EarthBound, known as Mother 2 in Japan, came out in 1994. It had a very limited release in North America, and as such I never played it. Of course being a fan of Nintendo I’ve heard the hype around this game for almost 20 years, never being able to play it. I could have used an emulator I know, but I’ve never really been comfortable with the questionable legality of an emulator, especially when you don’t actually own the original game, never mind that you’d never be able to find anyone to give money to so you could get a copy. Nintendo has changed this finally, with the release on the Wii U Virtual Console. So should they have bothered?
Well I know there will be a great many fans who will have already snapped up the title and finished it in a glorious haze of nostalgia. This review is not for them, it’s for you and me, the people that are playing it for the first time, in 2013.
Thinking about the game in that state of mind, I could actually see it being released this year. With the recent resurgence in indie gaming and pixel graphics in particular, a game that looks like this could absolutely come out. That’s a testament to a couple decades in advances in graphic technology that this game holds up so well. The character designs are instantly iconic, and the goofiness that is inherent in the game shines through the limited colour palette. Oddly enough though, Nintendo didn’t see fit to fix the slow-down issues when many characters are on screen. Perhaps this is to make it simply a 1-1 translation of the game, I’m sure if anything had been changed there would be a few angry fans.
I’m glad they didn’t change the music, as the soundtrack is retro-fantastic. I never really felt intruded upon by it, but I had a weird moment several times while playing. I occasionally listen to chip-tune or traditional bands that remix and mash up old video game tunes, and the music from EarthBound is a staple of that scene. I recognized the music that was being played, but in the opposite direction as you’d expect. Kind of like when a friend of mine hears a song in my car and states that ‘I remember that from RockBand!’. Well maybe, but it’s an Aerosmith song that’s been out for decades.
I enjoyed the writing, which was another odd thing to experience. Last weekend I met the man that was largely responsible for the translation and localization of the game. That was before I started playing it. It was another reason for me to get on it, and finally play what is considered a classic Japanese RPG.
And a classic JRPG it truly is. It’s never been my favourite genre, and EarthBound has all of the trappings that you would expect. The combat is all text and menu-based, with a static image of your enemy sitting there and waiting for you to make your move. Then if you’re successful, it will flash. That’s pretty much it for action in combat, though the real-world weapons like a yo-yo, and the psi powers, do help to keep it a tad varied. To be honest the combat was probably my least favourite thing to do in the game, as it felt fairly simplistic and repetitive. There aren’t any ‘random encounters’ like you might expect from a JRPG game, but realistically if you see an enemy you’re most likely going to be fighting them, as they’ll usually make a bee line towards you faster than you can run. I’d be more alright with that if you could actually clear out an area, but often if you’re off the screen and come back, the enemies come back with you. That might seem silly, but it’s actually needed.
You can try to avoid enemies, or to run away from them if you don’t feel like fighting or don’t really enjoy the combat. I did, up until I met someone I had to beat to progress. I had avoided or skipped so many battles I was hideously under levelled. I had no choice but to go back and fight a bunch of lower level enemies so I could level up. That pause, to grind out a whole bunch of XP using a combat system I didn’t really like? Almost made me quit the game. In fact it did initially, but I made myself come back to the game.
I’m glad I did, in the end. The script is quirky, the game world that you inhabit delightfully odd, and the art style is something that I really enjoyed. The real-world ‘you’re a kid who has to save the world’ is actually something of a novelty these days. Not the world saving of course, but the fact that you’re a regular kid who has to use a t-ball bat to fend off skateboarders. There’s a lot to EarthBound, and much to like. The way you save by calling your dad, or get money by taking it out of an ATM, or even the light puzzle solving, is fun. Walking around and talking to the townsfolk will get you pop culture references or silly quotes, but is again enjoyable.
So I guess the bottom line is this: There is a heck of a lot of content here for the price. $10 goes quite a long way, and this game is considered a classic for a very good reason. If you like RPGs or JRPGs or Action RPGs or games with silly writing and a light-hearted approach to saving the world, you’ve found your game. If, however, you get annoyed by outdated combat systems, sometimes confusing clues and puzzles or pixel graphics, probably best to move on.