Earthbound is a cult classic for a reason. What will be last week at the time of posting this review (but for me is a few hours ago as I’m writing these back to back), I wrote on Earthbound: Beginnings, also known as Mother in its home country of Japan. the game we get first is this one: the SNES game Earthbound.
In many ways, the NES game was a rough draft for this one. Here you play as average Eagleland boy Ness (copying the old slang for the Nintendo, which I admittedly just figured out), a boy who has always had some psychic powers. A meteor lands outside of his house in Onett, and he ventures out to check out what’s going on. When he goes back later that same night to fetch a neighbor’s younger brother, he finds himself embroiled in an intergalactic fight against an alien force from the future/past/another dimension known as Giygas.
He will gather allies in the forms of Paula, a sweet girl from Twoson; Jeff, a shy genius from the north country of Winters; and Poo, noble prince of Dalaam, who has trained for this moment. They will venture first throughout the rest of Eagleland (Onett, Twoson, Threed, and Fourside), before going out into the wide world to fight against the alien force.
This starts essentially the same as its predecessor and operates in much the same way. You control Ness, who moves around the screen according to your will (you do take over as Jeff for a short segment and Poo for an even shorter one). This time the enemies appear on the map. If you approach them dead or from essentially the side, the turn based battle starts as normal. If they catch you from behind, they have advantage. If you catch them from behind, you have advantage.
This doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary now, but that’s because game after game has essentially copied Earthbound’s notes. I can’t say with absolute certainty that this is the first game to have enemies on the map or other quality of life improvements, but it definitely popularized it.
There are other fun additions too. If you’re strong enough to absolutely steamroll the enemy, the battle will end instantly in your favor. This can really streamline the process, and there’s a few areas where it makes grinding so much easier.
The enemies are the same kooky stuff from the previous game. You’ll fight hippies, police, possessed stop signs, runaway taxis, and all sorts of just absolute craziness. It comes off as incredibly fun and imaginative for the most part.
The overarching story has some fun beats too. Frequently the game doesn’t take itself entirely seriously (again, like its predecessor), dropping in fun little bits of humor to the world. For example, there’s a guy in a hotel who gives you $50 if you bother him enough, in order for you to go away and leave him alone. People comment on the fact that you’re a kid, but they still take your money.
This really captures the feeling of heading out as a kid. In some ways you almost wonder if they aren’t playing pretend, as they use toys and bats and frying pans to fight off aliens and quirky monsters.
it works great, with everything feeling pretty fresh. Some of the moves are pretty cliche, but others involve throwing dirty socks at the enemy, or shooting bottle rockets (Jeff’s standard weapon), or using PSI Favorite Thing (I picked Rockin’) to shower the enemy with psychodelics.
The problem is that the story slides into cliche after a bit. For the first part, you battle throw towns that harken to America of the late 80’s/early 90’s. You battle hippies and gang members, then the cult of Happy Happyism (that utilizes blue and paints everything that color). You break the jazz/soul band Runaway Five out of debt and hop on their bus, using music to fend off ghosts.
Then around the time poor Poo shows up, the game starts to drag. You finish out the trippy area of Moonside (a reverse of Fourside done in Neon that feels like your characters just dropped acid), and then go to… Summers, a hyper traditional beach area.
Then Dalaam, a rip off of strange Asian customs.
the Scaraba, a desert area with people in turbans and pyramids…
The areas become more and more something we’ve seen before. There’s just blase dungeons with regular monsters that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dragon Quest game. You actually have to go through a palace in the sky and a freakin’ volcano area. Where was the land of milk or the factory where puke is made?
The fun sort of drips away as the story ramps up. it sort of works, but it makes the last few hours of the game something of a slog. I blitzed them, not because they were easy, but because I was growing bored starting at Poo joining. There are a few fun moments: seeking out the alien base under Stonehedge and venturing through Dungeon Man, the thrilling combination of dungeon and man, but the game just becomes a traditional slog.
And excepting a few enemies that felt broken (f**k you Ultimate Starman), the battles became pretty easy. And that was before Ness returns to the trippy internal world of Magicant (filled with references to the first game!) and gets a massive power up to become an absolute monster on the field.
I remembered this game from when I was a kid and was thrilled when it got announced during the February Nintendo Direct. I was in the middle of Bravely Default 2, so I wanted to finish the game I had outright bought first, but I knew I’d be delving into this and its prequel. I remembered fondly the first few areas, right up to Fourside. I remembered the fun twists on the JRPG formula, the quirky areas where you trade items with talking monkeys or search for a contact lens in the desert or journey through a trippy alternate world.
I didn’t remember what happened outside of Fourside. Looking back on this recent playthrough, I kind of see why. The game becomes decidedly less interesting and unique, save for a fun twist on the final area. Mix that with characters that are less characters and more just blank vessels to take adventuring, and those last few hours just dragged. I was making time and working to finish as much as I was enjoying myself, and that’s never good.
It’s still a classic. There’s a reason so many modern games emulate Earthbound, from the darling Undertale (and Deltarune) to Eastward and beyond. But it also has a few flaws, and feels like it ran out of ideas two thirds of the way through. It’s good, it’s a classic, it’s worth playing and replaying (I’ll go back to this one before its prequel), but it’s definitely got its flaws.
8 mostly for that last chunk; it would probably land in the 9 or even higher otherwise