James’s Essential JRPGs – EarthBound

Developer: Ape Incorporated and HAL Laboratory
Publisher: Nintendo
Format: Super Nintendo Entertainment System

For many years Nintendo seemed to care little about EarthBound fans in the west. Originally released for the Super Nintendo in North America in 1995, EarthBound was a quirky RPG set in a stereotypical Japanese view of 1950s USA that was critically maligned by gaming journalists in the west and was overlooked by the majority of SNES owners. EarthBound is actually the second game in its franchise, a franchise which goes by the name Mother in Japan. The original Mother was released for the Famicom in 1989 and was critically and commercially successful in its homeland. Nintendo planned to release Mother in North America, and the game was fully translated by Phil Sandhop in 1990, but it was delayed and eventually cancelled altogether. Although no reason was ever given, many consider the imminent release of the Super Nintendo to be the contributing factor.

Mother was such a huge success in Japan a sequel was green-lit almost immediately, but the development of Mother 2, aka EarthBound, was anything but straight forward. The series is the brainchild of Shigesato Itoi, a famous essayist and TV personality in Japan. He has a personal online blog which he updates almost daily that is very popular and he often appears on Japanese television. He was even a judge on the popular show, Iron Chef, multiple times. He is a fan of video games, and in the late 80s, he approached Shigeru Miyamoto with an idea for a game, which evolved into Mother. His fame and popularity are partly why Mother was so widely loved by the Japanese public. His aim was to create an RPG that transcended the genre and broke free from many of the tropes. This is why it was set in a 1950s America as opposed to the typical fantasy setting of most RPGs of the era. It’s also the reason why the main characters are children, who use baseball bats, slingshots and frying pans as weapons as opposed to swords, lances and maces. He also wanted the game to have a title that sounded the least game-like and chose Mother after the John Lennon song of the same name. His other goal was to make the game appeal to women and girls. Itoi’s witty and unique writing style made the game feel much more grounded and relatable compared to other games in the genre.

EarthBound languished in development hell, and Itoi has stated in the years since he almost pulled the plug on several occasions. The game was developed by Ape Incorporated, and the studio was very inexperienced. Ape spent four long, difficult years developing Mother 2, yet the game was only around 30% complete by late 1993 when it was originally due for release. It was around this time that Satoru Iwata and HAL Laboratory stepped it. HAL was tasked with helping Ape finish the game, and when Iwata, who was a programming genius, saw what was done he said it would take at least another year to fill in the gaps in the code and actually finish the game. His suggestion was to re-program the game from scratch, and in doing so he claimed he could finish the game in only six months. He did just that. The experience of HAL Laboratory helped Ape refocus, and the game launched in Japan in August 1994 to even greater acclaim than its predecessor.

Because the SNES was still going to be around for a while Nintendo didn’t abandon its plans to release EarthBound outside Japan. Like many SNES RPGs, it was never released in Europe, but Nintendo was determined to make it a success in North America. Nintendo of America spent millions promoting the game in magazines and on television, and the company even included an entire strategy guide with each copy of the game, packaged in an oversized box. This was an idea that was leftover from the plan to localise the original Mother, as that was going to include an 80-page guide and two posters. Many NES role-playing games received a similar treatment in North America, so it would have been in line with how other RPGs at the time were packaged in the region.

The stage was all set of EarthBound to become another huge hit for Nintendo, but unfortunately, it was a disaster. The game sold only 140,000 copies, less than half the amount it sold in Japan, and it cost Nintendo a lot of money. People have theorised why it was such a dud. Some claim the high $80 price tag scared off customers, while others criticise Nintendo’s strange advertising campaign. In truth, it was probably neither of these reasons. You have to remember that when EarthBound was launched the RPG had yet to capture the imagination of the American consumer. Chrono Trigger was still a few months from release, and Final Fantasy VII was years away. The mainstream just wasn’t interested in long, text-heavy role-playing games, and EarthBound suffered like many other games.

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Ness exploring Onett, the first town in the game. EarthBound is a very colourful and charming RPG.

