Review: EarthBound returns to prove why it's one of the greatest RPGs of all time
There's a reason so many people are in love with EarthBound. Sure, you could chalk it up to pure, unbridled nostalgia, but doing so would tragically reduce the justification of the adulation that so many people have expressed over the years for this offbeat RPG. Ultimately, EarthBound is everything longtime fans have said it is. This is a bold game that defied logic and went places no other game would at the time of its release. As a matter of fact, the whole thing still feels immensely fresh to this day, because plenty of modern games still won't dare to do the things EarthBound did.
Fun fact: I played EarthBound for the first time in 2009, literally weeks before I decided to enter the world of games writing. Before that time, and in the four years since, however, I've played dozens upon dozens of RPGs, and hardly any of them are as unique or refreshing as this endeavor from Shigesato Itoi. To call EarthBound a gem would be a great disservice, because it's more than that. This is a game with addictive RPG gameplay that constantly challenges you and throws at you vastly wild themes that are oftentimes absurd, but touching all too often.
You start out your adventure as a young boy named Ness. After a meteorite crashes nearby, your curiosity prompts you to go out and investigate. From there, your annoying kid neighbor asks for help, you encounter an ethereal bug that tells you the very fate of the world depends on you, and some cops boast about breaking the world record for the number of roads blocked. All of that happens within the first hour of EarthBound, and things only get even more delightfully weird during the course of this 30-hour journey.
Combat is fairly traditional JRPG fare for the most part. Ness can equip a baseball bat or yo-yo to utilize as weapons, but he also has some powerful psychic attacks at his disposal. Some enemies are more susceptible to different types of attacks, and exploiting these is essential to your success, especially later on when you encounter Paula, Jeff, and Poo, three kids who have their own strengths and ultimately become Ness' biggest allies. You need to monitor your party's health and offensive items, psychic points for pulling off PSI attacks, and any ailments you or your comrades may be suffering from. If you've played plenty of RPGs before, you won't have a hard time coming to grips with the battle system in EarthBound.
But while the core battles may be familiar mechanically, it's the odd intricacies that really make this game stand on its own. It's been said before, but it begs to be repeated: EarthBound isn't your typical knights-and-goblins RPG. There are no mystical swords or magic scepters. You're not exploring castles and venturing into fantastical kingdoms. Instead, you equip frying pans and bottle rockets as your weapons. You fight weird aliens, disgusting piles of vomit, and possessed hippies. As for dungeons, you explore other dimensions, arcades, and cult colonies.
The whole thing is very much outlandish, and it's not afraid to mess with you. Take, for example, the ruler and protractor. These items are completely useless — seriously, there is nothing you can do with them whatsoever — but the game never informs you of that. Sometimes enemies will use a ruler to measure things during battle, but nothing happens, and that's exactly the case if you use a ruler, and it'll never change. Nothing will happen. Ever. EarthBound was trolling before trolling was cool, and that's just one of the things that makes it so charming. There's this weird sense of discovery that forces you to learn by poking lighthearted fun at you.
The writing is oftentimes sharp and consistently enjoyable. There are just so many characters, all of which have something worth listening to. Every time I encountered a new character, I always wanted to know what he or she had to say. Sometimes it's worth it to talk to characters multiple times as they can tend to tell you different things. Hell, even dogs will thank you for taking the time to talk to them. EarthBound is cleverly written, and it can go from hilarious to random to heart-wrenching in the blink of an eye.
Music is an absolute delight to listen to, and, like the writing, it changes drastically to fit different situations. Sometimes all you hear are strange, spacey sounds, while other times you're treated to a cool collection of themes. It's awesome to hear the bizarre battle music, which varies depending on the types of enemies you're facing, but it's also fun to notice little touches like the "New Age Retro Hippie" theme, which is totally a parody of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." When you win a battle, you know you've accomplished something great, but even more satisfaction envelops you when you hear a jingle play on after you level up. My personal favorite tune in EarthBound, and one of my favorite songs in all of gaming, is the melancholy “Snowman” tune.
As is often the case with Nintendo games from the 16-bit era, EarthBound looks really great. The game originally hit the SNES in 1995, so Itoi and the dev team were able to take advantage of the console's time on the market and create a good-looking game. Now, those visuals have turned into beautiful pixel art that drips with pure, unadulterated style. Towns, dungeons, and the characters themselves all look stupendous and exude a vast deal of charm.
EarthBound will forever be one of my favorite games of all time, and it holds a special place in my heart. That's not why you should play the game, though. No, if you've yet to experience the awe that this project provides those who dare play it, you should definitely take the time to enjoy it for everything that it will give you: an entertaining, hilarious, quirky romp through a crazy world where alien robots are just as dangerous as angry roaches, and where hippies and mad ducks are absolutely useless in battle. You should play EarthBound because it's a stellar benchmark for what turn-based RPGs were and still are. It's a jolly game that will stay with you long after you've finished playing it, and you'll look forward to exploring its weird world again down the road.
As for those of you who played EarthBound in the past, you already know why you should play the game again. It's time to relive those great memories, but more importantly, it's time to create new ones.
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