Retro Review – Earthbound

The much-beloved Earthbound was released today on the Wii U’s Virtual Console. It’s strange that I can say with quite a bit of authority that this game is the biggest reason to own Nintendo’s fledgling system right now. Considering the original cartridge for this game sells for $200 on ebay, that isn’t really surprising. It is one of the… no… it IS the biggest cult RPG to never get a rerelease on any system in the west. Now that has changed, and I get to bring out a retro review. Earthbound is one of those games whose fans are incredibly vocal, and whose reputation has carried it for 18 years. Going on the Miiverse now, I saw several people buying this game due to reputation. There are very few 18 year old games with no sequels released in the west that can boast such a reputation. It is a testament to the quirkiness and charm of this fantastic game. Nintendo is charging an extra $2 for this game on the Virtual Console, making it $10, and, trust me, it’s worth every penny.

And no, the VC purchase doesn’t come with the guide book or the scratch and sniff stickers.
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Earthbound is known as Mother 2 in Japan. The first game is dated, and, truthfully, barely playable. Since it never came west, its sequel was renamed, similarly how Final Fantasy IV and VI were renamed II and III because Square saw it fit to forget about the west when they released Final Fantasy II, III, and V One of the key players in the development of Earthbound was Satoru Iwata, who you may recognize as the current CEO of Nintendo (Not relevant, but fun trivia!). Nintendo has been teasing Earthbound for years with Ness’ and Lucas’ inclusion in Super Smash Bros. A sequel was made in 2006, but like Mother 1, Mother 3 wasn’t released over here for reasons that baffle me endlessly. Unlike Earthbound, it doesn’t look like Mother 3 is going to be rereleased over here anytime soon, meaning that, as much as I hate to say it, emulation is the best way to go about playing it, especially with the very competent fan translation.

Mother 1 is a really ugly game.
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Earthbound is the story of a youth, Ness, who finds himself in the midst of an alien invasion. It’s up to him to stop a horrifying being called Giygas from destroying all life on Earth. It sounds very epic, and at times, it is, but most of the time, it’s a fun trip through some very memorable and wacky areas. Starting in the quaint mountain town of Onett, you’ll have to travel the fictional country of Eagleton and visit several special spots in order to complete a melody that should stop Giygas for some reason. On your way, you’ll be joined by two more boys and a girl, who all have different, and rather flimsy reasons for wanting to join you. It’s not particularly well explained but that’s not why people love Earthbound.

No, Starmen, it’s not because of you either.
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What people remember about Earthbound is the craziness and the camp. The hyjinx of Carpainter, a mad cult leader who encourages everyone in a town to paint everything blue including the talking cows; Dungeonman, a man who turns himself into a dungeon; the insanely designed Mr. Saturns; and the Blues Brothers ripoffs, the Runaway Five, these are the things that people remember. Whether it’s a giant talking pile of puke leading a zombie invasion, or simply wandering New Age Retro Hippies that attack on sight, Earthbound is probably one of the most charming games ever made. It is this charm that makes people overlook Earthbound’s obvious flaws.

The correct course of action is to beat it with your baseball bat until you “tame” it.
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And Earthbound does have flaws. As funny as it is to fight an enemy called a Rambling Evil Mushroom, the combat is very archaic and a little slow. It switches to first person when the battle starts and your characters are represented by stats, while you face a graphic of the enemy. It’s the kind of thing that you only see nowadays from handheld RPGs like Etrian Odyssey and the handheld SMT franchises. It works, but it’s a still a little awkward. This style alone isn’t what makes it dated, however. It is the fact that there are many options available in the game that just aren’t useful, like someone never really playtested it. That all being said, the combat is more than serviceable and if the style doesn’t bother you, then you will still have lots of fun dealing with the enemies in the game.

On another note, there are tons of references to be had.
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The basic gameplay mechanics are also dated. In order to do any action, you must go through several menus which is a pain. There are tons of items, but the item descriptions are often not particularly useful. It was fairly special at the time to not have random encounters, but to instead have enemies appear on the screen. These enemies can get a surprise attack if they touch your back, and you can do the same. The only problem with this is that having enemies on the screen often creates a rather large amount of lag. The leveling system is fairly generic with stats and spells being directly tied with level increases. Some weapons have special effects, but most of them are simply attack increases. This isn’t a negative thing, but leveling isn’t nearly as fun as it is in other games with more unique systems.

Just like in Clash of the Titans, the Kraken inspires thoughts of pie.
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Graphically, the game is, what else, charming. Every character is rendered as a stylistic sprite and enemies get their own battle artwork. It’s fun to see the spindly hippies or the jive-talking crows up close. The colours are bright and each location is memorable, whether it’s the dark, zombie infested Threed, or the vacation sands of Summers. The music isn’t some momentously epic thing like what you’d find with Nobuo Uematsu’s works, but it fits the quirky game amazingly. It’s a full score with many different battle themes depending on the silliness of the encounter. Every city also gets a theme that fits perfectly. The graphics and music aren’t up to Chrono Trigger, or Final Fantasy VI standards, but this game manages to avoid such comparisons for the most part by being so unique.

Onett, where the Police Chief tries to beat up a twelve-year-old kid so the boy can leave town after he kills a giant evil ant.
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Earthbound is one of those great SNES JRPGs that you hear people droning on about. Along with the aforementioned Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy VI, Earthbound joins a very small list of must-play RPGs from that generation. Fortunately, playing Earthbound will no longer cost you $200, or force you to download it illegally. Now everyone has a chance to learn that Ness wasn’t a character invented for Super Smash Bros. While the price of the Earthbound cartridge may go down, which is never great for collectors, the fact that a whole new generation of gamers can finally play this game is easily worth it. So stop reading this and buy Earthbound on the Virtual Console, and if you don’t have a Wii U, then go out and get one… then buy Earthbound.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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