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EarthBound (SNES) artwork

EarthBound (SNES) review


"At seemingly random moments, a man will descend from the sky to take a photograph of your party before vanishing the way he came. One NPC's desire to create a memorable dungeon leads to him changing his body into one. This is one of those games that can be difficult to put down simply because you'll want to experience the next bizarre situation."



EarthBound didn't reinvent the JRPG wheel, but clever presentation may sometimes make you forget that. Ape and HAL Laboratory created a game that was loaded with the usual tropes, but the title explored them in a manner that obscures the timeworn path players are traveling as they play. You’ll once again find yourself controlling a small-town youth who is destined to save the world, for instance. He rescues a princess from captivity near the start of the adventure, though, and the duo then enlists the aid of a genius and an underdeveloped fourth character on their way to a final confrontation with an unspeakable abomination that hates things like love and other positive emotions.

The big twist is that all of this action takes place in an interesting version of a modern-day Earth. Ness, the main protagonist, resides in a suburban town boasting attractions such as a library, a burger joint and few concerns more pressing than an annoying gang of juvenile delinquents and a mayor who is more concerned with keeping tabs on how the public perceives him than actually doing his job. The aforementioned "princess" is really a precocious preschool prodigy, while the rival apparent is the spoiled, obese son of Ness' next-door neighbor. Along the way, you'll run into a bizarre cast that includes a cult that seeks to paint everything blue, a debt-ridden band reminiscent of the Blues Brothers and a quintet of moles made up of members who each believe themselves to be the third-most powerful of the group.

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It's Porky (the fat rival) who gets the plot started. He wakes Ness' family in the middle of the night, asking for help in retrieving his little brother from the site where a meteor recently crashed into the ground. The pudgy bastard got scared and abandoned his sibling during that terrifying event. While completing the tutorial--I mean "rescue mission"--Ness discovers that the meteor is actually an alien spacecraft. This revelation leads to a series of events that ends with him learning that he is now the world’s best hope of stopping an onslaught from the evil Giygas. Ness is given a Sound Stone and told to collect eight melodies from mystical spots scattered around the planet.

And you will explore the ENTIRE planet. The game’s first half places the party within civilization. The group’s members will do things like topple a corrupt corporate executive who's under Pokey's control and foil a giant slime monster's attempt to eradicate a town via zombie epidemic. Eventually, though, you'll take Ness and company to more remote locales that include a pyramid, a dinosaur-inhabited underground world and a few different alternate dimensions. One of EarthBound's biggest strengths is the variety of places you'll discover.

In an ironic twist, that strength comes as a result of what gamers may consider to be the game's biggest weakness: its appearance. You may sometimes wonder if the developers chose to scrimp on the graphics in order to produce a truly vast game. Compared to the hardware's more gorgeous RPG efforts like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG, EarthBound might generously be described as visually quaint and simplistic. On a more positive note, there might be more dialogue in this game than in any other 16-bit cartridge I've seen. There's no cut-rate translation at work, either, where entire subplots are scrapped and the English language gets butchered every time someone opens their mouth. That dedication to quality storytelling makes the somewhat primitive graphics easy to forgive.

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The quirky dialogue lends EarthBound a persistent sense of humor. You could probably have 10 people who've played this game to mention a few things that stand out to them and get a wide variety of different answers. In the second town you visit (named "TWOson", so as not to be confused with "ONEtt", "THREEd" and "FOURside"), you need to enlist the aid of a young scientist. While Apple Kid is the way to go, if you visit the other youthful inventor, you'll find that Orange Kid is popular with the ladies, but you won't get much more from your investment in his skills than a machine that plays a song singing his praises before immediately breaking. Among the "monsters" you'll be fighting are drunken middle-aged men and sentient road signs. At seemingly random moments, a man will descend from the sky to take a photograph of your party before vanishing the way he came. One NPC's desire to create a memorable dungeon leads to him changing his body into one. This is one of those games that can be difficult to put down simply because you'll want to experience the next bizarre situation.

Its unique personality is something that differentiates this game from similar Dragon Quest titles. Both games utilize the same sort of turn-based combat that oftentimes leads to a player simply mashing the attack button until everything dies. Both games also provide quite limited character inventories. However, EarthBound does make its own deviations. Monsters are seen on the screen and, if you're suitably more powerful than they are, they'll try to evade combat and will immediately perish if you brush against them. Also, when you take damage, your health won’t drop immediately from 300 to 200 hit points if a blow is struck for 100 points. Instead, your supply of HP will quickly dwindle and will freeze at 226 or whatever number it reached by the point the battle ended. Certain enemies exploit this mechanic by exploding or bursting into flame when they are killed. If they're the last enemy remaining in a group, you'll only take a little bit of damage. If you took them out first, however, you'll have to move quickly in order to avoid losing party members, since the total damage such explosions can inflict is massive.

Most of the tinkering Earthbound does with traditional role-playing mechanics works wonderfully, with the only real annoyances relating to the game's modern setting. You don't technically get money for beating monsters, for example. Instead, Ness' father deposits cash into his bank account based on what he's killed. So, whenever you want to buy new weapons or food, or spend the night at a hotel, you'll have to go to an ATM and withdraw the desired funds. If Ness doesn't regularly use a phone to call his mother, he'll also come down with homesickness, which causes him to randomly skip turns in battle due to being mopey. Speaking of phones, if you plan on playing for extended periods of time, you will grow to hate the father, as he'll call Ness every couple hours to warn him about the dangers of adventuring too long without taking a break.

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The game's difficulty also wildly fluctuates. I had to work harder in the first couple hours to stay alive than I did at any other point of the game, for the simple reason that Ness was a one-man party at that point and that left very little room for error. He got taken out by gang members on Onett's streets, repeatedly obliterated by the guardian of the first melody and had to level-grind like crazy in order to stand a chance of making it to the strange little community where the kidnapped Paula had been taken. At least, there's not much of a penalty for dying in this game. You keep all the experience you'd gained since you last saved and only lose half the cash currently on your person (whatever is deposited in the bank account remains untouched). Realizing that I wasn’t losing progress every time I died went a long ways toward preventing me from getting frustrated in those early hours when it seemed the odds were stacked highest against me.

The good thing about EarthBound is that the negatives never really progress beyond being mild annoyances. There is so much to like that I almost feel petty for mentioning flaws. This is the sort of game where the little rewards are the ones that count most, where you find yourself seeking out the humorously weak New Age Retro Hippie early in the game just because that encounter has its own personal music… or getting besieged by the artwork of Salvatore Dali in a bizarre alternate version of the game's largest city. Regardless of any minor issues it may have, EarthBound is a game that is difficult to forget once you have experienced it.

Rating: 9/10

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Staff review by Rob Hamilton (December 30, 2012)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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