There’s something to be said about looking back at bygone days of gaming and analyzing it with new perspectives. Thus, Blast from the Past, in which StickSkills looks at classic (and not-so-classic) games from previous eras of the industry and picking them apart – what’s good, what’s not, what hasn’t stood the test of time (or what has unexpectedly) and whether it was worthy of all the praise (or hatred) heaped upon it in the first place.
Whether or not you’ve ever picked up an SNES controller, you’ve no doubt heard of Earthbound. Originally titled Mother 2 in Japan, the off-beat RPG found its way to North American shores in mid-1995, just four months before the industry moved into the third dimension with the launch of the original PlayStation. Sporting cartoony, two-dimensional graphics that were considered quaint even at the time – the game was unfavorably compared to the flashier Donkey Kong Country, which launched less than a year previous and its sprites didn’t have the elegance or detail of similar RPGs like Final Fantasy III – Earthbound came packed with a copy of Nintendo’s player’s guide in a massive box. The late arrival and the unconventional marketing campaign – advertisements, referring to the scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers included with the guide, announced that “This game stinks!” – doomed Earthbound to low sales and relative obscurity. That, combined with various copyright issues involved with the game’s many references and sampling of popular music, ensured the game would fail to receive any official re-release in America for nearly two decades.
But Earthbound wouldn’t remain in obscurity for too long. The game, which tells a story of the power of hope and friendship filtered through an off-kilter spoof of all things Americana, gained a small but loyal fanbase, which only grew as word of mouth spread and PC software emulation became more and more common. The inclusion of the game’s main character in the Super Smash Bros. roster a few years later certainly didn’t hurt, either. The adventures of boy hero Ness and his friends Paula, Jeff and Poo across modern-day Eagleland (Get it? GET IT?!) to save the world from a time-traveling threat named Giygas soon achieved cult status, with fans gathering online to discuss their favorite moments and bits of minutiae. Still, try as they might, fans could never quite convince Nintendo to re-release the game in any official capacity, at least in North America (in Japan, both Mother games saw a re-release on the Game Boy Advance, as well as a full-fledged sequel on the same platform).
That is, until recently. This year, Nintendo announced plans to release the game on the Wii U Virtual Console, and then quietly put it up for sale last month. For the first time in nearly 20 years, fans old and new alike could obtain Earthbound on the up-and-up…which makes now the perfect time to look back on the game and see if it still holds up.
What Brought You Back?: This question’s a bit of a misnomer – Earthbound has never been far from my heart or my reach. I first played the game shortly after it first launched on the SNES, and despite the fact that I couldn’t manage to defeat the game’s first real boss (gang leader Frank) before having to return the game to Blockbuster (R.I.P.), I was immediately struck by the game’s charm and sense of humor. Within a few months I’d moved on to the PlayStation and devoted my attentions to more “mature” offerings like Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil. Once I was old enough to figure out how to run an SNES emulator on my PC, Earthbound had a permanent place of residence on my hard drive, and I played the game to various states of completion numerous times in that capacity over the years.
This time around, Nintendo finally releasing the game on the Wii U Virtual Console was more than enough reason to run through it yet again, and finally be able to support the game financially to boot.
All of which, of course, is a longwinded way of saying “because Nintendo re-released it” and, I suppose, “maybe this guy isn’t the most unbiased person to be analyzing whether Earthbound holds up after 18 years.”
But I digress.
What Aged Well?: Quite a bit, actually, although to be fair a lot of Earthbound’s mechanics were more or less copied from other JRPG franchises who’d already spent years refining them (most notably Dragon Quest). So in terms of the way the game plays, it holds up about as well as any of its contemporaries – which is to say fairly well overall. So, in short – from a purely mechanical standpoint, almost everything has remained more or less timeless.
