This article is part of our new experimental series, Backlog Club, where we (Nintendo Life!) pick a game that's likely to be on our list of "games we should get around to playing", and then we (NL + you!) spend the next month playing that game.
This is the final part of May's game, EarthBound (or Mother 2, if you prefer), a JRPG that inspired an entire generation of creators.
The meeting of Backlog Club
[INT. KATE'S HOUSE: Kate, Ollie, and Alana are sitting in a cosy living room, eating biscuits and talking about EarthBound.]
KATE: I still haven’t finished EarthBound. Does that make me a bad book club host?
OLLIE: Wherever you are in the game, I can guarantee you’re probably further than I am, so no!
KATE: Let me check… I’m in the desert. I forget why. Honestly, the reason I gave up here is because you just keep having to go back to the desert, and I don’t really like backtracking.
It’s not the most user-friendly RPG of its time, that's for sure
ALANA: There’s so much backtracking at the beginning of the game too! Like, even early on you have to go back and forth to Onett just to restock on items or revive yourself. It’s not the most user-friendly RPG of its time, that's for sure.
KATE: Quick update, I was checking my game save, not my NSO save-state, so I’m actually a bit further into the game. At the end of Fourside. MY POINT ABOUT BACKTRACKING REMAINS, THOUGH.
OLLIE: Oh boy… So here’s the thing. I’m at Onett. Like, for the first time. A fly died, and I’m supposed to go to several different places now, but man, I can’t do it! The combat has really put me off this game.
KATE: It’s a bee, Ollie.
ALANA: Buzz Buzz!
OLLIE: Bees, flies, wasps, okay. A BEE DIED.
Ollie didn't do his homework
KATE: Ollie, I brought you here, to this Backlog Club meeting, to be the voice of dissent, but you’ve barely touched the game! Whyyyyy?
OLLIE: The combat! I can’t do it. I have a rough history with RPG games as it is, but this one really takes the cake. It’s a shame, because the general tone of the narrative is pretty appealing, but… Just no.
ALANA: It totally doesn’t help that out of all the RPGs to feel worse with one party member, EarthBound MIGHT be the worst offender? You don’t get a full party until halfway through, and there’s lots of sections where characters are on their own. And the health ticker is a bit of a learning curve. That intro to the first Sanctuary is not friendly.
I thought the not-fly bee thing was a cracking addition to the party
OLLIE: Well, I thought the not-fly bee thing was a cracking addition to the party! I thought “okay cool, this might not actually be as taxing as I thought,” but no, it goes and drops dead on some lady’s carpet. Not cool.
KATE: So far, and I’m a fair bit into the game, my overall feeling has been that I wish I played this when it came out. A lot of the best parts of EarthBound, and there are lots, feel like they would have hit harder if I was A) a kid, B) in the ‘90s, and C) playing a SNES game that rewrote a lot of the SNES game rules. As it is, 30 years later, it just doesn’t quite have the same effect. The bee moment was cool, though! It’s like a Game of Thrones twist!
EarthBound is a lot like... South Park?
ALANA: So we’re saying “Bring back Buzz Buzz!” But yeah, I love EarthBound a lot but it’s a really hard sell when a lot of its unique points aren’t that unique anymore. It’s a spoof of Dragon Quest, it’s got a lot of absurd humour, and features kids. And so many games want to be EarthBound nowadays that there are more welcoming alternatives for people who want to try out a turn-based RPG that’s a bit different.
KATE: I do feel, as a result of playing EarthBound in the year 2022 as a grown-up working in games, that I’m playing it more like a fascinating look into game design history, rather than enjoying it solely as a game. It’s cool, don’t get me wrong, but there are layers of adult nerdy dissection separating me from the nugget of fun at the core.
