Earthbound Review

EarthBound_BoxEarthbound (Available exclusively on Wii U’s Virtual Console)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: RPG
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Original Release Date: June 5th, 1995 (SNES)
Virtual Console Release Date: July 18th, 2013.
Download Price: $9.99

Parent Talk: Back in 1995 this game received a K-A (6+) rating by the ESRB, which translates to an E rating today, and yet when the game was re-ranked it earned a T for Teen rating. Bizarre wouldn’t you say? That’s because North Americans are far more sensitive to everything today compared to 18 years ago. The official description stats the game features fantasy violence, mild blood (it does?!?), suggestive themes, and crude humor. This is a Nintendo first-party game, it’s not damaging at all and honestly I played through the game when I was much younger than I am now and I turned out just fine (that’s up for debate).

Plays Like: Back in 1995 Earthbound didn’t play much like anything else on the market. Ok that’s a bit of a stretch.  It plays like a very simple old-school RPG.  There are no classes or attribute points to worry about, it’s a classic turn-based JRPG, except with some major alterations which I’ll get to later.

Review Basis: I finished the game in about 26 hours, and can already say I’ll be returning in another year or so just to experience it all over again.

Earthbound is considered one of the very best role-playing games of the 16-bit era. We’re talking Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and Dragon Quest V and VI territory. This game is viewed by many as a masterpiece, and while this review comes some 18 years after the game was originally released in North America, it’s pretty incredible just how well Earthbound has aged. While not perfect, it’s still easy to get into and all the things that made it so special back then retain their charm.

Let’s get a few things out of the way before we jump on in. Earthbound is actually the second game in the Mother series, as it’s known in Japan. When the game was released in North America is came packed with a Nintendo Power strategy guide and therefore was much pricier than most carts were going for at the time. Nintendo did this because RPGs had yet to really break through to the mainstream audience. It would be a few more years before that happened with Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation back in September 1997. In 1995 however, RPGs were still a niche genre, and most players simply shrugged the game off upon its original release. Fast forward to the post FF VII market and suddenly players were starting to look back to the 16-bit era to get their RPG fix. It was during this time-frame when most people discovered the SNES’ biggest RPG hits.  Thanks to the creation of eBay, these old gems became even more accessible.  People from all over the world could easily snatch up copies of whatever they wanted.  Earthbound became something of a cult hit and because of that complete copies of the game typically sold for hundreds of dollars. As time went on fan-sites would do all they could to convince Nintendo to bring the Mother series to North America. It’s incredible how much work and effort fans have put into this cause over the years.  After falling on deaf ears for over a decade Nintendo finally decided to bring the classic back, via the Wii U’s Virtual Console. Now that you’ve got some context behind you on the legacy of the game, let’s find out how it holds up today, some 18 years after its original release.

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The Great:

The story and setting are by far the absolute best aspect of the game. While we might have a dozen RPGs released a year featuring a modern setting, this was extremely rare back in 1995.  We’re looking at the game today though, so it’s funny because while the core concept is seeing mid-90s America through the lens of a Japanese director, it comes off wonderfully nostalgic. The way people act, talk, dress, to the pop culture references are no longer “today,” but instead give older players a great feeling of nostalgia.

Gameplay mechanics are also unique because of the setting. Players need to visit a hospital in order to cure themselves from physical ailments. They need to get money from an ATM in order to purchase items, and they can use a public pay phone in order to call their dad to save their progress. Little touches like these may be taken for granted today, but they go a long way in helping pull you into the game’s world.

The story is this simple, a meteor crashes and a curious boy wants to go and see what all the fuss is about. Before long he’s swept up in a journey that will have him traverse the globe searching for three teammates before they put an end to a cataclysm that could destroy the very universe!

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The Good:

+ This is the Earthbound you know and love. It hasn’t been altered in any way, shape, or form!

+ Humor is the name of the game. The dialogue will actually have you laughing out loud at times.  The timing and the translation are second to none. I laughed aloud several times during my play-through and I’m extremely mature.

