Back From The Future: EarthBound

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EarthBound is a game that I’ve never played until very recently, which is weird considering how it’s regarded as one of the best games of its time. With such a claim, it’s hard to imagine that I only started hearing about it a year ago, and only got around to actually playing it 16 years after it was released in North America. However, I missed out on many great, classic video games. EarthBound is just one of many important games out there that I’ve never experienced.

This series, Back From The Future, aims to correct this by thrusting myself back to the past to play those games.The series is intended to be more than that, however. I felt that it would be interesting to the readers if they heard my modern opinion on a game they have very fond memories of. Face it, if you weren’t so nostalgic about a certain game because you grew up playing it, you probably wouldn’t like them as much today. My intentions are to play through older, relatively popular games and see just how well they’ve aged over the years. Well, I played through EarthBound the other day. Did it live up to the hype? Did it stand the test of time? Did I enjoy it at all? Keep reading and see.

The History

EarthBound is known in Japan as “Mother 2: Gyiyg no Gyakushū” making it the second in the “Mother” series. Both games, “Mother” for the Famicom system and “Mother 3” for the Game Boy Advance system, were not released outside of Japan, making EarthBound the only official North American release of the series. Thankfully, though, EarthBound has a very small connection with the rest of the games in the series, so it it isn’t required to play the other games to enjoy everything EarthBound has to offer.

The game was designed by Shigesato Itoi, a popular Japanese copywriter and essayist, and developed by two separate studios: Ape, Inc. and HAL Laboratory, Inc. Because the game was being developed by two separate studios, it caused problems with the game’s development and was occasionally seen as a lost cause. On top of that, the game kept being restricted by the SNES’ cartridge size. Originally, the game was supposed to be put onto a 8 megabit cartridge, but eventually had to be bumped up to a 24 megabit cartridge. The music for the game was apparently the main cause of this, as the game had a fairly large soundtrack.

Despite the five year development time, the game was published by Nintendo and finally saw its release in 1994 and 1995 for Japan and North America respectively. The game came bundled with a strategy guide and scratch-and-sniff stickers stuffed into a large box, priced cheaper than most other games for the same system at the time. The Japan release was a success, but the same could not be said for North America, as the game only pushed 140,000 copies, half of what Japan sold. However, EarthBound’s popularity would eventually grow and still grows to this day, having quite the cult following. The game would go on to be featured/referenced in the future Nintendo series, “Super Smash Bros.,” which is likely to be the cause of EarthBound’s growing popularity.

Over the years, the game has been recognized multiple times as being one of the greatest RPGs of the SNES, one of the greatest games of the 1990s, and has even been included as one of the best 100 games of all time. It has also been repeatedly requested to be released on the Virtual Console for the Nintendo Wii, but it has yet to do so because of copyright issues with the music. Though, the game did see a release on the Game Boy Advance in 2003 in Japan, along with an updated version of Mother 1.

The Game

The game itself follows the main character, Ness, through a long and perilous journey to defeat a truly evil being known as “Giygas” who wishes to dominate the planet. To do so, he’ll have to locate sanctuary locations which hold the key to giving Ness the strength he needs. He can’t do it alone, however, so he must also meet three new friends to help him on his journey to save the planet. At least, that’s the plot summary. The game goes much deeper than that.

Upon starting a new game, you’ll be able to customize quite a bit of things about the game. Like most games that offer customization, you’re able to change your main character’s name as well as all three of your friends who you will encounter later in the game. On top of that, though, you also get to name your pet, set your favorite food, and coolest thing. These extras are purely cosmetic, but are still nice to customize. I find that coming back to my home and having my mother make me my favorite food makes it feel all the more like home sweet home. The “coolest thing” is actually the most fun to change, as it becomes the name of the main character’s special attack, which can also be used by certain bosses in the game.

Gaming really IS the coolest thing, isn't it?

After you do that, one of the first two things you’ll notice about EarthBound are the graphics and the music. I’ll comment on the graphics first, which give the game a simplistic style that looks great for the most part. The detail put into the world is pretty good, and the colors are usually very colorful and vibrant. The people in the game usually look pretty good, with the exception of a few. Though, I am not sure if it’s intended that those characters look the way they do. With that said, the common monsters in the game look pretty simple and uninteresting, but some, particularly boss monsters, look really great.

The graphics aren't spectacular, but they're still nice to look at.

