EarthBound (SNES) Review

Click here to visit the Earthbound (SNES) description page for screenshots, save files, and more information.

Review by tankMage (October 2017)

Score: A (9.5/10)

   Earthbound is one of those rare games where the developers made a series of creative and at times bold decisions that culminated in a truly unique end product that has managed to distinguish itself in an era that produced many classics. I really struggled with this review, because while many of the games I cover turn out to be enjoyable, they are often highly similar to other titles in the same genre or highly flawed. Earthbound has it’s fair share of problems and will most likely only appeal to those who have a taste for old school RPGs, but it’s creative world, quirky humor, and smooth gameplay make it something special.

Story

   As plots go, Earthbound’s is not the most original. An evil alien named Giygas is about to awaken and destroy the world. It is up to young Ness to find three allies (each of which has his or her own special powers) and travel to eight special locations in order to harness the power of the Earth before confronting Giygas. The good ‘ole “You’re the chosen one!” cliche even rears its ugly head in this title. What makes this game so special is the manner in which the plot is presented. For example, Ness learns of his mission from a time traveling bee named Buzz Buzz (seriously) after investigating a meteor crash near his house. Things only get more wacky and interesting as the game goes on. Ness encounters a gang of young thugs who dress like sharks, a cult obsessed with painting everything blue, and a zombie apocalypse to name a few of the surprises waiting throughout the adventure.

Who needs character development when you’ve got snappy one-liners?

  Earthbound takes place on Earth, presumably in the mid nineties and parodies science fiction as well as notable video games. The dialogue is full of pop culture references and jokes that keep the game rolling along at a nice clip. Coupled with the amusing sub plots and dialogue, Earthbound is quite addictive. I often had difficulty putting this game down, because I wanted to see what surprises lie around the next corner.

   As entertaining as the story may be, there are some important literary elements missing from Earthbound’s story, mainly character development. Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo rarely speak and what the player learns about each character comes mostly from NPCs. The lines that the heroes do have tend to be terse and to the point. There’s a void left by this lack of character development and I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but it’s something some players may enjoy pondering. It was also easy to predict what would ultimately happen and the ending held few surprises, so some players may be a bit disappointed by the story.

Graphics

   In the past, RPGs were not generally known for pushing technological boundaries when it came to graphics, in fact it wasn’t unusual for such games to have little or no animation and some were purely text based. This began to change in the mid 1990’s when PC titles like The Elder Scrolls took the first tentative steps into the 3D realm. Consoles on the other hand, began to see more intricate sprite work, flashier spell effects, and a greater degree of animation. Earthbound stands out in a time of increasing realism, because it looks like something from a cartoon or a talented child’s drawing. In fact, the entire game looks like it uses a color palette designed by Crayola… and oddly enough it works. Ness’s bright red cap, the cheerful towns, and the silly monster sprites grab the eye, drawing the player into the fantasy world of Earthbound.

EarthBound: the gateway RPG.

   Not only is Earthbound’s artistic style different than that of it’s peers, but the setting is rather original as well, because the game takes place in the modern world. Players will visit towns complete with drugstores, pizza shops, and even arcades. This title also features some very strange places, such as Saturn Valley, which is inhabited by Mr. Saturns, a peculiar form of sentient life. There are also plenty of dungeons to explore, but this is one of the few areas where Earthbound falls short, since most of the dungeons are generic caves that could be found in nearly any RPG. This is made up for by the imaginative places these caves often lead to, such as alien bases and bizarre landmarks called “Your Sanctuary Locations”.

   The bad guys in this title are well drawn and serve to make the game more interesting. Players will fight creatures ranging from rogue cops to space aliens that look like they belong in a 1950’s sci-fi flick. Enemy sprites are recycled a bit, but not as commonly as in your average RPG. I was actually surprised by the variety of monsters in Earthbound. The bosses are possibly the best aspect of this game’s enemy design, since their sprites are generally even more outlandish than those of regular enemies. Players will battle piles of puke, evil statues, and giant moles to name a few of the bosses.

