Developed by Ape and HAL Laboratory
Published by Nintendo
Played on Wii U Virtual Console
Earthbound’s legacy among Nintendo and RPG fans is downright legendary. After its downright disastrous initial launch, not helped at all by the release late in the SNES’ life and the odd ad campaign with the slogan “It Stinks!”, the game gathered a cult following. Across the fan website starmen.net, the high demand for the GBA remake and sequel, and Ness’ inclusion in the second and third Smash Bros games, it was clear that Nintendo must’ve known how much people wanted to see Earthbound again. But it wasn’t happening, even with the inclusion of the Virtual Console on the Wii. Until this year, when the game was finally put on the Wii U’s Virtual Console. And after all the wait (and the $2 price mark-up over other SNES games), can it match up for those who only know the hype, not the game itself? Oh yes. It can.
Ness is an ordinary boy living in Eagleland when a mysterious meteor crashes in his hometown. Finding a traveler from the future inside, Ness learns of his destiny: he has to go to 8 sanctuaries to collect the power needed to defeat Giygas, an ancient evil which will take over the world in the future if it’s not stopped now. Along the way, he’s joined by the psychic Paula, inventor Jeff, and the prince of Dalaam, Poo.
A lot of Earthbound’s charm comes from its fairly unique setting. It takes what could be a normal plot (travel the world, collect the mcguffins, defeat the ancient evil) and shifts the location. Instead of a medieval kingdom or a dark future, it’s modern-day America. Potions are replaced by foods like hamburgers and pizza. The characters use weapons like baseball bats and frying pans. The cities range from the smalltown beginnings of Onett to the giant metropolis of Fourside. And this setting combines with the game’s unique brand of humor. Nintendo tried to market it as gross-out on its original release, and while there are some fart jokes, it’s not gross-out. It’s off-beat. Townspeople are anywhere from normal but quirky to downright strange, especially in some of the game’s trippier environments, like Saturn Valley. Enemies go from evil taxis and birds to modern art and the famous New Age Retro Hippie. And they’re just as likely to attack you with standard attacks and psychic powers as they are to furrow their brow or measure something with a ruler.
The combat system is one of those that’s so simple it makes Earthbound a good beginner’s RPG, but still satisfying enough for longtime genre fans. The battles are strictly turn-based, none of the ATB system that Final Fantasy and such like, meaning it’s very relaxed. Each of the four characters has their own abilities and roles, meaning that Paula is the heavy hitter with psychic abilities, Ness and Poo get more of a healing/offense mix, and Jeff has no psychic abilities at all, with his use of items making him potentially powerful, but with limited resources. The game’s biggest notable feature, though, is the rolling HP meter. If an enemy does a lot of damage to you, instead of instantly subtracting it, the game “rolls” it down, meaning it can take some time until the damage actually takes effect. It takes some quick thinking when a character takes a mortal hit, and it’s satisfying when you manage to get a healing spell out before their HP hits 0.
Earthbound has definitely stood the test of time. Its clever dialogue and setting and easy-to-learn battle system make it irresistible and unique even today.