In 1989, Nintendo released an RPG known as Mother. It differed from its contemporaries in that its scenario was conceived by a professional writer who saw a great storytelling potential in this budding medium: Shigesato Itoi. His celebrity status, which he achieved long before he had an idea for a video game, played a big role in Mother selling over 400,000 copies in Japan. It wasn’t just a big name being attached to the project that moved so many units, however; kids and adults alike enjoyed the game for its compelling, emotionally driven narrative, and its appeal transcends generations.
Naturally, because Nintendo realized they had a hit on their hands, it wasn’t long before they asked Mr. Itoi to create a sequel to continue this newfound success. He happily accepted, as the Super Famicom was released in Japan a year after the debut of Mother. This new machine provided more than a mere graphical upgrade; it allowed for creative possibilities inconceivable on the original Famicom. HAL Laboratory, the company that would eventually create the Kirby franchise, joined Mr. Itoi and the rest of Ape Inc. to aid them on this new project. With this new talent and the prospect of ascending his canon to a higher level on a new and improved system, the possibilities were endless or so it would appear on the surface. Shortly after development began, the team began running into a multitude of problems. The isometric perspective that gave Mother its identity was difficult to render, new mechanics failed to work properly, the two studios were in entirely different regions of Japan, and eight megabytes of storage proved insufficient to hold the soundtrack let alone an actual game. The project began to stall, and all hope seemed lost.
This all changed when HAL Laboratory sent one of their most skilled programmers to save the day. Once appointed lead programmer, this man was able to systematically manage all of the technical issues plaguing the development process. His name was Satoru Iwata, the very person who would become Nintendo’s president a decade later. Due to his efforts, the project became even larger in scale, and took nearly four years to complete – something that was practically unheard of at the time. The game was finished in 1994 under the name Mother 2: Giygas Strikes Back. Like its predecessor, Mother 2 received a warm reception to the point where hundreds of thousands of copies were sold within the first few weeks. Mr. Itoi’s success was at an all-time high, and Nintendo decided to take a chance by pouring resources into getting the game localized for a Western audience. In North America, Mother 2 inherited the working title of its predecessor before the plans for localization fell through at the last minute: Earthbound, and Nintendo marketed the game heavily in the hopes that it would catch on overseas. Sadly, this effort ultimately fell short, and the game barely sold 150,000 copies – dismal sales compared to other Nintendo titles. What few critics did play Earthbound dismissed it for its seemingly childish presentation and not looking enough like Final Fantasy VI. Exactly what did they choose to pass up?
Playing the Game
Earthbound follows in the footsteps of its predecessor in that it too is a Japanese role-playing game. When exploring the world, every interaction is operated through a menu system you can access by pressing the action button. The commands in this menu can be used to, among other things, converse with NPCs, open boxes for items, and examine your characters’ stats. Each party member has their own inventory as opposed to a shared pool of items. When encountering enemies, you input an action for each of your characters and a round of combat is played out. Speed typically determines the order in which each participant acts. When you have achieved victory, you are awarded experience points (EXP) and money.Although many JRPGs from the early nineties began taking cues from Final Fantasy by including a contextual action button, Earthbound is notable in that it latches onto the field command menu when even the series from which it originated, Dragon Quest, had begun to phase it out. Coupled with its simplistic visuals, especially when compared to the visually stunning Secret of Mana released a year earlier, it’s not too surprising that critics in 1994 weren’t impressed. After playing it for myself, I can confidently say that, understandable though their position may have been at the time, they were absolutely wrong.
Yes, on the surface, the presentation could be construed as childish and simple and using an archaic interface was admittedly a questionable design choice, but to anyone willing to give it the time of day, there are quite a few innovations that mark Earthbound as a very forward-looking experience. To begin with, the random encounters that bogged down the original Mother, retroactively dubbed Earthbound Beginnings when it finally debuted internationally in 2015, have been eschewed entirely. Enemy parties now appear on the map; when they and the player characters collide, a battle begins. When hostiles spot your characters, they will usually hone in on their position. It’s wise to take these encounters head-on; if they approach you from the back, they get a free round before you’re able to act. The inverse is true as well; if you can approach them from behind, your characters get the first strike instead.
