Greatest.Games.Ever: EArthbound

Greatest.Games.Ever: EArthbound

Thank goodness for the SNES Classic Edition. If it were not for this fun little console, I may have never gathered the willpower to hunt down and play Earthbound, for real. It was always one of those games that I had the intention to play but never wanted to experience it fully through an emulator. I tried to play Earthbound on the WiiU Virtual Console, but something felt off, it was probably just me. I was fortunate enough to get an SNES Classic Edition for my birthday in 2018 and while scrolling through the genius of a game library I came across Earthbound. I had been in the mood to play a classic JRPG and I decided it was time to finally sit down with Earthbound and see what all the praise was about. My point of view may be a little skewed since I first experienced this game as an adult and I don’t have the nostalgia for Earthbound that many other gamers have. Many of the SNES games on this console have definitely aged gracefully, Super Mario World, Super Metroid, A Link to the Past all play as well as they did 20+ years ago. What about Earthbound? I gather you can figure that out by the title of the post….hah.

Earthbound is very good. It was released in an era when console JRPGs were finding prominence around the world and it scratched a very unique and strange itch in 1994/1995. Sadly, like other Japanese games at the time, fans in the US had no access to the this game’s predecessor. Earthbound is actually the second game in the Mother series from Nintendo/Ape/HAL Laboratory. In Japan Earthbound is known simply as Mother 2, but it was the 1990s and everything was weird. Final Fantasy IV was Final Fantasy II in the US and Seiken Densetsu 2 was Secret of Mana, we were always confused. Earthbound was released in the States in 1995 and slowly became a cult hit among JRPG aficionados. Earthbound has a similar cult status to Chrono Trigger, as many of its fans proclaim that it’s the best JRPG ever. While I still think that FF6 is unbeatable, it’s easy to see why Earthbound is so popular. 

What’s Going on in Eagleland?

Earthbound takes place in a fictional country called Eagleland, which greatly takes influence from what I could only judge to be 1950s/1960s America. Ness, the lead character, and his friends: Paula, Jeff, and Poo all seem like they could be pulled out of any kids’ adventure movie. In a very Stranger Things manner, Earthbound pits Ness and his party against an evil extraplanetary force that seeks to take over Eagleland by causing animals, humans, among other things into malicious beings. The alien force, Giygas is a being consumed by hatred and its powers exist to influence negative emotions. From the first few moments of Earthbound it feels incredibly unique when compared to other RPGs at the time. You’re not a knight in shining armor nor are you a time-travelling samurai, you play as a bunch of kids with powers. They never fully explain why or how or why they have powers, but it’s ok, it’s a wacky, modern sci-fi fantasy game. 

Ness and friends travel all throughout Eagleland looking for ancient melodies that when played together as a song can stop the end of the world at Giygas’ hand. Earthbound pits you as some of the only people untouched by the effects of this emotional manipulation as the world has turned on itself. This game comes filled with distrust of adults and authority figures, as many of the enemies fall into either category. You fight gangs and cops and dogs and aliens, zombies and evil trees and bugs and literal garbage. It’s such an odd game, but ultimately that’s what makes it stand out so much. Earthbound is both charming and strange with a very unique mix of ideas and a peculiar but wonderful soundtrack.

What Makes Earthbound Stand Out?

If you’re a fan of Stranger Things, The Goonies, Stand By Me, It or any 1980s Steven Speilberg, there’s a good chance that Earthbound will speak to you, in a very Kids vs. The World way, Or if Charlie Brown met some funky aliens. Kids with powers fighting aliens and humans under mind control, sounds right up that alley. Earthbound stands out among its contemporaries because it challenged the status quo of the high fantasy JRPG. If you look at other RPGs released at this time you’re inundated with high fantasy tropes and spiky-haired, sword swinging heroes.  Even in the Phantasy Star games, though they take place in space, many of those sci-fi tropes rely heavily on high fantasy. Earthbound takes place…NOW…or in a more contemporary time period, a time that is more relatable to us in 2019. While many games have tackled this premise since (Persona Series…play them please), Earthbound is a bit of a progenitor. It tells a simple story with incredible style. You’re not using swords, shields, and arrows, but instead you’re hitting enemies with slingshots, baseball bats, and homemade rocket launchers. Though Poo, the game’s martial artist can get a sword, he feels like a callback to a different style of game. Instead of potions you eat cheeseburgers and pizzas to regain health and caramels to gain back your power points. It’s a fun twist on the classic style while still being very much a JRPG. In addition to its curveball of a setting, Earthbound has some serious style.

Did I mention that Earthbound is odd? Ok good. Yes, Earthbound is a weird, little game with a brilliant sense of humor. The story involves emotional control and manipulation, kids with psychic powers, and an alien invasion. Before you even fire up the SNES you may get a feeling that this game is a bit different. Its style also finds a way to be incredible strange. Take a listen to this battle music. 

