Retro Curation: Earthbound

Man oh man. Earthbound. This game has a very special place in my childhood, and it still has a very special place in my heart today. There were plenty of JRPGs at this point in history on the various consoles of the time, you had Dragon Warrior on the NES, you had Final Fantasy on the NES and SNES, the Genesis had Phantasy Star…But Earthbound was in a league of its own for so many reasons. If you want to take a trip down a very wacky memory lane? It’s time to read on after the jump.

GENRE: JRPG set in the 90s

AVAILABLE ON: Nintendo Switch via Switch Online

Where do I even *BEGIN* with Earthbound? I guess with the usual history lesson.

Earthbound’s name first came about in a Nintendo Power reveal, though it wouldn’t be the SNES version a lot of us know. Shigesato Itoi’s unconventional modern setting NES JRPG known as Mother was advertised under the name Earthbound, but it wouldn’t actually see a release in the states until years after the release of the SNES we’d know as Earthbound. Confused yet? Well, to simplify things, let’s use the official naming scheme: The NES game known as Mother 1 in Japan would eventually come to be known as Earthbound Beginnings in the US, while Mother 2 on the SNES would see a US release as Earthbound. 

The NES Earthbound, AKA Earthbound Beginnings, wouldn’t see a release in the West until a long time after the SNES Earthbound…

Earthbound Beginnings was going to be released on the NES, it had been localized and was entirely ready for production. But by the time said localization was finished, the release of the SNES was just around the corner, and Nintendo decided that the SNES needed priority over what they still considered a niche genre at the time. So Earthbound Beginnings was shelved for years until it finally saw a release on the Virtual Console for Wii U.

Earthbound for the SNES thankfully didn’t suffer this fate. With the success of RPGs on the Super NES with games like Final Fantasy II (Which we know as IV nowadays) selling like hotcakes, Nintendo figured it was the right time to cash in with Mother 2, which would take on the Earthbound name and legacy. This game was advertised heavily in magazines, with an odd “Scratch and sniff” marketing campaign talking about how “This game stinks.” It emphasized the grosser elements of Earthbound like some of its uglier monster designs, the fact some people just can’t hold in their farts, it was…It was a weird advertising campaign. But what really set Earthbound apart from other games at the time was how physically *BIG* its packaging was. Because Earthbound didn’t just come with a manual in the US. It came with the official Nintendo Power strategy guide, which featured a world travel guide as its design motif, which certainly fits the theme of the game. I’ll get into that theme of the game, don’t you worry.

You didn’t just get a manual, you got the entire game guide. And it was a really good one.

So, what makes Earthbound so different, and so special? A lot of things, really, but let’s start with what set it apart so much at the time of its release. With Roleplaying Games having been a Pen and Paper thing before the advent of video game based RPGs, a lot of RPG enthusiasts were used to fantasy settings a-la Dungeons and Dragons. Swords, sorcery, fire breathing winged lizards, that kinda thing. 


This was a completely new kind of setting for RPG players, and man was it good.

Earthbound wasn’t any of that. It uses a modern setting, where instead of swords, you had baseball bats. Magic? Nope, we had psychic powers. Dragons? Replace with alien invaders. Healing potions? Nope, we had Hamburgers. Both Earthbound and EB Beginnings were set in the modern age (at the time) and thus were something completely new and wild for the RPG genre. This alone got a lot of people interested, myself included. A story about a bunch of kids getting psychic powers and saving the world from an alien invasion? 12 year old me thought this was the coolest thing ever!


From left to right: Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo.


Earthbound stars four kids all from different walks of life, joined together by destiny and a prophecy that they would save the world from an evil alien overlord named Giygas. Ness, a baseball loving kid from a small town with the gift of psychic power. Paula, a psychic prodigy and local celebrity in her own small town due to said powers. Jeff, a boarding school student in the far North, expert in the creating, fixing, and using of hi-tech gadgets and explosives. And Poo, crown prince of a far eastern kingdom, and powerful martial artist and psychic in his own right. Funny enough, it’s hard to really classify any of them as typical RPG classes, as each of them has a variety of abilities ranging from attack, healing, and support in their own ways, keeping any of them from being a simple, singular role like a Healer.