The first thing I thought when I started playing was that it felt a lot like South Park: Stick of Truth, and I just kept wishing I was playing that instead
OLLIE: It’s interesting that you say it’s a spoof of another IP, Alana, because the first thing I thought when I started playing was that it felt a lot like South Park: Stick of Truth, and I just kept wishing I was playing that instead. Man, Zion’s going to kill me…
ALANA: Haha, South Park is a pretty good comparison! Spoof might be the wrong word, but it uses the same “faceless” combat system from Dragon Quest and similar menus, but it’s turning that fantasy-esque genre on its head by popping it suburbia and replacing swords with baseball bats.
KATE: It’s Zion’s fault for being on holiday that we’re all being a bit down on poor EarthBound. If he was here, he’d be telling all of us that we’re wrong. There’s a lot to love about EarthBound, and I’m really glad that I have it as a frame of reference, but I don’t have the right games background to really, fully appreciate all the things it does, like goofing on Dragon Quest. That’s on me, really!
Enough complaining! Let's be nice!
ALANA: Well then! Let’s talk about something we like about EarthBound – Buzz Buzz to one side for a moment.
OLLIE: You know what, I can totally appreciate why people like this game so much, despite my lack of experience with it. I genuinely love the navigation; it feels incredibly intuitive when you compare it to, say, the early Pokémon games. The humour is fantastic too, obviously, even if I didn’t get around to reading a lot of it.
KATE: Yes! The writing blows me away. The localisation too, of course. It’s wild to me that it’s aged so well, partly because the humour is strangely modern? That might just be a coincidence, that the current humour fashion is very absurdist. But it’s not dated at all.
OLLIE: Yeah, it feels very contemporary, almost as if an indie dev could release it today and it wouldn’t feel any different. Wonderful!
ALANA: It’s pretty timeless, to be honest. Everyone likes poking fun at themselves and at humanity once in a while. We all have weird routines, believe strange things, etc. And you’re playing as a group of kids for the entire game. A lot of the world is very strange to a kid, and I think that’s pretty relatable too, even as an adult.
KATE: If this were a real book club, I’d be asking fun questions right now. Questions like, “Do you think EarthBound could have been made today?” and “Should we get Mother 3 already?”
The combat could be so much better had it been made more recently
ALANA: Oh it absolutely could be made today. We’ve talked about the writing so much and just how contemporary it feels. I think that alone makes it feel like it could’ve been made today. I also think – and Mother 3 is evidence of this – the combat could be so much better had it been made more recently. And I think my bias shows when I say yes, we should absolutely get Mother 3. And maybe the reason I’m being more ambivalent about a game I love is because I think Mother 3 does basically everything that EarthBound does – except humour, maybe – and does it better. But they’re also a bit different tonally.
OLLIE: It is a real book club. Kind of.
ALANA: We could always read the Player's Guide Nintendo shared back when the game launched on NSO! But yes. It is a book club.
OLLIE: Is the combat in Mother 3 better, Alana? To be honest, I think it would be a bit dishonest of me to pick up Mother 3 having fallen off EarthBound so early!
ALANA: It’s better, but still not amazing. It just feels a bit more balanced, more refined, and there’s much less of a learning curve. There’s no real difficulty walls and it feels faster generally. But the foundations are the same.
KATE: I hear it’s very sad.
ALANA: Some pretty awful stuff happens in it! I see it in a bit more of a positive light, but it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. Definitely not as weird as EarthBound, and funny in a different way.
KATE: Time for another question, then. Ollie, this one’s for you – have we convinced you to go back and finish the game?
OLLIE: Not really, no haha! I’m sorry. The thing with EarthBound that I neglected to mention before, is that this is probably the fifth or sixth time I’ve attempted to play it. I just can’t do it. I’ve tried though (not very much, granted), but I think it’s time I move on now.
ALANA: Sometimes, a game just isn’t for you, and that’s totally okay.
