Earthbound. Ever since I first read about it in an issue of the now dead Nintendo Power, I’ve wanted to play it. Thing is that I’ve never owned a SNES in my life, and when Nintendo announced its release for the WiiU, I was SOL then, too. But then they announced it for the 3DS, and I knew right away what I would be dropping ten bucks on. To me, it’s often been the unattainable goal of JRPGs, which, as anyone who knows me will tell you, is one of my favorite genres. I heard so many things about the game. That it’s hilarious. That it’s weird. That it’s touching. That it’s the best game ever made. But I also read, in one of the few mixed reviews I’ve ever seen for the title, that it is also frustrating and not entirely enjoyable to actually play. That didn’t stop me from downloading it and beating it a few weeks later, though. Since Nintendo rereleased it on 3DS, I’ve been able to see what all the fuss is about.
Right away, the game establishes that it’s going to be different from other JRPGs, at least in terms of storytelling. After naming all the people who will eventually join your party, your dog, your favorite food, and your favorite “thing,” the game begins. You wake up in the middle of the night to a ruckus outside. It seems a meteor has crashed into the hill near your house that sits right on the outskirts of Onett. You decide to check it out after being pestered by your neighbor Pokey, a boy who is your age but isn’t as cool as you are. After examining the meteor, a space fly named Buzz Buzz informs you that an evil alien force known only as Giygas is about to wreak havoc across the world. Only you and a chosen few can stop the alien by visiting eight “your sanctuary” locations and memorizing the melodies there.
Much of the game involves righting the wrongs caused by Giygas. One scenario has you taking down a cult of people who worship the color blue. Another has you infiltrating a factory that turns people into zombies. Another has you helping a band get out of debt from a manipulative theater owner. Giygas’s presence is felt all across the land through these bizarre scenarios. This is on top of the fact that its presence causes animals and people to become violent and insane.
This setup could be executed in a number of ways. After all, while it’s certainly creative for one of the enemies you fight to be known as “New Age Retro Hippie,” it’s still a grown adult attacking a group of children. It could have easily been a cosmic horror story. Instead, though, the game goes for the surreal. One recurring element is a photographer who appears out of nowhere at different times to take your picture. He falls from the sky, takes the picture, then ascends to the heavens, waiting for the right opportunity to strike again. Needless to say, this game pretty much defines “quirky.”
At first, it seems like the story is rather aimless, simply carrying you from one self-contained story to the next. I like to think that this was intentional on the part of the creators, though. Without giving too much away, there are many parts later on that show the truth behind what the game is trying to convey. That is, it’s trying to show what it is like to be a kid in America, but with the hindsight of adulthood. This is because, even though the game is mostly amusing and funny, there are some seriously creepy and unsettling moments, especially as you get near the end. As Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw said in his review of the game, it feels like a game made by children, but not necessarily for them.
This atmosphere comes across in the visuals and sound. Character models are very simplistic, with a Charlie Brown inspired aesthetic of cartoony people with big, exaggerated features. The constant shifting of the tone and scenarios truly does feel like an adventure a group of kids might come up with on the playground, with random bits thrown in for no other reason than to amuse themselves. Women in the mall have gigantic grins plastered across their face. Dogs are wide eyed. The good people are absolutely good, while the bad people are absolutely evil, even if they help you in some way. The graphics look crude, but I think they’re like that on purpose. All the people you meet look like they were drawn in a coloring book, while the really important ones (party members, plot crucial characters) are more detailed.
The music and audio is tougher to wrap my head around. Many people cite this as being one of the best parts of the game, but I personally found it to be far too subdued. Often, the music is little more than ambient beeps and boops. There are a few tracks that stand out, but nothing on par with other RPG series. But the thing is, I think that is also quite intentional. To go with the atmosphere of the game being made up on the fly, the soundtrack really does seem to capture the push and pull of emotions of being a kid.
Needless to say, these elements are the best part of the game. The story meshes well with the visuals and audio to create a unique, interesting atmosphere that is ripe for dissection. It’s a very slow burn, though, so it might turn some people off. But if you stick with it and get to the later parts of the game, you’ll find that there’s much more going on with the story and atmosphere than mere random silliness and by the end, you’ll likely look back on the events of the game in a far different way, if only because of how memorable and different the finale is.
The problems with the game begin with the gameplay. This is essentially a Dragon Quest clone with a few slight modifications to make it stand apart. And I love that series to death. I think the games are charming in their simplicity and atmosphere, but even I will admit that a few of the installments have more than a few annoyances. Thing is, I’ve played the remakes of most of the old games, where the more tedious elements are lessened with some modern enhancements. With this rerelease of Earthbound, the tedious elements are all there, without any modification whatsoever.
Take, for instance, the inventory system. Each character has a finite number of spaces to hold items, and that includes their equipment. Having more than one of the same item still takes up that number of spaces (say you have two pizzas; that means each one takes up one space for a total of two spaces). If you have a full inventory, you can try selling some stuff, dropping it, or storing it. Thing is, the way you store items gets old really fast. You call up your sister, who works part time for a delivery service. You can tell her you want to store or withdraw, and afterwards you must wait for a courier. Then the courier will ask if you can cover the fee. If not, he will simply leave, forcing you to go back in the store, withdraw money from the ATM (where all your money goes automatically; the only way to actually have cash on you is to either sell something or withdraw from an ATM), wade through the same dialogue you already saw, wait for the courier again, then finally select the three items you want to store. Thing is though that sometimes the courier will simply not show up because you’re in a “weird location,” which means you’re SOL if you want to get rid of some extra stuff. This problem is compounded when you have a piece of equipment for a certain character that is no longer the best weapon available for him. Certain items simply can’t be dropped or sold even though they’re only weapons, which means all you can do is store them. But you’re not always in a position to get the delivery guy to come to you.
