Probably the quintessential example of a cult classic in the video game industry, at least here in the United States, the Super Nintendo RPG EarthBound had an underwhelming debut when Nintendo released it June 5, 1995. The SNES was reaching the end of its commercial lifecycle, and RPGs on the system had matured to include ever more complex gameplay systems and grandiose visuals. Heck, the Sega Saturn had released a month prior, Sony’s PlayStation was on the horizon, and Nintendo was already discussing the next generation Ultra 64 publicly, so it seemed 2D graphics were on their way out. Yet here comes this simplistic looking game based in a reality not unlike our own instead of an imaginative fantasy or sci-fi backdrop. Similarly, the plain combat system could’ve been considered a throwback, even then. But, there was an audience for the game, and in the years since its debut, that audience has grown into a thriving fandom. Now that I’ve experienced firsthand the charming, unique adventure that EarthBound offers, a fandom so vibrant is well deserved, I’d say.
EarthBound, or Mother 2: Giygas Strikes Back! as it’s known in Japan, was developed by the Japanese studio Ape, with assistance from HAL Laboratory. Founded by Shigesato Itoi, a relatively well-known individual in his native country, at the behest of Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, Ape was closely affiliated with Nintendo in the handful of years it was a going concern. Interestingly, the studio’s history intertwines with the Pokémon franchise; when Ape dissolved, many of the staff went on to form Creatures, and were instrumental in helping Satoshi Tajiri get his fledging idea off the ground. Creatures still operates today, in a development capacity almost exclusively dedicated to Pokémon games.
As EarthBound’s Japanese title suggests, the game is a sequel. Despite having been fully translated by Nintendo, the original Mother didn’t get released in North America until June 14, 2015, when it was made available digitally on the Wii U as EarthBound Beginnings. Well, it wasn’t officially released in an English-friendly version until then; ROMs, hacks, and translations had been available for years… Until EarthBound’s release on the Wii U, those avenues were also the most practical means of playing it, considering the astronomical price the original SNES game fetched (and still does) in the secondary market. The digital release on the Wii U is how I played the game, and it had a few worthwhile bells and whistles, like basic presentation options, save states (only one at a time, though), and the ability to play solely on the GamePad.
Stirred awake by the crashing of a meteorite not far from his home, Ness was eager to explore the happening, with the blessing of his mom, of course. But, with the local police out in force, he was only able to see so much. Later that night Ness, his sister, and their mom were awoken once more, this time by an annoying knock at the door, played well for comedic effect. A variety of knocking patterns continued until Ness opened the door and revealed the perpetrator to be Pokey, his snide neighbor and rival. In a like-minded fashion, Pokey and his little brother Picky also went to examine the meteorite, but something happened to Picky. Ness and Pokey returned to the meteorite, now sans police presence, and located Picky, a-ok. Before making their way back though, a beam of light pierced the nighttime sky to deliver a fly-like creature, calling himself Buzz Buzz. Having arrived from a grim future, Buzz Buzz sought Ness out to explain how the young boy was going to unite his power with that of the earth, and defeat the universal cosmic destroyer Giygas…
Setting out the next morning with motherly understanding and the tacit approval of his absent father, Ness’ adventure to save the world began in earnest in his hometown of Onett. Setting foot in Onett proper was an especially cool moment for me personally, considering I’ve played on the Onett stage in various Super Smash Bros. games hundreds of times for damn near twenty years now. And finally getting to interact with the oddball Mr. Saturn species later in the game was… enlightening, to say the least. It turns out, my enthusiasm for those games and their inclusion of many EarthBound references had instilled a pretty decent knowledge and affinity of the property!
Onett wasn’t a bustling town as far as the country of Eagleland was concerned, and understandably served a practical purpose as a place for me to get my bearings, and begin to understand the game’s systems and mechanics. Chatting with townsfolk filled me in on the culture of Eagleland, and points of interest; perusing shops revealed a variety of merchandise to purchase, with far more foodstuffs than most RPGs offered; and entering the homes of strangers unannounced, well, you just can’t have an RPG without that! Exploring Onett wasn’t a walk in the park either, what with in-field miscreants like Spiteful Crows and Pogo Punks roaming the streets. Though rare, these enemies would chase Ness and start a scuffle when the opportunity presented itself.