Moreover, if your party overpowers an enemy, they will run in the opposite direction instead, making it easy to revisit previous areas without getting slowed down by simple encounters. Should you decide to track down these enemies anyway, the game may automatically award you the victory, and you still gain the EXP and money you would have won had you actually fought these encounters.
Another notable feature, and one that helps transform Earthbound from a dime-a-dozen console RPG to one with its own distinct identity, is the rolling health meter. In most RPGs, when a character is hit with an attack, the damage is instantaneous. That’s not true with this game; whenever a party member takes damage, the health meter begins counting down each number before reaching the updated value. For example, if the protagonist has 30 HP and takes 10 damage, rather than immediately showing the new value of 20, you will see each integer between those two numbers scroll by as it finishes the countdown. In the split second “25” is displayed in the HP counter, that is effectively how much health he has. To put it another way, your characters could potentially take fatal damage, but if you end the fight or use a healing item before the counter reaches zero, you can prevent them from falling unconscious. As it’s commonly perceived that turn-based JRPGs are unengaging because they don’t have a sense of urgency, this mechanic goes a long way in keeping the player alert at all times.
Perhaps the most significant improvement over Earthbound Beginnings is that the characters have much better synergy. The protagonist, Ness, is now the strongest and sturdiest party member in the game in exchange for being the slowest. He also has a special offensive maneuver – something Ninten from the previous game lacked. The character who would constitute a mage in a typical JRPG, Paula, not only learns techniques capable of targeting all enemies much earlier than her predecessor, she can also deal decent damage with physical attacks as well. The genius kid, Jeff, has a much larger array of gadgets at his disposal, and in a unique twist, the well-balanced character, Poo, isn’t the lead, but rather the last one to join the party.
Now, this isn’t to say Earthbound isn’t without its shortcomings. Even compared to other JRPGs, this game is extraordinarily linear, and talking to seemingly random people or examining ostensibly uninteresting spots is often required to trigger event flags in completely different areas. I remember one point when the game made it clear I needed to visit a certain location only for me to hit an obstacle I couldn’t circumvent. It wasn’t until I looked it up in a guide that I learned I hadn’t talked to the right person and funded his next project, which just so happens to produce the item I needed to progress. There are many ways to lose money in foolish ways in this game, so investing it in a dubious prospect wasn’t at all intuitive. The good news for anyone who purchased the game back when it was released is that it came packaged with a free guide. For those who bought the cartridge used many years later, there is an in-game hint system. As a minor downside, this service isn’t free, though luckily, you can cheat the system by paying, reading the hint, and then resetting the game.
Because each character is allowed to carry fourteen items, it stands to reason that most players would want to stock up on healing items for emergency purposes. Even though equipped weapons and armor are not removed from a character’s inventory list unlike in Earthbound Beginnings, I found the limitations far less debilitating. Nonetheless, it’s irritating how key items are not stored in a separate screen as was the case with contemporaries such as Final Fantasy VI. There were a few times in which I placed an important item in storage to clear space only to later learn I needed it to advance, thus wasting time trying to get it back.
Despite all its flaws, the gameplay of Earthbound is still overall enjoyable. Considering how many other popular series of games repeatedly made the same mistake before finally ironing it out, it’s hard to believe Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound only came out within four years of each other. It’s as though Mr. Itoi made a list of the absolute worst aspects of his original game and systematically fixed almost every single one of them. The world is much easier to navigate and not littered with nondescript scenery, there are many more boss fights, and the improved battle system ensures the pacing doesn’t come to a screeching halt with every single fight.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following analysis will contain unmarked spoilers for both Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound.
