Earthbound Review (Spoiler-Free)
I finally got around to playing Earthbound. Known as Mother 2 in Japan, for years this was the only entry in the series that made it to North America. It has a reputation as a cult classic, but with as well known as it is these days maybe it’s more of a regular classic. I found the game to be an excellent RPG, it’s aged very well! Some mechanics might be a little dated, but overall it’s still a joy to play today!
Ness is just an ordinary kid, living in the town of Onett in the country Eagleland. One night, a meteorite lands nearby, waking him. Curious, he goes out to investigate. At the meteorite crash site, he meets the talking insect Buzz Buzz, who says it’s from the future. Buzz Buzz warns that the evil Giygas has brought darkness to the universe in the future. But this dark fate can be avoided if Ness and three other prophesied heroes join together to fight Giygas! Giygas evil influence is already taking hold in the present, leading to animals, people, and even inanimate objects becoming violent. With his journey ahead of him, Ness and Buzz Buzz set out to save the world!
…Except Buzz Buzz is promptly smashed by Ness’s neighbor and killed. Luckily, he has time to carefully explain to Ness what he needs to do to gain the power to defeat Giygas. He must visit the 8 Your Sanctuary locations and defeat the enemies there. These are Buzz Buzz’s dying breaths…except he’ll totally repeat all of that for you if you ask him to, how convenient! Once Ness understands what he must do, Buzz Buzz bites the dust.
Ness’s wacky journey will lead him to fight sentient taxis, hippies, and more, all in the name of saving the universe, all the while using and strengthening his psychic powers. Welcome to Earthbound!
You’re strange, but you smell good
Immediately after the game begins, Earthbound already shows signs that it’s a little different. Something about the atmosphere, whether it be the uncommon perspective the pixel art is drawn at, or the quirky dialogue, just tells you that this game isn’t like other RPGs.
The graphics have definitely always drawn my attention. The perspective isn’t often seen in video games, so it definitely helps Earthbound stand out. Personally, I love this style. It contributes heavily to the game’s charm.
WHOAAAAAAAAAAH! There is a Hamburger inside!
Also oozing with charm are the NPCs and situations encountered during the adventure. Many NPCs have peculiar things to say, pop culture references to make, or self-aware jokes to tell.
And the events that take place throughout the game are bizarre, yet the characters in this world think nothing of them. For instance, at one point you trap Zombies using Zombie Paper. It’s like fly paper, but for zombies instead. And no one in the game bats an eye at this. In fact, before this event at least one of them even remarks that they wish they had some Zombie Paper!
These factors make Earthbound feel vastly different from other RPGs, even though at its heart is classic turn-based RPG combat.
I am able to use a little psychic power that is actually pretty deadly
Speaking of the combat, battles are every bit as quirky as everything else. One aspect I really enjoyed is that there are no random encounters, enemies appear in the field and battle only starts when they touch your party. This is unlike many RPGs of the time, which just use random encounters, and I really appreciate it!
On the surface, the combat system seems no different from any other turn-based RPG of the era. When a character’s HP reaches 0, they fall unconscious. Instead of magic, characters have psychic PSI abilities at their disposal that cost PSI Points (PP) to use. You level up by fighting enemies and gaining experience points. But besides these common elements, there are a few things that make the combat unique.
For one, when taking damage in battle your characters’ HP meters look and act like the odometer in a car, but work in reverse, and tick downward after an enemy attack.
This means that if a character takes mortal damage, if you manage to defeat all enemies before that character’s HP rolls down to 0, they survive, holding onto whatever HP was showing on the meter when the last enemy was defeated. Or, if you manage to get a healing item or PSI used quickly enough, this can prevent a character from falling unconscious too.
When your HP is rapidly rolling down to 0, it can lead to some pretty clutch moments of mashing through menus as if your very life depends on it! The whole system is very heart pounding at times, and keeps things interesting. It’s especially critical in the late game, when enemies can hit really hard. I found myself utilizing healing PSI to save teammates from mortal damage quite frequently, and succeeding most of the time!
Ness got over the cold
The status effects in battle are what I’d refer to as “flavorful” as well. Many of them fit normal RPG tropes, like poison or confusion, but have different names in Earthbound. For instance, in the early game you will sometimes have enemies use attacks that cause a character to catch a cold. This is like a weak poison, and a character with a cold will take a few HP of damage per turn from sneezing. Poison is also a status effect, and functions how you’d expect, dealing moderate damage each turn, but I thought it was interesting how the weaker version of poison is just catching a cold.
Some status effects really are unique though. Some enemies can inflict the “possessed” status effect on your characters. This causes a tiny ghost to circle around them while exploring the overworld, and in battle the mini ghost functions basically as another enemy, albeit one you can’t see and don’t have to attack or defeat to win the battle. The mini ghost will launch weak attacks against your party members in battle, and it will sometimes reach out its icy hand and freeze a party member for a single turn.
Besides possession, Earthbound has a few other unique status effects and twists on the usual RPG ailments. Characters can be inflicted with a mushroom growing on their head, which you can actually sell for a small amount of money to certain NPCs, curing the characters and lining your pockets slightly! Instead of being petrified, characters may become diamondized, turning to diamond instead of stone. All these little tweaks to the RPG formula keep the game feeling fresh, and contribute further to its unique identity.