It all began with a meteor crashing on the hill near Ness’ house…


The story begins one fateful night when a meteor crashes on a hill not far from protagonist Ness’ house. Ness goes to investigate, but with police swarming the impact site, there’s not much he can do and so he goes back to bed. He’s woken up again though not shortly after in the night by his neighbor and friend Pokey Minch. It turns out his little brother Picky went missing while the two were trying to check out the meteor, and Pokey being the coward he is won’t go looking for him without a human shield-I mean a reliable friend. Upon arriving at the meteor and retrieving Picky, a strange insect like creature emerges from the Meteor and tells Ness of his destiny to save the world from Giygas, along with two other boys and a girl. Giygas has already set plans in motion though, as one of his alien troopers, a StarMan, is quick to try and snuff Ness out! Thankfully with the help of our insect friend BuzzBuzz, the StarMan is unable to cause any harm to Ness and company, and dispatch the StarMan with ease. Unfortunately, Pokey’s mom mistakes BuzzBuzz for a dung beetle and smashes him. Before he dies, BuzzBuzz gives Ness a strange item called the Sound Stone, and tells Ness he must use the stone at several locations called Sanctuaries to call upon the power of Earth itself. As the sun rises, BuzzBuzz’s life fades away, and Ness sets off on his journey while Pokey and Picky are grounded for an indefinite amount of time due to being out so late.


And that’s how your big adventure begins. And what an adventure it is. Set in the fictional country of Eagleland (Which is an approximation of the United States) Ness will travel from town to town on his quest to find the Sanctuaries, as well as his destined allies from the prophecy. And while it may start out in a small suburban town, the adventure increases in scale as you’ll eventually hit a big New York style city, and soon be full on globe-trotting as you cross oceans and explore exotic, far-away lands beyond Eagleland itself, and some places that are best left unspoiled for a first time player.


One of the things that makes Earthbound very different from typical JRPGs at the time is the lack of a traditional World Map or Overworld. Instead, the world of Earthbound is one you explore by going from place to place, with locations interconnected by caverns, highways and tunnels. You won’t be leaving town just to go into a big world map as you walk to the next one. Nope, walking to the next town is literally going from one town to another seamlessly (or through a cave or tunnel as I mentioned) and definitely helps give the world more of a sense of scale, as you aren’t going to a world map every time you travel to a new location.


Another thing that sets Earthbound apart is how enemy encounters are handled. Most RPGs at the time utilized random encounters where enemies would attack you as you walked around dangerous areas. Earthbound instead uses what many call “Symbol Encounters” where your foes are visible characters in the world, same as you, and they begin battle by running into you. This means you often knew when you’d be attacked, and if you got creative, could outright avoid encounters by either using terrain to block enemies, or by scrolling them off the screen to despawn them. Another unique feature tied to this is that who acts first isn’t based on random chance, but instead on the facing directions of yourself and your enemy! Approach an enemy from behind, and you get the first strike. If they approach YOU from behind, they get the first strike. Head on encounters give neither side initiative, and play out based on Speed stats as usual.  Another feature, and fan favorite of this encounter system are Instant Wins. If you run into an enemy and the battle is weighed heavily in your favor, you just win the fight instantly, no battle even occurs! Approaching enemies from behind gives a certain amount of “advantage” for Instant Win checks, while enemy and player levels are also weighed. If you have a small level advantage and attack from behind, it can result in an Instant Win, while head on encounters will require a bigger level difference in your favor for an Instant Win. Being attacked from behind however prevents an Instant Win, even if you’re massively overleveled compared to your foe.