A meteorite has crashed near the small town of Onett. A young boy named Ness along with his pusillanimous neighbor, Porky, investigate the impact and are greeted by a being from the future, assuming the form of an insect. The being comes bearing horrible news – Giygas, the universal cosmic destroyer, has ushered an era of hopelessness and despair. Ness and three others must travel the world in search of eight sanctuaries that house melodies which have the power to stop Giygas before he can enact his evil plans.
Before he created Earthbound Beginnings, Mr. Itoi made a living as a copywriter. Their job is to raise brand awareness and get readers to take certain actions. Conceiving advertising slogans requires a far different variety of expertise than one would expect from others who wear their linguistic abilities as a badge of pride such as fiction writers or essayists. Indeed, Mr. Itoi worked with many famous creators, becoming a household name thanks to his laconic yet memorable catchphrases and slogans. That he wished to utilize the abilities he developed on these various high-profile projects in a field which would necessitate a divergent skill set was a bold risk in hindsight. He managed to accomplish this unlikely feat not by drastically changing his style of writing, but by using it to pen a minimalistic story that had many surreal elements, yet also possessed a surprisingly grounded feel when it came time to wrap up the proceedings, hence the tagline, “No crying until the end.”
Much like Earthbound Beginnings before it, within seconds of starting up the game, it becomes clear that Earthbound is far from your average role-playing experience. While a typical RPG is set in a fantasy realm featuring brave knights and cunning sorcerers, Earthbound opts for a modern day motif wherein its protagonists wield baseball bats, frying pans, and psychic powers to defend themselves against truly terrifying foes such as skateboarders, coffee cups, and killer LP records. What I particularly enjoy about the setting isn’t just the numerous cosmetic differences that result from it, but also how it manifests in gameplay. When a character’s health is depleted, they’re rushed to the hospital instead of killed or knocked out. You can withdraw and deposit money using an ATM machine, allowing you to avoid losing half of it should you face defeat. You can even order a pizza and the deliveryman will bring it to your exact location, though there are some areas he cannot reach.
The writing is also noticeably better than it was in Earthbound Beginnings. For one, you’re given a clear goal at all times, so you aren’t actively made to wander around aimlessly until you stumble upon something to move the plot along. The improvements don’t merely stop at making the game easier to comprehend, however. Earthbound Beginnings was said to have taken place in a remote community in America during the eighties. Although it supposedly takes place in the same universe as its predecessor, Ness hails from Eagleland, a wonderfully strange pastiche of American culture pasted together from its media and interpreted through the lens of a foreigner. The elements of this amalgamation are evident not only in the visuals, but in the soundtrack as well, for several of the songs in Earthbound sample music from the West. The sources vary wildly from classic television shows such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus to the compositions of famous rock artists like Ric Ocasek or The Beatles. I find it fascinating whenever artists are able to skillfully appropriate elements of multiple cultures into their work because the results are invariably fascinating to watch; it’s a great way of promoting creativity while giving the audience insight to other viewpoints they normally wouldn’t experience.
One aspect about the writing of Mr. Itoi’s original game that stuck out would be treasure trove of quirky NPC dialogue. Earthbound is a step up in this regard by virtue of possessing more focus in its humor. By the nineties, JRPGs had entered something of a golden age, meaning that those in the know, especially creators, were aware of the genre’s conventions and expectations. Mr. Itoi used this knowledge to create an unabashed yet affectionate parody of the genre. This is demonstrated as soon as the game begins when Ness decides to check out the meteorite immediately after it crashes. It’s the dead of night, and when his mother finds out, rather than stopping him, she figures he’ll sneak out anyway and at asks him to change out of his pajamas before venturing out of the house. During this sequence, the police have barricaded the roads. From a gameplay perspective, it’s to ensure you don’t go the wrong way, but the officers try to justify it by saying they enjoy blocking paths for little reason, claiming they’re trying to break a world record. The sheer amount of self-awareness the game exudes in the prologue alone would be laudable these days, making it hard to believe the genre was able to poke fun at itself to such a degree as early as 1994.
