Super NES Retro Review: EarthBound

Super NES Retro Review: EarthBound

Join us as we review every Super NES Classic game. Next up: Crayola and light horror make an epic RPG baby together.

Join us as we review all the games on the SNES Classic Mini Edition in chronological order!

The SNES Classic Edition is a celebration of the best and most beloved games that came to the Super Nintendo. If you went back in time about ten years and told me North Americans think highly enough of EarthBound to include it on a nostalgia machine like the SNES Classic, I'd laugh in your face. Then I'd call the cops to report a rogue time traveller.

Gaming's short history is already teeming with examples of brilliant titles that weren't properly recognized until years later, but 1995's EarthBound really got the cold shoulder when it arrived on these shores. Critics shrugged at it, and even established 16-bit RPG fans gave it little more than a passing glance. If not for the relentless drum-pounding of a small but extremely dedicated fanbase, EarthBound would hardly be a footnote in the SNES' library, never mind a key player on a much sought-after plug-and-play console.

I can think of a few reasons why we turned our backs on EarthBound the first time around, and most of those reasons (key word here: most) aren't the game's fault. Though Nintendo spent a lot of money on a great localization for EarthBound, it literally blew the game's advertising campaign with ads about farts and poops. That was an immediate turn-off for newly-minted RPG enthusiasts (myself included), who'd recently been taken in by the serious and complex stories in games like Final Fantasy III and Phantasy Star IV. I was too cool for childishness. Moreover, EarthBound's all-kid cast did nothing to convince me it was worth taking seriously.

"Hey, let's base an entire ad campaign around the game's single gross-out enemy, it'll be great!"

While thinking back to my hubris makes me face-palm, I'm kind of glad I didn't have my first go-around with EarthBound until I was well into my late '20s. For one thing, I believe its story about doing what must be done while the people who are supposed to be in charge flake out is much easier to appreciate as an adult. For another thing, even if I'd looked past EarthBound's simple visuals and poor advertising campaign and plugged it into my SNES back in '95, there's no way I would have put up with the game's old-fashioned battle system.

See, while EarthBound's turn-based fights are surprisingly modern in some ways (no random battles, you instantly win fights with weaker foes, and a rolling Hit Point counter gives you a Hail Mary chance at healing yourself after receiving a fatal blow), the battle system itself is based on its 8-bit predecessor, Mother, which in turn is based on the earliest Dragon Quest titles. Combat and item distribution is all handled exclusively through menus, inventory space is very limited, and there's even a significant difficulty spike early in the game: Until Ness finds his first permanent companion, Paula, he's all by himself against hordes of enemies who aren't afraid to inflict status ailments. These relentless attacks, combined with Ness' extremely limited inventory space, his mana-gobbling healing spells, and expensive inns can make the first few hours of EarthBound a turn-off.

But I always tell prospective new players, "Just do a little bit of grinding, have a bit of patience, get through Peaceful Rest Valley, and play through the Happy Happy Village scenario." That's when the game takes off, in my opinion. Not only because you finally gain a friend, but because it's where EarthBound's plot spreads its wings and reveals the shadows under its deceptively bright plumage.

"The Hip Place to Be!"

EarthBound's story starts off innocently. Ness, a young boy, learns from a time-travelling fly named Buzz-Buzz that a universe-swallowing evil has condemned the future to eternal darkness. Ness is recruited to save the world (his scheming, cowardly neighbor, Porky, chickens out), and is subsequently tasked with finding the other three kids who are prophesized to help him make it happen.

"Save the world, kid" is standard RPG stuff, but EarthBound's smaller stories and subtler themes are what make the game so memorable. Giygas, the Lovecraft-scale monster set to swallow reality, still manages to influence people in Ness' time and magnify their fears and insecurities. Many of the adults you meet in EarthBound are crooks, cowards, and bullies.