Moving on to the music in EarthBound, I have to say this is my favorite thing about the game. Composed by Hiroshi Kanazu, Keiichi Suzuki, and Hirokazu Tanaka, the game’s soundtrack and sound effects are stunning. The sound effects alone are worth mentioning and are cleverly used throughout the game. An example of this is if you hear a character say something important, an eerie chime will be heard. It’s just one example of something so simple that most games don’t seem to do, but makes the gameplay a little more enjoyable because of it.

The soundtrack itself has quite a variety of songs, a lot of which were influenced by popular artists at the time. One of the bosses, who you fight very early in the game, has a theme that’s very similar to “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. It’s also interesting to note that the boss’ name is “Frank Fly,” a possible reference to the characters Marty and George McFly from the movie “Back to the Future” which “Johnny B. Goode” was also featured. EarthBound is full of ton of references like that, going so far as to even reference other video games for the SNES.

Tough break, kid. Must be rough bein' named after a complete butthead.

On top of countless references, EarthBound has a pretty good sense of humor. It’s one of the game’s biggest perks, in that you’ll find yourself talking to just about everyone you see just to hear what they have to say because they say some really weird and hilarious things. I recall one man in a certain village commenting on the fact that his wife left him and that he “was such a lucky man!” I really couldn’t help but snicker at that. Another one I recall is a man who claimed that he lost his shirt in a solitaire tournament.

I honestly wonder what his wife is like.

However, while EarthBound is very humorous, it can also twist your mind in the strangest ways. Such as the fourth town you arrive in, Fourside. In this town you eventually come to a cafe, and with a little snooping, you’ll be led to an alternate version of Fourside called Moonside. This is one of those parts of the game that can really have the player confused. The town basically turns black with glowing neon lights everywhere, and most of the people there say things that make absolutely no sense. It’s truly odd, and even more so that you’re only there for about 15 minutes and after that it’s never mentioned again.

Does that mean "No" is "Yes" and "Yes" is "No?"

EarthBound is an RPG and therefore has many RPG-like qualities. You control Ness and lead his friends around the world, battling monsters and advancing through the game to the eight sanctuary locations. A few things get in your way, but there aren’t many puzzles that stop you advancing forward in the game. The majority of the game is simply battling monsters and talking to people.

When it comes to battling monsters, EarthBound doesn’t have a random battle system. Instead, monsters are physically in the world and have to be touched to engage a battle. This leads to some tactical features: if an enemy hits Ness from behind, they get a first strike on him. However, if Ness hits them from behind he will get a first strike, and depending on your character’s levels they may get an instant-win, negating the need to even enter battle. This makes grinding a cinch, because with instant-wins your characters still get experience points, as well as items.

Another tactical feature of the battle system is that when one of your characters get damaged by a monster, their hit points roll down rather slowly instead of immediately like in most other games. This gives you an opportunity to heal your characters or end the battle before their hit points reach zero. I found this to be a very interesting feature, and I personally wish that it were in more video games today.

To do better in battle you’ll eventually have to buy better equipment, but the only source of income is from Ness’ father. Ness’ father will send money to Ness’ bank account after a battle is won. The money will then have to be withdrawn at an ATM machine which is found in almost all stores. On top of equipment, you can spend money on healing items as well as using it to revive your fallen friends at the hospital or staying a night at a hotel to fully recover all your stats which is useful, but expensive.

Don't you dare get sick, the common cold is LETHAL in this game!

It’s interesting to note that while Ness’ father sends him money periodically, you never see him throughout the game. You can only call him to talk to him, as well as save your game. He’ll also occasionally call you once you’ve been playing for a long time and suggest that you take a break. I found that to be cool at first, but it slowly started to become an annoyance. Ness’ mother also has a certain effect, where if you don’t visit her back at home, or at least call her, Ness will get homesick and it’ll affect him in battle. Another nice feature, however it only happened to me once, so I don’t see it as an annoyance.

Dad, I'll take a break when I feel like it!

Then there are Ness’ friends who fight by his side. As you advance through the game you’ll pick up more friends until you have all three of them in Ness’ party. Each of Ness’ friends have their own little specialties and back stories. Going with default names, Paula is a kind girl with strong psychic abilities and the first friend Ness meets. After that, Ness will meet Jeff, a nerdy boy who isn’t very strong, but still a powerful ally to have thanks to his gadgets. Later in the game, Ness  will eventually meet Poo, who is a fist-fighting powerhouse with average psychic skills.

Then, of course, there’s Ness himself. He’s the (mostly) silent protagonist, and there’s not a lot of personality to him other than his remarkable courage and love for his new friends and family, particularly his mother. Skill-wise, he’s a fairly balanced character, proficient in both physical and psychic attacks. It’s never mentioned why Ness is so special, but one would assume it’s because he’s just a very courageous and strong-willed boy.

