I've never made it a secret: I love Nintendo. The Legend of Zelda
is my favorite series of all time, Mario games are quite simply the best platformers around, and while I don't like the FPS all that much I gladly made an exception for Metroid Prime
. I even fondly remember Nintendo's "B-series" such as Star Fox
. Off course, all of this also means that the Super Smash Bros
. series is basically my dream come true, and I have indeed played all three of them to bits.
And yet from the very first Smash Bros., there was one character that eluded me. One character I just couldn't quite place.
A character called Ness.
In the following years, I would learn that Ness was from a game called Earthbound
, or alternatively, Mother 2
. I would keep learning more and more about this character and his game. Earthbound
was supposedly an RPG, and the other members of your party were apparently called Paula, Jeff and Poo. Finally, some thing called Giygas was the main antagonist, so I was told.
Until recently, I had left it at that.
However, just a couple of weeks ago I finally managed to find the time to start my own playthrough of Earthbound
. I thought that this was way overdue, because based on everything that I had heard throughout the years, Earthbound
was going to be right up my alley.
What I got was something that was certainly very interesting, but also one of the most frustrating games I have ever played. Now, before grabbing your pitchfork, please allow me to share my thoughts on this game below, as well as my ideas for simple improvements. Because for all the things wrong with it, there is still a very clever and unique game underneath.
Of Rowdy Mice and Men
The most fundamental shortcoming that this game has absolutely has to be the difficulty. Now, I'm not a person who shies away from difficult games. Throughout my gaming years I've beaten some of the most difficult platformers around, I've beaten Roguelikes with permadeath, and many a Bonus Boss has felt my wrath. Basically, if I tell my friends that I found a game "decently challenging", they interpret it as "this game is hard". When I tell them a game is "unfairly difficult", it translates to them as "avoid like the plague".
Egostroking aside, Earthbound
often landed in the latter category for me.
A major example occurs right at the beginning of the game. Ness is tasked with finding the first (of eight) "Your Sanctuary" locations, which in this case is located at the other end of a cave. Unfortunately, this cave just so happens to be crawling
with enemies called the Rowdy Mouse. These guys take about two or three hits from Ness' standard attack. This wouldn't be so bad in and of itself, but these mice have a nasty tendency to land critical SMAAAASH!!
hits for major damage. In fact, they quite literally land a critical hit almost half the time, while Ness can only survive about three of them. And since you don't have any party members yet, prepare to take massive beating throughout this cave. Luckily, Ness has healing magic, and you can always use items (but will I come back to that later), but even this only gets you so far. You'll be completely worn out by the end of the cave, making you a sitting duck for the boss, who also packs a mean punch.
Really, the only way you can do halfway decently in this dungeon (which I would like to remind you, is the first one in the game), is if the enemies miss a lot, or are kind enough to waste their turns for you.
This man knows what he's talking about
That is not the mark of a good RPG. A good RPG should give you a decent chance to survive if you play it smart and come well prepared. Earthbound
doesn't always act like it ever got that memo. To be fair, it gets a little better later on: you have more party members to share the damage, and you are more versatile in your methods of attack.
And yet even then there are still many, many enemies who serve no other purpose than to mess with you. There are lots and lots of creatures who would rather die than let you go without a fresh status ailment. They find it fun to make you "feel strange" (and not in the good way, wink wink nudge nudge
) at the beginning of the fight, or make you catch a cold with just about a 100% success rate. Some of these ailments you can heal yourself, but this costs precious PP ("magic") which is relatively limited in this game. Others you can only get healed at a hospital in town, which is even more of a pain. At one point a mushroom-themed foe inflicted an ailment on me that reversed my controls, so I was desperately looking for the hospital while I kept moving in the wrong directions
Really, there is only one real way to improve upon this, and that is to make the enemies do their regular attacks more often. Any time any enemy uses its special move, people die and controllers are thrown. However, regular attacks are far more survivable. I'm not against status ailments in games, off course not. And many moves in Earthbound
fit their delightfully quirky source very well, so it would be a shame to get rid of them completely. But honestly, does that Gigantic Ant really
have to poison me every single time I see it? This only serves to make the beginning of the game much harder than it needs to be, and continues to be incredibly annoying throughout the rest. Ness' adventure wouldn't be half as frustrating and twice as fair. So please, can we tone it down just a little? Pretty please?
And while you're at it, can we have more enemies like this?
"Poo, could you carry this for me?"
Another thing that really needs improving is the inventory system. Simply put, your inventory space in this game is much too limited. Earthbound
handles its inventory similarly to Golden Sun
: every character has a separate inventory which is quite limited in size. In this case however, "quite limited" means that every character can hold a total of 14 items. This includes equipment (four pieces for each character), and key items.
Furthermore, every duplicate item takes up a separate spot in your back-pack. So if you have two hamburgers, instead of one spot which reads "Hamburger x2", each hamburger has its own spot.
