An Earthbound Retrospective

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

One area that both Sega and Nintendo share similarities is how both have certain game series that fans have been clamoring for a sequel to: Sega had Shenmue and Nintendo has Earthbound. Interestingly enough, both series were unique in how they were designed and marketed which led to their popularity.

Earthbound or known as Mother 2 in Japan, was a JRPG series set in modern day. That alone was enough to turn heads, as in the 90s every JRPG was set in a fantasy or scifi setting. Instead of the hero fighting demons to save the world, the Mother series had an alien invasion. Earthbound while the sequel to Mother, still had the same basic plot. As Ness, players would have to explore the world to gather a party to fight the evil alien Giygas, who is causing people and inanimate objects to become evil.

With its US release, Earthbound stood out from the pack in a number of ways. Nintendo decided that since the game was so different and worried people wouldn’t be able to figure it out, they bundled the game with the strategy guide. The guide was one of the best ones to come from Nintendo, featuring full maps and a lot of lore about each of the game’s made up towns.

The game also made waves for US gamers who grew up playing JRPGs like Final Fantasy. Earthbound was one of the first JRPGs to feature enemies moving on the world map, instead of random encounters. Each enemy represented one foe during a fight and other enemies could join the battle by running to the player before combat starts.

Earthbound also got around one of the major annoyances of JRPG design: having to fight scrubs when exploring. Once the player reached a high enough level for the area, enemies would run away from the player. The player could end the battle before it began while getting experience by walking into the scared enemies.

Combat was played in first person similar to the Dragon Quest series. But instead of fighting monsters in the traditional form, the enemies were even weirder. Drunks, evil hobos, enraged housewives and ants are just a few of the crazy enemy types in the game. One thing that Earthbound did differently than any other JRPG to date was how it handled health.

Each party member’s health was on what appeared to be a pedometer. Instead of having the health instantly go down to the new reading after being hit, the number ticked down at a general pace. What this meant was that the player could survive fatal wounds by healing before the number reaches 0 or erasing the remainder of the damage by finishing the battle.

Beyond the gameplay, Earthbound’s story and music also deserve to be mention. The game took place in a satire of American culture.

As you move from small towns to big cities, the developers injected a lot of crazy situations into the game: From meeting a Blue Brothers parody, to dealing with corrupt officials and even a zombie outbreak. The soundtrack featured several different arrangements including different battle themes.

Earthbound was one of the first streamlined JRPGS to be released. It was very simple to see how equipment affected your team and there weren’t a lot of things for the player to figure out in order to play. While each character had different skills, the player could view them from the status menu to quickly find out what they did.

Unfortunately while the game achieved a cult status success, it didn’t become a big hit in the US. Between the streamlined battle systems and the unique graphics style, the game was a head of its time. Sadly, Earthbound came out during the period when JRPGs were still considered niche and the break from the JRPG norm was not appreciated by the hardcore fans. The genre’s popularity would not become huge in the US until Final Fantasy 7 arrived bringing a level of cinematic quality to the genre.

The game also had a few issues, which I ran into while replaying it last week. There were far too many status aliments for the player to deal with: crying, poison, cold, sunstroke etc. Each aliment had a different curative item, but the limited inventory space made it annoying to pick and choose which items to carry. The game also suffered from having so many spells, but outside of healing and attack, the rest were underutilized.

The limited inventory space would also get in the way with the third party member. He can use special items that can do damage during battle, but they each take up one spot in the inventory. This limited his usefulness unless you hoard those items for boss fights.

Since the release of Wii-Ware, Earthbound has been one of the most requested games for the service. According to Nintendo there are copyright issues with the music and characters in the game that are standing the way. Also in Japan, Nintendo released a sequel: Mother 3 a few years ago along with a bundle package of Mother One and two. Fans have been begging Nintendo to translate Mother 3 and there has even been a fan translation available online.

The odd part is that even though Earthbound didn’t succeed in the US, Nintendo has been doing their best to keep the brand alive. Characters and environments from both Earthbound and Mother 3 are featured in the Smash Brothers series.

With the release of Xenoblade Chronicles after much fan petitioning, maybe Nintendo is slowly coming around to releasing more rpgs in the US. But at this point I don’t know if fans can get any louder to convince Nintendo to bring Mother 3 officially to the US.