The Earthbound series is probably the one real anomaly in the stable of Nintendo franchises. The series began with Mother in Japan on the Famicom and only came to American with the SNES sequel, Earthbound. It’s really Nintendo’s only pure turn-based JRPG (Fire Emblem falls more along the lines of a tactical strategy RPG), and even for a JRPG, Earthbound is pretty weird. Like Fire Emblem, most Americans probably would’ve never heard of it if its characters and iconography didn’t show up in the Super Smash Brothers series. But Earthbound was developed by HAL Lab, the same studio that made Smash Bros, so Earthbound’s fingerprints show up more often in the mascot fighter than their obscure reputation might deserve.
In fact, even if you’ve come to know Earthbound by playing as Ness and Lucas in Smash Bros, American gamers curious about the series can still have a hard time getting into it. When Earthbound was ported to the American SNES back in 1995 it sold pretty poorly, no surprise as it was a series that almost nobody in America had ever heard of, on a console at the tail end of its twilight years. Consequently original cartridges have become one of the holy grails of retro collecting, and you can count on them going for several hundred dollars if you do manage to track one down.
Naturally, as an amateur retro enthusiast (but not one made of money) I was happy to see Earthbound show up on the Wii U Virtual Console. I had never played Earthbound before so I was eager to experience such a rare and bizarre footnote in Nintendo history, one that many gamers proclaim as one of the great classic JRPGs. In hindsight, I’m kind of glad I came at this fresh and with no bias. Earthbound is indeed a fine example of both retro RPGs and HAL’s offbeat, sometimes baffling and disturbing sense of humor. That said, without playing it through rose-tinted glasses it’s clear to see it is an old game in a genre that has grown beyond Earthbound considerably in the last decade and a half.
Taken on its mechanics alone, Earthbound is a surprisingly typical RPG of its era, with a few quintessentially Nintendo-style innovations for good measure. Your party eventually consists of the standard four members—Ness and three of his friends—and while the usual classes are all there, the individual characters don’t fall into the same stereotypical roles, which is refreshing. You’ll be power leveling as you would in any other RPG, and progression is story-based, following the party as they explore towns and defeat bosses.
There were a few deviations from the norm that I appreciated. For starters, there are no random encounters. While enemies respawn on the overworld with irritating frequency, it’s always your decision to engage or avoid a fight, although toward the start of the game it’s usually a good idea to fight and gain XP. As you level up, significantly weaker enemies will simply cut and run on the overworld, and if you catch up to them you’ll defeat them automatically, no turn-based battle required. This makes the later stages less punitive, which is good because Earthbound is by no means an easy game.
Old hands at JRPGs will feel right at home with Earthbound, but younger or more inexperienced gamers will likely get turned off by the sheer amount of grinding you must do to stand even the barest chance of success against the game’s brutal boss fights. I admit it was a bit of a shock to me, as I’ve been out of the groove for several years, to recall just how uncompromising 16-bit RPGs were. In fact the game is actually harder early on, as Ness struggles through those first levels, grabbing every scrap of XP and desperately acquiring new weapons and party members. After a few hours of getting my rear end handed to me, I was very thankful to have the Wii U’s save state ability handy for those really hard bosses. I can only imagine how frustrating the game must’ve been back on the SNES with no such feature.
Thankfully Earthbound has another quirky mechanic that doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but gives you a little extra strategy to fall back on. While other RPGs had a static HP counter that instantly calculated damage and deducted the appropriate amount of health, Earthbound introduced scrolling HP number wheels, like something you’d see on an antique alarm clock. If you or one of your party is dealt a KO blow, the HP wheel scrolls down to zero, but while it spins you still have time to save yourself with a healing spell, or at least get off one last attack. If it’s a close battle you can actually kill the enemy and end the fight while your health ticks down, saving yourself. It’s a cool little idea that makes a big difference sometimes, and I can’t recall seeing anything similar in other RPGs I’ve played.
The actual combat is pretty typical of the genre, displayed in first person in the grand Dragon Quest tradition, as opposed to the party facing off against the enemy on opposing ends of the screen as in Final Fantasy. There are some psychedelic distorting backgrounds in the fights that I’m sure were really impressive on SNES mode-7 graphics, but sadly this makes the battles less vibrant and interesting today. While a very competent RPG, Earthbound is somewhat unremarkable in its workings and mechanics. Rather, it’s the story and environment that make it special.
Theme, tone and setting are what still set this game apart from other contemporary RPGs as well as those of today. Ness’s world might be experiencing an alien invasion, but it was much closer to our world to begin with than anything you’ll find in a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game. To save your game, you have to find a payphone so Ness can call his dad. You don’t have all of your money in one magical account that you carry with you at all times, but instead must access an ATM whenever you need cash. Ness and his friends battle the invading alien hordes with a combination of sci-fi spells and children’s toys like popguns, yo-yos and baseball bats. These elements lend the game an uncomfortable sense of whimsy; it looks like it’s all fun and games, but then you remember these are little kids battling and killing for their very survival.
This innocently twisted sense of humor permeates the whole game and is really the one lasting reason to revisit Earthbound, or to pick it up for the first time. You don’t just battle the customary (but still bizarre) space aliens like Starmen and puke piles, but also conmen, hippies and stray dogs. You’ll discover a village populated by Mr. Saturn and the rest of his people—basically small walking noses with bows in their hair, who speak a broken dialect, represented in-game by curlicue script. You’ll even defeat and disband a nature cult obsessed with the color blue. The developers at HAL Lab have always had a reputation for their oddball sense of humor, but Earthbound is something else entirely. If you can weather the old-school difficulty, there is a story here unlike anything you’ve ever seen or will see, at once tragic, heartwarming, disturbing and uplifting.
For that reason, it’s pretty hard not to recommend Earthbound. It’s great to have such a classic on the Wii U Virtual Console relatively early in the console’s lifespan. That said, Earthbound is a little more expensive on the Wii U eShop; $10 instead of the usual $8 for SNES games. Nintendo clearly knows there is high demand for this game—fans have been clamoring for it ever since the Virtual Console launched on the Wii back in 2006.
It’s no surprise that they’d inflate the price a little bit, and I’m sure they know how ridiculous prices can get for original cartridges. I’m a little annoyed that they’d put a premium on it, but considering that you can now get one of the most revered and rare cult classics for around the price of a Chipotle burrito and chips, it’s really not a bad deal. Just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into, and make sure to have the free player’s guide PDF on hand—you’re going to need it.