There are more characters, namely the antagonists, but I really don’t want to spoil them. You’ll just have to play EarthBound yourself, if you haven’t already, to find out more about them.

Then there are Mr. Saturn, without a doubt the best characters in EarthBound. Yes, they're all Mr. Saturn.

Finally, I want to mention the difficulty of EarthBound. As I’ve said, it’s a pretty simplistic game. It rarely throws you a curve ball and the only thing that really slows you down is the need to grind your levels up, which is not as bad as it is in most other RPGs because of the game’s strategic factors that I mentioned before. The game really isn’t hard at all, and I think just about anyone could pick it up and beat it without too much trouble. That may make the game seem like it doesn’t offer many challenges, but that isn’t what makes EarthBound fun to play, anyway. The game is a very humorous, wacky, and emotional adventure, and you’re more there for the ride than the actual gameplay, and oh, what a ride it is.

The Opinion

Since EarthBound is a fairly difficult game to acquire without spending a load of money, I played the game on an emulator and used a new controller I bought recently. I mapped the controller as similarly as I could to an SNES controller, which definitely aided in making me feel as if I were playing the game on its original console.

I remember loading up the game for the first time and being greeted with the typical publisher and developer logos until the intro started playing. I am 20 year-old and that intro still gave me chills. If I were a kid trying to play this game, I probably would have soiled myself. There wasn’t much to the intro, but the sounds are what really got to me. It sounded like something out of a nightmare, and I wish I were exaggerating. The image faded away and then the EarthBound logo appeared, coupled with less terrifying music, and then , suddenly, bright and colorful gameplay footage is shown as the opening credits roll to upbeat and cheerful music. All I could think was that the game was diabolically psychotic. That’s EarthBound for you.

Ed Wood would be proud of this game.

Giygas, the main villain in the game, keeps hidden for 98% of the game and while it is doing so you’re playing in a world that’s relatively fine. Honestly, if you walk around the world there are minimal signs that the world is in danger. With the exception of a few towns, the world is very colorful and gives off a cheerful vibe. This gives you this false sense that nothing bad is happening and that nothing is at stake. Honestly, this kind of seems like a fault to the game, in a way, but I’m not sure I’d have it any other way, as the big reveal of Giygas at the end of the game is truly terrifying despite me spoiling myself with its appearance and its battle themes. There’s no easy way to explain it, but it was definitely one of the weirdest climaxes to a game I’ve ever experienced. However, I found that the final battle was somewhat disappointing, but to avoid spoilers I shan’t go into it.

The superb ending made up for it, though, and I felt like I had accomplished something after putting in so many hours into it. Not only that, but I just had a ton of satisfaction from beating EarthBound 16 years after it was released. It’s a game that truly stands the test of time. Why? Because it is a quality game that did what it did well.

Good. Bad. I'm the guy with the bat.

In fact, there are a few features in EarthBound that I wished were in more RPGs. One of them being the item shops equipping you with a newly bought item and then automatically asking to buy the old equipped item off of you. It’s a neat feature, because you were probably going to sell that old item anyway and it made it a bit easier for you. Another feature would be the “auto-fight” mode in battles. Using this will essentially spam physical attacks and healing spells. It’s particularly useful for average enemies that aren’t too hard to kill which makes grinding a lot less painful. Great feature, in my opinion.

That said, the game isn’t perfect. I found the level designs to be somewhat annoying, as I occasionally found myself having difficulty squeezing through certain paths. The enemies spike in difficulty when you reach a new area, but it’s manageable thanks to the ease of grinding. Your dad gets on your nerves by talking so much when you save the game or interrupting you randomly to tell you to stop playing so much and take a break. Finally, there’s the main characters which I found to be mostly uninteresting. I found myself only caring and relating to Jeff, but even he is a bit lacking. These problems aren’t that bad, however, and they didn’t keep me from enjoying the game, which I did, very much so.

EarthBound went from a game that I didn’t even know existed, to a game that looked boring and childish, to a game that warped my mind with experiences most games these days don’t even come close to matching. It is now a well respected game in my eyes, despite it’s minor flaws. One day, I want to buy a physical copy of the game and add it to my collection, as it seems to be a game I could really be proud of owning.

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About McBeeferton

I'm McBeeferton. No, I am not really a pikachu, but I like playing one on the internet. My real name is Anthony, I'm 20 years old, and I happen to be a nerd. I contribute advice for gaming vices, as well as anything else that might be interesting to people who play video games. I write the Back from the Future series, but I'm not a reviewer. I'm simply a guy with an opinion.