There are other annoyances, as well. In the beginning of the game, a character getting KOed is a one way ticket to tedium city. The way you revive a character is by going to a hospital and paying the doctor’s fee. For some reason, though, hospitals don’t have ATMs. So unless you memorized how much that particular hospital costs (and each one is different by the way), you need to walk back to the shop and withdraw more money. But you can also get ambushed on the way by monsters, who wander around town at random. It’s simply not an efficient system.
This game does have a neat feature to try and offset getting KOed. If a character receives mortal damage, they’re not necessarily out of the battle right away. Instead of simply subtracting health points, when a character gets hit their health will roll down, much like numbers on a slot machine. If you can click through the menu based system fast enough and end the battle before their health reaches 0, the rolling will stop and they will remain conscious. It’s a really interesting system that can inspire panic and anxiety in a way that turn based battles rarely ever do.
Speaking of the battle system, it’s basically Dragon Quest with a very weird coat of paint. Battles are fought in first person, with only the monsters visible on the screen. You don’t see the characters in your party at all, only the effects of their moves. Instead of magic, you have PSI points. The main characters are all psychic (which was amplified by the arrival of Giygas) and can use different abilities because of it. At the end of the day, though, it boils down to offensive, defensive, and support abilities like healing or fire attacks. The characters, with one exception, learn new abilities automatically at certain levels (the exception makes use of reusable items to attack instead of PSI).
The enemies you fight vary wildly. As mentioned above, you might fight a hippie. Other times you might fight a sentient taxi, an angry fire hydrant, little piles of puke, or baby sized UFOs. While these enemies are certainly outlandish and funny, they can, simply put, become a chore to fight, especially in dungeons. Battles in this game aren’t random, per se. You can see enemies on the map when you’re walking around. The thing is that they’re randomly generated, and once an enemy spots you (which can happen when they’re almost off screen), they will chase you down. They move faster than you, too, so it’s impossible to avoid nine times out of ten. To top it off, the run command is more or less useless, so if you’re hurting and low on PP, a random fight can be a death sentence. So even though the game claims that fights aren’t random, they basically are. Although there is a neat feature where, when you beat an area boss, enemies will run away from you. You can enter battle with them and if there’s only one of them, you will often win the fight instantly, gaining free experience points.
The thing about the random battles is that they can be absolutely brutal. Enemies seem to land critical hits very frequently, and the turn order feels entirely random, making it tough to plan a proper attack. There were times where I would enter a battle and, through no fault of my own, would get wiped out by powerful enemies who use group attacks. The odd thing is that this brutal difficulty in fights varies from area to area. Sometimes I struggled to make it through one room in one dungeon, only to breeze through the next one. The wildly varying difficulty is jarring and frustrating since it’s almost impossible to plan accordingly. To top it off, enemies can and will make use of crippling status effects, which seem to always affect your party while not affecting them if you try to do the same. This is worsened when, at certain points in the game, characters will leave your party for seemingly arbitrary reasons, only to turn back up out of nowhere. It makes it tough to keep everyone at the same level, especially the last character you get, who is at level 15 when everyone else is in the 30’s or 40’s.
Despite how tough the random fights can be, bosses, ironically, tend to be giant pushovers. I only died to a boss a handful of times throughout the game, and only because I was careless. Most bosses go down very easily, sometimes in a matter of three rounds. Maybe the developers decided to do this because the random encounters are so brutal and frequent, but I was very baffled a lot of the time when I would take out a boss much sooner than expected.
That’s not to say the gameplay is all bad. Exploring is a lot of fun since you can meet up with weird people and talk to them, as well as find new items and equipment. The atmosphere is a lot of fun to soak in since the world is so varied and unique. Dungeons in particular are varied. While you still get the requisite amount of caves so beloved by the genre, some dungeons are very creative. One section might have you go through a mall whose power has gone out, while another might have you explore a facility beneath a graveyard.
Such is the experience of playing Earthbound. The story and atmosphere are entirely unique, engaging, and infinitely charming. These are helped through the unique production values, especially the visuals. It manages to convey many different tones without ever feeling random in a bad way. If only it were as much fun to play as it is to take everything in. Certain elements, while very atmospheric, (the aforementioned delivery system and withdrawing from an ATM), grow old after a while, and continue on to simply become tedious by the end of this long journey (according to my play log, it took me exactly 24 hours to get through the game). Battles are serviceable as well, if not spectacular, but they can also be incredibly frustrating in how strong the monsters are and how deftly they’re able to use status ailments to their advantage. Still, though, this is a cult classic for a reason. It’s inspired many people to go on and create their own weird RPGs (like the excellent LISA: The Painful) and manages to convey its messages in an entirely unique and creative way. If you’ve never played it, I would highly suggest doing so on the 3DS, where you can suspend the game at any time and pick up right where you left off. Just be prepared for some tedious, dated elements. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and brush up on my psychic abilities so I can stop an otherworldly alien from taking over the world.
+ Wildly creative and unique story that starts off feeling random, but eventually reveals itself to be much deeper than expected
+ Atmosphere is infectious and a lot of fun to soak up, with audio and visuals that enhance the game’s message and tone
+ Lots of creative scenarios, with some of the best coming at the end of the game
+ Interesting interpretation of traditional RPG mechanics like magic and character resurrection, as well as many others…
- …but sometimes the RPG elements can grow extremely tedious, especially earlier on when you don’t have access to many abilities
- Difficulty fluctuates all over the place, from punishingly brutal to surprisingly easy
- Characters leaving the party at different times feels like a cheap way to make the game more difficult