What really sets Earthbound apart from other story-heavy games isn’t necessarily an enormous volume of words in the script, but rather how Mr. Itoi chooses to weave mechanics into the narrative. The main four characters have their own role in combat which implies personalities without resorting to dialogue. Ness has a fondness for healing and barrier techniques; a good leader should keep their teammates safe, after all. Paula’s specialization in offensive psychic powers is born from a desire to become independent. Jeff can repair broken items overnight due to his proficiency with technology, and when he levels up, his intelligence stat increases at a much faster rate than anyone else. Lastly, Poo’s well-roundedness is explained by his intense training and foreknowledge that he would journey with Ness one day to save the world. What better ally is there for such a perilous undertaking than someone who is prepared for any situation?
Ness’s travels take him far away from home, and every now and again, he may find himself afflicted with a case of homesickness. When this happens, he randomly wastes a turn in combat. To alleviate this, he must call his mother over the phone. I admit it’s somewhat annoying, as it requires periodically checking the menu to discover unlike other status conditions, but it’s hardly a deal-breaking flaw. If anything, it’s another method of humanizing the protagonist in a way that could not have been done in other mediums. In fact, once he reaches a certain level, he no longer becomes homesick, giving him an intriguing, relatable character arc without him uttering a single word.
Earthbound even goes a step further in its goal to embrace the interactive element exclusively present in video games by making the player an active participant in how the story develops. Ness’s signature ability is what the player lists as their favorite thing, meaning that whatever they may be passionate about is turned into a weapon they can use to fell their enemies. It’s a nice touch which allows the audience to engage with the material on a personal level.
Even after all of the great things one can say about this game, it’s impossible to discuss Earthbound in great detail without mentioning the main antagonist, Gigyas. His name is not unfamiliar to those who played Earthbound Beginnings first; its plot revolved around its protagonist, Ninten, uncovering the circumstances behind the mysterious disappearance of his great-grandmother, Maria, in the early twentieth century. The truth is that she had been abducted by aliens alongside her husband, George, and although the latter eventually returned, the former stayed behind. In this strange new world, they adopted an infant alien child named Gigyas as their own son.
Shortly after Ninten learned of these developments, he confronted Gigyas, who was now entrusted by his race to lead an invasion of Earth. George had stolen their technology when he came back, including the ability to develop psychic powers, and the aliens wished to suppress the human race before they could become a threat. In the end, Gigyas wasn’t defeated by force, but when Ninten and his friends sung Maria’s lullaby to him. No longer able to continue his conquest with a clear conscience, Gigyas and his forces retreated, though he vowed that he and Ninten would meet again.
In Earthbound Beginnings, the antagonist’s existence was kept a secret until the endgame, but this time around, it’s spelled out before the story begins in earnest and in the original Japanese subtitle that he is back for round two. Anyone who fancies themselves a connoisseur of long-running franchises knows that reintroducing the villain without destroying their mystique is one of the most daunting challenges creators must overcome. When handled poorly, the audience knows exactly what to expect, ruining any kind of mystery or tension. Even in the best of times, it often results in a story that goes through the motions of its predecessor without adding anything new, so how does Earthbound fare?
When you finally do reach Gigyas, what you find is not the villain who had complex motives in the original. The cognitive dissonance that plagued his mind coupled with the process he undertook to amass power eventually caused him to go insane. In his stead is something called Gigyas, yet what it is defies description. A secondary antagonist attests that it isn’t even aware of what it’s doing by this point. Its unconventional character design and unnerving dialogue was inspired by a traumatic incident from Mr. Itoi’s youth wherein he entered the wrong movie theater and witnessed a disturbing scene in an adult film that he misinterpreted in his childish naiveté. The ability to translate personal experiences into fiction is one of the many reasons the auteur theory is so appealing to art enthusiasts, and when it works, it gives us moments or characters that are equal parts unique and brilliant.
