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I had never played EarthBound.
The little kid in a baseball cap and a striped shirt was a character I had only known from Super Smash Bros. Earthbound, originally released in Japan as Mother 2, came out in America for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1995, well before my gaming days had started.
EarthBound—produced, written, and directed by Shigesato Itoi—stars that kid, Ness, out on an adventure to save the planet from an alien invasion. For a role-playing game fan (and a Nintendo fan) it’s long been a blank spot in my gaming knowledge, one that friends have always told me I need to at least try to fill in.
But after the July passing of Satoru Iwata (who, at the time of his death, was Nintendo’s president/CEO, but co-produced and was a programmer for EarthBound) I decided it was a fitting time to finally give the quirky and beloved RPG a chance. I bought it on the Wii U’s Virtual Console—its digital storefront full of downloadable old games—and fired it up.
Just from playing Super Smash Bros. I knew some of what to expect. I knew Ness was a psychic kid battling aliens. I knew he used yo-yos and baseball bats instead of the standard swords, staves or magic found in most of the other RPGs at the time.
I didn’t know that EarthBound would end up being one of the weirdest games I’ve ever played—or just how well the game would hold up after all this time, and how far ahead of its time it really was.
Despite its age, Earthbound’s tone feels more in line with contemporary games like South Park: The Stick of Truth and No More Heroes, and is in a unique place based on how un-seriously it takes its adventure. Sure, the stakes are high—an alien tyrant is trying to destroy Earth—but this is far from the Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy games of the SNES-era.
It’s a funny game and a parody of other RPGs of the time, and still manages to defy expectations with its tone and downright weirdness. It doesn’t take itself—or games in general—super seriously, and instead is a whimsical adventure that starts you in a town called Onett and takes you through similarly numerically named locations like Twoson, Threed and Fourside.
Even the game’s camera angle is skewed, your view of the world subtly off-kilter instead of the common top-down approach. It’s just enough to give you a slightly off point of view. The enemies you battle are far from your typical video-game fare, and include dinosaurs, hippies, viny; records, guitars, people who look oddly similar to the KKK and a giant burping pile of vomit named Master Belch.
And oh! The places you will go. The game is filled with locales that would have made my childhood self giddy with joy. It’s a collection of interests I’ve always found fascinating outside of gaming—part science fiction (right down to the weird War of the Worlds inspired opening) and part weird occult, and includes everything from riding on the back of the Loch Ness monster to exploring a hidden alien base underneath Stonehenge.
Despite being 21 years old this year,“EarthBound still manages to feel surprisingly modern. Like most RPGs your characters level up and earn experience points, but unlike others the levelling system is worked out so you almost never have to grind—that is, spend a lot of time battling the same enemies repeatedly just to gain enough levels to advance. I had to for a brief bit at the very start of the game, but throughout the rest of it I was almost always perfectly levelled for what I needed to get done. Plenty of modern games screw that up still.
In fact one of EarthBound’s best features is how it approaches battling enemies to begin with. Instead of having to fight your way through slogs of random encounters, if you are a high enough level to easily defeat an enemy, the game automatically takes care of the battle for you. It would be like if “Pokemon” made it so you didn’t have to fight 50 Zubats every time you just wanted to travel through a cave. It’s a great idea.
In battles, your in-game life is also represented not by a typical life meter, but a unique rolling meter that counts down after you get hit, instead of just having the damage taken off your life points immediately. This means that if you act quick enough, you can actually heal one of your party members before they die, which is pretty useful in a pinch.
And that’s just the start. I mean, where else are you going to explore a dungeon that was made by a man named Dungeon Man and that reflects on the very nature and reason for video game dungeons (the complicated levels that are essential to many RPGs to exists at all?
Meta. Yup. It’s almost like the community of video games; weird, wonderful, and not for everybody, but those who do give it a chance will find something truly unique and special.
So if you were like me and haven’t played EarthBound it’s worth giving it a shot, if for nothing else than to understand who exactly that Ness character in Super Smash Bros. is. It’s weird, it’s wild and you’ll be glad you played it. Just remember to smile and say “Fuzzy Pickles.”
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