There are a number of interesting and varied opinions about games here at RPGamer. Each site contributor, from reviewer to forum moderator to newsie, has their own opinions on what makes an RPG truly great. We're all gamers, after all. With that being said, wouldn't it be nice if we had a written venue for staff and forum-goers to hash out the good and bad elements of RPGs?
Enter: PVP (or Player Vs. Player) — a place for us to break down what made a game great, horrible, playable, and unplayable. The participating staff dishes opinions on a game and why they either completed it or dropped it like a bag of potatoes. The forum goers get to do the same. Each month a different RPG is featured that is polarizing, popular, or pitiable.
This month we'll be discussing EarthBound. It's a cult RPG that has grown quite the reputation over the years. Let's dig in.
EarthBound is one of those RPGs I didn't get to in my childhood. I was only allowed one game a year for my SNES growing up, and every time I contemplated asking for this classic, something else would pop into my brain with much more urgency. Fast-forward to my college years, where in a friend of mine owned TWO copies of the game, and allowed me to borrow one. He was convinced that there was something completely wrong with me for having not played EarthBound, and when I popped the game into the cartridge slot, I admittedly had to agree with him.
EarthBound is a game that is completely wacky on the outside, but disturbing on the inside. Areas such as Moonside were left imprinted in my mind, as upon first glance it's an area where everything is backwards. Everything about this area is completely peculiar, almost uncomfortable even. Moreover, the death of Buzz Buzz I remember just wrecked me (mind you, I'm an emotional gal), and the amount of times I found myself shaking my fist at Pokey was well... every second he appeared on screen. This game has so much personality from level design to localization, and the amount of humour that exists is both charming as it is awkward. My all-time favourite moment in the game is the ending where you see Pokey one last time, and how he was jealous of Ness, envious of how "special" he was. His jealousy comes across more sinister than honest, and it makes for an uncomfortable and emotional final encounter.
I asked my friend after I finished the game to sell me his second copy of EarthBound. He completely refused my offer, and told me to track it down on my own. Boy, wasn't I happy when it finally appeared on the Wii U Virtual Console. Earthbound is definitely a game at some point I'd like to return to and see if upon a second playthrough I'd love it as much as I did the first time around.
EarthBound is more interesting for its cult reputation and history with Nintendo than as a game in its own right. Sure, the dialogue is ripe with quirky humor, the visuals are colourful and charming, and the design was more meta than I think most 90s gamers could rightfully handle, but can we call any game a masterpiece based on those elements alone? Maybe. I would say no though.
There are people with deep connections to this game. People who were caught off guard with its avant garde approach to battle information, character interaction, and adult themes. I know this because the people who love EarthBound, who by-the-way prefer that it be referred to as Mother 2, will not shut the hell up about it. Seriously, there is a subset of nigh-elitist people out there who actively bow to the altar that is Mother 2.
Again, I find the history of this game's flubbed original release and its cultural significance as a cult RPG darling to be far more interesting than a fairly generic experience. I did enjoy my time with EarthBound each of the four times I played through the classic, but I'm also not blind to its faults. The battle system is minimalistic to the point of feeling antiquated, narrative progression is often halted by nonsensical difficulty spikes, the inventory system is downright horrendous, and combat can become very tedious, very fast. This game has problems, and many of you who love it won't come to realize them until you sober up by playing Mother 3.
This is the part of my diatribe where I get on a tiny soapbox and plead with anyone still reading to play Mother 3. EarthBound's sequel has a much better story. A story that will make anyone who loves their parents cry (believe me). It is cinematic in ways that no other pixelated RPG has been since the days of the Super NES. Grinding is also less of an issue, as rhythm battles spice up the flow of combat. To be honest, I feel like it is an improvement over Earthbound in every way.
I missed EarthBound when it was first released. It wasn't because I couldn't find a copy, but more that I had no interest in the game. None of my friends were talking about it, and there was no drive to get it from the screenshots I'd seen. It just looked boring, but what did I know?
Fast-forward to the Wii U eShop release where I picked it up after years of fans mentioning how wonderful and memorable it was. And guess what? My intuition from all those years ago was correct. The game was slow, combat was plodding, and I found myself falling asleep. Sure the setting was cute, but what does that matter if you're not having fun? So I again passed on EarthBound. It's still sitting installed on my Wii U and will likely remain there untouched. Yawn.
EarthBound seems like it would have been right up my alley when it first appeared in North American stores in 1995. I had just started high school, and was in the early stages of my obsession with RPGs. Instead, I don't remember even hearing about it - not from print ads, not from school friends, nothing at all. And anyway, I was probably too deep in the thrall of FFVI, which I was still playing feverishly since its release a year earlier, and more to the point Chrono Trigger just a couple of months earlier. At that time, understandably, my world revolved around everything SquareSoft and the fantastic worlds it gave me.
So this RPG set in a small town in the real world would probably have seemed simple to me, on some level barbaric, even. RPGs were meant to be all about fantasy: magic, dragons, horrible monsters and the brave heroes who vanquish them. I think, even had I been aware of EarthBound's existence (was it ever advertised?), I would have dismissed it after a brief look at the back of the box.
I finally got exposed to it as part of preparation for a podcast I recorded with some friends, about several games including EarthBound. Having no knowledge of it, I found an emulator online (this is YEARS ago - ahem, statute of limitations...) and played a not-so-small portion of it. I don't remember exactly how far I got; far enough to have an opinion about it one way or another, in any case. But once the podcast was recorded, I never did go back to finish it. There were just too many other games I wanted to play, and I guess it didn't snare my attention as much as it might have a decade or two ago.
