Posted by Corbie Dillard
An RPG experience unlike any other.
After the success of their original Mother title on the Famicom system in Japan, Nintendo decided to create a sequel on their new 16-bit Super Famicom system. Having once again enjoyed solid sales with the title, they decided to give the game a try with North American gamers, releasing it as Earthbound on the Super Nintendo console in 1995. While the game didn't exactly light up the sales charts outside of Japan, it has certainly gone on to become one of the most sought-after games on the various online auction sites, selling for upwards of $80 as nothing more than a loose cartridge. So what exactly is it that has made this title so revered by role-playing game fans and let it stand the test of time since its release almost fifteen years ago?
While the overall gameplay of Earthbound feels like a traditional Japanese RPG, it also tends to interchange many of the classic elements with a more modern-day equivalent. However, you'll still spend the majority of your time traversing the many areas of the game – both on foot and using various vehicles – and doing battle with a whole host of bizarre alien creatures as progress. Of course instead of restoring the health of your characters using healing potions, you instead scoff down hamburgers and pizzas; you don't visit your local temple to have your fallen comrades resurrected, instead you visit them at the local hospital. It's these unique changes that give it such an original and fresh feel and set it apart from the countless other RPGs of the time.
Sticking to the tried and tested formula, each new area you visit has its own set of goals for you and your characters to achieve in order to progress on to the next one. Most times this includes a whole host of individual challenges leading up to a boss battle. Earthbound, probably more so than many other RPGs, requires you to do a lot of exploration and places an increased emphasis on speaking to the various people in each of the game's cities and villages. It sometimes feels more like your solving a murder mystery than playing a role-playing game. While the pacing can sometimes be a bit on the sluggish side – especially when compared to some of the other top-tier Super Nintendo RPGs – you can tell that its deliberately set up that way in order to allow you to unravel the storyline piece by piece as you play. Once you've completed this one, and you'd better be ready to put in some serious hours if you're going to finish this beast of a quest, you'll see why the developers chose to allow it to play out at its own pace.
Much like the other areas of the gameplay system, combat is also quite a unique experience. Battles are still carried out in traditional turn-based fashion, but there are some interesting tweaks tossed into the mix as well. Your characters can choose to attack, cast spells using their PSI ability or even use Goods that you have in your inventory. As you purchase stronger weapons and level up your characters, new and more powerful attack and PSI spells will become available. If you don't feel like carrying out the battle yourself or find yourself having trouble with a particular fight, you can even allow the game's AI to carry out the battle for you via the Auto-Fight command – a nice unique touch.
Another unique feature of the combat system is the way your character's hit point counter rolls down slowly somewhat like an odometer. Even if your character is hit for more damage than they have hit points, you can still quickly heal yourself before the counter reaches zero, thus not falling in battle. It's little touches like these that give the game its unique playability and make it stand out from crowd.
The play control in Earthbound might at first seem a little too dumbed down, but that's only until you get into the game and see just how strategic and playable its system it truly is. Unique additions like the rolling hit point counter and being able to instantly win battles with outmatched enemies gives the game not only a more streamlined feel to it, but also tends to keep it from becoming stale or repetitive during long stretches where enemies tend to be numerous and aggressive in their pursuit of your characters. Couple all of these new gameplay twists with the already rock solid traditional play control system and you have an RPG gameplay engine that allows you to keep your focus on the task at hand and not have to spend time fumbling through a clumsy play control scheme.
As unique as the gameplay system in Earthbound tends to be, nothing stands out quite like the visual style it makes use of. It features the simplicity of an 8-bit graphical presentation, but with the polish of a 16-bit graphics engine behind it. It's really something that has to be seen first-hand to fully comprehend and appreciate. The mix of simple textures with often vibrant and contrasting colour schemes gives the game a look all its own and is not really the type of graphical experience that can be compared to many other titles out there. Even the animations that accompany these visuals seem to have an almost-deliberate simplicity that fit in perfectly with the uncluttered visual theme employed. It might not be as flashy as some of the other 16-bit titles available on the Super Nintendo console, but it is one of the most interesting ones.
The Super Nintendo featured some absolutely amazing RPG soundtracks during its time, but none quite like that of Earthbound. It's not only one of the most captivating RPG soundtracks, but it's also one of the most varied as well. Some tracks tend to be very melodic whereas others are just downright bizarre – of course, considering the variation between the many areas you'll traverse in the game, it certainly isn't surprising. Granted, there are a few tracks that can be a little annoying due to their off-the-wall nature and the length of time you'll have to listen to them, but considering how amazing the musical effort is overall, it's tough to complain too much. Even the sound effects are amazing and you'll honestly lose count of how many there are after awhile. It's not terribly difficult to see why the musical score in Earthbound has become one of the most beloved and sought-after video game soundtracks available.
Earthbound succeeds at not only being one of the most unique and refreshing RPG experiences ever created, but also one of the most epic and entertaining as well. Combining classic RPG gameplay elements with a much more modern day spin, the game somehow feels familiar, yet wildly original all at the same time. Toss in a visual presentation unlike anything you've likely seen before, with a soundtrack and storyline both equally unique, and what you have is one of the wildest RPG thrill rides you're ever likely to experience. If for some reason you've never gotten the chance to play this one over the years, you really owe it to yourself to at least give it a try. And for those of you who have played it before, you certainly don't need us to tell you how great it is!