Earthbound is one of the most under played games on the Super Nintendo. With sharp writing, a memorable soundtrack, and one of the most brutally macabre boss fights ever put into a video game, Earthbound was one of the most over looked games during the 16 bit era.
This game has a long storied history that isn't particularly germane to this topic so here's what you need to know in a nut shell; Earthbound is the second game in an RPG series known as Mother and it sold poorly in America because Nintendo kind of fails at advertising sometimes.
The quirkiness here is rated at a whopping 4 Zoey Deschanels
With all this quirk brimming out of every corner, Earthbound was almost destined to become a cult classic and now with the magic power of the internet coupled with amazing new technologies that have unlocked the potential within each and every one of us to become 18th an century naval based thief with dubious hygiene, Earthbound has finally been receiving the praise it deserves.
Now I dove into Earthbound knowing none of that, I had played as Ness (the main character of Earthbound) in Smash Bros and that's about it. Other than the little bit of information I read on Wikipedia I knew next to nothing about the game so I went in completely blind. Once I had finished playing it I was blown away. Nearly everything about the game blew my mind the themes were engaging, the the symbolism was clever, and comedy was subtly hilarious. Special mentions goes out to the last boss battle which is without a doubt one of the best and most surprising moments in gaming history. Now all this might lead you to believe that Earthbound is an amazing game that deserves the highest praise, and in a way it does but all of it serves to hide one secret, one aspect of the game that becomes abundantly clear the second you start playing the game. For all of its brilliant writing, for all of its comedy Earthbound can't escape one terrible fact... Earthbound just plain isn't that fun to play.
I know I was amazed too. For all the good that Earthbound does its chief gameplay mechanic (turn based battles) is easily the least fun aspect of the game. You can instantly tell what is wrong with the battle system by just looking at any given battle screen.
Notice anything about that screen? Notice how your character is represented by a box? Notice the static enemy image (you can't tell from looking at the picture but yeah that guy ain't movin from that pose even if hell is raining down on him)? Notice the nondescript background composed entirely of wavy lines? Well get used to those because strictly on a game play level this is what Earthbound is, you go into a menu, pick something to do, and imagine really hard that it's getting done. Oh wait I forgot there are special attacks called psi that actually do feature animations that add some flare to the battles, and these psi moves are composed entirely of... abstract polygons and lines.... Oh dear.
But I mean this is how all turn based RPGs are right? Even Final Fantasy which people love is composed of just selecting moves from a menu. But there is a key difference: Final Fantasy recognizes the inherent flaws of the turn based battle system so it goes out of its way to engage the player as much as possible; attacks are flashy, character models are distinct, your character's weapon sprite changes when you change weapons, and the active time system puts the player under pressure to act quickly. Just look at this battle screen from Final Fantasy VI
It seems more interesting right? More is happening and there is an actual background. The game play in Final Fantasy isn't particularly all that fun but it was still interesting. The game went out of its way to make the player interested in battles; you wanted to go into a battle to test out a new summon and see its epic animation as it completely devastated your enemies, you wanted to go into battle to see what a new a spell looked like, or to see how certain characters interacted with one another. These elements made the player care more about battles and leveling up. Players wanted to level up to see what their new spells and abilities look like in battle and this motivation kept the battles relevant.
In Earthbound all this motivation is completely gone. New abilities all look relatively similar, there are only four characters to play as in the game so there isn't much room for strategy, and you never actually see your characters in battle. As a result of this Earthbound's combat never feels satisfying and the player never feels really involved in the battles.
When you look at all these elements it starts to make sense why Earthbound didn't sell as well as its contemporaries. Despite having highly entertaining writing and truly inspired themes, most players wouldn't get past the first hours before getting bored. Every time I get bored by a long stretch of battle the game comes at me with its sharp wit as if it's trying to tell me "No man it's OK just stay a little while, don't worry about battling. See that writing isn't that hilarious?" and then it slaps me with a whole string of battles and the whole experience is exhausting.
Now in the sequel, Mother 3, the creators tried to remedy this by adding in the ability to press buttons at certain times while an attack is being performed to get an extra attack, and though it works slightly better than Earthbound's combat it still feels largely uninteresting (mostly due to the difficult to discern timing of when to press the buttons).
Don't think any of this means I hate Earthbound or that I think it's a bad game, I love Earthbound and it still remains one my favorite things I've played, but I love it more as an experience than I do as a game. I think if the creators had spent more time on the battle system in addition to the great writing Earthbound could of been one of the best games ever made, but instead Earthbound feels like a chore to play through during the sections where you actually play through it.