Smiles & Tears
We had a Sega Genesis in my household growing up which means I missed out on the entirety of the Super Nintendo’s lifespan. When I started getting more into video games years later, there was a game from the Super Nintendo that always came up as one of the best games on the system. That game was Earthbound and it always intrigued me.
The game stars Ness with his three friends, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, as they travel across Eagleland to stop an all powerful evil force named Giygas, who is making the world around them act strange and hostile. Along the way, the friends will help towns solve their problems, make new friends, and unlock their latent psychic abilities. It’s a standard RPG but with the traditional fantasy setting traded for a real world setting and the swords and bows switched for baseball bats and yo-yos for weapons.
The setting is what intrigued about Earthbound from the start. It seemed so quirky and unique. Before this review, I had tried to play it a couple times, but I never managed to beat it before. Now that I have completed the game, I see that there was a reason for that.
The presentation of Earthbound is instantly inviting. Cheery, colorful graphics with simplistic sprites meets the eye and the bouncy, bizarre music meets the ear. The music especially is great. It covers so many genres and moods while maintaining a strange, sci-fi feel. It compliments the otherworldly undertones of the game.
Earthbound has a goofy feel throughout and the enemies exemplify this. A highlight of the game is reaching new areas and seeing the sprites of all the new enemies. They range from crazed hippies and multiple types of robots to googly-eyed ducks and dinosaurs. The sprites of these enemies are always bright and colorful and cartoony. Underneath all the cartoony visuals and silly dialogue, there is an undercurrent of darkness running through Earthbound. Throughout the adventure, Ness and the gang will be attacked by police officers for causing trouble in a town, dismantle a group of cultists, save a town being plagued by zombies, and the final battle with Giygas takes place on what looks like the intestines of some giant creature.
Giygas itself is the payoff to all the darkness and tension building under the game as you play. It is a Lovecraftian nightmare, a being whose power and lust for evil is said to break its own mind at the end of the game when you face it. In true cosmic horror style, Ness and the player cannot comprehend the true form of Giygas or even its attack, which are portrayed only as swirling red shapes and flashes respectively. The battle with Giygas was a highlight for me in the game, but not for the fight itself but for the character and design of Giygas. The mechanics of the battle in the final phase when the player has to keep the party healed and have Paula pray for help I found to be tedious . With each turn of this, you watch a cutscene of the prayer reaching someone you meet along the journey and them offering you their help. While these scenes are charming, they are extremely slow and just bog down the pace of the fight for me.
The pacing of Earthbound is the biggest issue in the game. The walking speed of the party seems fine at first, but without any consistent means of speeding them up like a run button it starts to grate. The menus are slow and clunky to navigate and the battles drag on because of these menus. These small things add up to make the moment to moment gameplay feel tedious, but there are also bigger issues with pacing that quickly fatigued me towards the end of the game.
The first of these was the grinding. In honesty, it’s not absolutely necessary to grind in Earthbound, but every time you get a new party member, whether Ness is level 10 or 40, that new character starts at level one. So if you don’t want them to be smeared by enemies or want them to be useful in combat, you have to stop and level them up. This kills the pace of the story, but not as much as the structure of the game itself. Earthbound has a overarching story, but it’s more of a loose guiding thread. The structure of the game feels more like a monster of the week cartoon series where the team comes to a new area dealing with some odd problem, they solve the problem, and move on. While this structure works to some extent because the sets are usually quirky and interesting, with only passing mentions of the looming evil of Giygas, I often felt discontinued from the main plot.
Earthbound is never great at guiding the player and nudging them in the right direction. It’s not terrible in the beginning of the game, gets at little more confusing around Twoson and Threed, and gets totally obtuse starting in Fourside. Admitting this could be a mistake in my playstyle, but even when speaking to NPCs and paying attentions of the hints they dropped, I still found myself completely lost at points. The worst examples of this were the few instances where I had to enter certain areas just to leave and trigger an event or when you have to backtrack to past areas to get information on a puzzle or key item to the current section.
All this adds up to Earthbound feeling like a slog. Towards the middle of the game, when the quirkiness was starting to feel less fresh and engaging, I started feeling very fatigued of the game. I didn’t particularly dislike the game, but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I hoped I would.
Like most games, Earthbound is a mixture of good and bad. While I truly enjoyed the setting and enemies, it wasn’t enough to combat the slower pace of the game. If you’re a fan of older RPGs and can handle a slow moving one, I say give Earthbound a try if you haven’t already, but it’s definitely not the first Super Nintendo RPG I would ever suggest.