Square Roots: EarthBound

Nintendo had it wrong, this game doesn’t stink!

By Kyle England. Posted 07/22/2013 10:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

This article was originally published on September 6, 2012, during Issue 118: Out in Space. We’ve brought it forward to celebrate EarthBound’s long-awaited release on the Virtual Console.

EarthBound has been a game I have wanted to play for the longest time. Ever since Ness popped up on Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 64, I dreamed of tracking down his game and playing it. No, an emulator would not do. I wanted the real thing. Unfortunately, though, EarthBound is one of the most expensive video games for SNES you can find nowadays, and the price has only risen higher as the years have passed. But after years of hesitation, I finally decided to join the cult of EarthBound. I threw down a quite sizable sum of cash to get an honest-to-Giygas genuine copy of the game, and it actually felt pretty good once I got over the sticker shock. There it was, my ultimate prize. Peering at me from behind that label was a game that had promised me great adventures. It’s spoken of in reverent tones all across the Internet, but is Shigesato Itoi’s brainchild truly the holy grail of SNES RPGs? After playing EarthBound for the first time, I think I can safely say, yes– yes, it is.

For starters, EarthBound has aged really well, and playing it in 2012 gave me greater enjoyment than any other game this year by far. What exactly makes it so good, though, is really hard to pin down. It’s really just an amazing work as a whole, even though in many respects it honestly doesn’t differentiate itself too much from other RPGs of its day. The exploration and battle system are almost identical to games in the Dragon Quest series sans the world map, and the graphical style is incredibly simple, barely taking advantage of the SNES hardware. The story is relatively straightforward too, and perhaps a little short compared to many other games, but none of that really matters when you get sucked into it, as EarthBound is wildly different from its contemporaries in ways that really stand out. The sprawling quest takes place in an world not too much unlike our own; the enemies range from stray dogs and moles to disgruntled businessmen and animated gas pumps; the typical RPG arsenal of swords and magic is replaced with baseball bats, frying pans, and psychic mind powers; and the dialogue and characters… oh man. That’s the best part.

The characters are so mundane yet delightfully quirky, and they’re incredibly self-aware to the point where the player even wonders if anything should be taken seriously at all. For instance, police block roads and claim to be going for the world record of road-blocking, while a random NPC stands alone in a house complaining about how he only has one line to speak for the entire game. But one that took me by surprise was an innocuous dog on the side of the road in a town. When examined, the dog said “Wow you’re such a nice player, taking the time to talk to animals.” I could just go on and on, and it’s little details like these that make EarthBound so fun to play and such a worthwhile experience.

But even though EarthBound could almost be mistaken for a beefed up NES game, if not for its deeper color palette, it’s in battle where the game really takes advantage of its SNES capabilities. The backgrounds pulse and flicker with a psychedelic flair that’s really interesting (and also sometimes a little creepy), but that’s just speaking to the graphics’ raw processing power. You see, EarthBound embodies that old argument between technical graphics versus an inspired art style and aesthetic. There’s really no fluff in the visuals, as the art style really harkens back to old RPGs while at the same time making a style unique to itself. The game also relies on its pure mechanics and storytelling to keep you interested, not some hook like Blast Processing or Mode-7 Vector Stretching Virtual Reality Simulator Chips. In fact, the style really reminds me of another RPG series that the development team of EarthBound went on to be a part of.

And I could never forget the story! What I said before about the story being rather straightforward is really only a half-truth. It’s a tried-and-tested tale of a group of exceptional children who band together and save the world against all odds with the power of friendship, yet the story pulls really does tug on your heartstrings to really make it poignant. I remember the first time I was in a battle and Ness refused to perform any actions. “Ness thought of home and got sad,” the game would tell me when I wanted to attack. I visited the doctor to cure whatever ailment this was, and the doctor simply told me that Ness was homesick. The cure? Calling home and hearing the voice of Ness’s mother. While EarthBound is indeed a game about rescuing the world from zombies and aliens, it doesn’t forget that its protagonists are still children. Once I reached the halfway point of the story, I looked back and realized just how far I had come. Not just in levels, but in the sheer distance away from home. It made me feel oddly nostalgic, and made me think of my own family. Throughout EarthBound, there is a common theme of leaving home, growing up, and making friends, and it’s very easy for a player to get attached to this world, these characters, and this story. And that ending sequence is simply perfect.

All in all, EarthBound has a certain “je ne sais quoi” that makes it so damn good. It’s one of those games that has a soul. It’s something that’s hard to put into words, but something I am sure all seasoned gamers recognize when they come across a game like this. EarthBound is simply a masterpiece, and it’s as good as it is now as it was over 15 years ago.

Sadly, the chances of the Western world getting it on Virtual Console in the foreseeable future are probably relatively slim— heck, Mother 3 didn’t even get a release outside of Japan at all! It’s a shame, really, because this series is simply sublime, and the barrier of entry to obtain legitimate copies of the games is pretty high. But if you’re rich, you can’t go wrong getting a real cartridge. Everyone else, seek out emulators! EarthBound is the one title I could possibly condone doing this for given it’s so hard to find and it’s never been re-released. In the mean time, though, let’s keep our fingers tightly crossed and our Mr. Saturn plushies at the ready for the time when Nintendo sees the light and gives a Western release of the entire Mother series.

Now, I leave you all with a small sample from EarthBound‘s amazing soundtrack.

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