The year was 1995 …
I remember it as if it were yesterday. After a busy day at school, it was off to the local Toys R Us to celebrate being chosen as Student of the Month. It was there that I saw the gigantic box that contained Earthbound … and went home with Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest instead.
It’s a story that I am sure many children could attest to. It is also a story that I am eternally sorry for. Not to say that Donkey Kong Country 2 was bad. But it certainly did not need any help in the sales department. Earthbound was a different story entirely. With expensive packaging combined with what has to be the worst ad campaign in history (This Game STINKS, It’s Like Living In Your Gym Shorts etc.), Earthbound tanked, never to be given a chance stateside again. A sad fate for what has to be one of the most original efforts on the SNES.
Fast forward to today, where Earthbound is a cult hit that has spawned one of the most dedicated fanbases in gaming (Ex: Starmen.net) and commands cart only prices approaching 200 dollars. Is it worth it? Is the hype for this game real, or is it just a byproduct of the Smash Bros. phenomenon? Let’s take a look!
Right from the start we know that we are in for something unique. Before you even start playing, you are allowed to name the game’s heroes and write in things such as your favorite food, and “thing”. Then it’s down to brass taxes as you begin your adventure … in bed! Awakening upon hearing a loud crash, you step outside to learn that a meteor has struck close to your hometown of Onett. And that is all I will say, as the more of this game’s story you see for yourself, the better. Suffice to say, you must collect eight melodies in order to stop a great evil.
Haven’t heard that before, huh?
Before you scream TROPE though, you must put the game’s story in the context of THE JOURNEY, because this is not a game where the payoff is at the end. Rather it is the little moments throughout the story that stick with you long after you have finished it. Each area has its own set of problems and people that you must help in order to progress further with your journey. This is helped along by the greatness of Earthbound’s inhabitants. You know how in most RPGs the people in the world just act like signposts toward a goal? Earthbound turns this on its head with some of the best written and most laugh out loud funny dialogue of any game ever! Examples such as “Kidnapping is wrong! I’ll be careful not to kidnap anyone!” and “Hi! Don’t stand so close, I just farted!” add a humorous touch to a genre that just takes itself too seriously. Pop culture references are also frequent as well and it can be a game in and of itself trying to spot them all! It’s almost as if the entire game is a parody of modern American culture …
That is because Earthbound takes place in a modern setting, throwing out the swords and sorcery for baseball bats and bottle rockets. You save your game by calling your dad. You get money by going to the ATM. And if you need to regain your health, you order a pizza or eat a burger and fries. It’s a refreshing setting after battling through one fantasy epic after another. This also extends to enemies as well. Instead of imps and trolls, you’ll do battle with Many Fish’s Brothers and New Age Retro Hippies. A surreal experience to be sure.
Gameplay is not immune from Earthbound’s unique direction, either. The mechanics are deceptively simple, yet surprisingly deep. Think of this game as having the same basic battle setup as Dragon Quest, but with some welcome innovations both inside and outside of battle. For one thing, there are zero random encounters! That means you can see every enemy on-screen, allowing you to plan your next move. Every enemy type also has their own sprite, giving you the ability to gauge how each battle may go based on the type of enemy encountered. Seeing the enemy in advance also means there is ample opportunity for sneak attacks, giving you an advantageous position at the start of a fight.
But this also means you must be careful to avoid enemies doing the same to you! All of this pales in comparison to one of the greatest innovations of the RPG: THE INSTA-WIN!!!! Imagine that you’re at level 50 and are re-visiting Onett. Do you REALLY want to stop what you’re doing in order to waffle stomp a measly level 2 Spiteful Crow? In its infinite wisdom, the game just skips what is easily a win for you and just gives you the experience. This saves time and trouble, making it the cure for one of the RPG genre’s biggest weaknesses. To this day I do not understand why more role playing games refuse to steal this idea. It is a marvelous feature.
Inside of battle, the game presents itself as relatively simple, as you cannot see your player characters. All that is visible is the enemy and your party’s action menu. I love how the characters all have unique options to choose from. Ness can auto battle, Paula can pray (random effect), Jeff can use objects like bottle rockets and poo (Yes, poo!!) can imitate enemies. My favorite feature has to be the rolling health bar. If an enemy hits you for big damage, normally that chunk is immediately subtracted from your HP. Not in Earthbound! Instead you lose around one HP per second, giving you an opportunity to counter impending doom with a healing power or some food.
Visually, Earthbound has taken its fair share of beatings from critics who say that the graphics could have been done on the NES. While it may be true that graphics are not the game’s strongest feature, I do think that they grow on you after a while. Earthbound uses an oblique projection visual style, giving everything a slightly warped and hand drawn look. While I can understand how some people may not like it, the fact of the matter is that the look of the game is yet another distinguishing characteristic in a game that is wholly unique. Not to mention that some of the amazing places you go in this game (looking at you, Moonside!) and the varied vistas the game offers make it worth the trade. And did I mention that this game is SEAMLESS? No world map, just location after interconnected location. Considering the time the game came out, this really makes it a feat.
Music is another story entirely. Not even up for debate, the music is varied and OUTSTANDING!! So many memorable pieces, and many of them resemble real world songs. Waking up to the Beatle’s Good Morning is my favorite example of this. Multiple battle themes and a song for almost every place you go make this an audio powerhouse of a game. There is so much music on this cart that they had to up the amount of MEGs just to fit it all! Sadly, this may also be the reason why the SNES is the only version of this game to come stateside, as many of the songs resemble famous copyrighted counterparts.
There is so much more to talk about. Coffee breaks and homesickness, zombie paper and giant pencils … but to talk about them is to ruin the greatness of a game and mar the experience for any who have yet to see it for themselves. For it is in these moments that Earthbound defies our expectations and delivers something more … not only a game we play, but a game we love. It is a tragedy that it is so hard for gamers to experience this magic, but if you can find a copy for under three figures, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It is an out of this world experience, and most likely the last of its kind. So say FUZZY PICKLES and give Earthbound a chance!!!
Five Out of Five Stars
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