In light of last week’s abrupt re-release, I thought I’d dust off EarthBound a bit for the uninitiated. Released in 1995 here in the US, EarthBound is actually the second game in the series Mother (as it’s called in Japan) and is the passion-project of Shigesato Itoi and Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. Itoi is madly famous in Japan for a variety of things, ranging from writing to videogame development to his daily blog (you might have even seen him as a judge on the original Japanese Iron Chef TV series). EarthBound‘s pedigree of creators is right up there with classic titles like Chrono Trigger. HAL Laboratory, Ape, and Nintendo united to bring a real masterpiece to the table, but unfortunately it would take many years before the game could truly be appreciated.
So, What is EarthBound?
EarthBound is a very non-traditional RPG. The game revolves around the character Ness and his adventure to end the threat of the alien Giygas. Ness must locate eight hidden “sanctuaries” in order to merge his power with that of the Earth’s and use it to defeat Giygas before it can enslave the universe. The battle system features turn-based action, but with a twist on the typical trappings. Like some very old-school dungeon crawlers, the battle screen features a static image of your enemy and simple menus displaying your various attacks; your party does not actually appear onscreen. The twist comes in the form ofEarthBound’s “odometer” health counter. Your HP ticks down as you take damage, but it is possible to stop the progression with healing magic/items or the defeat of your enemy before the meter hits zero. Thus, an element of “speed” is present during battles that adds a different factor to consider when planning your attack.
Speaking of attacking, the game is famous for its refusal to conform to traditional RPG conventions. No swords or lances, no potions, but instead baseball bats and yo-yos, hamburgers and fries. Along with its semi-surreal depiction of American culture,EarthBound uses food and items synonymous with what you’d find in a typical suburb, not a castle. The game also lampoons RPG currency using a variation of the typical father-son allowance arrangement, with Ness’s dad depositing cash into a checking account as battles are won. The developers did a great job of finding mundane analogues for shops (drugstores) and inns (hotels) in order to make them fit the world of EarthBound. Think being poisoned sucks? Wait until you have to deal with being homesick!
As far as the structuring of the environment, EarthBound has an interesting interconnected overworld, where the player is able to seamlessly travel between towns as though it were a true, open world. Populating this landscape is a plethora of oddball characters that you will probably never forget. I touched on this a little above, but what is intrinsic to the EarthBoundexperience is the developers’ quirky humor and depiction of what appears to be American culture. There’s a wealth of social commentary in this game that gives a fascinating look into how the Japanese might interpret what our culture is like, at least as a parody or exaggeration. From police officers whose sole purpose are to put up roadblocks, to books about the necessity of having ATM machines in drugstores to facilitate convenience, the game casts us in an interesting light (one I find pretty spot-on, in many ways).
Helping channel the unique spirit of this game is its stunning visual style. In 1995, the world had already been spoiled by Donkey Kong Country, causing many at the time to criticize the game’s graphics as being “ugly”. While today we’re becoming more accustomed to game journalists embracing the diversity of videogame art direction, the mid-nineties was a much less receptive era, where everyone simply wanted bigger and better. There’s an illustrator-like quality to the game’s visuals, crafted by the use of thin outlines and oblique projection to present Ness’s world. I’d be remiss in not pointing out the amazing soundtrack. The variety is mind-boggling, ranging from simple, catchy melodies to haunting, stirring ambient pieces. EarthBound’s presentation was a good 15 years ahead of the curve, boldly choosing a deliberate look and sound that didn’t care about anything other than furthering the vision of its creators.
So what went wrong? A number of things. I believe EarthBound simply showed up at the wrong moment. For one, it was expensive for its time, coming in with a higher price due to its extras and the cost of production/localization. Graphically, it felt “inferior” to what was being put out on the market at the time, which put-off some players. Others simply couldn’t get into the semi-psychedelic feel of the game. As much as I love this title, I will openly admit that it’s a bit… weird. Eerie, even. At times, there’s something subtly discomforting about the look and feel of the game and its NPCs, yet palpable enough to be polarizing. That sounds totally negative, and I don’t mean it to be. What I’m saying is that EarthBound relishes in its weirdness at times, and you will either love or hate that about the game. I think it’s also worth noting the translation, as it plays a big part in how the game is perceived. There are moments where you can just tell that the writers weren’t totally sure how to convert the original Japanese sentiment into English as well as they might have liked. I’m of the opinion that this adds a certain charm to the game that makes it special, but others might disagree. Ultimately, there are a number of things that hampered the game’s success, but I believe we’ve reached a point where we can put all that behind us.
With the game finally out, take it upon yourself to download a copy on the Wii U. Give the game the shot it deserved back in 1995, and maybe we can get Nintendo to localize the GBA version of Mother 1, along with Mother 3, and heck… maybe even release that English translation of the NES version that never saw the light of day!
EarthBound is available on the SNES and via download from the Wii U eShop. Released 1995. Developed by HAL Laboratory, APE, and Nintendo. Published by Nintendo.