+ Combat system is as fresh and original today as it was back in 1995. While the core combat system is very simple, yes even for 1995, there’s one major difference that changes everything, the health dial. Players health is depicted on a flip dial, so if they’re attacked you’ll see their health slowly dial down. Let’s say you have 10 HP and the enemy hits you for 5, normally your health would simply drop to 5 instantly, but here it would go like this, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, and finally 5. If an enemy were to do 10 damage to Ness, so long as he can heal himself before the dial hits 0, he can continue fighting. Pretty original, wouldn’t you say?

+ Forget about grinding, it’s for the birds! All enemies can be seen on the field. If players are significantly higher level, enemies will run away. If Ness should touch an enemy, instead of being sucked into battle, the screen simply awards an auto win and gives Ness the exp.

+ Battles have three different states. If an enemy attacks Ness head on, it’s a regular battle, if they touch his back, they get one free turn, and if Ness touches the enemy’s back he gets a free turn. When a dungeon boss is defeated all enemies in said dungeon will automatically have their backs turned and in most cases players are awarded the auto win if they engage in combat.  This is one of the major reasons why grinding really isn’t an issue.

+ While Earthbound didn’t have the best graphics on the SNES, they sure have a certain charm to them. The cities and setting are all based on how Shigesato Itoi perceived America. When the game introduces aliens and other creatures it dramatically changes tone and the graphics follow suit. This is one of the most unique and diverse videogames ever made. Trust me, you’ll come to understand why after a few hours of play time.

+ The audio is very catchy, and most of the samples are based on real-world hits from the Beatles, and other mainstream pop bands. This was one of the major reasons players thought Nintendo wouldn’t release the game on the Virtual Console. You will be hard pressed to find a more diverse soundtrack on any SNES game. Seriously, there are so many different styles of music in Earthbound it will make your head spin…in a good way.

+ Steven has said it before, but I’ll say it again, Miiverse and the inclusion of save states make the game far better than it ever was before.  Not only can you save wherever you like, but you can post questions and comments to the rest of the Nintendo community.  It downright rules!  All of the screenshots you see in this review were taken directly from the Miiverse community.

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The So-So:

+/- Old programming bugs that allow you to use extremely powerful items over and over again while in combat. Today these bugs would have been fixed via a patch, but since the game is completely unaltered, the bugs are still intact thereby giving players who know how to exploit said bugs, god-like powers.

+/- PSI attacks and items don’t have dialogue boxes informing players what they do while in combat.  Sure you can check out the details outside of combat, but you better remember everything because in the heat of battle you’re on your own.

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The Bad:

– Weapons and armor are similar in that when you visit a new town and see a new item you’re interesting in upgrading, you have no clue how big of an improvement it really is. The character box flashes to inform you the item is an upgrade, but it would be nice to know if my defense would increase by 1 or 10 if I buy this new accessory for $5,000.  There’s also no way to know what an item does until you actually buy it.

The Ugly:

Having to constantly either write-down, ask on Miiverse, or look-up which healing spells do what, and which edible items you need to restore PSI points. If you play the game non-stop day after day it’s not bad, but if you go a few days without playing you’re never going to remember everything.

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The Lowdown:

Over the past week I have put in exactly 26 hours and 13 minutes into this classic. There’s only really one negative aspect to the game and that’s the dialogue boxes not being there to tell you which spells and items do what at all times.  Everything else is just as good as it was years ago. There’s almost no grinding required because of the unique take on combat; the story, audio visual presentation and setting are just as imaginative and delightful today as they were years ago. Reviewing this game in 2013 I find myself shocked by just how much fun I had with it. In a lot of ways it was more forward thinking than RPGs I’ve played this year.  So what’s my final word?  Go play the game! It’s a masterpiece and a true gem of the genre. It’s unique, wonderful, and epic.

Final Score: 9/10

2 thoughts on “Earthbound Review”

  1. Gonna be trying this soon. A bit scared by the unforgiven difficulty and the old school menus, but well see how it goes.

    1. Menus are ultra simple, not sure what’s scaring you about them. It’s ultra simplistic, SMT is about 10 times more complex and you’re managing there so fear not. This isn’t a big boy game, you’ll be fine. As for the difficulty, I didn’t find it too hard at all to be honest. The only part that is slightly tough is the very opening of the game.

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