Saturday, March 12, 2022

EarthBound Review

Developer: Ape, Hal
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: SNES, Wii U, 3DS, NS, SNES Classic
Version Played: NS

Twitter trends and wrestling signs might give you the impression that EarthBound is an incredibly popular game which sold millions of copies, but that’s just how loud and passionate its fans are. The game is really more of a cult classic. It didn't sell anywhere near as much as the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games coming out at the time. I remember seeing brand new copies of it going for $10 while shopping for PS1 games. There's something special about the game, though. Something about it sticks with people. Its art style, music, and presentation all feel fresh and unique, even among today's RPGs, but it's the setting, characters, and story that make it such a fun experience for me.
On its surface, EarthBound is a game about saving the world from an alien invasion. You travel around the world meeting new party members while collecting 8 doodads until you're ready to take on the final boss. It sounds like a hundred other RPGs. Its setting is what turns the ordinary into extraordinary. The world of EarthBound is anything but your typical RPG setting. This is a world of psychic powers, reptilians, zombies, and even Nessy and Bigfoot show up. It's weird, it loves being weird, and it gets weirder the further you get in the game. Not only is it weird, but it's also kind of mature in a strange way. There's a cult, mobsters, hippies, crooked cops, bribery, and all kinds of things you'll never see in other Nintendo games.
EarthBound also stands out from most RPGs because it takes place in modern(ish) day. It's kind of 80s, but also kind of 60s. Most of EarthBound's world looks like a warped version of America as imagined by someone whose inspiration was stuff like Peanuts and Stand By Me. Everything is bright, colorful, and kind of old-fashioned in a Midwestern America kind of way. If you've lived there, you know. There are no swords or magic spells in this game, instead it has baseball bats and psychic powers, you shop at department stores, revive party members at hospitals, and travel by bus or bicycle. Enemies don't drop money, your dad puts it in your account and you have to get it from an ATM. EarthBound is 100% committed to its setting and I love that about it.
EarthBound’s gameplay borrows heavily from Dragon Quest. You travel from town to town, talk to NPCs, do a dungeon, repeat. It's a bit more streamlined than a DQ or FF, though. There isn’t as much exploration since there is no traditional RPG overworld and most places are connected by caves or small stretches of land, and not wide open fields with something in every direction. It feels like a predecessor to Pokemon in that way. Which makes sense since the two games were made by a lot of the same people.
Moving the story forward in this game gives me more of a point and click adventure game vibe, though. NPCs in EarthBound are constantly giving you key items you have to deliver to someone or use somewhere, the world is constantly changing, so you have to revisit some places multiple times, and sometimes you just have to do something that might not even make sense to you. I don't want to give away any solutions, but there were definitely times when I had no idea what to do. Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention to the story or didn't read enough item tooltips. Thankfully, Nintendo always makes the guide available in PDF form whenever they rerelease the game.
The key item system really shines a spotlight on how terrible the inventory system is. Every piece of equipment, consumable, and key item takes up space in your inventory, and nothing stacks. Important stuff like your bike, phone, town map, and Sound Stone all take up a slot too. You can't even put some of these things in your bank. Putting stuff in the bank is also a pain. You have to call Ness’ sister on the phone to send someone to either deliver or pick up your items, you can’t withdraw and store at the same time, and you can only store or take out 3 items at a time. Each character also has to carry their own equipment and items to use them, so you can’t equip a new weapon on Jeff if it’s in Paula’s inventory, for example. You’d first have to go into Paula’s inventory and move it into Jeff’s to be able to equip him with it. And, of course, both Jeff and Poo depend heavily on their items to be useful in battle, so their inventory is almost completely taken up by Poo’s water and Jeff’s gadgets.
Even though EarthBound was kind of just following the Dragon Quest blueprint in a lot of ways, it was doing some cool new things when it came out in 1994. Not a lot of RPGs had gotten rid of random battles, for example. Enemies in EarthBound are visible in the world, they run after you if they're around your level, and run away from you if you're much stronger. This makes it a lot easier to avoid unwanted battles and takes away a lot of the grind usually associated with RPGs. There's also a mechanic that guarantees you the first turn in a battle if you run into an enemy from behind, or allows you to skip the battle entirely if you're much stronger than the enemy. There really isn't a need to grind in EarthBound. I never felt like I was underleveled or lacking money for equipment, which is a big issue with the first game, Mother/EarthBound Beginnings, and many other 8 and 16-bit RPGs.
EarthBound's battle system is basically the same as Dragon Quest's, and pretty much every other RPG that didn't use FF's Active Time Battle, but it also did something new. EarthBound has rolling HP meters that kind of look like old gas pump meters. When you take damage or heal, the meter starts rolling up or down in real-time. This makes it so that if you take mortal damage, you might be able to save your character if you hurry and get a heal off on them before their HP reaches zero. You can also mitigate incoming damage by overhealing your party members before they take a hit. It might sound like a small thing, but it really gives battles a sense of urgency that you don’t usually find in most turn-based RPGs.
EarthBound's UI is kind of a mess. It does that thing Dragon Quest games used to do where a menu pops up when you press A instead of just interacting with the thing in front of you. Mother/EarthBound Beginnings did the same thing. It feels archaic. There is a button that just interacts, but it's on the L button, which is just weird. This wasn't much of an issue on Wii U, where you could easily remap your buttons in the Virtual Console menu, but it is kind of a pain to work around on Switch, where you have to change what the A button does on a system level, which can get very confusing. You just have to deal with the weird button mapping on 3DS and SNES since there is no way to change it there.
EarthBound has a great art style. It's very different from the big-headed anime style most SNES RPGs were using at the time. It looks like Peanuts. Ness looks like Charlie Brown, houses look like Snoopy's dog house, and it uses a similar color scheme. It's kind of on the nose, but that's not a bad thing. It looks great and it fits the tone of the game perfectly. The graphics didn’t look very impressive when compared to games like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Final Fantasy VI back in the day, but the art style stands the test of time.
Of course, I have to mention the psychedelic battle backgrounds! They're so cool. It's like battling in front of a giant lava lamp or mp3 player visualizer. I just love these things!
The game does have big framerate problems, though. The game skips frames and slows down everywhere outside of battles. Some areas in the game slow down so much it feels like when you're wading through the water in the swamp area. At least it doesn't affect the music.
I love EarthBound's soundtrack, but it does sound very similar to songs by popular musicians, like Bob Marley, The Beatles, The Who, and even Xevious. I do love those Jazz and Reggae tunes, though.
Even with its annoying UI, bad framerate, and horrible inventory system, I think EarthBound is definitely worth going out of your way to play. It really feels like a cultural touchstone these days with Pokemon still using so many things that started in it and games like Undertale being inspired by it. I also just love this weird mash up of paranormal stuff and Peanuts. It's like putting 2 clashing toppings on a pizza and finding out they taste great together.