EarthBound is a parody of its own genre; therefore the game frequently takes the piss out of itself. The story of EarthBound, which is extremely cliché, proves this. But despite being cliché the story is still a very solid aspect of the game.
The game follows the adventure of a 13 year old boy called Ness, who has psychic powers. One night, after a meteorite crashes to the ground near his house, Ness goes to investigate only to come across Buzz Buzz, a talking bee from 10 years in to the future. Buzz Buzz informs Ness that an evil known as Giygas has plagued the earth in the future, and that he's travelled back in time to inform people of the upcoming travesty. Buzz Buzz informs Ness that in the future Giygas as grown unstoppable, and that the only way to beat him is to destroy him in the past before he gains all his power. He also informs Ness that he, along with three others, is the one who is destined to save the world. But in order to even confront Giygas Ness will need to travel to eight 'Your Sanctuary' locations, rid them of their evil, and record their melodies in to a Sound Stone given to him by Buzz Buzz – only then can Ness confront Giygas.
The game play of EarthBound is typical of 16-bit role-playing games. The game strongly follows Dragon Quest's game play style (probably because Dragon Quest is extremeley popular in Japan), but Earthbound has enough game play tweaks and new game play inventions of its own to keep it fresh and for it to stand head and shoulders amongst the elite of the role-playing genre.
Firstly EarthBound broke from the mould of nearly all previous 8/16-bit RPG's. With the exception of Phantasy Star, which was set in the future, all RPG's to that point in time exploited Medi-Evil settings and had stories that revolved around sorcery and mythology. EarthBound, on the other hand, chose something completely different. Written by a famous Japanese journalist and TV personality called Shigesato Itoi, EarthBound is set in a stereotypical 1990's style America – the kind of stereotypical America that you'd read about in books and other popular culture. The setting was a welcoming change from the norm.
EarthBound's battle system is one of the best aspects of game play. The battle system itself is in a first-person perspective, identically to Dragon Quest, but the way that battles were encountered was a lot different. EarthBound doesn't have the random encounters that all 8/16-bit RPG's before it had – the enemies could be seen on screen and avoided at your own free will. Sure, you may say that this wasn't anything new because Chrono Trigger utilized this battle encounter feature also, but remember this; EarthBound was released 7 months before Chrono Trigger in Japan – therefore EarthBound was the first RPG of its type not to include randomly encountered battles. And as well as being able to avoid battles, the way you encounter battles is great too. When you enter a battle a swirling pattern appears in the screen and will appear in three different colours - Grey, Green or Red. If you see an enemy, and they see you, and you encounter each other you'll have a normal fight where whoever has the highest speed stat attacks first – these battles are represented by the grey swirl. But, if you encounter an enemy from behind you get to attack first, and these types of battles are represented by the green swirl. And if it's the other way around, and the enemies surprise attack you, the swirl will appear red to tell you that the enemy is going to attack first. This battle encounter system really works well and adds more variety to the formula. EarthBound's battle encounter system has since gone on to be used in other games, such as the games in the Persona franchise and Grandia.
Another great thing about EarthBound's battle encounter system was the addition of the 'Auto Win' function. In a lot of the RPG's of EarthBound's time the players generally had to put up with battling very weak enemies when going back to a place previously visited earlier in the game. What the Auto Win does is, well, exactly what it says. It lets you automatically win battles against enemies that are extremeley weak compared to you, which saves a hell of a lot of time. After playing EarthBound you'll find yourself questioning why the Auto Win feature wasn't in every 16-bit RPG.
Another feature of the battle system that intrigued me was the 'rolling health metre'. When you get attacked your Hit Points roll down slowly, like an odometer. Now, this may not sound like much, but it comes in real handy in boss battles. If you sustain an attack that is fatal to your character you can heal yourself before your HP ticks down to zero – avoiding death. You can also win battles before your HP counts down to zero too. The rolling health metre added a nice twist to the battles and kept then entertaining.
One of the other interesting aspects of EarthBound's game play is that the game lacks an interconnecting world map screen. Other 8/16-bit RPG's such as Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star and Chrono Trigger all include world map screens that act as hubs to connect towns and other locations. EarthBound doesn't do this – the game is just one bit world. Because of this the towns in EarthBound are vastly bigger in size compared to the towns found in other RPG's of the time and the game offered more town based exploration (mostly in the first half of the game).
So, up to now I've established that EarthBound has a solid story and great game play, but the main characters of EarthBound really strike a chord with you. There are 4 main playable characters in Earthbound and each of them plays a pivotal role in your adventure. You've got Ness, of course seen as though he's the primary protagonist, but as well as him you've also got Paula, Jeff and Poo.
Ness himself isn't one of those typical RPG heroes who try to save the world simply because some damsel is in distress. He's a 13 year old boy, and although he is the one chosen to stop Giygas he isn't truly aware of his importance. He's just an average, everyday, kid, who lives in Onett (the first town in Earthbound's setting of Eagleland) with his Mother, Sister Tracey and his pet dog King. But since Ness was a child he's had psychic powers, meaning that he's more then just the average 13 year old boy he's portrayed to be.
Paula is a native of the Eagleland town of Twoson, and she lives with her Mother and Father in their home which also serves as a day care centre (called Polestar Preschool). Paula is quite the celebrity in Twoson because she also possesses psychic abilities. Because she is psychic she can use telepathy, which she does in fact use to contact Ness early in the game.
Jeff is from the town of Winters and he is the son of the famous scientist Dr. Andonuts. He lives in a boarding school until he is one day contacted telepathically by Paula. Jeff isn't psychic like Ness or Paula, but he makes up for this by being extremeley intellectual.