If they caught up to Ness, the game would transition to a first-person battle scene, akin to the NES-era Dragon Quest games. With just one party member, my options were limited at this point, so I simply had Ness wail on enemies with his baseball bat. Over the next thirty hours, as Ness’ recruited destined allies Paula, Jeff, and Poo, battles became slightly more complex. Each member had their own specialty, generally based around the psychic powers they learned. Ness, for instance, had serious offensive capabilities with his baseball bats but frequently served a support role, since he was the most adept healer. Paula learned the greatest variety of PSI moves, whereas the inventor Jeff relied solely on firearms and unique gadgets. Lastly, Poo’s calling was martial arts, although he could dabble with psychic powers.
Even with a full party and many options, battles were straight forward, and didn’t require particularly detailed strategies. Every now and then, the party would encounter robotic enemies that exploded upon their defeat, causing massive area-of-effect damage to the kids. If they were joined by other enemies, saving the robotic foes for last constituted some of the most strenuous planning I undertook in battle, which isn’t to say the game was a breeze. I rarely avoided battles and still had to grind a few levels here and there. But, I also played in a very traditional manner, relying on physical attacks and reserving PSI moves or items until they were absolutely necessary. When I’d reach the big bad boss of whatever dungeon the gang had been exploring, I’d unload everything the kids had at their disposal in a glorifying display of PSI and fireworks.
As evidenced by the Spiteful Crows and Pogo Punks that pestered Ness in Onett, and the dozens of foes encountered throughout the game, enemy design often humorously parodied genre staples. One especially memorable sequence saw Ness and Jeff in a neon-lit, alternate reality version of the town they were staying in. The trippy visuals were coupled with an unsettling score, and odd townsfolk with strange dialogue; even better were the surreal enemies like Dali’s Clocks and scalding hot coffee that harassed the duo. This sequence was a highlight, but narrative progression throughout was slightly off kilter. A traditional town-dungeon-town progression whisked the kids along on their adventure, but the beat-to-beat quests were unlike most other RPGs. There was a Blues Brothers inspired band that continued to find themselves in debt, a strange race of creatures that needed assistance overcoming their shyness, and a religious cult who painted everything in blue, among others. Despite the frequently satirical tone, the overarching message of the story: a belief in oneself, friendship, and the potency of good triumphing over evil, was earnest and genuinely portrayed.
In a similar vein, the soundtrack was equal parts sincere and silly. Composed primarily Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka, working together again following their collaboration on the first game, the soundtrack was more diverse than those of EarthBound’s contemporaries, if anything due to the sheer number of incidental tunes. There were peaceful town themes, of which Twoson’s was the best, no question, and dark, groove heavy backdrops to dungeons, like that of the Desert Gold Mine. Dub, bossa nova, and country western played when the kids entered various shops, and many songs referenced passages of popular songs of the 50s and 60s; an early battle theme harkened back to “Tequila” by The Champs, while a later sequence straight up lifted Ringo’s drumming from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise).” That particular moment was another highly memorable one, because a man turned himself into a dungeon, and then in his giant statue form briefly joined the party. This game, man…
At one point, EarthBound was unlike pretty much any other game. Its goofy tone and down-to-earth setting were at odds with RPGs like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, and its basic gameplay systems, nonetheless enjoyable, were approaching relic status. But, in my opinion, these elements have helped the game resonate and remain relevant, all these years later; that’s clearly evident in wildly popular works like Toby Fox’s Undertale that have sourced this game as inspiration. Like that game, EarthBound portrays a sincere message of the power of determination through fun gameplay and funny moments, and those will never fall out of vogue. Now, who do we have to pester to localize Mother 3?