EarthBound is a little game that doesn't quite know if it can or can't. I can mirror the sentiments of many here that as an RPG it's absolutely dull. Combat is this cantankerous and festering blister on a game that almost seems like it doesn't want it. I haven't beaten the game yet, but I can't mash through the battles fast enough. EarthBound's famous method of auto-defeating monsters much weaker than you is less of a good game concept and more of a godsend, especially in EarthBound. Even the means of interacting with things in menus is irritating. Nearly every ludic aspect of the game is just a pain. Ironically enough, I feel the worst part of EarthBound is that it is an RPG at all.
And yet, I am drawn to it in the same way I'm drawn to Deadly Premonition, another overly ambitious and technical mess that nonetheless feels genuine in everything it attempts. It's a weird and baffling exercise in lunacy, as if David Lynch remembered a dream from his childhood that he related to Joe Dante who made a Saturday morning cartoon about it, but instead of the show just starting, they handed you a game controller instead. It's mesmerizing and compels you just to take in more of just how off it all is. But, ultimately, it's a game about letting kid's imaginations go wild. Given how rare games like EarthBound are even to this day, and especially made with children in mind, it's a fascinating relic that isn't nearly as shiny or flawless like many of its biggest fans will preach. But it still belongs in that museum.
I had become a bigger fan of RPGs at the time, so I was more open to playing EarthBound. I found the graphical style adorable and learned all about the game's kooky overtones and darker undertones. Even if I spoiled myself silly on EarthBound, I was still charmed and endeared by the game once I actually started to play it. I love so many things about this game including the unique locations, the goofy ways to overcome certain obstacles, the humorous localization, the off-beat items and enemies, and the memorable NPCs, both major and minor. I'll admit that I wasn't all that disturbed by Threed, Pu's Moo Training, or even Giygas's battle, though I will say that the latter is still one of the most memorable boss fights ever. Perhaps if I had played it as a preteen and not an 19-year-old I would have been more affected. Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with EarthBound and was so glad to have finally played it, even if it had to be through less-than-legal means. I did pick up the game once I bought a Wii U, though I've yet to play this version.
I can certainly see why EarthBound has amassed the cult following that it has. There are certainly better games, the battle system a bit slow, and the story a bit unoriginal in comparison to its predecessor and sequel. I even think EarthBound Beginnings has better music than its sequel. Even so, EarthBound for the SNES is just dripping with off-beat charm. EarthBound may not be an absolute most favorite RPG of mine, but it is one that I adore nonetheless.
Like a lot of fellow staff members, I managed to completely miss EarthBound the first time around. I honestly don't even remember seeing it in retail or game rental stores. It wasn't until I started writing for RPGamer that I was introduced to the game. I ended up borrowing several SNES games from a reader, including Robotech and Act Raiser, alongside EarthBound. I played the first 30 minutes before I shut it off in disinterest, and mailed it back without playing more.
Fast-forward to the Wii U Virtual Console release. I've been watching Chris play the game off and on since it came out, along with watching a very nifty speedrun of the game, and...I'm just not pulled to the game. It makes me feel like I'm missing out a little, listening to people lavish praise on the game liberally, but for whatever reason it just didn't click for me.
I'm surprised by the general tone of my fellow staff members' responses. EarthBound is a favorite of mine: I have the shirts, the daily planner, the Mr. Saturn plastic bead art, the Starmen.net account, and plenty of other bits and bobs to prove it in the most capitalistic way possible. Then again, it's been a few years since I've last played it, so maybe I'm running on nostalgia fumes? No. It is everyone else who is wrong. Let's go back to the beginning.
EarthBound's mysterious draw grew from a brief mention of Mother in the back of Nintendo Power magazine. Although Mother was never released during my childhood, the promise and mystery grabbed my imagination. The contemporary, humorous setting was so different than what I knew--and it was unobtainable. Better. Plenty of games had goblins and dragons, but very few had cigar-smoking crows with guns. It seemed like the sort of adventure I would go on with my friends, if the world was just a little more weird.
Flashing ahead to the SNES years, I was initially deterred by EarthBound's ad campaign ("This game stinks!"), but attracted by its satirical presentation and pizza scratch-and-sniff cards. I dove into EarthBound, and was rewarded with heart, humor, and a brace of metafictional tricks that have become, if not expected these days, then certainly not as paradigm-shifting. Encountering the game's designers was rad, but entering into the game myself (with my full name!) was something else. Winning with the power of hope and friendship can be a mawkish cliche when handled poorly, but in this case the pacing and sacrifice made it work. Slower moments, such as the beverage breaks, provided space for contemplation, while memorable NPCs like Frank and the Runaway Five made me want to hear from them again. Paula's prayer was desperate, but hopeful. The power of hopeful crowds, recognizing an unfair situation and banding together, still resonates with me.
Community is what makes EarthBound memorable, both within the game and out. 16-bit-era RPGamers were already an insular lot, and EarthBound's limited commercial success made its fans even more of a fringe group. As a result, we became the guy at the party who has a favorite cult book, and simply has to discuss it with everyone. The game didn't have broad penetration, but those it touched were touched deep. We went underground. Today, two types of fans are stronger than us, while two different types of fans are weaker. I guess we are pretty strong. The number of contemporary RPGs that cite EarthBound as an inspiration attests to this appeal, even as they pay homage to it in different ways. RPGs that feature contemporary settings, wacky humor, fart jokes, unsettling Americana, earnest optimism, and squashy pixels aren't as rare as they were when it made its initial impressions. Getting the balance just right, though, that's more difficult.
You've heard what the staff has to say about this "classic." What's your take? Hit up the forums. Defend it, destroy it, or express how little interest you might have for it in the first place. We want to know how you feel!
To close, I'd like to thank Alex Fuller for coming up with the layout and Sarah McGarr for the graphics.