EarthBound takes place in Eagleland. The story follows a group of four children, lead by the thirteen-year-old Ness, who possesses strong psychic abilities. At the game’s beginning, Ness is awoken by his neighbour Pokey (Porky in the Japanese version) after a meteor crashes near their homes, and upon exploring the crash site Ness encounters an extra-terrestrial talking bee called Buzz Buzz, who informs Ness that he is the one destined to stop the malevolent Giygas from taking over the world. Buzz Buzz is from ten years in the future, and he came back in time in an effort to help thwart Giygas before he is fully reawakened. Upon accepting his destiny Ness leaves home to explore Eagleland, encountering many friends and foes along the way and forming bonds with three other children, Paula, Jeff and Poo, who all form the main cast of characters.

While the plot sounds rather typical of the genre, it’s actually the little details which make the journey so enjoyable. EarthBound doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it smashes right through it, playing with you in ways other video games never had before or since. Each little moment, no matter how insignificant it may appear, has been expertly crafted to have some sort of effect on your mind. Some of the favourite moments for fans are the tea break moments, which occur several times throughout the adventure. The group stops for a cup of tea, which acts as a way to literally ‘catch up’ on the story as the game cuts away and text starts scrolling, reminding the player about what you have achieved so far. These moments are quite poignant. The game also has tons of western pop culture references, like the appearance of a yellow submarine and an enemy called the Diamond Dog, both references to British music, or even a group of musicians that very much resemble the Blues Brothers. Their appearance in the English version was even slightly altered during localisation in fear of legal action from Universal Pictures. References such as these are scattered throughout the game and they are always welcome.

By the time you reach the end you will feel like you’re leaving behind old friends, and you’ll simply not want it to end. The characters you meet throughout the adventure are all charming, and the writing is so consistently excellent you’ll find yourself going through a wide range of emotions. Shigesato Itoi has a rather unorthodox writing style. He likes his games to have a conversational feel and he wants the player to display a wide range of emotions while playing, and the English localisation team did an excellent job of translating his signature style. EarthBound succeeds with its narrative in ways that make the rather simplistic nature of it seem superfluous. At the end of the day, it is a coming of age story. The main cast of characters, despite being children, all mature and evolve as the game progresses, and they become stronger personalities as a result. There may be games with grander stories, and games with larger budgets and higher production values, but few have the heart of EarthBound. This was a real labour of love, you can tell the amount of passion Shigesato Itoi had for the project. It oozes from every orifice, and after playing EarthBound you’ll find yourself re-assessing how you view video game storytelling.

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The ‘tea breaks’ are some of the most well-remembered moments by fans.

Mechanically the game is similar to Dragon Quest, with battles being first-person affairs and only enemies visible on the screen. But it made several innovations to the genre, one of which is commonly attributed to Chrono Trigger. The enemies you encounter are plentiful and varied, with some of them being crazy. Giygas has the power to take control of virtually everything, so you will find yourself fighting anything from old women to rabid dogs, piles of vomit and possessed pieces of artwork. Battles take place in front of funky psychedelic backgrounds and they can be quite challenging if unprepared.

Unlike all turn-based JRPGs at the time, EarthBound got rid of random encounters and enemies could be seen on screen and avoided at will. Yes, this feature that is always credited to Chrono Trigger appeared in EarthBound a year before. It’s one of the key reasons why EarthBound was ahead of the curve. The feature also appeared in Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals by Neverland before Chrono Trigger. That’s not to say I’m trying to take anything away from Square’s undeniable masterpiece, but it’s noteworthy.

Upon contact with an enemy a battle ensues, but different scenarios play out depending on exactly how you come in contact with the enemy. If the character and enemy both make contact while facing one another a regular battle takes place, represented by a grey swirl animation. During a regular battle the character or enemy with the highest speed stat attacks first. If, however, you make contact with an enemy from behind you will gain the initiative, represented by a green swirl, and you’ll get a free turn. Alternatively, the enemy can get the jump on you, which will cause a red swirl. This system always keeps things interesting and helps to keep you on your toes. Towards the end of the game, enemies can be brutal, so you really don’t want to get caught off guard.

