SummaryLightheartedly poking fun, 16-bit style
The GoodIn 1995, Nintendo of America released a low-key, quirky little Super NES RPG called EarthBound. Though the game had sold very well in Japan (as the sequel to the Famicom hit, Mother), gamers on the American side were not as receptive. After all, this was before Final Fantasy VII had created true believers of the American gaming public in regard to RPGs. As such, there were numerous marketing ploys used in order to move copies: packaging the game with a free strategy guide (unheard of at the time), scratch-and-sniff cards featuring characters from the game, and nearly incessant references to the game's “zaniness” and “trippy battle backgrounds.” Not surprisingly, these tactics backfired (not entirely because of the game's simplistic graphics), and the game sold fairly poorly in the West. The few who actually picked up the game, though, were in for a treat: not only was the game good, but it was a truly unique experience for those who were able to pick up on what the game was trying to do. Not only was the game a solid RPG in its own right, but it served to parody the conventions of the entire genre up to that point in a lighthearted, fun, and downright hilarious manner.
The actual gameplay is pretty standard 16-bit RPG fare: move about on the world map fighting enemies to gain experience, etc. Anyone familiar with any of the first six Dragon Quest games would feel right at home with EarthBound, as there are few differences. The graphics, though charming in their own right, are very simplistic even by 16-bit RPG standards. The music, though catchy, is nothing spectacular (Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, games that came out around the same time as EarthBound, blow EarthBound away in both areas). In fact, on the surface, EarthBound appears to have nothing original going for it; in that sense, it is not difficult to see why the game might have failed commercially.
EarthBound has many redeeming qualities, however. For one, the setting and subject matter were really unique for a console RPG at the time. Whereas most RPGs up to that point had been pretty standard swords-and-sorcery fare, EarthBound was set in a world very clearly inspired by the United States. The main character, Ness, wore shorts and a baseball cap, wielded a baseball bat as his main weapon, and was from a small, rural town that would remind any American player of similar such towns. The twist, though, was that an alien entity known as Giygas had invaded, and his influence was causing humans and animals alike to behave irrationally and often violently, especially toward Ness and friends. What results is a bizarre yet entertaining take on the United States. The setting feels a lot like bizarro-USA, what would happen if one looked at the US through a Japanese lens and added some weird stuff to it for flavor.
“Weird” is probably the best word to sum up the game in general, but in the highest sense of the word. The game's charm lies in that weirdness, in its quirkiness. The game is quite simply hilarious. There is always some weird joke or spin on an RPG convention that will make many players at least crack a smile, if not laugh out loud. From Picky Minch trying to “cast a magic spell” early in the game, to all of the moles in the desert mine claiming to be “the third strongest,” to rummaging through trash cans to find hamburgers, EarthBound was full of funny and/or strange moments that gave it personality and a unique charm that is very difficult to explain, but easy enough to understand when experienced.
That charm, however, lies distinctly in its existence as a parody of the traditional console RPG. The simple graphics take on an added meaning when viewed as an intentional parody of the then-simplistic nature of RPG graphics compared to other genres, such as action or adventure games. (This was, of course, before Final Fantasy VII came along and made FMVs and shiny graphics mandatory for RPGs.) There were a lot of instances where the game made it explicitly clear that it was aware of its own existence as a video game. The most obvious example of this is when, later in the game, the game stops to ask the player's name. That player later gets another chance to confirm his or her name. Also, when Ness first gets the Town Map from the library, the librarian is sure to remind him to push “You know, the X button... near the top, haha.” While the game puts on an air of being serious, you know it is never taking itself too seriously... and that is what makes the game so fun to experience.
The BadPerhaps the best place to start with EarthBound's negative qualities is the most obvious point of contention: its graphics. Despite any claims to the contrary, graphics DO ultimately matter in a game, at least to some degree. Unfortunately, this becomes blatantly apparent in EarthBound. Although the simplistic graphics are intentional and, in fact, poking fun at the lack of graphical prowess of its contemporary RPGs, the game falls far behind many other 16-bit titles in terms of sheer graphical quality. Again, this is intentional, but looks do matter to a large majority of the gaming public, especially in the world of post-Final Fantasy VII console RPGs. (Interestingly enough, an earlier Final Fantasy and contemporary of EarthBound -- Final Fantasy VI -- makes EarthBound look ugly by comparison.)
Another small knock on this game is that its gameplay is, as previously mentioned, little more than a Dragon Quest knock-off: the battles are in first-person perspective, psychic powers are just spells with a different name, and so on. Sure, there are a few modifications, such as the rolling HP counter, the ability to see enemies on the map in place of random “screen-shake” encounters, and so on, but the gameplay is tried-and-true Dragon Quest. Perhaps the designers felt that if they were going to parody the RPG genre, there would be no better place to start than with the prototypical console RPG, Dragon Quest. Then again, maybe they simply went with the design philosophy of “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
That style of play, however, makes the game a bit formulaic for an experienced RPG player. With only a little bit of time invested in level-building, for example, it is relatively easy to take on the final boss with an entire party of fully maxed-out, level 99 characters. This is made even easier by the fact that once the “boss” of a “dungeon” has been defeated, enemies on-screen will turn their backs to the player and run, thus leaving themselves open for a green screen (sneak) attack. In some instances, this results in the immediate defeat of the enemies without even initiating combat -- a savvy player can take advantage of this fact to gain experience levels in an incredibly easy and expedient manner.
The Bottom LineEarthBound simultaneously exemplifies and makes fun of everything about RPGs of the 16-bit era. Everything that it does, it does well, especially when one goes from the assumption that the game was simplistic as part of a statement about the state of 16-bit RPGs. The gameplay is solid, following the Dragon Quest formula, but its quirkiness and seeming awareness of the player outside of the game (especially prevalent in the final boss battle) are what make EarthBound a true 16-bit treasure. It is an absolute pity that the game didn't sell better -- perhaps then the Mother 1 & 2 compilation, not to mention Mother 3, would have seen a stateside release.