Earthbound Review: A Melody of Love

Thank you, Nintendo. Not only have you finally re-released Earthbound after an entire generation of waiting, but you’ve saved me from the fact that my copy of Mario and Luigi: Dream Team Bros. was late and I can’t review it this week.

Anyway, Amazon’s postal failures aside, it’s really excellent to see fan pressure finally getting through to Nintendo after all this time. Not only are a new generation of American gamers able to play through the adventures of Ness, Paula, Jeff and Poo without shelling out hundreds of dollars; now Europeans can join the fun as well.

It’s hard to quantify precisely what it is about Earthbound that seems to have captured so many people’s imaginations. Perhaps it’s the quirky story. Maybe it’s the likeable characters or the charming graphical style. Certainly part of it is the excellent musical score. But I think what people find so timelessly enjoyable about Earthbound is the way all those aspects intertwine and create one unified experience, where nothing feels forced or out of place, where everything has a purpose but which is also self-aware, irreverent to gaming conventions and which manages to be genuinely hilarious.

Opening in a small American town, Onett, a meteor strike results in our hero Ness becoming embroiled in events outside his comprehension as he is pushed into a battle with a malevolent time-traveling presence. You’ll notice this isn’t in the dark, gritty, realm of sci-fi when you start being attacked by crows wearing sunglasses. Yes, the evil alien Giygas is occupying the consciousness of hundreds of living beings with evil in their hearts, which when you think about it would logically include Ness since he’s the one beating dogs to death with a baseball bat.

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Ness travels the world, meeting up with other youngsters as he goes. As you progress in the game, it becomes quite striking how varied the environments are. Yes, there are standard RPG locations – a swamp, a volcano, a snowy region – but there’s also a highway through a desert (which has some of the best attention to detail in the game, by way of the Western desert having cacti and the African-style desert not having) as well as a big city, a waterfall, a high-tech base under Stonehenge and a town full of profoundly odd aliens.

It’s in this eclectic mix of styles that writer and creator Shigesato Itoi really comes into his own. Famous in his native Japan for his advertising slogans and massively popular blog, Mr. Itoi has a spectacular eye for the quirky, and a unique take on the human race as good people capable of being tempted from the right path. His characters often have crippling personal flaws which provide an in for Giygas and the Mani Mani statue – and I think I’ve just realised that ‘Mani’ sounds a bit like money. Perhaps it could be allegorical, he strongly hinted. it also looks like an Academy Award – take from that what you will.

There’s been a lot written about the metaphorical symbolism of Earthbound, so I’ll steer away from that and talk about the more game-related aspects of this, you know, game. Firstly, the battle system is astonishingly well-designed. Instead of random encounters being experienced out of nowhere while exploring an overworld, Earthbound‘s enemies really mill about, and will attack if the party gets too close. The brilliant thing is that when Ness and Co. gain enough strength, the enemies will start to run away – and approaching them from behind gives you a lovely first strike.

Not that you’ll necessarily need it, of course. Enemies which are very weak relative to your characters will be instantly defeated by walking into them, allowing players to get through areas in a reasonable time frame without having to slog through seventeen battles which give hardly any experience points.

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While in battle, you should take notice of the fact that the randomly generated background are both awesome and completely off the wall. Things get a tad creepy during the encounter with the final boss, but generally speaking the graphics live up to the game’s comical and lighthearted tone. Environments are bright and colourful with many different palettes, enemies and characters have well-designed sprites and the protagonists all manage to be expressive and full of personality even when they don’t speak.

Perhaps a criticism that could be leveled is that the game is too difficult to start and too easy by the end (you’ll almost certainly near the level cap and only a couple of hours’ grinding will see you hit it) but that can easily be countered by the argument that a challenge prepares you for things to come and an easy coast through the middle of the game enhances your feeling of being on a sightseeing tour of Eagleland. Overworld interactions are perhaps a little too menu-based (with a slightly pointless division between the ‘talk’ and ‘check’ commands) but my flippant response there would be to point out that menus give the player more time to listen to the excellent soundtrack.

Yes, Earthbound, composed by the esteemed musicians Hirokazu ‘Hip’ Tanaka and Keiichi Suzuki, has one of gaming’s most memorable and evocative soundtracks. There is not a single track in the game that could be described as generic. From odd alien sound effects to cheesy hotel music to sweeping anthems, it’s a truly cinematic score that will make you laugh and cry, with homages and parodies thrown in liberally. From your first fight with Mr. Batty to the jingle played when waking up in a hotel, you’ll catch yourself almost recognising a song before the composers cruelly replace it with their own brilliant strains. In fact, it was those samples which are speculated to have played a part in the absence of Earthbound from Western shores in recent years, but it seems they’ve overcome those issues and the songs remain intact.

Earthbound is not a usual game by any stretch of the imagination. Some of you may not understand its appeal. But for many, it is a testament in game form to the wonderment and adventure, as well as the uncertainty and fear, that come with reaching adulthood in the modern world. It’s a message with which most of us may identify, and one which, if you let it, will stay with you for a lifetime.

Earthbound is the definitive SNES RPG experience. It is almost perfect in almost every regard, and should be purchased with great haste. 98%

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Robin Wilde

Co-Editor of Cubed Gamers, meaning I send out, take in, edit and upload content. I’m also in charge of doing much of the graphics and design stuff for the site.

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