The battle system itself is admittedly a little less original, and is easily compared to Dragon Quest. You give the desired commands to your party (Attack, use PSI powers, use items, defend, flee, etc) and then the order of actions is determined by some RNG and everyone’s speed stats. There is one unique aspect to the battle system however that makes things interesting: Rolling HP. When a hero takes damage, their HP display doesn’t instantly change to its new value, and instead has to actually “count” towards that value, as your HP is displayed in a way similar to a slot machine. What’s the big deal about this? Even if one of your characters takes fatal damage, they don’t actually die until that HP value visibly hits 0, meaning you have a chance to actually negate that impending demise! Winning a battle stops any current change in HP, and healing will also cancel out the rolling loss, meaning that quick thinking and actions on the player’s part can negate fatal damage. Enemies thankfully do *not* have this system in place for them and die the moment their HP hits 0, so this system is entirely in the player’s favor, and is put to significant use even in the early game with some foes that explode for fatal damage to your party, requiring you to kill them last so you win the battle and minimize the damage their explosions inflict. It’s an interesting bit of real time twist to what is primarily a turn based system.


The actual combat is, again, pretty straightforward. Your heroes can attack with equipped weapons, use items to heal themselves or harm the enemy, three of them have access to PSI (The “magic” of the game) and you can also defend against hard hitting attacks, or try to flee if things are looking bad. 


Character progression and development is admittedly one area that Earthbound is a bit simple on, but to be fair, this was the 90s. JRPGs hadn’t really gotten into the character building and customization that RPGs of later decades would do. Stat ups are done by the game as you level up, with RNG determining if you get any particularly nice stat ups that give more than normal, but in the long run everyone will wind up plenty strong as they gain EXP. Special abilities like PSI are learned at pre-set levels, and stats are of course influenced by the gear you pick. Most of the time, it’s just a simple case of “Pick strongest gear available.” Some choices exist such as what weapon types to use, as some weapons can be used by anyone like YoYos, but honestly everyone’s best sticking to their signature weapon types: Baseball Bats for Ness, Frying Pauls for Paula, Guns for Jeff, and uh…Nothing for Poo in most cases as there’s only one weapon that doesn’t *lower* his stats. Poo is very picky about equipment, you see. 


But of course, you need money to gear up, and that’s another thing that’s a bit different in how it’s handled. You don’t earn money directly by defeating enemies. Instead, dear ol Dad (who also acts as your means of saving the game) opens up a bank account for you and deposits money in it regularly. The amount he deposits is based on the enemies you defeat, but you can only confirm how much you earn by either calling him or by going to an ATM to check your bank account. Any money in your bank account is safe from loss, but if you’re carrying any cash on you and meet an untimely end, you’ll lose half of what you’re carrying. This means you’re heavily encouraged to only have money on you while shopping, and deposit it at an ATM to make sure it’s safe otherwise.  Though you’ll usually want to keep a few dollars on hand to make use of payphones, or to buy something while you’re on the road. Thankfully, most major stores have ATMs handy, so it’s rare you’ll have to worry about carrying a lot of money on your person.


So I mentioned phones, and they’re a pretty important part of gameplay too. Rather than traditional save points or a special NPC you talk to like a Priest, Earthbound has you save your progress by using a telephone to call Dad and tell him everything you’ve done on your adventure. While desk phones are free to use and found in a lot of hotels, stores tend to have payphones that cost $1 per call, meaning most of the time you’ll opt to use the free desk phones wherever you can find one. Phones are also used to communicate with other important people, like Mom (who you’ll need to call any time Ness feels homesick, or else he may just not do anything in battle), your sister Tracy who can dispatch couriers to deliver items she’s holding for you, or bring things back for her to hold onto. Much like Dragon Quest, you have limited inventory space, so you’ll often find yourself wanting to have Tracy hold onto extra items you may not need to use immediately so you can have space for things you do need to use. This is admittedly one qualm I have with Earthbound, inventory management can be a pain in the early game, as how many items you can carry is effectively determined by your party size, as each character carries their own set of items, and many key items that are needed for progression and puzzle solving take up space in said inventory. This means you have to balance your important items you may need for progression along with healing items and combat items, so inventory management is a major part of the game, perhaps a bit TOO major in some cases since there’s not only a limit to everyone’s carrying space, but also how many items Tracy can hold onto for you. This means you can’t afford to be a pack rat: You have to actually decide what’s worth holding onto, and what isn’t.


