EarthBound is probably in the top three most talked about retro video games on popular internet game message board NeoGAF. So what is it that makes EarthBound so special? Well, after a couple times playing the game never making it out of the first town, I decided to try to figure that out. What is my conclusion? The game has charm. EarthBound is an RPG set in a different time and place than most all other RPGs with a lot of personality in it’s characters with satisfying but challenging combat.
What makes EarthBound unique among RPGs is it’s setting. EarthBound takes place in a 90’s take on America. There are game arcades, pay phones, hospitals, and ATM machines, among other modern conveniences. Still to this day, quaint suburban American towns aren’t a common setting for the latest AAA titles. What makes EarthBound fun and funny are the people you meet. For example, you have a neighbor who dug an underground cave through the floor of his house looking for treasure. The doctor at the hospital, after curing you of your ailment says “Look at what a great doctor I am!” There’s a cult in the game, obsessed with the color blue, that chants “Blue blue”, except one of the followers says “Green green”, only to immediately say “Sorry! I’m new to this”. The writing is very simplistic but these sort of silly characters and jokes give EarthBound it’s personality.
The game starts with a meteor that crashes outside your house. When you approach the meteor, a bee that was carried by it comes to you saying it’s from ten years in the future to tell you you must stop the alien invasion. To do so, you must collect melodies in a sound stone at eight sanctuaries throughout the world. After a fight with the aliens where the bee really gives the aliens a whooping, the bee dies when your next door neighbor swats it (go figure). As you progress through the game, you see that the aliens have turned people, animals, plants and objects into your enemies.
Combat revolves around facing these alien-possessed enemies and taming them, turning them back to normal, or destroying them completely. The combat takes place in the first person, with your health and magic meter on the bottom. The combat is turn-based, and you can choose to do the usual stuff in combat, like attack, defend, use an item, or use magic. Combat, in a word, is grindy. Enemies can do a heck of a lot of damage to you when you first encounter them. Don’t be surprised if you have to do a lot of combat over again because you’ve lost all your HP to a tricky foe. You’ll soon realize that the best approach is to do a little fighting, then going back to the nearest hotel to heal up, then go back to the area where you just were and progress a little farther. I didn’t mind this, as grinding is actually one of my favorite things about RPGs, but for some, this may be a nuisance.
As long as you put the time in to grind levels, boss fights shouldn’t be a challenge. Unlike many JRPGs, you see your enemy before you fight them. If you’re high level enough — usually after beating a boss — enemies will run away from you. If an enemy isn’t facing you and you enter combat, you get the first round of attacks. If you’re so high level that you’re practically guaranteed to win, you don’t enter into the combat view at all. The prompt in the game just says “YOU WIN” and tells you the experience points you received. All told, the combat isn’t the most robust of any RPG out there, but it’s serviceable, and you get that same satisfaction when you level up enough to beat foes in a given area with ease.
The music like the game itself can be quirky. But at the same time, there are some genuinely great tracks in the game. The game features a band, the Runaway Five, which is almost without question, a Blues Brothers tribute. There’s also at least one mention of The Beatles in the game. When you’re playing a game from the 16 bit era, graphics only go so far to set an atmosphere. The music is generally light and airy, and fills in the rest of the game’s atmosphere pretty well.
EarthBound is long. I must have played for 35 hours. Truth be told, it sort of slogs at the end, with your characters frequently revisiting towns to pick up some doohickey or to fight a boss. At the same time, I found the very end of the game to be endearing. Ultimately, I think the game could have trimmed a lot of fat, with more of an emphasis on just getting the eight melodies for your sound stone and facing the final boss. This is my biggest complaint about the game. You’re too often doing stuff that’s more like a side mission than something critical to the game’s story.
Finally though, now I think I get EarthBound. I understand why it’s fanbase is so fervent. It’s modern day setting sets it apart from other RPGs of it’s time, even leading into the 32 bit era. Also, the game has a great sense of humor that’s been translated well into English. Really, there’s nothing else quite like it. Personally though, I feel no drive to play the game again. I’m mostly just happy that it’s cleared from my backlog. There’s always the fan translated Mother 3, but I think I’ll try less atypical video games next.