Earthbound was developed by Ape and HAL Laboratory and was released by Nintendo for the SNES is 1994 (Japan) and 1995 (US). It is a traditional RPG with a self-abasing twist. While most RPGs of that era were set in idylic Eastern worlds, Earthbound bucked the trend and created a world that whimsically depicted Western culture and poked fun at the RPG genre. This unique tone is one of many aspects of the game that has divided players since Earthbound‘s release. To many this game is a one-of-a-kind cult classic, while others find it unsettling and simply not what they expect or want from an RPG, particularly a JRPG.
Earthbound is the story of a seemingly average boy named Ness. His hobbies include playing with his dog, hanging out with his friends at their secret hideout, wearing a cool red baseball cap, and playing with his yo-yo and baseball bat. He lives in a modest home in the suburbs of Onett with his mother, little sister Tracy and his father. His father never seems to be home and is only available via telephone. This seemingly normal boy discovers that he is in fact quite extraordinary when a meteorite lands near his home one night and Ness heads out to investigate. A time-travelling bee named Buzz-Buzz arrives then to inform Ness that he and three other children are destined to save the world from some Big Bad Evil named Giygas. Unfortunately a time-travelling alien Starman shows up and interupts the exposition. It is at this point that the player consciously or unconsciously makes a critical decision. Either the player accepts and embraces the insanity and chaos that must follow such an opening to a game, or the player does not and will remain too incredulous to enjoy the story. If time-travelling talking bees do not sound like a good time there are plenty of other RPGs that have good old-fashioned plots.
As Earthbound progresses, Ness travels the world making friends and meeting up with the other three children with whom he is destined to save the world. Along the way he discovers the impact that the mysterious Giygas is having on the world. Through space and time Giygas is able to manipulate the hearts and minds of people and creatures, bringing out the greed and evil that lurks deep within all beings. Ness must battle to restore order and end the corruption caused by Giygas.
Its quirky plot and characters aside, Earthbound is in many ways a very traditional RPG. Ness and his friends enter turn-based combat when they come into contact with an enemy. Characters gain experience through battles, and have stats such as HP, Offense, Defense and Speed that level up. Some characters also have psychic abilities that are this game’s version of magic. Characters can equip weapons and armor, and use items to restore HP or PP. Sure, they may fight enemies such as New Age Retro Hippies or Cranky Old Ladies rather than Slimes or Goblins, but the underlying mechanics of the gameplay should be very familiar to players.
One of Earthbound‘s most divisive elements is its graphics. Some love them, some hate them, but all agree that they are distinct. The graphics look like something that was ripped out of a child’s colouring book and filled in using MS Paint. They are flat, bright, and lacking significant amounts of shading or texturing. One of the more interesting choices that the developers made regarding the game’s graphics was the decision to not create an overworld map but instead to have towns and dungeons flow naturally together via roads, caves and paths. The world therefore may not look at all realistic, but it certainly feels real when Ness has to hop on a bus in Threed in order to make it to neighbouring Fourside.
In contrast to Earthbound‘s polarizing graphics, the game’s music has been generally accepted and praised by the masses. It is catchy and very appropriate to the game’s tone and feel. The theme songs for the towns of Onett and Winters are particularly enjoyable. The score is limited by the technology of its day, but still holds up well against the test of time.
Earthbound is simply one of those games that a player either loves or hates. It is truly unique. While most games try to clone previous success, Earthbound mocks itself, its genre and the player. It is not another Final Fantasy or Zelda clone. It is a force unto itself. There is no shame in not being able to invest oneself in this game. There is only joy and amusement for those who can become invested. Certainly it is a game worth at least trying.