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A Journey to Discover If EarthBound Holds Up

It's not always a smart idea to roll the dice on games from gaming's youth, but the way people talk about EarthBound, you just have to find out.

Boy, you’re a strange one, EarthBound.

HOW CAN YOU A HATE A GAME WITH THIS SCREEN

Though I can’t quite put my finger on it, I know I played EarthBound at some point. The intro provoked serious deja vu, and I’m guessing Nintendo’s failed push to make EarthBound a big deal in 1995 prompted me to rent the game from Blockbuster. I didn't play beyond Ness’ discovery of his destiny, and I’m not surprised the meta humor went over the head of a 10-year-old version of Patrick Klepek. Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger were more of my jams during that era.

These days, the idea of playing a JRPG will quickly provoke a groan. Traditional grinding ceased being interesting when I could no longer sleep in all day, and my truly epic time investments are usually put aside for whatever Todd Howard releases every few years. But with EarthBound having just released on Wii U’s Virtual Console and this fall’s onslaught knocking on the door, now seemed like the right (the only?) opportunity to help right a wrong.

There are, of course, two scenarios when one visits a cherished classic.

  1. It’s still great.
  2. Uh oh, it sucks now.
  3. Both.

OK, that’s three. Thanks to Nintendo’s long-standing policy of ignoring the Mother franchise in North America, EarthBound is more unique than the rest of gaming’s beloved. These fans are beaten, bruised, and can't be trusted with sharp knives. It’s possible EarthBound is everything these people have promised you...or it's just nostalgia from the nearly two decades since its release causing a form of stockholm syndrome. Time has made talking about the game in a rational light impossible. If we disagreed, could we ever see eye-to-eye? It made me nervous to even start the game, knowing option two was possible. Take a recent episode of the great Polygon series, Cooperatives. Russ Frushtick has my nightmare scenario.

I don’t like to hate things. I like to like things. (So does Russ! He just didn't like EarthBound.)

This is a roundabout way of walking you through my emotional journey before discovering EarthBound remains a truly wonderful game. I’m about halfway through, and the game’s dedication to subtle subversion of player expectations remains thrilling, funny, and surprising. In hindsight, it’s even more impressive that a game from 1995 was so willing to go out on a whim and mess with you over and over.

Here’s a good example. The third person who joins your party is Jeff, a dude who will secretly repair stuff while you sleep. That’s already weird enough, but he joins your party with a ruler and a protractor. Inventory space in EarthBound is precious, as your four equippable items take up precious slots, and you must balance between the number of useful one-time items the game offers up. When you “use” the ruler, the game says you “can now figure out the lengths of things easily.” Er, okay? What does that mean for fighting hippies, Mr. Video Game? +20 to my HP? 10% increase to accuracy? The game never says, no matter how many times you ask it. As it turns out, the ruler doesn’t fucking do anything. Nothing. Zip! The game never tells you this, and I spent at least five hours with the ruler and protractor filling my backpack. It wasn’t until I decided to look online and realize there is still an ongoing discussion about these items happening today, despite players having examined the game’s ROM and learned they are nothing more than jokes.

I could not help but literally laugh out loud. It’s insane, and I cannot imagine a game today pulling this off. People would be furious about the game’s deception, and this sleight of hand is present everywhere in EarthBound. The game is well aware of its genre’s tropes, and even when it’s not poking fun at its fellow JRPGs, it’s messing with you for the sheer pleasure of befuddling you. This isn’t for everyone, and playing EarthBound without a walkthrough nearby might prove infuriating, but it’s exactly these kinds of small details that made the game all the more endearing. Like a big brother, it’s punching you in the arm and telling you to laugh about it.

It is also, weirdly, an amazing proof-of-concept for the GamePad working as intended. The recent firmware update means swapping between apps mid-game isn’t like watching paint dry, so I’ve always got the walkthrough from Starman.net queued up. When I leave an area, I check the walkthrough, make sure I’ve done anything that’s worth doing, and move on. It’s hard to get “stuck” in EarthBound, but as if the walkthrough wasn’t enough, the game is willing to guide you forward--for a price. In one of the early towns, there’s a hint shack, and for the low, low price of $60, he’ll tell you what to do next. Straight up. Sure, the description is a little coy, but rather than have players wandering the landscape, talking to NPCs over and over again, you can just keep moving. It provides EarthBound with a profoundly brisk pace that’s kept my attention focused.

