Developer(s) – Ape & HAL Laboratory
Publisher(s) – Nintendo
Director – Shigesato Itoi
Producer(s) – Shigesato Itoi & Satoru Iwata
EarthBound was a game released late in the shelf life of the Super Nintendo. Part of the obscure Nintendo series known as Mother, EarthBound is also known as Mother 2 in Japan. Due to the low sales figures attached to the game in both Japan and America, it never saw a physical release in Europe. Looking back, I wish that I did have this game as part of my childhood, because it is one of the best 16-bit games I’ve played, and it has found it’s way onto my top ten list of 16-bit games that I did two weeks ago as the new number 6 entry.
Graphics – 7/10
At first, the settings and style of the game can seem pretty generic; especially by today’s standards. For example, the first four towns in the game are unimaginatively named Onett, Twoson, Threed and Fourside. But it’s later on in the game with locations such as Yucca Desert and the Cave of the Past, where the game starts to get really good in terms of visual presentation. Not only that, but there is also an extremely diverse enemy roster, including opponents such as nightmares, krakens, giant ants, gang members and a race of extraterrestrials known as Starmen. It’s concepts like these that remind me of how imaginative Nintendo’s personnel are. After his work on games such as this, it was no wonder why Hiroshi Yamauchi chose to hand Nintendo over to the current president Satoru Iwata, who worked on this game. However, I think the biggest fault I could point out about the games graphics is the inconsistency of the designs of the character sprites. A lot of the female characters have differently shaped mouths; presumably to highlight how much make-up they all individually wear. But a lot of them were pretty badly done. For example, Pokey’s mother was given a huge pink smile to seemingly make it look as if she wears more make-up than other women, but to me, it just makes her look like a clown.
Gameplay – 8/10
What I like about EarthBound is that unlike a lot of other turn-based RPGs, it also provides a particularly stern challenge as well as extremely addictive gameplay. It differs from the likes of Final Fantasies VII through X in the fact that players are not able to simply beat up on whatever they please for the most part. As with all turn-based RPGS, the further the player progresses, the tougher the enemies become; but that’s done a lot more effectively in EarthBound. But what the aforementioned Final Fantasy games lack in challenge, I find that they more than make up for in gameplay variety. And whilst EarthBound does indeed have a lot of variety to it, it just doesn’t have as much so. But having said that, this is so far the best 16-bit turn-based RPG I’ve ever played so far. But in the future, I may yet be proven otherwise, as I haven’t properly played through Final Fantasies III, IV, V or VI.
Controls – 10/10
Like South Park: The Stick of Truth for example, before the release of EarthBound, the turn-based RPG genre was very prominent in Japan by the late 80s and early 90s, and then throughout the late 90s everywhere else. By that token, the control formula had been well and truly mastered by developers, and there was never going to be any issues. I also think that EarthBound may have been one of the first games that had ATMs that could be used to withdraw and deposit money. As EarthBound was developed by many of the same people who developed Pokémon (another turn-based RPG), it’s intriguing to know where that particular featured originated from.
Lifespan – 8/10
Overall, EarthBound can be made to last around 30-40 hours, which although that may seem like a fraction of how long many other future games would be made to last, that must have been considered exceptionally long at the time, especially as most gamers in North America, for example, would’ve been more accustomed to playing traditional 2D side scrolling games as opposed to turn-based RPGs. EarthBound was released in the mid 90s, before Final Fantasy VII was released and took the genre into the global mainstream. 30 to 40 hours is also particularly long for a turn-based RPG that virtually has very few side quests compared to other games of its kind. Most of the time is spent on leveling up characters due to the game’s exceptional level of challenge, I find.
Storyline – 9/10
Undoubtedly, this is by some margin the best aspect of this game in many, many ways. Over the years, it has yielded controversy, humour, fan debate and a cult following and to me, is a very important early example of how video games can indeed be considered a viable art form. The story of EarthBound follows a young boy called Ness (a transposition of SNES), who is woken up one night by a meteor, which has fallen not far from his house. He goes to investigate, and he is approached by a fly called Buzz Buzz (unimaginative names are a recurring thing in this game), who warns Ness that he is from a future universe dominated by an entity called Giygas, and that Ness must embark on a quest to defeat Giygas in the present, and thus stop his reign of terror. The story itself is simple enough, but it’s the additional content to be found throughout the course of the game that adds to the story and makes it so excellent and full of substance. The game is rife with cultural jokes and references concerning the western world. For example, a mode of transportation in the game is a yellow submarine, and one of the enemies in the game is a diamond dog. The settings were also heavily influenced by western culture. For example, the town of Fourside was modelled on New York City. Humour is also derived from the breaking of the fourth wall. An example of that is when one of the adult NPCs tells Ness that children like him should be at home playing Nintendo games. But aside from fourth wall humour and numerous cultural references, there are also some very poetic themes to the game, such as motherhood, which is rife throughout the entire franchise, and that of life and death. Debate has also been sparked about the implicit nature of the final boss in the game; Giygas. I think I could probably write an entire essay in regards to that, but I’d like to possibly save that for another week.
Originality – 9/10
This game was destined to stand out among others and age very well in this respect, because EarthBound was developed at a time when stories in video games were virtually in their infancy, and nowhere near as much emphasis was put on it back then as there is now. But what truly differentiates this effort from most other turn-based RPGs out there is the fact that EarthBound is set in pre-apocalyptic modern times, unlike most games of its kind, which are typically set in medieval, post-apocalyptic or steampunk eras.
In summation, Nintendo defied convention in many ways than one with EarthBound, with its unique approach to gameplay challenge, substance in story, clever cultural references and conceptual design. It’s certainly a misunderstood game for how poorly it sold to begin with, and I could not recommend it enough. It’s also unique in that it is the first game on this blog to achieve this high a score.