Finally, you can buy things like packets of ketchup, which you automatically use when you eat a hamburger or other such food item: they cause you to recover more HP. But off course, these also
take up a spot in the inventory. Together, this ensures that your inventory is always full at the worst possible times, and I've had to drop more items than I'm willing to keep track of.
Like I said, this has a very simple solution: simply make the inventory bigger. Making the inventory shared would have my preference, because separate inventories always lead to more trouble than they're worth. This game is absolutely no exception. At the very least install a counter for duplicate items, and allow me to use the packets of ketchup on my hamburgers instead of keeping them around until I eat one.
Silence is golden
is known, among others, for its clever and funny dialogue. Rarely will you see a game where talking to random villagers leads to such silly conversations. However, for all its well done NPC's, the main characters rarely say a word. In fact, pretty much all of Poo's dialogue can be summed up as: "Hello Ness, I am joining you." This is really a shame, because it makes you wonder what the developers could've come up with. As it stands, Paula and the others don't have much in the way of characterization, which is unfortunate.
Recent "parody-RPGs" like Cthulhu Saves the World
and Penny Arcade Adventures
show exactly what you can do when you create funny main characters and have them interact well with each other. With Earthbound
being one of the first in this "genre" it is a bit of a missed opportunity here, because it also causes the characters to feel a bit more removed from everything that is happening.
This one is not so easily fixed however, because I can understand that writing good dialogue and create convincing characters can be difficult. However, based on the rest of the story, I think that this dev team could do a really good job.
Okay, photograph man? Yeah, you were funny the first time. The first time was 10 hours ago. Please get lost.
Look, if you interrupt my game one more time, I swear I will personally feed you to Pokey
But, the more things (should) change, the more they (should) stay the same
While the above are genuine criticisms that I have while playing Earthbound
, I can't help but feel that I'm being a little hard on the game. Sure, less annoying enemies and a better item system would go a long way, but there is much that this game does right.
So the final improvement I would like to suggest for Earthbound 2
: stay the way you are. Or become even weirder, if you want. What I'm saying is: "Go all out".
Because honestly, the weirdness and setting are what save this game. They're what's keeping it interesting throughout the experience. While the first part of the game wasn't all that, it quickly picked up after that. So far I've already encountered a hostile circus tent, a religious cult devoted to the color blue, a drug-fuelled version of a major city, a barely functional robot who happens to be a pretty though boss, lethal hieroglyphs, and much more of such silliness. Truth be told, I haven't finished the game yet, and according to word of mouth the ending takes a turn for the creepy (which I love, so bring it on!), but even right now I've already seen enough to justify playing this game.
The NPCs also stand out, from the aforementioned Blue-cult to the perpetually contract-burdened Runaway Five and even just some random people you find around town.
Special mention must also go to Pokey, who I think is actually a pretty effective villain for a game like this. Who better to be a major rival to a child than another child who finds all sorts of creative ways to hurt Ness and his friends?
Pictured: Pokey's biggest fan
So if there is one thing that a (direct) sequel to Earthbound
must absolutely keep, it is the quirkiness that made it a cult classic in the first place. If anything, I think gamers could survive an Earthbound 2
that is even sillier than the original. Get some extra meta-jokes in there. Make the main characters funnier. Make me fight guys riding Penny-farthing bicycles
who attack by falling on you. Actually, the developers are probably far better at this than I am, but you get the point. It is vital for Mother
's survival that the weirdness stay in place, preferably at the center of the experience.
However, we shouldn't go so far as to sacrifice story-telling for being silly. The story that we already have is, at least so far, pretty basic, but it works. It functions as a sort of coat rack for the developers to hang all of their crazy ideas on to. This is something that in my opinion works particularly well and doesn't really need to change either. A little bit more depth might be nice, but nothing else is necessary. There's a nice balance here, and it would be a shame if that got disrupted.
All in all, this game is great at its core, and it would be fantastic of the developers could bring that to the surface even more.
And that sums up my feelings on my first playthrough of Earthbound
. There is a great game in here, but unfortunately you have to dig through at times unfair difficulty and several other flaws to get to it. These are all things that I would've liked to see different in Earthbound
. But for all the things that have to change, just as many have to stay the way they are, because this is still certainly an interesting and creative game.
Now, I must confess that I don't know if Mother 3
fixed any of these issues: maybe it has, maybe it hasn't. It hasn't been released outside Japan, so I can't really be sure.
Either way, it's safe to say that Earthbound
is a game that I won't soon forget. Often for all the right reasons, but sometimes also for the wrong. If there was ever a Mother 2-2
, besides breaking the space-time continuum, it could be one of the best RPGs ever made by virtue of its clever setting and story. However, it needs to take the above suggestions to heart to truly become all it can be.
Or alternatively we could just Earthbound-ify Chrono Trigger