Earthbound - Reader Re-Retroview  

Giygas Strikes Back
by Jeremy Michael Gallen

15-25 Hours
+ Solid encounter system and game mechanics.
+ Unique art direction.
- Character inventories fill up quickly.
- Weak plot.
- Sound is an acquired taste.
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   In the year 199X, a boy named Ness is awakened by a meteor crashing near his home, where he finds a fly from the future, Buzz Buzz, who tells him that an evil being named Giygas has taken over the world in the future, and that Ness is one of the Chosen Four destined to stop him. Nintendo's Earthbound for the Super NES is the sequel to the Japan-only title Mother, and thus far the only entry of the series to see foreign release. The sequel is backed by solid gameplay mechanics, though most other aspects leave something to desire.

   In its time, Earthbound had a unique encounter system, where monster sprites indicating individual enemies are visible in the game's various environs, in towns, dungeons, and fields in between. If the player's party is weaker than the enemy, monsters will charge them, but if the party is more powerful, enemies will run away. Depending upon how Ness approaches an enemy sprite (from behind, face-to-face, or a monster approaches his party from behind), a green, black, or red swirl will appear for a few seconds, respectively indicating a preemptive attack for the player, a normal encounter, or an enemy ambush. During the swirl sequence, nearby monster sprites can approach the party as well, increasing the number of enemies in the following fight.

   If the party's levels are high enough, the player can score an instant victory against the enemies, still receiving experience, money, and occasional items. In most instances, however, the player is taken to a separate screen for turn-based combat, with all characters having the staple commands of attacking, defending, using items, and using Psychic Point-consuming magic (except Jeff). Many characters also have unique abilities of some sort; for instance, Paula can pray for random effects, Jeff can analyze enemy stats and weaknesses and fix "broken" items when the party sleeps at hotels, and Poo can "mirror" enemies to take on their forms and use their abilities.

Dalaam Mandatory oriental-themed area

   Once the player has inputted commands for all characters, they and the enemy exchange commands in a random order. An interesting innovation is "rolling" HP, where, when characters take damage, their HP gradually decreases by the amount of damage taken instead of instantly like in most other RPGs. This means that even if characters take mortal blows, the player still has a chance to win a fight or heal said characters before their HP reaches zero and they die. Given this real-time aspect, however, a pause button would have been nice, but it is a decent feature.

   Given the low scale of combat and quick execution of commands, battles don't normally take long, though Ness basically becomes a tank late in the game, dwarfing his allies stat-wise even when all are at high levels. If the player does lose a battle, they can continue from the last save point with half their money on hand lost (though the player can store money in ATMs, and money gained from combat instantly goes to ATMs, largely nullifying this penalty). Despite the randomness of turn order and slight unbalance, the battle mechanics are more than adequate.

   Control could have been tighter, though, with each character's limited inventory being most apparent, since they tend to fill up quickly. The player can call delivery service to store away excess items and retrieve stored items, but only three at a time, which can become somewhat tedious. Shopping can also be slightly annoying, given the many dialogues and confirmations when doing so, and warp magic doesn't become available until later in the game. However, if the player gets lost, they can pay an NPC to get a hint on how to advance, not a problem since plenty of money comes from combat. All in all, interaction is adequate, but could have been easier.

   Earthbound draws its main aesthetic influences from its predecessor, given the modern setting, and the Dragon Quest series, given the first-person perspective of battle, although the game itself does play quite differently, what with the unique encounter system, instant victories, rolling HP, and so forth, and in its time, the game was quite distinct.

Prime real estate Not-necessarily-mandatory shack in the middle of nowhere

   The story attempts to be more lighthearted and humorous than other RPGs, but somewhat falls flat, reflecting the "chosen ones" theme of other storylines in the genre. Ness does receive some backstory throughout the game, though it's actually somewhat irrelevant to the main plot, and there are some unexplained holes such as how Pokey goes from his early role as Ness's neighbor to his late-game antagonistic role. A non sequitur stalker paparazzo from the skies also serves little purpose in the plot other than annoyance, and overall, the narrative is at best a nadir.

   Earthbound features one of the most unique soundtracks on the Super NES, but unique doesn't always mean good. Many town and battle themes are decent, but the instrumentation of the music is somewhat weak, with squelching percussion and a great reliance upon ambience and plain noise at certain points. The comical sound effects can also be fairly grating, and while the aurals do fit the game's atmosphere, the sound is at best an acquired taste.

   The game's art direction is bright and cheery, with vibrant colors and decent environments along with hobbit-proportioned sprites that look as though they came out of Peanuts comics. There is some occasional slowdown on fields with many sprites, but the battle graphics are somewhat lazier. The enemy art is decent, though inanimate, with the player's characters represented by status panels, and shifting psychedelic backgrounds in lieu of traditional scenery. Ultimately, the game's look is half-decent, but like the sound an acquired taste at times.

   Finally, the game is about twenty hours long, with few sidequests or anything to extend playing time aside from leveling. Overall, Earthbound can be an enjoyable title, given its solid mechanisms, but is somewhat lacking in its other aspects, such as its musical and graphical presentation and especially its story. Regardless, the game and its series have a respectable cult following, but not strong enough to bring its development hell-plagued successor overseas.

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