After having recently rediscovered my love of Ness in Super Smash Bros, it got me thinking back to last year when I first got to play this classic SNES game courtesy of a virtual console release on the Wii U. Published by Nintendo and written by Shigesato Itoi, Earthbound is the cult classic second title in the Mother series and, sadly, the only one to be released outside of Japan. It’s a whimsical tale of adventure that deftly manages to blend a colourful world with some surprisingly dark themes that will keep you thinking long after the credits have rolled.
Set in the world of Eagleland, Earthbound is still very unique due to it being set in a modern and realistic world. Instead of caves and dungeons, you’ll be traversing maze-like convenience stores and banks. This isn’t to say that Earthbound does not have any fantastical elements, but the way they are handled are unique and often comically postmodern in nature. Players take control of a young boy called Ness who is awoken one night by the sound of a meteor that has crashed nearby. Upon inspecting the meteor, Ness finds a talking bee called Buzz Buzz who tells him of a terrible future in which a tyrannical alien called Giygas reigns. Ness, armed with an ability called PSI, is tasked with changing this apocalyptic future and sets out on a journey which sees him encountering other children who with similar abilities.
Earthbound only gets weirder as the story progresses, with each quirky town inhabiting wonderfully witty characters and numerous bonkers quests. Each area is a treasure trove of the weird and wonderful; there’s Onett, Ness’ hometown which has been overrun by a street gang called the Sharks; Threed, a rundown city that has a serious problems with the ghosts and ghouls that have taken up residence; and then there’s Fourside, a New York inspired metropolis that houses an illusory neon world called Moonside. You’ll fight cults, save the love interest, cross swamps and deserts, pursue your abominable next door neighbor and journey towards one of the darkest final boss battles in gaming history. To delve any further would ruin the beauty of Earthbound, simply because one of the game’s biggest strengths lies in the moment of euphoria when you piece together all of the eccentric mysteries that reside in each town.
Graphically and musically, Earthbound still holds up extremely well. The sprites have an exuberant sense of personality with a pastel colour pallet that gives everything a clean and solid look. Characters are expressive and extremely likeable whilst enemies vary between cute, weird and menacing. Battles also take place in a unique psychedelic background that suits the weird and colourful nature of the game impeccably. Similarly, the music of Earthbound holds up just as well, with a lot of futuristic beeps and bloops interwoven throughout each song. The soothing music gives off a strong sense of hope and wonder, towns are given an almost childish tone to them through the hilarious music associated with shops and hotels, and then dangerous moments really ramp up the tension with some disconcerting ambient sounds. Don’t even get me started on the amazing piece of music that plays once you reach each “Your Sanctuary” location, it’s simply beautiful. Battles vary in music depending on the opponent but every piece suits each enemy perfectly; aliens are given futuristic sounding themes whilst feral dogs are given a more innocent and zany piece of music. The sheer amount of musical content of the game helps to combat the usual tiring sounds of RPG’s, which skilfully manage to keep the soundtrack unique and fresh even in this day and age.
In terms of gameplay, Earthbound is a very much a typical RPG, but instead of swords and staves you’ll be wielding baseball bats and toy guns. Magic is also replaced by an ability called PSI which is split into various categories such as assist PSI, which can be used to cure status ailments or erecting shields; offense PSI, abilities mainly used by heroine Paula which have the ability to devastate enemies; and recover PSI, typical healing spells that are mostly used by Ness and, the unfortunately named prince, Poo. Jeff is a very different party member to the rest as he cannot use any PSI spells, but he does have access to some powerful items, as well as the handy ability to craft other special items that can be used in battle. Something unique that the game does is the introduction of a rolling HP counter, an addition that brings a surprising dynamic to battles when on the verge of death. Even if the character has been dealt a fatal blow, recovery items and PSI can be used to save that character from death before the counter rolls down to zero.
Outside of battle, enemies can be approached before hand meaning you have some kind of input into how the start of the battle will unfold. Surprising enemies beforehand will give your team the first strike whilst allowing enemies to get the drop on you result in them getting the first wave of attacks. There’s even the handy little ability to defeat enemies on the spot should your characters levels be of a much higher number than your enemies. It also brings a few unique ideas such as the ability to call your father to save, as well as a bank account that has more money put into it as you beat more monsters; this money can then be retrieved from numerous cash machines scattered around the world.
Other than that, you’ll move about like typical in the genre, you’ll speak to town citizens for information, go shopping for weapons and items, and most likely get lost when trying to fathom where your next destination. That brings me onto the only negative of the game; Earthbound can be too obscure for its own good which makes progression a sometimes difficult affair. This is only made more frustrating by the slow pace of movement and counterintuitive menu system that requires a few too many clicks before speaking, swapping items and saving. Earthbound’s weird objectives and clunky menu might prove to be more taxing than the bosses of the game, but as long as you persevere and look for every clue, you’ll no doubt find a solution after a while.
Earthbound is a delightfully weird game that has a variety of interesting and dark themes lying under it’s childishly colourful surface. You start the game with a simple request that leads to a journey like no other, ending with a nightmarish last boss that will stay engraved in your mind forever. It’s a game about growing up, facing the hardships of life and making friends that will stand by your side to the very end. Even today it’s presentation, story and music are like no other in the medium and it’s a damn shame that the series is still as obscure as it is. To put it simply, if you have a Wii U then this game is a must have and a serious system seller for the ailing console. Earthbound is an unforgettable experience that will take any adult player back to the wonder of being a child; it’s a world where any meaningless thing has the capability of being an amazing and colourful adventure.
Even though obscurity and a slow pace slightly hinder Earthbound, this is a game packed with so many amazing ideas that it’s hard not to flow with the madness. It’s an experience that still remains unparalleled in any art form; not bad for a little RPG made 20 years ago.