Gameplay, Story and Value:
Earthbound is an RPG where you play as Ness, a young boy who has a great destiny bestowed upon him from an alien freedom fighter from the future who is also a bee… That basically sets the tone for the entire game. The story is, at it’s core, a generic one: Bad man is coming to Earth and you and some friends must band together to stop him. What sets Earthbound apart is taking these deliberately blatant RPG tropes and juxtaposing them onto an absolutely surreal setting.
The game is very self aware, and it never tries to hide that from you. Why is a little boy chosen to save the world? Because destiny. Why does the girl a town and a half over that we’ve never met know we’re coming to rescue her so she can join the cause? Because plot. Why anything? Because RPG. Earthbound will straight up tell you these things, and seeing it play out is truly amazing. Add to that some incredibly subtle-yet-bizarre dialogue like “Here’s a map. Onett isn’t the only thing on the map. All the info is there, except for the info that isn’t there. Pressing the X Button allows you to view the map at any time. How convenient! You know, the X Button… located near the top. Ha ha ha.” are some kind of special. It never stops either, and as a result you always feel a sort of eerie “offness” no matter what you’re doing in the game.
And that’s exactly what it’s going for; that childlike, somewhat skewed version of reality that many of us perceived at a much younger age. In this endeavor I feel Earthbound succeeds to great effect, however it’s the gameplay, and even the story, where it starts to lose me.
Mechanically, Earthbound is almost a parody. It practically runs on Dragon Quest’s menu and battle engine and, while it does throw in some unique elements of its own, the intentionally generic gameplay often comes off as TOO generic. Additionally, the obvious RPG story tropes, while presented in a quirky and unique way, are just that – Obvious RPG story tropes. See past Earthbound’s surrealism and you’re left with an RPG shell that just isn’t that compelling. The characters suffer from a similar issue. While I can certainly think back to points in my childhood where I saw the world as Earthbound presents it, I’m finding it impossible to actually connect with any of the characters in the game, leaving me even less interested in what’s going on.
As far as the gameplay itself is concerned, you have all the basics, only under a modern interpretation. You have hotels (Inns), hospitals (churches), drug stores (shops), payphones (save points), ATM machines (gold banks) and you can call your little sister who acts as an item bank. Earthbound also uses two of my least favorite inventory systems – limited inventory size and personal inventories. Enemies appear on the map though they generally can’t be avoided. Moving away from an enemy spawn point will reset the spawn, causing the same enemy to appear there, different enemies, or none at all. This system can be both infuriating as well as extremely if gamed properly.
Combat is turned based and characters can use basic attacks, PSI abilities (magic) or items. You can also set it auto-battle, a feature all RPGs should have, for the simpler encounters. Combat tends to be difficult unless you’re over-leveled for the area, and you’ll often need to make careful considerations as to how you want to spend your resources in order to make it all the way through a hostile area. Once nice feature, though even THIS gets tiresome after a point, is that if you encounter an enemy that your party would be able to dispatch in a single round before the enemy was able to make an action, you’ll simply kill the enemy right there on the map and get the normally allotted EXP and items. This system is enhanced by the fact that these enemies will actively run away from you on the map, allowing you to avoid lesser encounters altogether should you so desire.
Finally, the controls. It all pretty much plays exactly like an early Dragon Quest game, with the confirm button opening a menu from which to choose options like TALK or SEARCH or whatever else. I hated this system as a kid and I hate it now. Luckily, Earthbound allows the use of a catchall interact button… which is unfortunately assigned to the left shoulder button of all things… I’ll never understand why I can’t just open the menu with X and interact with A like in every other RPG!
Presentation, Music and Sound:
While I appreciate the style that Earthbound is going for, and while it certainly does have its own charm to it, I can’t help but feel that the visuals come off as “dated”, rather than timeless. Like everything else in the game, the visuals strive for simplicity. Like everything else in the game, they meet their goal a little too well and I feel like the art in Earthbound falls, literally, flat. Like I said, it’s not without its charm. I laughed out loud at the sight of some of the character and enemy sprites, but on the whole it all just felt lacking. Here’s another place where I feel like the game suffers being a product of its time. Back in 1994 this sort of style would have been very amusing to see among the likes of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and such, an obvious contrast to the genre at the time. Nowadays, though, it doesn’t quite have the same effect.
The game’s sound effects and music are intensely quirky and add considerably to Earthbound’s already surreal atmosphere. The sounds are modern and almost alien, playing nicely with the themes of the game. The music tracks, while not quite as memorable as those from other major RPGs, also do a lot to that end. Elevator music as battle themes? Hell yeah!
Growing up in the 90’s I completely missed out on Earthbound when it was relevant… and cheap… As I got older it was always a talked about game, but never one that I got around to emulating. I remember giving it a shot a few years ago but it didn’t stick. Even recently before the project when I got my cartridge I gave it a go and didn’t really get it. Now that I’ve forced myself to sit down and spend a few hours with it… I’m still not getting it.
Earthbound has been described to me as a game that doesn’t truly shine unless you played it back before everyone was talking about it. In 2016 where parodies and throwbacks like the Hyperdimension series and games like Undertale are the norm, and having skipped Earthbound all those years ago, I’m finding it impossible to comprehend what makes this game so special, and I kind of really hate that. Regardless of whether I like it or not though, without the nostalgia factor to back it up, Earthbound simply does not resonate with me and if I take it purely for what it is, or at least what I perceive it to be, I’m looking at a quirky, tired, surreal, generic RPG that doesn’t have enough on offer for me to see it all the way through.