1995 was the heyday of Super Nintendo. Games had been around long enough that developers were starting to get good at making them. Role-playing games, in particular, were putting out some fine showings on the system, including Chrono Trigger, possibly one of the greatest RPGs ever made. While that game was dubbed an Instant Classic upon release and heralded as one of The Best Super Nintendo Games Ever, another 1995 release fell way, way under the radar. It came in a giant Super Nintendo box, to accommodate its included strategy guide. It had graphics that, to be blunt, didn’t seem much better than an old NES game. It had an advertising campaign that relied on fart jokes and nasty-smelling scratch-n-sniff magazine ads that declared “This game stinks!”
It was Earthbound, and it is one of the best RPGs of all time.
It tells the story of Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, four friends (some of whom have psychic powers!) who must join together to defeat the evil Gigyas, a being so powerful he’s able to conquer the world from well into the future. Using slingshots, baseball bats, and pop guns, along with the aforementioned psychic powers, you’ll guide Ness every step of the way as he collects eight melodies from various psychically linked places around the world. You’ll travel to small American towns and big American cities. You’ll fight zombies and stray dogs and New Age Retro Hippies. And, naturally, you’ll conquer all with the power of friendship.
To be frank, the odds were stacked against Earthbound from the beginning, at least in the U.S. See, the game we know as Earthbound is called Mother 2 in Japan, and it was created by a famous Japanese writer named Shigesato Itoi. He had some real street cred in his home country, which bolstered his game and made it very popular. In America, approximately zero people had heard of him. Instead, the game had to stand on its own first impression.
Earthbound did not make a good first impression.
At the time, graphics were getting better and better. The recently released Chrono Trigger had shown what an RPG could look like at the end of the Super Nintendo’s life. Colorful, detailed backgrounds, gorgeous enemy sprites, cool special effects. Contrast that with Earthbound, which went for an old-school aesthetic before it was cool (or before it was even particularly old). Its battles, far from Chrono Trigger’s on-screen fights or even Final Fantasy VI’s faux-hand-painted battle screens, took inspiration from classic Dragon Quest — a first-person perspective with no solid background to speak of, just swirling, mad colors. Its story was bizarre and did not take itself too seriously. You were on a quest to save the world, like in every other RPG, but you were constantly reminded you were playing a video game, whether through the deus ex machina delivery of an item you needed to progress right when you needed it or literally by characters you speak to. Your dad calling your cell phone to remind you you’ve been playing too long, or the spirit of the game developer taking over the body of an in-game dog to give you a hint, for example.
If Earthbound were made as an indie game today, it would have been a massive hit. Earthbound was both ahead of and behind the times.
Nowadays, that old-school colorful aesthetic is well loved. Simple line drawings and cutesy characters are all the rage in the indie space. The music is great, and the many, many battle themes are catchy and weird as all heck. The sense of humor on display is second to none, especially for its time, helped along by a localization that, while not perfect, is better than a lot of its contemporaries.
The only place where Earthbound doesn’t feel modern is its battle system, and specifically in its difficulty. This is a grind-heavy game, for sure. Even well-leveled players might find themselves randomly destroyed by random trash mobs inside dungeons. The effects of various psychic powers are inscrutable in battle, with their powers only spelled out explicitly in menus inaccessible within battle; so, while you might have the perfect power for the task at hand, you might not know it. Status effects, a pain in any RPG, are even more awful here, with some that have no cure outside of visiting a hospital (the mushroom effect, for example, can only be cured by the healer sitting in the waiting room of each hospital; while the fact that it messes up your controls on the overworld is a minor annoyance, what’s worse is when it causes you to randomly attack your own party).
Still, gripes aside, Earthbound is a funny, charming, delightful RPG experience. In recent years, its gotten a lot of positive attention, attention it deserved back in the 90s, but hey, better late than never.
It had one sequel, only released in Japan: Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance. Each year, I watch Nintendo’s E3 press conference in the hopes that they’ll finally, finally translate it as Earthbound 2 and release it in the U.S. Each year, I am disappointed.
Nevertheless, Earthbound is worth tracking down. While it’s prohibitively expensive in its original form (the cart I bought on eBay was around $150, which is not uncommon), there are other ways to play it. If you have a New Nintendo 3DS or Wii U, you can grab it on the virtual console. And if you were lucky enough to snag the Super NES Classic when it was around, Earthbound is immortalized there, as well.
Here’s hoping the renewed interest will lead to more Earthbound for us in the future.