Earthbound - Reader Retroview  

Somebody Spiked the Punch With Acid
by JuMeSyn

40-50 hours


Rating definitions 

   The Super Nintendo had no difficulty in the RPG department. Discounting the potential classics never translated into English still leaves the system with a good number of very worthwhile RPGs. Only one title on the Super Nintendo dared to merge the RPG and headlines ripped from the National Enquirer, however. But if all Earthbound had done was to create an incredibly weird game, it would have most likely been forgotten – weirdness does not automatically equate to quality (who remembers Panic! on the Sega CD?). Earthbound manages the difficult trick of being odd and frequently quite insane without sacrificing any necessary RPG tenets in the process.

   Earthbound’s aesthetics are the first to clue the RPGamer in to the oddities at hand. Graphics are mostly rather typical Super Nintendo fare – but the things depicted with these graphics are things never seen in any other RPG before or since, save perhaps in Mother 1 and Mother 3. A New Age Retro Hippy will appear in the battle screen, or a Manly Fish and the Manly Fish’s Brother. None of these enemies look quite like any others depicted in another RPG, possibly thanks to their being created from clay blueprints but more thanks to the impossible-to-fully-express odd vibe of this game. Music is alternately incredibly moving and incredibly weird. Some tracks are quite pretty and/or memorable, some tracks are memorable only in the sense that they somehow manage to be weirder than any RPG music ought to be. Sound effects are also an odd lot, with goofy things coming out of the SNES sound system one never expected – just about any battle sound does not quite match the initial expectations in favor of something odder.

Ah, the world as it should be: when paparazzi can photograph you whenever it suits their purposes and not a legal challenge is presented! Ah, the world as it should be: when paparazzi can photograph you whenever it suits their purposes and not a legal challenge is presented!

   Earthbound’s story is a mix of the RPG cliché and the surreal. Ness, the protagonist, is awakened in the middle of the night by a meteor falling near his hometown of Onett. He meets up with an insect-like being named Buzz Buzz upon investigation, and Buzz Buzz assigns Ness the task of stopping the evil Giygas from destroying the world. Ness’s journey will take him to the Happy Happy cult, dedicated to painting the whole world blue; to Threed, a city overrun with zombies that can helpfully be dealt with by pinning them down via zombie paper; to a compatriot named Jeff who must reach Ness with the help of a monkey and Tessie the loch ness monster; to fight the evil monster known as Belch; and far more. Along the way Ness must collect the 8 melodies of the earth to combat Giygas, and these 8 melodies are guarded by quite nasty beasts.

   Earthbound’s battles proceed according to RPG convention in some regards; the party members cannot be seen during battle, enemies do not visibly move, magic in the form of PSI powers can be used. Battles are not random, however; enemies are visible on the screen. These enemies can hit the player by surprise or vice versa, though most battles will probably take place without an advantage on either side. And should the player vastly overpower the enemy, battle will be unnecessary; victory comes instantly. In battle itself all normality with regard to backgrounds is eschewed in favor of moving colors and shapes that evoke a lava lamp – groovy. There is one significant innovation in Earthbound’s battle system; damage is not inflicted as one immediate total but quickly counts down on a character’s battle display. A mortal blow may be struck by an adversary but if the player can move quickly enough healing can be delivered before a character actually falls. Alternately, if the player is on the cusp of victory the last enemy can quickly be struck down and with the battle’s end the damage will stop accumulating.

   Earthbound’s menus are sadly riddled with one annoying aspect, and it is the severe limit on items that can be held per character. Each of the eventual 4 characters can hold 12 items, including those that are equipped. There is a way to store other items (in a typically bizarre fashion) but in certain areas of the game Escargot Express cannot be reached. Particularly when numerous desirable items have been accumulated the player will feel most aggravated at the limitations. Other than this significant detrimental quality, Earthbound’s interaction is perfectly workable. Shops work well, battle moves smoothly, item equipping ends up efficient.

Sesame Street conceals just how much work is required every morning to get Oscar ready for the cameras. Sesame Street conceals just how much work is required every morning to get Oscar ready for the cameras.

   The bizarre exterior conceals a sometimes-painful truth about Earthbound; the game packs a punch. From early in the game to the end, bosses are quite capable of destroying the player’s party with one unlucky move. Regular enemies are no slouches either, and later encounters with incredibly powerful self-destructing foes require careful planning to ensure that the explosion does not wipe out the party. Many regular enemies, especially later in the game, use very powerful magic that is also capable of destroying the player in an inattentive moment. Earthbound is not insanely hard but at no point can the player rest on his or her laurels, contentedly certain that enemies pose no threat.

   Replay value is lacking with Earthbound. Aside from looking around for more places to be photographed there are no side quests. No optional areas to explore. This may be for the best, however, as Earthbound is a rather lengthy title and optional areas would only expand the time that can be expended.

   Earthbound’s stubborn refusal to adhere to the stereotypical RPG experience makes for one of the most memorable experiences in the annals of RPGs. To a humorless RPGamer the game may not seem so impressive, and nitpickers will have a field day picking holes in the far-from-airtight story. As one of the most unique titles in existence it deserves at least a look. After all, in what other RPG can one fight Unassuming Local Guys who deserve it?

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