So, let’s talk about the world and what makes it so great. One thing that particularly makes Earthbound shy is the sheer personality of everyone involved, even minor NPCs like townsfolk. Unlike most RPGs where you talk to townspeople purely to learn about game mechanics and get advice, some townsfolk are just…Going about their day and tell you about that when you talk to them. Sometimes it’s rumors, sometimes it’s tips, but everyone has something to say, and sometimes it’s just banter for the sake of banter. Everyone’s charming in their own way, and it honestly makes it worth the trouble of going around and talking to everyone. Even people who won’t let you into their homes and just talk to you through the door: Feel like a sudden trivia question about The Beatles? Knock on a few doors and you might just get one!


Earthbound also does a wonderful job of capturing the look of various modern locales while giving them a JRPG look. From small suburban towns to big metropolitan cities, to egyptian villages, everything just has a very charming, colorful look about it that frankly I don’t think would work at all in any other style for this game. A lot of people talk about wanting to see Earthbound remade, but I honestly don’t see how some of its art-style could translate to a modern HD look, or 3D. I feel like something would just be lost there.


Enemy design is another area the game absolutely excels in. Being an RPG with a modern setting, enemies had to be designed to match it, and the designers behind Itoi absolutely nailed it.  The story explains that a majority of the enemies you fight are victims of Giygas’ evil influence. So rather than slaying most creatures (And people) you come across, you’re more or less beating sense back into them. Defeat a stray dog, and it “becomes tame.” Defeat a crazy hippie, and they “Return to normal.” And yes, those are actual enemy types. You’ve got a wide range of wild animals, crazed citizens, machinery run amok, and of course alien robots and monsters given the whole alien invasion plot. The enemy design just goes with the rest of Earthbound’s incredible world design in terms of giving it a unique look and feel no one else has really been able to match. On top of that, you’ve got the battle backgrounds, which uh…Trippy. That’s a word to describe them! Trippy! Every battle background in Earthbound is a very trippy kind of visual that just gives combat in general an almost surreal vibe.


Earthbound’s battle BGs are unlike anything we’d ever seen, and they still hold up today.


Then you’ve got the music. Earthbound’s soundtrack is a very diverse one, but in a good way. You’ve got upbeat, small town tunes, jazzy concerts, other worldly, alien music for appropriate enemy encounters, there’s a bit of everything in this soundtrack and it’s an absolute joy to listen to. It just has so much to it that it’s another case of not really being able to put it into words, and it’s easier just to hear it for yourself.

Courtesy of Porky Minch’s youtube channel, the Earthbound OST!

I will admit, Earthbound isn’t a perfect game by a longshot. There’s a lot of modern QoL features that would benefit it greatly, like Key Items not taking up inventory space, Tracy having more storage space available for your items, just to name a few. But even with the flaws it has? Earthbound remains special as an RPG that just did things so differently at the time, and has a setting and story that help it stand apart from the rest of the RPG crowd. If you have a Nintendo Switch, this is absolutely a reason by itself to subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online services. It’s an incredible RPG experience that will take you across a fantastic world and let you meet a fascinating cast of characters, and equally fascinating enemies to fight. Its ending still remains one of my favorites in any game, putting one through a pretty wide range of emotions. Its unique encounter system, a battle system that gives you a chance to pull off clutch wins even when things are going bad, and the fascinating world you get to explore all put it very high up on my list of favorite RPGs.


…So Nintendo, how about localizing Mother 3 already?

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