Earthbound Review: Ahead of its Time and Space

I hadn’t played Earthbound before 2019. If you haven’t either, I hope you dust off your SNES Classic and get to work right away as I did. I had seen Ness in Super Smash Bros Melee, I got all his trophies, like StarMan or whatever, and I didn’t understand why this character was getting so much love. I wish I discovered this earlier.

This is a game from 1994, so it goes without saying there are dated mechanics, however, it was far ahead of its time in a variety of areas. Perhaps this is why it didn’t really take off in the West as it did over in Japan, leading to many importing and localisation issues. As I mentioned though, the game is here, even for us Brits on the SNES Classic, and I’m gonna talk about it here – so buckle up, it is a whacky ride.

 

White Picket Beginnings

Earthbound is a JRPG set in a suburban region of “Eagleland” in the 90s. It is a novel concept for a game of this type, even by today’s standards. This is to say that in 1994, it might not have landed so gracefully, there are no goblins or dragons here, which was thematically in abundance back then. You are tasked with saving the world from an alien/robot invasion which is heading your way in the future, not unlike Terminator. So, as a teenage boy with his trusty baseball bat, you set off on your way to save the universe. Oh, there are psychic powers too.

In the first hour of Earthbound you will:

  • Discover a meteorite
  • Befriend a time travelling bee
  • Murder a space-policeman
  • Sentence two children to be abused by their father (I think?)
  • Kill lots of snakes
  • Take on a biker gang (whose uniform is basically a gimpsuit with a dorsal fin)
  • Fight a robot gangster to gain the mayor’s trust

This is the first hour. I had to cut this list down, it is totally nuts and I love it. The inspiration for Undertale is clear to see here and I’m left wondering if I only loved Undertale so much because I hadn’t played this first. I guess we’ll never know.

Either way, I am ecstatic to be able to dive into lore discussions online about what was going on throughout the adventure, little Easter eggs which may have avoided my gaze and no doubt some dark, disturbing discoveries to be had.

 

Mad World

The whole game is drenched in a strange, surreal tone which makes the world seem as fantastic as any fantasy setting. The peculiar music and oddball characters making the world seem far creepier than it has any right to. When mixed with the childish visuals, this creepy tone creates an amazing and unique atmosphere, almost as if you shouldn’t be playing (particularly when a prostitute takes you into a hotel room to be devoured by zombies).

The creepiness carries over into the enemy design also. As a child, the angry neighbour chasing you would be far scarier than any orc or dragon. It makes everything seem like a threat, just like in the imagination of a child, even ants and mushrooms can quickly become deadly foes. You can imagine children spreading rumours of the “Boogey-Tent” which feasts on unsuspecting trespassers. Only in Earthbound, the rumours are true. It adds such a fantastical element to every new area, which kept me constantly guessing what lies around the next corner.

Status effects, commonplace in most RPGS, are reworked in Earthbound too. The likes of paralysis or confusion are switched out for catching a cold, crying uncontrollably or just “feeling a bit weird”. Some of these are experienced by everyone growing up and, in some cases, can be far spookier than any toxic or fantasised poison.

 

Creative and Playful Writing

Everything just feels a little weird. Like the way people talk, whether this is localisation issues or intentional; I don’t know. It’s hilarious for the most part and clearly helped inspire the writing of Undertale. Some exchanges are so bizarre that you just have to take out of context screenshots and send them to your mates. All this weirdness helps enforce the idea that this could be an exaggerated look at the regular world through the eyes of a child believed to be embarking on an epic quest.

Characters like the father, only spoken to through the phone, wish you luck, tell you are doing great and just to keep trying your best. It is nice, but kind of creepy contrasted against the other characters found in the game who speak of world ending invasions, cannibalism and much more. Earthbound strikes the balance between undying optimism and crushing responsibility, both of which are experienced when growing up.

There are plenty more parallels to the real world too, with references to cult members, police brutality, the aforementioned prostitution, and capitalism. There is even a hilarious exchange in an art exhibit, where everyone is just as clueless about the pieces on display as I am when I go to any gallery.

The writing isn’t reserved solely for exploration and figuring out story beats and direction though. Text is also a prominent part of the combat. Whether it is delivering a joke to make you chuckle or foreboding an incoming attack, the text is engaging and witty at every turn. Once again, for the time, this was extremely innovative, and I imagine it did alienate a lot of players back when it first released. How many other games from 1994 could pull off a line like; “The spooky clown pulled out a ruler. Now he can measure things really good”.

 

Fighting for Your Lunch Money

Combat in Earthbound is your typical RPG-fare. There are standard attacks, items you can use to boost health, lower stats, stuff like that, and also a special action system which uses ‘PSI’ (basically mana). The combat is presented in an old Dragon Quest style, whereby you only see the adversaries, with no reference to your party other than the stat meters down below. It is all displayed using a psychedelic background which suits the style of the game down to a tee, in other words, trippy as balls.