On its own, Gigyas makes for a creepy element in an otherwise lighthearted romp, making it one of Nintendo’s most memorable antagonists. In the context of the previous installment, however, its fate is quite tragic. To the North American fans who originally played this game in 1994, Gigyas was a one-dimensional, if effective, threat. To anyone who aware of its backstory provided in Earthbound Beginnings, that it has been reduced to a one-dimensional force of pure evil is where the true tragedy of this game lies. It becomes clear that something like this cannot be defeated through conventional means, and the solution is a truly clever one which reinforces why this story needs to be in a video game to function. This is something that can’t be expressed in words, so the only way to find out how Ness triumphs over Gigyas is to try it out for yourself.
Drawing a Conclusion
For those new to the hobby of video games, it may seem unfathomable that a title with such a dedicated following could fall by the wayside when it was originally released. It helps to remember that this phenomenon isn’t endemic to the realm of video games, for it has happened many times throughout history across other artistic mediums. The Velvet Underground was largely ignored when they debuted in 1967. It wasn’t until a decade later when their vast influence on rock music became apparent that critics began to change their tune. Citizen Kane was released amid numerous controversies and consequently lost money in its 1941 opening, though it did receive acclaim from the few who actually saw it, and their opinions outlasted the efforts to suppress it. Even the staple of high fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, was universally panned and left to wallow in obscurity until the hippie movement of the sixties embraced it for its attack on materialism.
What sets Earthbound apart from the above situations is how it received its vindication. The turning point was in 1999 when Super Smash Bros. debuted on the Nintendo 64. It was a crossover fighting game developed by HAL Laboratory that initially starred eight characters from what were easily their most famous franchises at the time, including Mario, Link of The Legend of Zelda, and Samus of Metroid. There were also four hidden characters who would be unlocked once the player met certain conditions. Those skilled enough to clear the game on normal difficulty with only three lives would learn the fourth hidden character was Ness. The appearance of this hitherto largely unknown young boy with psychic powers prompted gaming fans to question where he came from. On the character’s bio page was their answer: an SNES game named Earthbound. When they sought out this forgotten title, they discovered a fantastic game that slipped beneath the radar thanks to critics who didn’t give it the time of day.
In an ironic twist, the scant cartridges that would find themselves selling for $15 in grocery store bargain bins ended up appreciating in value to the point where online auctioneers would rarely let them go for anything less than a triple-digit price. This led to a problem, as many people placed Earthbound on a high pedestal, yet those who missed out on their chance to buy a cartridge when it was in the process of being reevaluated couldn’t experience it without paying a large sum of money or resorting to dubious methods. When Nintendo released their Wii console in 2006, it appeared as though fans finally had their answer to this dilemma in the form of the Virtual Console. It was a digital distribution service that allowed enthusiasts to download titles from older Nintendo consoles such as the NES, SNES, and Nintendo 64. Unfortunately, the aforementioned extensive use of sampling Mr. Itoi and his staff used to create the soundtrack meant there was a myriad of legal barriers keeping it from making its way into the hands of newcomers. It wouldn’t be until 2013 that Earthbound finally gained a new lease on life by being made available on the Virtual Console service of the Wii’s successor, the Wii-U. Needless to say, the fans were ecstatic, and it quickly topped the sales charts for several weeks.
It’s obvious the critics who originally played Earthbound didn’t bother finishing it. Sadly, it’s a problem they wouldn’t overcome in the following decades, leading them to decry games that aren’t good right away or heaping praise on works which take a nosedive in quality during the final sequences. Although it took a while for the community to acknowledge it, Earthbound is a classic in every sense of the word and easily one of the best games of the nineties. The combat is lightning fast, the story is simple yet deep, and the improved visuals allow the game’s personality to truly shine in a way that Earthbound Beginnings couldn’t on Nintendo’s 8-bit Famicom. Definitely pick this up; I’m sure you will be amazed how a game released in 1994 is every bit good now as it was then.
Final Score: 9/10