But Earthbound, like any game, is more than just the mechanics that go together to make the thing work, more than just the sum of its parts. So much of what Earthbound is – what people remember, what it’s known for – lies outside of the nuts and bolts. The soul of the game lies in its skewering of Western culture – its offbeat look at Americana filtered through a thoroughly Japanese perspective. This is something that, handled poorly, could easily be dated almost instantaneously. Fortunately, Earthbound refrains from making any overt or specific references to Western pop-culture or history. Instead, it focuses more on spoofing the idea of the Baby Boomer generation as the best, most prosperous and prodigious and turns on its ear the supremacy of capitalism or well-honed American cynicism. True, the whole of Eagleland works on an economy of cash earned from bashing enemies’ heads in like any JRPG, and without it you won’t be able to acquire equipment or items necessary for success, but it’s less a means to an end than an ultimate goal – in fact, the handful of characters in the game who put their faith in money, status and fame are ultimately shallow and useless, if not outright evil (that a major nemesis in the game is an golden idol should not be overlooked). And most adults, greedy or not, are too cynical or complacent to fight against the evil that threatens the world – even NPC children you meet in the game tend to be infinitely more insightful than any adult. Only Ness and his friends, with the boundless hope and optimism that comes with youth, stand any chance at saving the world from ruin, who remain immune to the corrupting influence of Giygas.
That sounds a bit dark for a game as cartoony as Earthbound – and it is, when you consider it a rumination on the corrupting influence of a system that encourages people to focus on personal wealth over their fellow man (or when you realize precisely what the final boss actually is for the first time and it literally blows your mind). And it’s not original story – not even at the time of Earthbound’s initial release – but it’s one that’s wrapped in such simple, colorful visuals that intentionally undermine the heavier themes and goofy sense of humor and optimism that it’s hard to get weighed down by any of it. It’s timeless, both in content and presentation, and it holds up exceptionally well.
What Didn’t Age Well?: Again, I may not be the best person to accurately analyze this particular aspect of the game, because my first instinct is to write “Nothing, it’s perfect.” But that’s not entirely true. Earthbound, like any game, has its flaws, though there’s nothing here that breaks the game.
Technically, there are some minor issues. When too many characters share the screen with your party – be they enemies or NPCs – Earthbound often experiences serious and noticeable slowdown. For the most part it’s a minor annoyance, but there are moments where it becomes extremely frustrating, especially in areas with a lot of enemies swarming you. And speaking of enemies, as intuitive as the battle system – largely ripped straight from Dragon Quest – can be, there are moments in battle where enemies will get off shots that can only be described as cheap.
If there’s anything truly troubling about the game after all these years, it’s the depiction of Paula. As the only female character who joins the party, Paula absolutely gets the traditional “girl in a JRPG” treatment, by and large. For the most part, her stats are consistently inferior to her male counterparts – her HP remains drastically lower than characters who are 10 levels behind her, for example – and her weapon set is literally a series of frying pans. Now, given Earthbound’s tone and general themes – and the fact that she’s one of the strongest magic users in the game and her unique ability is the key to the game’s subversive final boss – it’s easy to conclude that this is a riff on traditional Western depictions and expectations of femininity…but the game rarely does anything with those depictions besides create a character who lives up to them. The final battle – which turns traditional definitions of strength and victory completely upside down – does a lot to make up for this, but the fact remains that for a good portion of the game, Paula exists as a 50s-era depiction of femininity without doing much to undermine those ideas the way the rest of the game does with Western culture at every turn.
Should You Play It?: If you’ve made it this far, you can probably guess my answer is “yes, without question.” It (intentionally) isn’t as visually slick as or have the grand, operatic tale as some of its contemporaries, but at its heart it’s still one of the most quietly subversive RPGs of its day. These days, games with Something To Say tend to be deadly serious affairs that make sure you understand precisely how philosophical they are; Earthbound has no time for any of that, and instead hides much of its message under a sheen of goofiness that makes what it has to say easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. And if you don’t care about that, it’s just a damned joy to play – it’s colorful, intuitive and generally hilarious, even removed from the message. It’s no wonder that the kids and teens who grew up on games like this have gone on to create equally subversive “kid stuff” like Adventure Time. For any number of reasons, this is a game that deserves to be played.
Statistically, not many out there actually have Wii U systems in order to obtain a digital copy of Earthbound on the cheap, and original SNES cartridges can still run upwards of $100 through independent sellers.
But, you know…Earthbound fans found ways to play this game for years without an official way to get their hands on a copy.