But for every grimy corner EarthBound forces you to visit, it also shows you a well-lit side of the room. Above all else, it's a game about friendship, comradery, and hope. Most of the criminals you come across can be redeemed, and become staunch allies in Ness' greatest hour of need.

Even the game's dimmest moments are handled with a twisted sense of humor – though frankly, interacting with corrupt cops who have no qualms about beating up a little boy gives me the shudders. I don't know if series writer (and celebrated Japanese copywriter) Shigesato Itoi was making a statement about law enforcement being two-faced, or if he merely wanted to dress up another serious theme with a joke, i.e. naming a doomsday prophet "Buzz-Buzz" and creating a child-sacrificing cult that worships the color blue. I suppose that's part of what makes EarthBound special: It keeps you guessing. The game's over twenty years old, and people still find excellent reasons to write essays about it. Ahem.

The Burning Oak enemy bursts into flames because it comes directly from hell.

While we made the mistake of dismissing EarthBound's graphics as childish and simplistic upon the game's release, that's probably the most unfair criticism we lobbed at it. EarthBound reaches for a unique look and sound, which it nails. Like most great RPGs, its graphics, sound, and story compliment each other wonderfully. The chaotic drums and unworldly whirrs combined with the serene chirping of crickets in Alien Invasion make it obvious from moment one that Earthbound is serious about the story it wants to tell you, even if that story is wrapped up in jokes about trout-flavored yogurt. The distant, echoing roars you tend to hear in the game's cavernous dungeons likewise telegraph danger is never far away.

EarthBound utilizes atmospheric sounds more than most Japanese RPGs, but it doesn't abstain from full-bodied pieces, either – even if said pieces make skin-prickling use of ambient sounds, like the hollow "wooooo" in the cultists' village or the undulating whistles and low tubas in the monster-possessed town of Threed. It's not all doom and gloom for EarthBound's soundtrack, however: The game makes sure to grant you rest with simple, sweet pieces like A Flash of Memory and Paula's Theme.

Oh, and EarthBound also has multiple battle themes (including the excellent Battle with the Kraken), a very welcome feature that doesn't show up nearly often enough in RPGs. I love you Persona 5, but why in God's name would you assume I want to hear Last Surprise 6500 times in a single playthrough?

The accepted reaction to pizza across every culture and civilization.

There's no other RPG like EarthBound (other than, um, Mother and Mother 3), and even though I give it my highest recommendation, I usually nod and say "OK, cool," when people tell me they just can't gel with it. Again, those opening hours take persistence to get through, and its attempt to meld dark and light themes occasionally means you're handed an unpalatable oil-and-water mix. But at the risk of sounding cheesy, you're supposed to play EarthBound with your heart rather than your hands. Don't rip out your heart and moosh it around the controller; that's not what I'm getting at. What I mean is, EarthBound is an animal made up of several parts, and if you changed one of those parts – even the sometimes-clunky inventory and battle system – you'd get an entirely new animal. Itoi had a vision, and he funnelled it into a cartridge. What you see is what you get with EarthBound, and if that means you can't experience its story and characters because you can't get over the game's slow start and chuggy battles, I understand you. I feel for you, my child, but I understand you.

("But Nadia, I played an EarthBound ROM a while back, and enemies wouldn't stop attacking me! It was mega-unfun.")

Er, you probably wound up with a ROM that triggered its copy protection. Don't write off EarthBound until you've played an unsullied copy on the SNES, Virtual Console, or – if your patron saint chooses to smile on you – the SNES Classic.

EarthBound expects you to climb quite a hill at the start of the game, but once you get over that hump, you get to experience one of the funniest, most unique, and most heartfelt RPGs ever made. Don't be fooled by those colorful graphics or simplistic menus: EarthBound has something to tell you, and you owe it to yourself to listen.

5/5

Tagged with Mother 2, Nintendo, Retro, Retro Reviews, Reviews, Role Playing Games, SNES, Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Classic Edition.

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