Weird right? That’s courtesy of legendary game composer Hirokazu “Chip” Tanaka. The OST to Earthbound fits the Strange-Americana atmosphere perfectly, with nods to everything from The Little Rascals theme, 80s electronica, The Beatles, and The Who. The combination of these different styles may seem a little off putting, but that’s what makes Earthbound work. It’s a wonderful oddball from its story to its music. Everything Earthbound does in its presentation is to give you something that feels a little off, to be congruent to the events of the story. The game is made to make you distrust everything and anyone from dogs to adults to plants in the forest. The combination of trippy music and visuals also drives home the strange, dark world it takes place in. 

Earthbound has fairly simplistic gameplay. By JRPG standards it’s what you’d expect, you travel around the world fighting enemies and visiting 8 different “shrines” to eventually defeat some ancient, otherworldly evil. The battles are turn-based and you gain experience and skills as you level up. All standard JRPG faire, but Earthbound’s mood and ambiance are what set it apart. Even the battle system is more rudimentary than most JRPGs. You don’t even see your party in combat! I used to HATE that about JRPGs, where you just see the enemy and not your party. It’s a strange gripe to have, but may be the reason why I never sat down with Earthbound until recently. If anything, it’s minimalistic battle presentation adds to the headspace. I felt in battle that something was lurking behind me as I looked through the eyes of the protagonists. It made me feel uneasy, which is what Earthbound seeks to do. It delivers something you’d expect from the genre with completely different atmosphere, which makes Earthbound stand out from the rest.

Why is Earthbound a Greatest.Game.Ever?

Earthbound is, at its core a strange Nintendo RPG. What makes Nintendo stand out is how different and delightfully odd they can be. Games like Majora’s Mask, Super Mario Sunshine, and Link’s Awakening all showcase the oddities of Nintendo. Earthbound represents that push in full force. Its greatness exists first in its deliberately different take on the JRPG and its fun and simple gameplay. Earthbound is easy to understand and grasp, but its story can get rather deep as it tackles conspiracy, emotion, and self reflection. Ness at one point is forced to defeat the darkness within his own mind. Coupled with that depth is a joyous adventure filled with teenage wonder. The game is dripping with style and charm and is one of the most charming little games I’ve played in a long time. It’s still incredibly weird, but in a way that encapsulates the spirit of summer adventure. 

Amid classics like Final Fantasy IV, VI, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and Breath of Fire, Earthbound is the cool oddball. A necessary diversion from the knights and kings, demons and dragons of other RPGs. Its devotion to mood and atmosphere stand it aside from the rest as something that should be experienced. Earthbound feels unlike any other JRPG I had played before it and hearing a few notes of the soundtrack immediately brings me back to my first experience with it. Due to my lack of longtime experience with the game, I didn’t want to showcase it right away, but Earthbound is a title that keeps you thinking. It may not be the best looking RPG nor may it play very differently from others, but its greatness exists in its ambiance and inward look at the human psyche. Oh also, aliens and robots? Can you go wrong? Earthbound takes a lot of charmingly goofy pieces and combines them in a product that is both light-hearted and heavily cerebral at the same time. I put its delivery in the same category as Final Fantasy IX, one of my absolute favorite games ever. The characters are cartoonish and the world seems very colorful and friendly, but the story tackles some serious introspection. Earthbound strives to make the player feel somewhat out of place emotionally, and it succeeds at every aspect. 

Earthbound’s gameplay may be incredibly simple by JRPG standards, but that’s also what makes it great. Players get to experience the world and narrative of Earthbound without being bogged down by obtuse JRPG norms and systems all while still getting to experience a great adventure. Earthbound wouldn’t work as well if it was a platformer or action game, it needs the slow pace of a JRPG to drive home the mood. The music and visuals also work together perfectly, like some trippy crayon drawing come to life. Ultimately, what makes Earthbound great is its dedication to its own oddity. It’s fun and strange, but brightly colored while delivering a dark story. It’s perfectly balanced and not one segment of the game feels like a drag. It’s purposeful and is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in an RPG in a while. It’s more Persona than Final Fantasy, but it’s all Nintendo and strives because of it.

If you have access to Earthbound you should play it. It felt like a break from the norm, like an American Cartoon Meets Anime vacation away from the mainstream. A joyous celebration of the JRPG blended with a love for the 1950s style and 1980s adventure. Earthbound is a great game, a great great game. It’s influences and feel have created a timeless masterpiece that has been rightfully celebrated over the past 25 years. Even though I first experienced Earthbound as an adult, its charm spoke to me like few other games have. Don’t sleep on Earthbound.

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