Review: EarthBound (Wii U eShop / SNES)

An RPG experience unlike any other

EarthBound landed on the SNES in 1995 with a dull thud. While the game didn't exactly light up the sales charts in North America and failed to make it to Europe, it has certainly gone on to become one of the most sought-after games in the second-hand market, selling for upwards of $80 as nothing more than a loose cartridge. When the Virtual Console was announced for Wii it seemed like the world's best chance at a reasonably priced go with Ness and his crew, but the generation came and went with nothing more than an increased presence in crossover title Super Smash Bros. Brawl. After years of fan outcry for Nintendo to do something – anything — with the franchise in the West, EarthBound has finally arrived world-wide in digital form on the Wii U Virtual Console. So what exactly is it that has made this title so revered by role-playing game fans since its original release 18 years ago?

While EarthBound's overall gameplay feels like a traditional Japanese RPG of the era, the game breaks from tradition through its modern-day setting: A world of nostalgic Americana seen from a uniquely Japanese perspective. It also tends to interchange many of the classic elements with a more modern-day equivalent: Instead of restoring the health of your characters using potions, you scoff down hamburgers and pizzas; you don't resurrect fallen comrades at a local temple, you visit them at the local hospital. It's these touches that give it such an original and fresh feel to set it apart from the countless other SNES RPGs of the time.

However, you'll still spend the majority of your time traversing its diverse world – both on foot and using various vehicles – while doing battle with a host of bizarre aliens. Sticking to the tried-and-true RPG design, each new area you visit has its own set of goals to achieve in order to progress to the next location. Most times, this includes a number of individual challenges leading up to a boss battle. EarthBound, probably more so than 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 you're 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 SNES RPGs — you can tell it unfolds in a deliberate fashion in order to allow you to unravel the story piece-by-piece. 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.

As EarthBound is ever the quirky one, combat is also quite a unique experience. Battles are carried out in traditional turn-based fashion, yes, but there are some interesting tweaks tossed into the mix. Your characters can choose to attack, cast spells using their PSI ability or even use the Goods in your inventory. As you purchase stronger weapons and level up your characters, new and more powerful attacks and PSI spells become available. If you don't feel like carrying out the battle yourself or find a particular fight troublesome, 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 neat 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 suffers 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, defining character.

EarthBound might at first seem to control in a manner a little too dumbed down, but as the game warms up you see just how strategic a system it truly is. Unique additions like the rolling hit-point counter and instant victory over outmatched enemies gives the game not only a more streamlined feel but keeps it from becoming stale or repetitive during long stretches where enemies tend to be numerous and aggressive. With all of these twists on the RPG formula and a rock-solid foundation, EarthBound is an RPG that allows you to keep your focus on the task at hand and not have to spend time messing around.

As unique as its gameplay tends to be, nothing stands out quite like its visual style that features the simplicity of an 8-bit presentation with the power of a 16-bit processor behind it — suitable, as the game shares a lot of artistic DNA with NES original Mother. It's really something that has to be experienced first-hand to fully appreciate. The mix of simple textures with often vibrant and contrasting colour schemes gives the game a look all its own that defies comparison. Animations have a deliberate simplicity that fits in perfectly with the uncluttered, nostalgic art style. It might not be as flashy as some of the other 16-bit titles available on the SNES, but it is certainly among the most visually captivating.

The SNES was home to some absolutely amazing RPG soundtracks, but none quite like that of EarthBound. It's not only one of the most captivating RPG soundtracks but one of the most varied as well. Some tracks tend to be very melodic whereas others are just downright bizarre — of course, considering the game world's variation 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 length of time you'll spend listening to them, but considering how amazing the musical effort is overall, it's tough to complain too much. It's not difficult to see why EarthBound's soundtrack has become one of the medium's most beloved.

Some of the suspicion about why EarthBound hadn't released on Wii Virtual Console centered around the soundtrack: Its cherry-picking of melodies from pop music seemed ripe for copyright violation in our litigious times. There was some fear that Nintendo had caved and messed with the soundtrack for this Wii U release, but we are happy to report that isn't the case: EarthBound on Wii U sounds, and feels, like it always has. In fact, one could make a great case that it feels even better on Wii U as the Virtual Console allows for custom controls and save states, as well as fittingly cozy off-screen play. Nintendo even went the extra mile to digitize the giant strategy guide once bundled with the SNES cart and optimized it for the Wii U browser.

Conclusion

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 heart-warming modern spin, the game somehow feels familiar yet strange all at the same time. With a peerless visual style, soundtrack and storyline, playing EarthBound is like revisiting a vivid childhood memory of fun and adventure. You can't repeat the past, but you can certainly revisit it.