One of the more interesting aspects of the battle system is the rolling health meter. Usually in an RPG when one of your characters takes damage it just subtracts the amount of damage from their hit points. EarthBound has an interesting take on this. When hit by an attack a characters HP rolls down, much like an odometer. While this doesn’t seem particularly interesting you can use this to your advantage. If a character gets hit by a fatal attack it still takes time before their HP rolls to zero, meaning you can save them by healing before it does. You can also avoid their death by bringing the battle to an end before their HP hits zero. You’ll find yourself taking advantage of this feature quite a lot during some of the tougher battles

EarthBound also puts a twist on the typical RPG norm of status changes. When playing an RPG you expect that your characters will go through a lot of status changes. You know at some point they’ll get poisoned, or petrified, or put to sleep. But have you ever heard of a character suffering from homesickness? Well in EarthBound Ness, and only Ness can suffer from homesickness, which can cause him to skip his turn in battle because he’s too busy daydreaming of home. Usually when a character has a status effect you have to take them to the nearest hospital and have them cured, but the only thing that can cure Ness’s homesickness is the warm voice of his mother, so you either have to go to a payphone and call her or go home and visit her. It’s weird to get used to at first, but in reality, if you took a 13-year-old child and sent them on an adventure they’ll probably get homesick also, so it grounds Ness in reality and makes him a more believable character. Other weird status effects include the sniffles, which causes a character to suffer continual damage until cured; crying uncontrollably, which causes physical attacks to miss; and being mushroomed, which makes the character uncontrollably attack their own allies. Been mushroomed also causes the player to temporarily lose control of the character outside of battle as the controls get flipped on the d-pad.

EarthBound has one of the best features used by hardly any other RPG. The insta-win. Some games allow you to instantly win a battle if your levels are considerably higher than the enemy, but EarthBound was to my knowledge the first game that made use of this feature, and it still grants you the experience points that a lot of other RPGs with insta-win don’t. Whether you get an insta-win or not is dependent on whether the game can calculate if you can win the battle in the first round without the enemy having the chance to attack back. It’s a nice feature to have, especially if you have to revisit a previous location because you won’t have to bother fighting groups of weak enemies.

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Battles have funky psychedelic backgrounds and the enemies are crazy and interesting.

The world of EarthBound is one of my all-time favourites in any video game. In another break from the norm of RPGs of the era, the world of EarthBound has no scaled-down overworld map to connect the towns. The world is entirely seamless, with no differentiation between towns and the outside world. Everything is scaled in size in relation to the characters at all times. The world is also displayed in an oblique perspective, something that again was uncommon at the time when other RPGs used a strictly top-down perspective. This means the world has a lot more detail than most other RPGs from the period. This is something its predecessor also had, but EarthBound took it to the next level. Each and every town you visit looks completely different and has its own charm. The four main towns, Onett, Twoson, Threed and Fourside, are all enormous, especially when compared to other 16-bit RPGs, and the other towns, from the resort town of Summers to the desert town of Scaraba, all look befitting of their location. Exploring each town and talking to the residents is always enjoyable, especially when the dialogue is so consistently excellent. When even talking to random NPCs is enjoyable you know the writing is brilliant.

The other locations are also as excellently designed as the towns. Throughout the quest, you’ll visit many typical locations, such as forest, deserts and swamps, and these areas to are all designed fantastically. You even visit a forgotten underworld where dinosaurs still exist, and many real-world locations, such as Stone Henge, are in the game also. The dungeons are also large and varied in design. By the time the quest comes to an end, you’d have explored caves, factories and even weird sci-fi locals. But it all fits in with the quirky nature of the game, and EarthBound can be a lengthy game the first time you play it. Everything isn’t spelt out for you. At times the plot drives progression, but on other occasions, you’ll have to explore to find your way. The game is never a slog.

