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New Reviews for Old Games: Earthbound

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Nearly twenty years later, Nintendo’s cult classic EarthBound still has the chops to impress. In a world where games like Call of Duty and Battlefield rule the ever growing game market, it’s always refreshing to take a look back at some of the greats that got the industry to where it is today. EarthBound, released in 1995 on the SNES, is a Japanese RPG set in the not-so-un-American-like Eagleland, where a seemingly traditional story unfolds:  young boy is told that he is the one who will save the universe from destruction. This, however, is where the traditions end and the creative genius begins.

From time traveling bumblebees, to dinosaurs, to blue cults of happiness, this game is not your average run-of-the-mill RPG. Even though EarthBound often delivers a very dark theme of death or fear, it does so in a way that somehow feels almost childlike and full of wonder. Bright visuals and quirky dialogue keep the feeling light, even when faced with an enemy who is comprised of nothing more than a pile of vomit. Yes, vomit. While this seems a bit silly and even slightly disgusting, EarthBound plays these kinds of scenarios out in such a way that it almost feels normal to be fighting a pile o’ bile, and that in itself is an impressive achievement. Tradition even remains broken in the weapons department. You will be battling through aliens and gangsters while armed with baseball bats, slingshots, yoyo’s and even frying pans. These deadly tools of destruction make it easy to remember that Ness and his friends are just mere children, facing a world far bigger than the homes they’ve left behind.

Ness and friends leave the hotel for the night

The combat mechanics tend to stick to your normal turn based system, with just a few quirks that give it a slightly fresh feel. You and your opponents take turns whacking each other about like you would expect, but the difference lies in one particular mechanic that truly makes the combat not only a thinking mans game, but also one for those with quick thumbs. If a member of your party takes damage in combat, their health meter will count down to the amount of health they will have after subtracting the damage taken. If you are fast enough to heal that party member before the meter stops counting down, the amount healed will be added to where the health bar is currently, and not to the amount that you would have had if the counter had reached the final damage count. This comes in handy if your party member takes mortal damage that would normally result in their being incapacitated, thus saving yourself the trouble of being down one party member.

The setup of each battle differs somewhat from the norm as well, with the enemy directly facing the screen, and the main characters being completely out of frame as if you yourself are battling your opponent. Your enemies are also placed in rows, and can even be behind each other, affecting whether or not certain abilities will damage some or all of those who would wish you harm.

The gang battles two Starmen!

All in all, the combat is always fun and each situation requires a lot of thought as to what you will do next. Each fight is different, and certain opponents will truly challenge your abilities later in the game. Combat in EarthBound is never easy, but it is also not so unforgiving that you find yourself getting frustrated. On a similar note, when encountering enemies who are significantly weaker than you, the game will simply skip over that combat and give you the resulting experience points, rather than making you sit through painful trash battles with little to no purpose other than grinding to level up. This is a definite plus, and something I think we should see more of in today’s RPGs.

What makes the environments in EarthBound what they are isn’t that they are particularly colorful, well laid out, or unique. In fact, what makes them so remarkable is that they are so unremarkable. Each area feels like somewhere you’ve seen, been, or at least heard of in real life. Small towns, big cities, hot deserts, and so on, each with its own trouble that needs undoing, and its own boss that needs fighting. When you or your party members are defeated in combat, you don’t resurrect them. You go to the local hospital and pay their medical bills to get them back in fighting shape. When you want to recuperate, you go get a hotel room and sleep for the night. When you want to get to the next town over, you take the bus. It all seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but it’s not a system that we are used to seeing in RPGs, and it really gives a fresh feel to the whole genre. It’s very easy to get lost in the sauce while traveling, though.

Ness and the gang take a break for pizza!

While there is always an overall goal in each “level”, you will have to do some detective work to figure out just what exactly it is that you are supposed to do. Whether it’s to acquire a Pencil Eraser to erase a giant statue of a pencil that is blocking your path, or to defeat a horde of Zombies using sticky traps, the game never comes right out and says what exactly it is that it want’s from you. You have to walk about town, talk to people, and investigate further into the issues that plague the area in order to truly solve what it is that’s going on. It’s an art that we’ve really lost in recent years, and its a welcome change in my book. People have gotten so used to hand-holding in games and when there isn’t an outright objective plastered across the screen, we want to just throw up our hands and say “this game is too hard” and quit right there.

For those kinds of players, however, there is a saving grace. In each town there is a “Hint” stand, where, for a small fee, you can get a tip on what the heck it is that you are supposed to do. This is definitely adds a cushion that is sometimes shamefully embraced by even the most hardened RPG player. Believe me, I had to do it once or twice.

Along side the unique areas in EarthBound are some of the best and strangest sound usage I’ve heard in a game. While the music is definitely catchy, it also perfectly fits the mood of each area you encounter. The color scheme’s and the environment seem to fit the bill, of course, but it’s the music that really adds that crisp edge to each new location. It’s even very noticable how the score in each area gets more and more alien, as it were, with each new encounter. This is fitting, of course, because we are dealing with… well… aliens. While the music in EarthBound is definitely iconic, there are some areas where it can be a bit repetitive. This is in part because of the length of the sound byte, but also because of the amount of time that you spend in some of these areas. It’s not truly and issue, but it is something to take note of for those who can be easily turned off by such things. Other than that, even the smacks and thwacks of combat are well placed and fit each scenario just the way it should. This includes the psychic abilities. Although it’s hard to imagine exactly what “PSI Starstorm” would sound like, I think that EarthBound did a pretty damn good job of getting it right, even in a 16-bit generation.

Every young boy has to leave home someday.

The “fun-factor” for this game can really be determined by several aspects. If the player is a fan of cult classics, turn based RPGs, and 16-bit graphics, then EarthBound is definitely a must for you. If you don’t so much find yourself drooling over the prospect of you and your enemy taking turns smacking each other upside the head, then I would still recommend at least giving this game a shot. While standard in a lot of areas, EarthBound really stands out from the crowd in its story, in the delivery of that story, and in the characters that you meet along the way. Very few games can make players these days feel like they really need to play through something again just because they can, and EarthBound does just that. The moment I read the words “The End” cross the screen, I obeyed my compelling urge to start a new game right then and there.

It’s hard to really put your finger on what makes a game like EarthBound a cult classic, but when everything is said and done it truly is one. Games like this only come around once every so often, and when they do it is sad how often they get swept aside by the general public and picked up by only the few who actually search for true gems in the industry. While I can’t blame people for not feeling the same way, I can definitely advise those who don’t to give it a try. It’s truly a wonderful experience, and will leave you longing for more. It is definitely a must play, a title that I will treasure, and one to leave you smiling and saying “fuzzy pickles!”

About John Mann

is a 22 year old student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. With a major in English and a minor in Secondary Education, he will one day teach the next generation important skills for life. His roots are in his two favorite systems, the SNES and the N64, though he plays most games on his PC. John is married and lives in Jacksonville, AR with his wife Rachel.

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