   The battle system is also an impressive visual experience, despite the fact that there are no battle animations for characters. This is thanks to the trippy psychedelic backgrounds that swirl about in the midst of battle and the colorful geometric psychic powers used by the heroes. Only the attack spell effects are visible in battle, but they put a new spin on the usual fire, ice, lightning spells by adding a unique spell type for Ness and purposely making the rest of the psychic powers look like something from a video game. It’s difficult to explain this aspect of the game, since the battle system seems like it was intended to overwhelm the senses and give combat a dreamlike quality. At any rate, there’s a wide variety of backgrounds that appear through the course of the game, all of which are animated and competently different from anything I’ve encountered in an RPG battle system.

User Interface

   Earthbound controls like just about any other RPG of its time, but it does have a few strengths and flaws in its UI. This title uses a menu style that will be familiar to those who have played Dragon Quest, which can be a bit clunky. The devs had the sense to make it possible to interact with objects and NPCs in Earthbound by using the left bumper, which cuts down on a lot of menu navigation. Enemy encounters and level grinding can be quite tedious and the developers came up two solutions to this problem, one of which will be covered under the gameplay portion of this review. The first feature the developers added to combat grindiness, was an auto-battle option which can be activated at the beginning of a turn and deactivated at any time. Once activated, auto-battle will select the bash or shoot command for each character, unless someone is injured and in need of healing, in such a case characters with healing PSI powers (the term Earthbound uses for magic) will use them to save their allies. While it’s nice to be able to set the game to fight battles automatically, the system would have been far better if players could set it to use offensive PSI powers or have the party flee in an emergency.

     Next we have the downfall of many classic RPGs and one of Earthbound’s most notable flaws: The dreaded inventory system (insert melodramatic music here). Earthbound has one of those inventory systems that gives each character their own personal storage, which has to be managed. On its own this is not unusual, but it’s not uncommon for these games to have a mass storage system which is often only accessible at certain times. Usually the mass storage in RPGs is relatively easy use despite restrictions placed on it. This is not the case with Earthbound, which calls it’s mass storage “Escargo Express” (a self aware joke on the developer’s part, perhaps) and forces the player to go through a drawn out process in order to stash anything. In order to store or withdraw items one must find a phone, call Escargo Express and request a pick or delivery, then wait until the deliveryman arrives. To top it all off you still have to cycle through menus and only three things can be picked up or dropped off in one go. Oh and Escargo Express can’t reach ness Ness and his friends in certain areas. My advice to players who wish to make use of this feature is visit Ness’s house where it can be done more easily or forego the process altogether and just drop or sell anything you don’t need.

Music and Sound

   There are few soundtracks in all of gaming that can compare with Earthbound’s. Not only are the tunes catchy, but they are also unusual thanks to the composer’s use of sampling. Some players may even recognize some of the samples used in Earthbound, because clips were borrowed from pieces like Diedre by The Beachboys or The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In most cases these samples have been altered and mixed into original works often lending an eerie feeling to the game’s music. This game’s soundtrack is not only creative, but it’s diverse as well. Many of the towns have their own theme and there are a number of battle songs to help keep things fresh.

   Sound effects often go overlooked, but Earthbound took care to make this category count and seemed to borrow heavily from Dragon Quest. There are also plenty of unique sound effects that added some much needed texture to the game’s battle system. My favorite effect was the SMAAAAASH (Earthbound’s term for critical hits) sound, which was a sort of echoing crackle that made getting a critical hit so much more satisfying.

Gameplay

   Despite it’s fancy trappings, Earthbound is a standard JRPG at it’s core. Players will find/buy weapons and armor, use magic, level up, and explore various dungeons. The battle system is also rather basic and similar to that of Dragon Quest. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it seemed to be the dev’s policy regarding this game’s mechanics. Rather than coming up with a novel battle engine or designing intricate dungeons, the devs tweaked a tried and true style of RPG design. So, without further adieu, let’s take a look at what Earthbound brings to the table.

    One way in which this title deviates from more traditional RPGs is that enemies are visible on the map and players can avoid battle or even attack from behind to get a free turn. Just be careful, the bad guys can get surprise attacks as well if Ness and the gang turn their backs on them. I like this system far more than the random battles that occur in other games, because it adds a new layer of strategy to Earthbound.