Poo is the fourth character of the game, and he resides from Dalaam – a town in which Poo serves as the Prince. Under the leadership of his Martial Arts teacher Poo is learning the sacred Mu martial art. Poo is portrayed to be quite the ladies man, and is also respected by the men of Dalaam too because of his strength and fearlessness. As well as being an impressive martial artist Poo also possesses psychic powers like Ness and Paula.
One thing you'll realise about the main characters of EarthBound is that, at some point, they all play pivotal roles in the progression of the games story – not one of them are there merely for filler. Also the combination of all four characters in battle is great because they each balance out their own strengths and weaknesses. Jeff, for instance, isn't really that effective in battle at first because of his inability to use PSI (psychic powers), meaning that Ness and Paula will be carrying him at first. But as the game goes on he counter-balances his inability to use PSI by being able to fix broken items for his own use in battle. Paula uses extremeley potent offensive PSI, but to counter this she doesn't have as much Hit Points on average compared to the other three characters. Poo is powerful both offensively and defensively, and learns good offensive and defensive PSI too, but he can only equip certain armour. The 'of Kings' set of armour are really powerful and once you acquire them Poo can become nearly unstoppable. But because the 'of Kings' set of equipments are hard to find (especially the Sword of Kings – good luck finding it without the aide of a walkthrough) his power is balanced out because he can't get super powerful without his best equipment. Then lastly there's Ness who, as is typical of an RPG, is the most balanced character in the game thanks to his superior strength and ability to use both potent offensive and defensive PSI.
If there's one word I can use that best describes EarthBound then that word is definitely quirky. If you play the game for yourselves you'll know exactly what I mean, but I'll try and give you a few examples anyway. EarthBound is an RPG, so naturally the game contains healing items – but EarthBound doesn't have items such as Potions or Ethers. Instead HP healing items are things like Hamburgers or Beef Jerky and magic healing Ethers are replaced by things such as Bottles of Water. You can also further the use of these items too using condiments. Adding ketchup to a Hamburger greatly increases its healing capabilities.
The weapons used my Ness, Paula, Jeff and Poo vary dramatically from the RPG norm as well. Swords, Lances and Staffs are replaced my Baseball Bats, Yo-Yo's and Frying Pans. And on another note, instead of fighting Dragons or other mythical creatures, the enemies in Earthbound range from 'New Age Retro Hippies' and 'Extra Cranky Ladies' to 'Piles of Puke'. The status aliments that afflict characters are weird as well. Characters can contract colds and suffer from the sniffles, and Ness can become homesick – something which can only be cured by talking to his mother either in person or on the phone. These changes to the RPG formula, along with the stereotypical views of America that the game holds, make towards the game being very humours – something that all fans of EarthBound name to be one of the reasons they love the game so much.
But this was all the grand vision that Shigesato Itoi imagined. He wanted players to connect with the game. He chose the main character to be a 13 year old child, who fights with yo-yo's and who gets homesick so players of the same age could connect with him. I mean, take a 13 year old child away from home and they're guaranteed to get homesick after a while aren't they. And given the choice a 13 year old kid would rather eat burgers then other healthier food alternatives, wouldn't they?
EarthBound also makes many references to real-life popular culture. EarthBound is jam-packed full of music that is heavily influenced by artists such as Chuck Berry or The Beatles – most notably a battle song that closely resembles the Chuck Berry song Johnny B. Goode. And the game makes reference to things like the Loch Ness Monster – there's a group of explorers called 'Tessie Spotters' who camp out near a lake looking for the lake monster Tessie. Stonehenge appears in the game too, housing a secret base full of Starmen.
But, despite its quirkiness and childish looks EarthBound also has some extremeley weird moments that completely mess with your mind. The stand out example of this comes in the battle against Giygas. Shigesato Itoi has stated that the battle against Giygas was inspired by a violent film he accidentally saw at his local cinema as a child. In the film Itoi claimed to have witnessed a ''graphic rape scene'' which he states traumatized him slightly and gave him nightmares. He used references from the film and his own nightmares as his influence for the dialogue spoken by Giygas during the battle. Also there're many times when EarthBound breaks the fourth wall. You'll come across a place called Moonside sometime during the game, and it's a place where yes means no and no means yes and the natives talk complete gibberish. Weird moment such as these really make you view the game differently.
EarthBound has been visually maligned by critics and gamers alike since its release. The game is really colourful and represents a really simplistic look – a look that, on the surface, looks like it could have been pulled off with the minimal power of the NES instead of with the advancements in technology of the Super NES. But, personally, I didn't have a problem with the visuals. I'm going to use this word again; the visuals are quirky, which only goes along with the entire trend of the video game.
But alas, I'm no graphics hog – I prefer superb music to superb graphics. Luckily EarthBound delivers this to a tee. The games soundtrack is phenomenal; easily one of the best soundtracks found on the Super NES and more then holds its own against Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger (yes this might be hard to believe, but you better damn believe it)! The music was composed by Hiroshi Kanazu, Keiichi Suzuki, and Hirokazu Tanaka, and because of its popularity in the EarthBound community it has been remixed by fans multiple times down the years.
It's such a shame that EarthBound never reached the commercial success it deserved when it was released in America in 1995. The game offered so much, but nobody risked paying $70 to purchase it. Maybe the game would have fared better if it was developed by Squaresoft, but Ape Incorporated were mere nobodies in the industry. But you've also got to remember that back in 1995 RPG's weren't popular in the west (Final Fantasy VII was years away), which is another major contributing factor to why EarthBound failed commercially. But those who did play it know exactly how good the game is. You don't play EarthBound, its more then a video game it's an experience – it's something you love. It's the ultimate cult video game. If you're a fan of RPG's you have to play it, it's as simple as that.
There's really nothing more I can add.
Review by: James Widdowson