Gems of Gaming: Earthbound
Welcome to Gems of Gaming. This new column will cover games that I personally consider classic. The goal is to analyze these games objectively and look at what sort of impact they had on gaming once they were released. So without further ado, let’s get into it shall we?
I’m assuming here, and yes, I know assumption wins and loses wars, but let me finish…I’m assuming we all have a game that we remember from when we were growing up, a game that means something sentimental to us. That we spent hours tucked away in our room playing. When mom yelled that it was dinnertime we yelled back “Okay! Let me get to a save point!” In my case, that meant trying to find the nearest telephone to call my dad. That’s right. I’m talking about Earthbound.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the game in motion. I think that’s what really struck me. Not that graphically it wasn’t good, it was just…different. I’ve since come to appreciate the art style. In a world where game colors are under saturated and worlds look bleak and uninspired, it’s quite a breath of fresh air to see such a wide palette of color strewn across my TV screen. No, not just the look, the game play, the story, and even the soundtrack stood out. I knew back then that I was playing something special.
If you’ve never played Earthbound then you’re truly missing out on a classic. Released in Japan as Mother 2 (yes, there is a prequel and a sequel that have yet to hit US shores), Earthbound was met with modest success and warm reception. It wound up selling over 400,000 copies worldwide soon after. Maybe that doesn’t compete with Halo’s 9 million copies, but for an RPG and for the time, that was a tremendous success.
If I had to attribute just one thing to the timeless quality of the title, it would be the humor. Being a kid, a lot of the innuendo was over my head. Replaying the game as a teen, and then again in college, opened my eyes to the dry and witty writing that went into this title. The game was a huge laugh at American culture. It may have been a warped vision of what the Japanese think, but it was a humorous one nonetheless. Using a solid script, creating an intriguing look, and innovating new game play ideas is what made Earthbound such a well rounded package. This probably isn’t the first example of ‘Games as Art’ (and we could argue forever as to what constitutes art, but then, art is subjective isn’t it? Even though it goes against the objectivity of this column, I’ll stick with that for now), but it was the first one I experienced. Perhaps that’s why it’s so dear to my heart. I don’t think another game struck such a chord with me until ICO, which arrived years later.
Maybe you didn’t play Earthbound for other reasons? You thought it looked silly and childish? An honest mistake. Let’s face it, at first glance the game appears to be a the bastard child of a Disney coloring book and David Lynch film. Don’t let the scribble-style artistry fool you, Earthbound was not for the faint of heart. Anyone remember Diamond Dog? How about trying to get the Gutsy Bat? The Sword of Kings? This was a difficult (read:brutal) game. However, there were innovations in Earthbound that were revolutionary for their time, and one could argue, still revolutionary today. First person battle perspective in an RPG? That was something unexpected during my first encounter. Being able to level to the point where you can SMAAAAAAAAAASH!! enemies? What a fantastic idea! Why don’t we see more of that in RPG’s today? It rewarded the player for working hard enough to gain a level that was considered outrageous at that stage in the game. Perhaps Final Fantasy XII displayed a similar (if altered) use of this feature. The Gambit system allowed for you to quickly level in an area where you far surpassed the strength of the monsters. Did some inspiration come from Earthbound? It can’t be proven, although it’s likely, but let’s move on.
In addition, the superb cast of characters in the game took the story to unparalleled heights. I understand the need for voice over’s in modern Role Playing Games, but you have to admit, not naming your party does take a bit of the connection out between the player and the characters. Not only did Earthbound let you name your alter ego and your dog, but your favorite pastime became your ultimate attack? Heck yeah!! There’s a good chance my final power was Video Game Omega…I’ll leave it up to you to decide. And of course, after realizing what the ‘favorite’ name did, I can imagine more than a few juvenile things I attempted (well, succeeded) to call it. $@!!*% Omega anyone? This sort of customization connected you to that world. On top of that, the characters were all memorable. You were able to travel to each one’s homeland and develop their back-story. There was a substantial portion of the game devoted to fleshing out your entire party. Hmmm, I seem to remember a few other travelers going to Wutai, Cosmo Canyon, and Rocket Town in a game that would come a few years down the road. Interesting. But again, it’s not that this was revolutionary, it’s just that Earthbound did it so well.
Before I wrap up, let’s talk about combat. I touched briefly on this earlier. Earthbound did not have random encounters. Instead the player was treated to seeing each enemy on screen. Unlike most RPG’s however, there were some tactics to how you engaged your opponent prior to entering the battle. If you engaged an enemy from behind, the screen would swirl green, meaning that you had activated a preemptive strike. If the opposite, they would have the one up on you. This added a new twist to every area you entered. Stronger enemies would pursue you, while weaker parties would flee. I think we all remember a few times in Dark Side, while frantically trying to figure out where to go, that we were running our tails off from pieces of art and demonic fire hydrants. It added so much fun to simple dungeon crawling. I hate to even call it that. It makes most RPG dungeons seem like a complete bore. Anyone out there played Eternal Sonata? Was I the only one who thought “WHOA! Earthbound!” when they explain that you can gain an advantage by engaging the enemy from the rear? Yeah. Just another example of a simple, yet very effective, influence.
So you’ve never played it. Well, I have to ask: What are you waiting for? Give this game a shot. I know it’s difficult, but stick with it. The scenery is out of this world, the adventure is epic, and the ending is something I will never forget. Go grab an emulator and play this now. It’s truly a gem of gaming.