Little touches define this game. I love how Ness can become “homesick,” which prompts him to mess up attacks because he’s thinking about his mom and eating [whatever you put in as your favorite food at the start of the game]. You don’t fix that by casting a magical healing spell, you pick up the phone and call home. It’s so god damn simple and brilliant. They even streamline combat grind by letting you outlevel enemies, prompting them to die automatically when approached. Not only that, but enemies run away from you! You have become powerful, feared. And it looks funny. It transforms a frustrating slice of JRPGs into a relatively stress-free affair. I can listen to a podcast or watch a TV show and tick up, up, up without skipping a beat.

Weirdly, though, I don’t ever feel like I’m grinding. You don’t spend much time in a single area, and you’re onto the next one relatively quickly. EarthBound seems acutely aware of its ability to tire you out, and freaks out over the notion that you might get bored. So it’s one event after another, one weird line of dialogue after the next--always moving forward and seeing new stuff.

I’m not sure what the point of writing this down was. I’d intended to do a travelogue of my EarthBound experience, but I’m already halfway through the game, so that seems a little goofy. But I’ve been having so much fun with the game, enjoying the validation of the game’s design ethos even in 2013, and kicking myself for not having tried it sooner. If you haven’t played EarthBound before, now’s the perfect time...if you own a Wii U. There’s no good reason this shouldn’t be on 3DS, too, except to tempt people towards buying Nintendo’s new console.

Turns out it's a pretty good reason.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
144 Comments
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Posted by Morningstar

Cool stuff. Thanks Scoops.

Online
Posted by Animasta

Well hopefully you play mother 3, which is, in my opinion, way better and also there aren't enough words on the internet about it.

Posted by BasketSnake

Hm. Guess I will play a little bit more before giving up on it. The framerate sucks a tiny bit doesn't it?

Posted by bogusdd

I've played up through the desert and I'm finding the game...underwhelming. Everything about the actual gameplay seems to be just a little too slow for me. I like what the game does with its story and humor but not enough to totally make up for its sluggishness/tedium.

I should also note that this is the second time I've tried and failed to finish the game (the first was a few years back).

Posted by naeblis213

Looking forward to seeing your impressions after the beating the game. Earthbound had one of my favorite boss battles of all time!

Posted by Nekroskop

Eeck! Polygon!

Anyway. Whatever happened to Patrick trying out 'Valkyria Chronicles'. Did it die down after his Fire Emblem binge?

Posted by MightyDuck

Great read Patrick. As somebody who did not have a SNES growing up, it seems like I might have missed out on this.

Edited by atesh42

Um. Patrick, how about Dark Souls with its Pendant in comparison to the ruler?

Posted by MormonWarrior

@animasta said:

Well hopefully you play mother 3, which is, in my opinion, way better and also there aren't enough words on the internet about it.

This! Although the best way to play Mother 3 is with the awesome fan translation patch on a flash cart for GBA since the rhythm stuff in combat gets messed up on emulators. Mother 3 was strangely moving...and I see elements of that playing through Earthbound, but it doesn't seem to go quite as dark or disturbing. Also, the gameplay's just not as slick and progression is sloppy and weird. Earthbound is a cool game and all but several years of development hell made a better game in the end.

Posted by ThePickle

It does.

(Source, I was born a year after this game came out in and I love it)

And is if I didn't need more reason to hate Polygon, they don't fucking like EarthBound. I'm starting a petition asking President Obama to nuke that site from orbit.

Edited by D_W

@patrickklepek It seems you attached the article to the wrong game. Apparently there was a 1983 game also called Earthbound.

BUT! the SNES game is so delightfully charming. There's few games that have it's unique brand of charm even in the Indie space.

Posted by allenibrahim

Excellent article, Scoops! Been waiting to read your thoughts on the game for a while. Also, I'm totally in that Cooperatives video at 4:23 in the top right!

Edited by SpunkyHePanda

Russ Frushstick has been a pretty reliable personality for me, in that he seems to hate everything I love.

Posted by CornBREDX

I had a genesis back when this was released so that would probably explain why I never played earthbound

I do remember the advertising for it but I don't remember really any interest for me at the time. To be fair a lot of other really great games came out that year and since I didn't have a SNES there was no reason for me to pay attention I guess.

And now I don't have a WiiU. So, that's where my interest in this game continues to stop, haha

Posted by sissylion

Controversial opinion: I think that Polygon is a very good video game website, so much so that it and Giant Bomb are the only game sites I frequent.

Less-controversial opinion: Earthbound seems pretty cool and I would like to play it some day.

Posted by csl316

A couple years ago, I beat the giant slime guy and stopped. But up to that point I was having a grand old time.

Posted by Brodehouse

I remember enjoying Earthbound, but in hindsight that game has a fuckton of grinding and I don't think I can do that anymore. The Starman thing under the thing, it lasts forever and a day.

