from his appearances in Super Smash Bros. games. What is it about Earthbound that keeps people coming back? It isn't the best RPG on the market, and it doesn't have the best gameplay, music, story or visuals, but it's downright charming. It somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts, as every element comes together to form a game that's unlike any other on the market.
You play as Ness, a young boy from Eagleland (the United States). A mysterious meteor crashes in your hometown and brings a magical bee named Buzz-Buzz, who reveals that a creature known as Giygas will doom the world, and only Ness and his friends can stop him. Ness must travel to seven "mystery spots" around the world and unlock their hidden power in order to save the world. His journey takes him from the small town of Eagleland to the blazing desert, the deepest part of the jungle, and beyond.
It's initially tempting to compare Earthbound to a cartoon or a novel, but it feels like a child's adventure story — something that could only exist in a child's imagination. It has a fantasy charm that is lacking in pretty much every other game on the market. There's little rhyme or reason as to where you'll go next or what you'll do, but at the same time, it doesn't feel random. The plot follows a childlike sense of logic, and it never treats the player like a fool. It isn't ironic and self-conscious, and it isn't mired by explanations and justifications. There are times when it gets downright uncomfortable or disturbing. Your introduction to Prince Poo involves an unnerving meditation sequence that seems to have squeaked by Nintendo's '90s-era censorship entirely to being mostly text-based. Despite this, it never feels inappropriate for younger kids or too simple for adults. It's almost painfully optimistic and forthright but never in a cloying way.
Earthbound is clearly inspired by Dragon Quest and its ilk. It's a by-the-numbers SNES-era RPG, so you travel from dungeon to town to dungeon, slowly advancing the plot each time. It contains a number of annoying elements that are typical of games from that era. Your inventory is limited. Each character can only carry a certain number of items, and that includes his equipment and plot-relevant items. You can store items with a delivery service, but it can be frustrating when you're forced to leave items behind because you're full, even though several of the items you're holding only exist because the plot needs them. There are also items that seem to exist to trick the players. The yoyo weapon is inferior to the baseball bat in every way due to its terrible accuracy, but many players see the higher damage and think it's worthwhile. There are tons of little quirks, but none are major roadblocks.
The dungeon design is very straightforward. There's little in the way of puzzles, and most of the dungeons are straight paths with a few small branches that contain items. The dungeons are interesting because of their fun settings. My favorite involves Brick Road, the dungeon man. He lives to make dungeons, and for his ultimate creation, he transformed himself into a massive dungeon. Rather than being cruel or dangerous, though, it's friendly, filled with cheerful notes, interesting sights, and a monster zoo. The context makes this a fun dungeon. There are some boring dungeons, but those tend to be over quickly.
Earthbound's battle system was also strongly inspired by the Dragon Quest franchise. Combat is done entirely in first-person view, with up to four characters at a time. You can attack, use items, or spend psychic points to use a magic spell. Three of your party members are capable of using psychic powers while Jeff specializes in using items. Combat isn't quite the Final Fantasy level of "hit attack and heal," but you'll mostly use the same spells and items. Buffs are very powerful, and several characters can trivialize boss fights with their psychic shield abilities. The PK flash ability may be the most powerful ability in the game, as it can potentially instant-kill an enemy — including most of the bosses!
When you take damage in Earthbound, it isn't instantly removed from your health bar. Instead, the health bar gradually "rolls" downward. This is usually just a visual effect unless your character is knocked out by an attack. If a character is reduced to 0 HP, he will not die until the bar rolls down. This means it's possible to quickly use a healing item or healing spell and prevent them from getting knocked out. It's a minor change, but it rewards quick decision-making in times of crisis. There are several enemies who take advantage of this.
The other major difference is in how battles are handled. Every enemy appears on the world map, and they (usually) charge at you to initiate a battle. However, if you can touch an enemy from behind, you gain the initiative. If the enemy can touch you from behind, they get the initiative. This is all common for modern RPGs, but it was novel at the time. What is special is that once you hit a certain level of power, enemies start to fear you. This occurs often enough to avoid tedious encounters. Even if an enemy doesn't avoid you, the game checks before the fight starts. If you're powerful enough to effortlessly destroy the enemy, the screen flashes, and they'll be instantly defeated.
Earthbound isn't a difficult game. The toughest part is probably the early section of Onett, where Ness fights alone and can't yet access most of his cool psychic powers. Once you get the second party member, the difficulty quickly levels out, and you'll crush most of your enemies with minimal effort. This is a little disappointing, as it turns some areas into a slog, but it also means that tedious grinding isn't necessary. Fortunately, no area lasts particularly long, and the game is well paced enough that you can push through the occasional bad area without much trouble. For those who get stuck, the original release of Earthbound came bundled with a strategy guide. The Wii U re-release coincided with <a href="http://earthbound.nintendo.com/playersguide/">that guide</a> being put online and most easily read on the Wii U GamePad.
Earthbound wasn't a visual masterpiece in 1995, but the art style more than carried it. The game is bright, colorful, and cheerful at almost all times. The characters are simple but have a lot of charm and style, causing you to overlook recycled environments and palette-swapped enemies. Particularly distinctive are the battle backgrounds, which are constant-swirling psychedelic light shows. You may be hitting static sprites but the game makes it look interesting. The soundtrack is top-notch and makes interesting use of samples from other songs.
Earthbound is a game that needs to be played to truly be experienced. Any individual element sounds unexceptional, but the execution elevates it to something special. There are few games that are as immensely charming, cheerful, and fun as Earthbound. It's a rare game that can evoke childlike innocence without feeling childish. It's going to be more meaningful to someone who grew up in the '90s and feels the nostalgia full-force, but it's a charming enough game that even a modern kid can find something to like. The Wii U release is the first time the game has been made available since its original release, and it is likely the best possible way to play the game.
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