I’m a normal guy. I have a job, a girlfriend and haven’t murdered anyone yet. I also enjoy a nice cold brewski after work to relax me from the stress that life throws at me. Playing Earthbound is another activity that I have recently taken on for this exact purpose. The interesting thing is that aside from stress relief, Earthbound often made me feel like I was drunk. The amount of times that this uniquely, weird, kooky, strange game made me stop and think; “what the hell just happened?” couldn’t be counted on one hand (unless you were actually drunk and had a case of triple vision). The bottom line is; Earthbound is unlike anything you’ve ever played before. I tend to forget games easily, but I am certain that this will stick with me for many years to come, not because it is an amazing game, but because of the world in which the game is set, its crazy characters, its hit and miss attempts at humour and its representation of the American culture. Sure, this game is unique, but despite the praise given to it by many critics, I found Earthbound to be very ordinary in just about every area. After reading this review, you can make your own mind up whether you want to give it a go via the Wii-U store, or not.
It was a cold, lonely night in the small town of Onett when suddenly a meteor crashes down and puts the world into a frenzy. Ness, the young protagonist of the game, decides to investigate. It turns out that an Alien overlord, Gygas, has decided he wants to destroy the world. However, all hope is not lost, for Ness and three others (Jeff, Paula and Poo……. yeah, you heard me) have the power to defeat this evil and restore order! To do this, Ness must venture out alone, join with his allies and find a way to defeat the evil! Now the early 90s was the time that RPGs really started to develop quality narratives with deep characters (Final Fantasies, Chrono Trigger, etc) but it will soon become apparent that Earthbound never makes a serious attempt at this. The charm in this adventure is in the crazy-strange plot points (eg – saving a brainwashed town from being obsessed with the colour blue, shown in a screenshot below) and the neurotic characters you meet along the way. The unexpected is always right around the corner and half the time this works surprisingly well. The other half however left me questioning what exactly I was playing. The experience is hard to explain, but just try to imagine a team of introverted, Japanese virgins, high on just about anything you could imagine, trying to humorously represent American culture. Play it, and you’ll see what I mean.
Earthbounds gameplay is much like the rest of the game; hit and miss. Enemies appear on screen and will run towards to you on site. Avoiding them is very difficult but fortunately, if you run in the opposite direction then return again, the screen will be ‘reset’, meaning all enemies are refreshed which could result in either more enemies, or no enemies at all. For this reason, you could probably get through a dungeon without initiating a fight, however due to the insane difficulty of some bosses, you will probably need the experience. To make things even better for those who hate grinding, once your party is a significantly higher level than the enemy, a battle won’t even initiate. Instead, you’ll simply win while still reaping the exp. I love the idea of not having to fight weaker enemies and this is something that EVERY JRPG should adopt.
Unfortunately, this forward thinking initiative stops once a battle begins, well for most parts anyway. The battle system is truly quite horrible. Once started, you take the POV of your party, facing the enemies. The colourful, swirly backgrounds for each fight remind me of those cartoony representations of being high as a kite and this didn’t work for me. It just doesn’t make sense. The backgrounds should reflect where the battle is taking place, shouldn’t it? Or maybe it’s just me…. Once in battle, each character can attack, defend, cast a spell (all except for poor Jeff) or use a special ability specific to their character. However, here lies a problem. These unique abilities are next to useless and you’ll probably get through the entire game without using them once. In fact, most of the time you’ll just attack, cast a powerful spell and heal when needed. These battles are slow, long, drawn out and boring. However! There is a saving grace; the ticker system! Basically, when your character is attacked, the respective HP will not be immediately subtracted from their total HP. Instead, their HP slowly ticks down, like a clock. This adds a new level of strategy since immediately healing will cause your HP to start ticking up again. This is a very effective method of preventing your characters from dying. And trust me, this will happen a lot!
Sure, death is part of any game, but Earthbound makes it feel cheap. Some enemies seem to be able to ‘critical hit’ your party every.single.turn, causing an instant KO (well, when the ticker reaches 0). This is particularly infuriating at the start of the game when your HP is low and the ticker will reach zero in about 5 seconds. But wait! There’s more! In the early parts of the game, you don’t have access to reviving your party members. As a result, you have to trek ALL THE WAY back to town and see a doctor. If only phoenix downs grew on trees…… In summary, you will be frustrated! And I’m talking Dark Souls-style frustrated!
If I picked 100 Earthbound players and asked them what their final parties looked like, I’m positive that all of the responses would be greatly similar. This is not because there is a single build that overpowers the others, but because there is only one build, full stop. With no control over spell acquisition and stat increases, the only way of customising your characters is through their equipment and to make things worse, Earthbound suffers from a characters strength being overly dependent on what is currently equipped. To be fair, the limitations on the items characters can individually hold does play a small role in setting a good party apart from a slightly better party, but much of the time, the items held are story items or insignificant in battle. This ultimately results in our favourite past time; grinding, being the only option in strengthening your characters, and trust me; grinding in this game is frustrating as hell, for reasons previously mentioned.
Despite my attitude towards this game being somewhat….negative, I never said it wasn’t bloody memorable. Some of the locations around the world, plot points and strange NPCs contribute to something that is quite special. Some may even call it artistic. To top it off, the game is very polished with decent graphics and a catchy soundtrack that heavily tributes popular music artists such as Pink Floyd and the Doors. There are also plenty of other representations and references in the game, particularly the Beatles (the game creators clearly had some obsession there). This all contributes in creating the Earthbound Experience which is far from the greatest experience you’ll ever have, but an experience nonetheless.
As you’ve probably gathered from this review, Earthbound reeks of oddities. So much so, that the fact I’m currently shaving my scrotum with mouldy cheese, peanut butter and a rusty katana is actually comparatively normal. Despite the praise it has received over the years, Earthbound is an average game in just about every regard but for some reason, I can’t help but recommend a play, especially considering it’s now available on the Wii-U store. Consider giving it a shot if you have nothing else to play, it’s worth the memories.