Posted by Animasta

@mormonwarrior: There are ways around the broken part of emulators with that game... I forgot how, but I got multiple 15 hit combos in that game (I never got 16 because I was still bad at it)

Edited by TheManWithNoPlan

I've never been able to play Earthbound, so I was pretty excited to hear it came to Wii U. I know I'll eventually buy one, so this is yet another piece of added value to the system.

Real nice read Patrick.

Posted by Graham_Nix

"These fans are beaten, bruise, and can't be trusted with sharp knives."

Just a nitpick, it should say 'bruised', right?

Now back to actually reading the article.

Edited by shodan2020

Earthbound has one of the most unique and satisfying endings of any RPG I've ever played. The last battle with Giygas is really great too. Thanks, Scoops. Fuzzy Pickles!

Posted by pocketroid

I can't believe Patrick Klepek hasn't played EarthBound.

I am disappointed that you would use a walkthrough, but if that is the only way you can play, so be it. Time is a precious commodity, but I place value in personalized relationships rather than speed dating. You just won't be forming any memories, won't be forming a personal bond with the things that were shown to you instead of discovering and figuring them out on your own. I don't see walkthroughers going back and playing EarthBound over and over, finding new things each time. Walkthroughers tend to say 'Hey, Cool game!' and rush on to the next buzzword. EarthBound feels like a very large Gone Home home to explore, for me. If I just watched a Gone Home playthrough on YouTube instead of playing it myself, I imagine you'd probably be pretty disappointed at that idea.

Alas! I am happy you get to experience it in some capacity.

Posted by EpicVandal

It’s insane, and I cannot imagine a game today pulling this off. People would be furious about the game’s deception

You know, you really should try Dark Souls...

Posted by MrMazz

@sissylion: same never been quiet sure if the reaction round here is tounge in cheek or legitimate.

Man I really should try playing these Earthbound/Mother games they are just soooo fucking weird though

Edited by rjayb89

Russ Frushtick is the one guy in the world that would make me never visit Giant Bomb ever again. Thankfully, it's just a video of him being shitty as usual embedded in an article.

Wow, that video isn't entertaining at all. School these suckers, Patrick, and make your own video (series) of Earthbound.

Edited by umbaglo

I could not help but literally laugh out loud. It’s insane, and I cannot imagine a game today pulling this off.

Demon/Dark Souls is certainly willing to give players items that are either straight up deceiving in description, or does literally nothing.

Also, doesn't the VC version have the strategy guide you can just put on the gamepad while playing?

Edited by LordAndrew

It's too bad you rely on a walkthrough to guide you. Without any outside assistance, I actually BOUGHT a ruler and discovered for myself what an amazing item it is.

Edited by Deathpooky

Glad to hear it holds up. Though in my view the things that made it awesome still matter today - funny dialogue, great characters, amazing little touches, and a sense of charming weirdness that lives throughout. Some of the RPG mechanics of it are dated at this point, but what makes Earthbound memorable is still there.

Also, I'm not sure of the point of that Polygon video. Was it supposed to be a setup for the ending gag? Or actually discussing Earthbound? Because it wasn't really entertaining on either front.

Posted by ildon

The reasons I liked Earthbound when it was released were its subversion of the genre, its humor, its simple art style, and its setting.

Whenever I try to play it again, however, I don't get very far. The combat is tedious and repetitive. When I originally played it, my parents had bought me the full boxed version of the game. I didn't get it used or rent it. So I had the full official guide, which came in the box. This meant I basically couldn't get stuck, and could get every present, and knew the strategy for every boss. Now, I feel like having to have a guide like that is a detraction from the game. Without that guide as a kid, I probably wouldn't have finished the game.

It's not an easy game, and contrary to Patrick's current experience, I very specifically remember having to grind when I played it originally, and frequently have had to grind when attempting to replay it. Maybe I just try to play too conservatively with PSI and items and I'm making it harder for myself, but the result is the same.

I'm glad I played it when I did, but it's difficult for me to recommend it to anyone who doesn't have nostalgia for that specific brand of JRPG.

Posted by spraynardtatum

I'm on my way to the desert and I still have the ruler and protractor in my inventory....

Posted by Fobwashed

Earthbound is my favorite RPG. It's got a style to it that I've only seen once since and that was in Mother 3. The closest any game has come to it in providing a sense of childish adventure was Attack of the Friday Monsters! and I really enjoyed that game as well. The game is pretty much perfect and it has an amazing anti-piracy measure that you should look up once you've beaten the game to avoid spoilers.

Posted by SavePoint

Earthbound was my absolute favorite RPG when I was a kid, it was so much different than everything else (still holds true to this day) and all of this talk is really making me want to go back and play it again.