One thing which is unique to Earthbound that isn’t necessarily taught to you is that the health meters aren’t just rolling counters for aesthetic purposes, they also have a practical function which is a key mechanic in the battle system. Since these counters roll both up and down, there is a delay from when the action is taken and the final result is achieved. Basically, it is possible to receive fatal damage on one of your party members, but if you are fast enough, they can be saved. You do this by either finishing the battle before the counter reaches zero, or healing them before the death is dealt. This makes the scramble find your healing spell or a recovery item frantic and stressful, in what is typically a more laid-back battle system. It is super interesting to me and I am honestly surprised no real-time RPGs have put something like this in place since (to my knowledge).

On top of this, battles are kept more engaging through status effects and clever mechanics tied to each foe. Some of these are as simple as shields which deflect physical damage, but they get more whacky as the game goes on. For example, a petrol pump which ominously whispers a count down each turn before exploding wiping your party out, or a Dahli clock that can stop time and unleash multiple attacks in a single turn. This, for the most part, keeps the combat fresh and engaging as you enter each new area.

However, this doesn’t take all the frustration out, battles in this game come thick and fast. It is a curse of the genre, but these encounters happen all the time, all the more annoying is when you just want to explore. Even the fact you can see the enemies roaming about the overworld doesn’t help – they all run far quicker than you do, so they may as well not bother. Increasing the regular walk speed or offering more options to be able to avoid the battles would have gone a long way in easing some of these irritations. Another thing to get out there, why do all JRPGs have instant kill moves? Where is the fun in that? I spend 20 minutes carefully healing, planning and preparing in a lengthy boss encounter only to have my party wiped out in one turn, instantly. That blows.

 

It’s Not All Abstract Art and Exploding Fire Hydrants

One area in which Earthbound really shows its age is how it doesn’t seem to value your time very much. Like other games from the era, this could be seen as a positive. You know, you have spent a significant chunk of your money on this piece of software, the longer it can last you the better. However, looking through it from a 2020 lens, my time is worth more than this, right?

I’ll run you through an example: I have just lost an epic battle with “Lil UFO”, it shot me with a laser and gave me a cold, there was nothing I could do. You tell the game you want to continue, boy, that UFO is gonna get it. BUT, there are several steps you need to complete before you can even think about trying that fight again.

  • All your party are now ghosts, you must find the nearest hospital to revive your comrades
  • Ooops, you need some money to be able to pay the doctor, go withdraw the money from an ATM
  • Go back to the doctor, heal your party – you are now all back at full health. However, you have no PSI left which is used for all your best moves and stuff. This is not recovered by the doctor
  • So, you have to go to the nearest hotel, pay money again to be able to sleep – your PSI is now restored
  • After this, you can head back to your nemesis UFO
  • I’d also try and find a phone before you attempt to take on the challenge, this will allow you to save after lots and lots of strange chatter from your father

This might not seem like a big deal, but it is to me. It is made all the more painful because I love this game, I love the world, the premise, the weirdo freaks you interact with on your travels, it is all so good. This just takes time away from me that I could be spending doing what I enjoy.

The ATM mentioned earlier compounds this issue, why even have it in the game? It is just a little frustration, which when placed alongside all these other niggles, keeps me from screaming at my neighbours about how damn awesome the whole thing is. Even stuff like buying multiple items from the shop takes FOREVER as you can only buy one at a time, resetting the conversation after each purchase. Depositing unwanted items into your safe box takes forever, requiring a phone call, sometimes several, and waiting around for the postman. What was at first charming and unique, quickly becomes an annoyance.

Some of these systems could be taken out for the betterment of the whole package, I’m sure that some of this could be fixed through mods and emulation, speeding up the walking, increasing text speed, etc. But that isn’t how I wanted to experience this cult classic. I suppose the ‘save-state’ functionality of the SNES Classic helps with this a little, allowing for you to save just before tough battles or gruelling dungeons, and I didn’t use this enough.

 

Gets Into Your Head Through Your Ears

The music of Earthbound, much like the rest of its components, carries an ominous weight, sometimes just consisting of “woos” and scratches. I especially liked the use of static and otherworldly noises in the desert section of the game. Other times the battle music sounds like it could be theme tune for a sitcom, it can sometimes sound janky and barely composed, but that feels intentional given everything else which is going on. Earthbound has a vision for the feelings it wants to create, and it sticks to that, wholeheartedly.

It isn’t going to be something that I listen to outside of playing, but it enhances the experience thoroughly. Not everyone wants to listen to music which reminds you of that time you had to fight off a monster made of vomit who has a thirst for honey.

 

Well-Deserved Fanaticism

I’d like to close out this review by just stating that the game has probably the craziest final couple of hours. It isn’t something I want to spoil here, but if you don’t know what happens, I suggest keeping it this way. It. Gets. Crazy. Once you’ve finished you can look up all kinds of great theories about what actually happened and rediscover the horror all over again.

All in all, Earthbound was way, way ahead of its time and I can’t touch on everything here. If you’re a fan of RPGs in any fashion, this is an essential playthrough, and I feel like I finally understand the cult following that bewildered me many years ago playing Super Smash Bros Melee. But beware: the game is quite lengthy, sitting at 28 hours on Time to Beat, and with a steep learning curve, you might be in for a frustrating few hours in the opening. Get past this though, and you can let the madness take you away, smile for the camera, and say “fuzzy pickles”.

 

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