This may look strange, but the actual mechanics are pretty basic.

   Ness, Paula, and Poo all possess psychic powers that can be used to strengthen allies or harm enemies. These abilities aren’t really much different from the magic spells that appear in other games and they work just fine. Of course, everyone can use the usual physical attacks with weapons or even bare fists and the enemies that appear in this title have access to similar sets of abilities. The one factor that stands out is Jeff’s ability to repair broken machines and use them as tools or weapons that can produce a variety of effects unique to Jeff. Players can also purchase consumable weapons for Jeff called bottle rockets, that deal massive amounts of damage and are a bit too powerful, if not fun to use.

   No RPG is complete without grinding and Earthbound has a bit of it, but made things easier for players by being generous with experience and implementing an instant victory system. In cases where the player is far more powerful than the enemy, contact with the foe will result in an immediate victory and the screen will not transition to battle mode. Even better, the player will receive any experience, money, or dropped loot he or she would normally get from the monster. This is probably one of Earthbound’s finest contributions to the RPG genre, but I haven’t seen it replicated in another title to date. Some players will really appreciate the relatively quick level building possible in this game, because there are a number of difficulty spikes that can catch the unsuspecting off guard and lead to a game over, so it’s helpful to be able to quickly bolster the party’s level.

   I’ve already mentioned that the world of Earthbound is interesting to explore, so I’ll focus on the manner in which the game is laid out and dungeon design. Rather than having the usual overworld map dotted with points of interest, this title is made up of a patchwork of interconnected locations. Players can walk from one town to the next early in the game or even ride a bus. This was a subtle, yet inspired move on the dev’s part, because the entire game feels more contiguous than the average RPG. Of course, players don’t have to walk or ride everywhere, because a teleport spell allows players to return to previously visited towns. As for the dungeons and the overall flow of the game, well it can be summed up with a single word: linear. Most of Earthbound’s dungeons can be navigated without much trouble and are often little more than lines from point A to point B, aside from a few exceptions. There are no hidden characters or areas to find aside from a few rare weapon and armor drops for the party. Don’t expect any mini-games either, unless you consider organizing your inventory a game. While these issues may seem like deal breakers (and may be so for some people), I hardly noticed them thanks to the momentum of the game.

   A few clever ideas were also put into this title that add a nice touch. Food is the main healing item in Earthbound and there are all sorts of things the heroes can eat, some of which heal them more than others. Condiments can even be purchased to enhance the effects of a food and each character has his or her own taste, which affects how much each food heals them. Miscellaneous items were also added to the game that are interesting in their own right. Players will find a mouse that will help them leave dungeons, a For Sale sign that can be used to set up a shop anywhere, a bike, and much more. Ness will even get homesick and become less effective in battle if he goes for long periods of time without calling his mom or visiting his house. Many of the items in Earthbound are gimmicks, but they are no less fun to experiment with and as a whole they add depth to the game.

   All in all, Earthbound’s actual gameplay isn’t all that special. It’s really the strange things one encounters while playing and the fact that it was cobbled together so seamlessly that set it apart from other titles. Earthbound is the sort of game one picks up and plays not so much for the challenge or compelling game mechanics, but to simply relax with and enjoy the ride.

Final Thoughts

   This is another one of those games that I rented long ago and had to return before completing it. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to make of this game all those years ago. It was too far out in left field for someone who was just getting initiated into the world of RPGs and I ended up not buying or renting it again even though I had opportunities to do so. I’m happy that I chose not to finish this game, because I would not have appreciated it at the time. After completing dozens of RPGs, I am now able to see just how unique Earthbound is and why it has a dedicated following even to this day. With that said, I have to stress that this game won’t click with everyone, my twelve year old self being proof of that. Earthbound didn’t get an A for having deep philosophical commentary (although it can be surprisingly insightful at times), finely drawn sprites, or an ingenious battle system, it got an A for being a wacky JRPG that didn’t take itself seriously (or much else for that matter) and it’s sheer entertainment value.

Recommendations

As I said before, Earthbound may not click with everyone, but fans of classic RPGs should at least pick this SNES title up and give it a whirl.

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