It's fitting that EarthBound should make two references to The Beatles, because it is a Magical Mystery Tour of its own kind, unlike any RPG before it. It is a game written, directed, and created by famous Japanese personality Shigesato Itoi; an exhilarating realization of his ideas and experiences in the form of a Dragon Warrior clone. Taking place in a 1950's or 60's America-style universe, EarthBound starts off innocent enough, but the farther you progress, the more the darker underbelly of its themes is revealed. The quest of four kids to save the planet from the ultimate evil, Giygas, is as much psychological as it is compelling and humorous.
Ness, the seemingly all-too-young hero of the adventure, is awoken one night by the sound of a meteor crash-landing near his house. The meteor, you see, is the traveling vehicle of Buzz Buzz, a super-powerful bee from the future who has come to warn Ness of the impending doom at the hands of the universal destroyer, Giygas, and to instruct him on what he must do to prevent it. At the same time, a shady treasure hunter has unearthed a mysterious statue buried deep beneath his house. The statue, called the Mani Mani, is an evil device that spreads chaos and dements the minds of those who come into its possession, and its discovery sets Giygas's terrible plans into motion.
You begin the game as just Ness, but eventually you will team up with three other characters: a girl with amazing psychic powers named Paula, an inventive young scholar named Jeff, and the wise master of martial arts, Poo. You'll fight against some of the strangest foes found in RPGs, including UFO's, aliens, zombies, sentient piles of puke, and even hippies (yes, hippies). The battle system is very much like those of the Dragon Warrior series: you fight enemies in first-person view by selecting commands from a menu of options. The wrench that EarthBound throws into the works is the addition of a rolldown HP meter. When a character has taken damage, his/her HP meter literally begins to "roll down". If a character has taken so much damage that his/her HP meter will hit 0, you have a chance to save him/her if you can heal before it runs out. Although the battles are not active-time, like in Final Fantasy 4, the rolldown meter essentially causes the same level of excitement; thinking and acting quickly will be necessary to save yourself in a pinch.
The puzzles in EarthBound are more scenario-based than of the switch-flipping variety, and most of them occur in the towns. It's a strange role-reversal considering that many RPGs have had rather eventless towns while the dungeons contained all the traps and conundrums. EarthBound has scenarios so complicated that I'm left believing that the developers must've started at the solution and worked their way backwards. In one example, Paula is missing and must be rescued, a traveling band is in debt to a seedy theater manager, a crime boss is interested in the Mani Mani Statue, two inventors are competing with each other, and a strange cult that wants to paint the entire world blue has mysteriously appeared in a village outside of town. All of these events are related somehow, but fitting the pieces together so that you can solve the situation and move on is for you to figure out. For those who become totally stumped and do not own the strategy guide that was originally packaged with the game, a Hint Man is available to offer clues, if you should find him.
EarthBound's dungeons are maze-like and full of enemies, but generally aren't too complicated. Occasionally, a new twist is thrown in, such as one where getting through it is achieved by trading items with monkeys that block the doors. Just as important is how bizarre and memorable many of EarthBound's locations are. My favorites are Moonside and Magicant. Moonside is a warped reflection of Fourside City, where people speak nonsense, and the buildings are made out of flashing neon lights. The town looks and feels like the manifestation of an unfinished nightmare; like some evil science project that was brought to life and suddenly abandoned, and perhaps the only thing scarier than the town itself is the secret behind what it really is.
Magicant is a place that exists only in Ness's mind and contains his fondest memories and worst fears, his doubts about the morality of his mission and chances of success, his hope and his courage. It's an allegory for how the entire game of EarthBound allows us to see into Shigesato Itoi's mind, and how parts of it are his own memories (the Gold Mine, for example, was based on an unsuccessful gold-hunting expedition he went on). Moonside and Magicant are also two of the most challenging areas of the game, due to the strength of the enemies and the limited number of party members (and items) you have with you.
EarthBound is fairly challenging for an RPG, but there is a slight problem with the power balance. Ness eventually becomes significantly more powerful than the enemies while Paula, Jeff, and Poo remain about on par with them. This means you'll get fewer "Game Overs" as time goes on, but you'll be scrambling constantly to keep Paula, Jeff, and Poo alive. A simple solution would have been to introduce characters at a preset level relative to the current enemies, rather than have everyone start at Level 1. It's not too big a problem, but just one that would prevent the game from achieving my highest possible score. Even so, there are parts where something is purposefully done to compensate for this. In one of the game's scarier moments, Paula is snatched out of your party by an unseen entity, and it's quite awhile before you get her back. In another, Poo leaves to learn more magic spells from his master. And in still others, the difficulty of the enemies is pumped way up, particularly in the final areas that are swarming with Starmen who can mortally damage your entire party in one blow.
Along with its compelling gameplay and story, EarthBound has excellent dialogue that's often funny, sometimes disturbing, and always entertaining. The game even parodies the RPG genre in the form of a living "Dungeon Man", who has placed signs throughout his body that bluntly explain RPG fundamentals. The music is this area is blatantly horrible, so it's easy to laugh upon discovering a sign that proclaims it's the Dungeon Man's greatest creation.
EarthBound, like Alundra 2, is a videogame comedy that works on every level. But unlike Alundra 2, the darker side of EarthBound's plot is more of a psychological than a villainous one. Even the final boss fight, which borrows heavily from Final Fantasy 4 and Stephen King's It, does not play out in a normal fashion. The main characters do not interact that much with each other for most of the game, and Ness would appear to be another "mute" hero, but it creates a much greater effect when suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Ness's thoughts are being spelled out on a wall in front of him. It surprises him as much as it does us, and leaves us wondering how on earth will that be resolved?
Throughout the game, Ness is repeatedly antagonized by his neighbor, Pokey, who has become a vessel for spreading Giygas's chaos. Pokey always stays one step ahead of Ness, taunting, threatening, and insulting. Watching Pokey go from being just the annoying kid next door, who was even once an hilarious, though useless member of your party, to being the instigator of evil is truly unsettling. He's a villain you gradually love to hate.
EarthBound requires some use of strategy to be successful, as your inventory is very limited. You can't stock up on healing items and cheese your way to victory. Items that restore magic points are particularly rare, so victory in boss fights will be a matter of choosing when to use powerful attack spells and when to conserve magic for healing. Jeff is a particularly unique character; his attack is weak and he completely lacks magic, but only he can create and operate some of the game's most devastating weapons. Poo, on the other hand, is just an extra set of magic points. Ness and Paula will do the lion's share of fighting.
The graphic style of EarthBound is a bit under-detailed, and not particularly impressive, but it exudes the exact atmosphere that Shigesato Itoi wanted: An innocent, 1960's-ish America. The special effects in Moonside and Magicant may not have worked as well with more complex graphics. I was concerned that I wouldn't like the vibrating battle backgrounds, but the effect is actually quite mesmerizing. As they vibrate in tune with the thumping battle themes, I am ever-so-slightly reminded of the warping sequence near the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
With a whimsical soundtrack, a large cast of quirky characters, and a rollercoaster ride of events, EarthBound is an exotic trip not only through its own colorful locations, but the very mind of its creator. This is a game that even non-hippies can relax and say, "Far out!" to.
TO SUPER NES REVIEWS
VISIT MY EARTHBOUND ODDITIES PAGE
TO MAIN PAGE