Backlog Club is a real club
KATE: Last month, I played Slay The Spire. This month, I’m still playing Slay The Spire. Maybe next month, I can finally finish EarthBound. I am bad at this backlog thing. But I do find myself wanting to go back to it… eventually. It certainly hasn’t hooked me the way, say, Fantasy Life did – but that’s okay!
ALANA: Maybe a question for both of you then. Has EarthBound put you off of trying other turn-based RPGs, either for Backlog Club or in general? It’s certainly one of the more unusual ones and not always the most inviting! Or what do you think EarthBound is missing that would maybe motivate you to push you to the end quicker?
KATE: I mean… It’s made me remember that I also never finished Chrono Trigger. And I really loved Chrono Trigger. I guess I get fatigued by RPGs at the same point, which is after I’ve been grinding for ages, and the first time I meet a really significant difficulty spike that isn’t fun any more because it requires even more grinding. Apparently, the ideal game perfectly matches the challenge to your ability, but a lot of RPGs eventually get just out of reach, and then they aren’t fun any more. So… I just need to get past that bit, probably.
OLLIE: I’ve always been a bit iffy with turn-based RPG games. I remember back when Final Fantasy VII first came out, my brother was really into all that stuff, and I tried, but not even that could change my mind. Having said that, Final Fantasy IX really spoke to me, so I guess it just depends on the game..??
It’s alright if a beloved game isn’t really for you
ALANA: Maybe! I think the idea of watching static characters wait around to be allowed to hit something, or waiting to get smacked by an enemy, is a bit weird to some people too. Menus aren’t that pretty to look through! And, back to EarthBound, the battle backgrounds are really psychedelic but not in a way that represents the environments you’re in. EarthBound was already visually a little behind a lot of other RPGs at the time so it probably didn’t help – though it’s endearing in its own way, now.
KATE: I think that the messages I’m going to take away from this month’s Backlog Club are: Firstly, that it’s alright if a beloved game isn’t really for you! Secondly, that you don’t need to push yourself through the “boring” or “hard” or “slow” bits of a game if you don’t want to. And thirdly, that Backlog Club is a great idea, because it forces you out of your comfort zone. Good job, me.
OLLIE: And it’s a real club, don’t forget that.
ALANA: I want to make that really obvious joke but I believe Kate already did that when Backlog Club first started, so I’ll spare everyone. I think those messages you spell out are pretty important, though. Why make yourself do something if you don’t enjoy it? I don’t really get any pride out of finishing a book I don’t like or watching a show I stopped enjoying months ago. But also, if everyone liked the same stuff, it would be really boring to talk about video games!
KATE: But this was very fun, and we’re all in the same room eating biscuits together right now. Finish your tea, Ollie, it’s getting cold.
Well, there you have it — we weren't entirely won over by EarthBound, but we appreciate it for what it is, and what it contributed to the industry. It has its brilliant moments, it's wonderfully written, and we didn't even mention the incredible, timeless music or sound design (sorry!), but it just goes to show that even the classics aren't for everyone!
Now I'm all nervous about throwing the debate over to you fine folks, though, since we just spent half an hour being relatively lukewarm about a beloved cult favourite. So, here are some book club-style questions to keep the discussion lively and friendly:
- Do you agree that EarthBound's beginning is a little unfriendly to newcomers?
- Do you think that it's fair to ask people to "push through" a tedious, slow, or difficult beginning to get to the good stuff?
- How would you convince Kate and Ollie to stick with the game to the end?
- Which is your favourite town or location in EarthBound?
- What are your thoughts on Buzz Buzz?
- Do you say "fuzzy pickles" when posing for a picture?
And that's a wrap on May's Backlog Club game, EarthBound! I hope you are enjoying this new format, and the general experimental nature of this new feature.
Next month's game, according to this month's poll, will be... Return of the Obra Dinn! We'll be posting the intro to that on Sunday, May 29th, which will tell you where to pick up the game and what the prices are.
In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your May weekend, and we'll see you again soon for some piratical murder adventures...