It looks like you got your head handed to you
All in all, the combat was very fair and balanced. I rarely had to grind during my playthrough. In fact, I think there was only once instance in which I had to deliberately seek out and fight enemies to gain a few levels before I was strong enough to proceed. The beginning of the game was honestly the hardest part. One of the earlier bosses gave me a few Game Overs in a row, and this is when I tried grinding a bit. In the end, it turned out I just needed a different strategy though, and once I adjusted my approach I made it through just fine. These early Game Overs didn’t discourage me or ruin my fun though, because the penalty for a Game Over is quite lenient. You can simply respawn back at the last place you saved, keeping any experience you gained since then. Of course, you also lose any items you used before the Game Over. That’s one reason you might pick “No” when getting a Game Over; maybe you just don’t want to part with whatever powerful item you used. I always picked “Yes” and respawned, personally.
I’m Brick Road
I really enjoyed the dungeons. It seems like game designers sometimes get carried away and make a dungeon way too long, or the enemy encounter rate is just way too high. But luckily, Earthbound’s dungeons are neither of those things.
Many of the dungeons do have several branching paths, some of which end in dead ends with optional treasure chests. Maybe I just got lucky, but somehow I always found my way through the dungeons without too much trouble. There was one that seemed like it’d be a headache-inducing maze, but miraculously I found the way forward without feeling completely lost first. Maybe this was somehow due to careful dungeon design, but again, it may have been plain dumb luck as well.
Ka-Boom!! The Runaway Five!!! Yeah!!!
The music complements the tone of the game very well too. There are some interesting samples used in a lot of the tracks. For one, a shop/drugstore theme predominantly features a banjo-like sound. It’s weird, but it really works, and it kept popping into my head days after I finished the game.
The Onett theme was my favorite early game song. It just has a melody line which I love, and a bouncy feeling that got me ready to start my adventure. But my favorite track in the entire game is definitely the song that plays during the epilogue of the game. This track is “Because I Love You,” as I later learned, and it’s just so calm, yet also sad and reflective. It’s perfect for the end of the journey.
This bus goes to Fourside
Aside from the surreal atmosphere, and fun combat and dungeons, Earthbound is also packed with some really cool moments. One that sticks out to me right away, and I feel I can share without spoiling anything, is walking into Fourside for the first time. Fourside is the one location in the entire game that’s presented at a sort of “isometric angle,” and it is beautiful.
When I saw those diamond-shaped building and diagonally running streets, I just smiled to myself a little. It’s like, just when you got used to the visual style of the cities, the game mixes things up and throws Fourside at you, and I loved it.
This is far from the only cool moment in the game. But, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go into any of the others. I think they’re best experienced for yourself anyway. I know that I’m glad I didn’t know about them beforehand, as it made experiencing them more impactful.
You’ve traveled very far from home…
Now that I’ve showered Earthbound with praise, it’s time to address a few issues I had with it.
In general, I’d say that as an SNES RPG, things can feel slow just due to the game’s age. Occasionally, you’ll get into a battle with enemies that aren’t so weak that they’re auto-defeated on contact, but not so strong that you have to put any thought into the battle. You can hit the auto-battle option once the battle starts, but it could still take several turns of regular attacks to knock them all out. Times like these, I was glad I was playing on an emulator so I could use the speed up feature to cruise through battles like these. I wouldn’t say this is really a problem with Earthbound specifically either. Battles in any game can feel stale sometimes.
Are you homesick?
One Earthbound-specific feature I had an issue with is homesickness. Ness has a unique status ailment, “homesick,” that he has a small chance of being inflicted with at the end of each battle. While Ness is homesick, there is a pretty high chance that on his turn in battle, he will too distracted by thoughts of home to do anything, and his turn passes with him doing nothing instead of doing what you told him to do. At first, I thought the homesickness was cute. Just another fun quirk of the game, right? And it is…until Ness gets homesick in the middle of a dungeon.
There’s no skill or item that can cure homesickness. The only to get rid of it is by calling Mom from a phone, or by completing a Your Sanctuary dungeon. So basically, your only choices when it happens in the middle of a dungeon are to leave the dungeon, either backtracking your way all the way out or using an Exit Mouse, finishing the dungeon (provided it’s a Your Sanctuary and will heal you upon completion), or getting a Game Over to respawn back at the last place you saved in order to call Ness’s Mom.
Homesickness only really got in my way once, when I was right in the middle of a mid-game dungeon. Ness immediately became next to useless in battle, but luckily the rest of my party was somehow able to pick up his slack, and I made it through without getting a Game Over. But wow, when that homesickness RNG hits you at a bad time, it can really hit hard.
Aside from those complaints, the rest of my experience was fantastic!
Planning Meeting for Earthbound 2
I understand now why there’s a dedicated fanbase that clamors for an official English release for Mother 3. Knowing what a true joy Earthbound was to play through, and then learning that there’s another game in the series for the GBA, but also knowing that game never left Japan…the struggle is real! As of this writing, Mother 3’s only official releases have all been in Japanese. It has had a re-release on Nintendo’s Wii U Virtual Console, but only for Japan of course, because there’s no official English translation. Thankfully, some dedicated Mother 3 fans poured their energy into a fan-made English translation years ago, and it’s been available to play in English unofficially since 2008.
I know the predecessor to Earthbound, Mother 1, localized as Earthbound Beginnings, has received an official English release on the Wii U Virtual Console. Since that’s an NES game though, and based on the little I’ve seen and heard about it, I think hardware limitations got in the way far more often than with Earthbound, and it probably hasn’t aged nearly as well. So I don’t have any immediate plans to play Earthbound Beginnings, but I’m very excited to try Mother 3 someday!
In case it wasn’t already clear, I give Earthbound my glowing recommendation. If you’re a fan of turn-based RPGs, give Earthbound a try. If it’s not for you, that’s totally understandable. It’s bizarre a large percent of the time. But if it clicks with you, then you’re in for a real treat!