The Earthbound series has gained something of a cult classic status among games. On the surface, Beginnings here is another of several Dragon Quest/Warrior clones that started around the late eighties. DQ is one of the longest standing turn based JRPGs, and is the series that is still known for excellence and selling big in Japan (though several have gone nuts over the latest entry; I personally ended up “hate-playing” it to finish the game).
What this means is that the gameplay of Beginnings is pretty dirt simple. You control a young boy in America/Eagleland (depending on continuity and translation) who you get to name yourself (canonically his default name is “Ninten”, short for Nintendo). You move Ninten around on the screen in the usual way, and every so often you encounter a random battle.
You’re represented by text on the bottom, showing level, PP, and exp (I personally really liked having the exp there on the bottom; watching it tick up gave me great joy). the enemy is a sprite atop. You select various moves, the screen flashes, and numbers start moving in accordance to various stats.
To call Beginnings gameplay simple would be a bit of an understatement. It feels incredibly streamlined (particularly for this player, who played this after coming off 60+ hours of Bravely Default 2 (released last year). This is a straight up old school Nintendo game, and it at times really feels like it.
I cannot emphasize enough how very streamlined this game is. Everything is simple: your exp goes up by each fight; stats increase with level ups; and you grow steadily stronger. What’s a little more fascinating is how the game presents itself.
Ninten starts out his journey by beating up lamps around his house (seriously). From there, he gets a kiss from his mom and a journal from his grandfather about mysterious psi powers and how they’re causing problems. You set out for the nearby town of Podunk (the names here are great), where you solve a few problems. After a bit though, the game opens up to nearly become open world. There’s a sort of set path, and I followed a guide to streamline things (for a few reasons). But you’re essentially free to wander around and sort of figure out where to go. NPCs give hints and you get a general idea.
the goal is to collect 8 different melodies to sing to the Queen of Magicant, a world that exists in dreams, illusions, and the mind. They come from all sorts of places: creepy dolls (image above), canaries that lost their chicks, pianos, and singing catci. That’s part of where the fun comes in: they really went creative with where these melodies can be found. Mix that with a few unusual beasties, and the game shows some real creativity.
what doesn’t quite work are some of the mechanics that are mostly a product of the time. There’s random battles, which have been a longstanding complaint. I have never played a game with the battles this frequent though. I literally couldn’t go two steps in some areas without encountering a battle. For some of the earlier levels, this became a battle of attrition; areas are padded because you’re fighting the same enemies ad nausuam.
The balance is off too. I spent a good hour or so just leveling up around Ninten’s house. The first few enemies (stray dogs and crows) were handing my head to me. I got to grow and go further and further, which is to be expected.
What wasn’t to be expected was how the curve took a nose dive toward stupid easy toward the end. After you get the optional fourth party member, battles are almost a joke. Ninten was always overleveled compared to the rest of the party as he’s always there and the game waits way too long before introducing the second (we’re talking something like 5-7 hours), and that char joins at level 1.
Move toward the end of the game, and I was squishing everything. As if that weren’t enough, most of the last few battles are gimmick fights. One involves a giant robot that has to be defeated by your own giant robot (I didn’t say they weren’t fun), while another involves singing until the enemy is dead. It’s definitely unconventional, but it means that the tail end of the game was more a sprint to the finish, as I was just blitzing through everything to see the end.
still, this was the first regular Nintendo game I’ve ever beaten. I only got the chance to play a handful as a kid, with my first real system being a SNES. And in many ways, the originality and quality of Beginnings still stands up to this day. If you’re interested in classic RPGs or the experience and can deal with weird difficulty curves and far too many random battles, this game is definitely worth checking out. It’s not for everybody, but for a few, it’s a good play.
It’s also free on the Nintendo emulator provided by Switch if you have an Online subscription.
7 classic for a reason, but I can’t get over the battle rates or the weird difficulty curve (not to mention the fact that some things would be tricky to figure out without a guide). Probably be a straight 8 or 9 if I were grading it in accordance with its peers though