One way in which the world of EarthBound feels believable is in the way you go about your daily activities. In most RPGs, you have to buy potions and elixirs to heal characters, but in EarthBound, you have to buy food like hamburgers or pizzas. You can even add condiments to food to increase (or decrease, depending on the combination) their effectiveness. Ketchup on a hamburger is a great combo, but using cocoa on a hamburger is not so much. After battles you earn money, but it is deposited in your bank account, so you need to visit an ATM to withdraw it. You need to go to the Mall to buy your new baseball bats and frying pans to use against your enemies, and you need to visit the clothing counter to buy your new caps and ribbons for protection. When a character faints in battle you need to take them to the hospital to recover. And when you want to save you need to go to a payphone and call Ness’s father to save your data. It’s such an interesting way to go about things, and it brings a level of familiarity to the world.

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The town map of Onett. Notice the use of oblique perspective.

On the graphical side of things EarthBound looks rather primitive, especially when compared to other SNES RPGs like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI, but the style fits perfectly with the tone of the game. At the time of its release in North America, several reviewers noted it looked like an NES game, but that is very unfair. The NES couldn’t run a game that looks like EarthBound, it would be impossible on the hardware. It actually looks like a children’s cartoon and it is bursting at the seams with colour. I can’t think of another SNES RPG which looks as striking as EarthBound, and this makes up for any shortcomings it may have in graphical fidelity.

Much like the many western pop culture references the soundtrack for EarthBound includes many homages to both British and American musical acts. Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka both returned from Mother to compose EarthBound, and they were accompanied by newcomers Hiroshi Kanazu and Toshiyuki Ueno. When writing music for the game Suzuki and Tanaka spent a lot of time listening to acts such as The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Chuck Berry, and the expanded sound capabilities of the SNES allowed them to create the sort of music they wanted, but couldn’t, with the first game.

Suzuki has stated that the percussion arrangements in the soundtrack were based on the percussion from the album Smiley Smile by The Beach Boys, and the soundtrack contains many direct references to popular songs such as Johnny B. Goode and Good Morning, Good Morning. The soundtrack is incredibly varied, with almost all genres you could think of represented. A great example of this would be the sheer amount of battle themes there are. Different type of enemies have different themes in battle, and these themes vary from rockabilly to rock and roll and electronic. All in all, there are twelve different battle themes, an insane amount for any RPG, and in total the soundtrack includes over 160 tracks. The depth and variety are commendable, and my personal favourite tracks are the themes for Onett and Twoson, Frankie (a homage to Johnny B. Goode), the beautiful Because I Love You and the closing theme Smiles and Tears.

EarthBound has one of the greatest soundtracks in video game history.

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Oh look, it’s a Yellow Submarine.

EarthBound is an incredible game. It may have received a lukewarm reception in the west back in 1995, but the game is regarded as an all-time classic today. For years the series was neglected by Nintendo, and only the hard work of fan sites such as Starmen.net kept the series alive. But after years of fan lobbying, Nintendo finally re-released the game for the Wii U Virtual Console in 2013. Upon its re-release it received widespread critical acclaim, and today it is regarded as one of the greatest video games ever made. The praise is justified.

I first played EarthBound back in 2011. It was the first video game I ever played via emulation. At the time I didn’t want to pay the asking price for a copy on eBay, so I bought a USB SNES controller, downloaded a ROM and installed the Snes9X emulator on my PC and spent the next few weeks playing it. I loved every moment I spent with it. I enjoyed it so much that, after some encouragement from my friends, I eventually bought an original SNES copy. It was worth every penny.

I love EarthBound, and I want as many people to play it as possible. After all the years I’ve spent playing video games I can think of only a few games which have captured my imagination in the same way. The game is so consistently excellent that I struggle to think of a single negative thing to say. Some would argue the menus are outdated and the battles lack animation, but I personally don’t care for either of these criticisms. EarthBound is one of my favourite games of all time, and it is absolutely essential for anyone that is a fan of JRPGs.

About the Author: James

James is the founder of The Video Game Age and a lifelong video game fanatic. His love of video games was passed on to him from his father, who first introduced him to the joys of electronic entertainment aged just three years old. The first game he ever played was Body Blows by Team 17 for the Commodore Amiga.

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