Posted by Budwyzer

DL'd the ROM for an emulator I had on my PSP (such an old game).

Played it all the way to the end, got to the final boss, and he was invincible no matter what I did to him. So I uninstalled it.

Posted by MrGtD

PUT IT ON THE 3DS PUT IT ON THE 3DS

I don't own a Wii U, Nintendo! Let me give you money for this game I really want to play that can absolutely run on the thing I already own!

Posted by probablytuna

Well, here's hoping it comes out on the 3DS.

Posted by concreteclam

@animasta said:

Well hopefully you play mother 3, which is, in my opinion, way better and also there aren't enough words on the internet about it.

This! Although the best way to play Mother 3 is with the awesome fan translation patch on a flash cart for GBA since the rhythm stuff in combat gets messed up on emulators. Mother 3 was strangely moving...and I see elements of that playing through Earthbound, but it doesn't seem to go quite as dark or disturbing. Also, the gameplay's just not as slick and progression is sloppy and weird. Earthbound is a cool game and all but several years of development hell made a better game in the end.

With the latest version of VBA-M and a USB 360 controller, I can routinely pull of max rhythm combos. Seems like it fixes the latency issues inherent in vanilla VBA and NO$.

Posted by cat_doter

Dark Souls is great for a lot of the same reasons Earthbound is, except in a different context. Deceptive mechanics, the Pendant, playing with player expectation etc. Its sense of humour is more "pay more attention, dickhead" than just generally goofy though. It feels kinda weird saying Dark Souls has a sense of humour at all since it's such a dark game, but it's there. Every time you walk across a bridge and a dragon sets you on fire, it's there.

Posted by TerraDelu

I'm not someone who would know much about this, but how much could it possibly cost to bring it to the 3DS? I mean, it's already emulated, right? Wouldn't it just be a matter of plopping it on the 3DS eShop and rolling around in piles of money?

I guess I can see this being the carrot on the stick for some people to bring them to a WiiU, but if you are using a almost 20 year-old game to sell your brand new console, you fucked up somewhere.

Posted by fargofallout

I don't quite have the same fondness for it that everyone else does - I don't dislike it by any stretch of the imagination, but when I think about it, these two things come to mind: 1) it's one of the many, many JRPGs I played on the SNES. I loved all of them at the time, but I don't trust my memory of them because I know how acute nostalgia is and how it clouds judgement. 2) It's quirky as hell and has a tone that couldn't possibly be more different from the other JRPGs I was playing at the time. I liked it a lot, but not any more than, say, Secret of Mana. I just really liked JRPGs back then, and I absolutely loathe newer JRPGs.

Edited by Aetheldod

I hate this way of thinking ; this iconoclastic ideas "does it holds up" .... arrhhhh!!!!! Of course it does , when a good game is a good game it is always good , if it was crap then it would´ve been crap when it came out!!!! So are movies , books and music etc. The things dont change only your tastes ... aso blame you instead of the "media" for disliking something.

Noye: This is not a bash against Patrick , but to all those who think this way. "Man up" and accept that you are the ones to fault , for not liking something that you once liked (if you actually ever did).

Edited by pmavers

@budwyzer said:

DL'd the ROM for an emulator I had on my PSP (such an old game).

Played it all the way to the end, got to the final boss, and he was invincible no matter what I did to him. So I uninstalled it.

So you actually didn't try everything. It's not actually invincible, but just requires a little bit of out of the box thinking and a leap of faith. Maybe involving something you've had the entire game, but it's never done anything.

Re: Porting it to the 3DS, that would require them to put out SNES games on the 3DS. Which there aren't any so far.

Posted by Phatmac

Release it on the 3DS so I can give you money Nintendo!

Edited by Cimpy

@animasta: I still prefer Earthbound. Mother 3 is very good, but they make some infuriatingly awful gameplay choices that you need to chug through to finish. I remember raging so much when I had to walk on the bottom of the ocean with a very short oxygen time limit. They offer you so many dead end paths throughout the whole game and I felt like it detracted from what was good.

Everyone needs to play the first 1/3 of Mother 3 though. The evolution of Tazmily Village via Fassad is very thought provoking and one of my favorite gaming experiences in a long time.

Posted by CilliaBlack

The best advice I can ever give to anyone playing Earthbound for the first time is to find some way to get the official strategy guide. It's not terribly accurate and has more than a few glaring mistakes, but is by itself incredible. The writers went to incredible lengths to make a guide that followed the soul of the game they were writing it for. It is full of funny, off-beat newspaper clippings about the game, tons of custom artwork, and even has a couple scratch n' sniff cards at the end!

It's weird, and funny, and well worth anything you put into getting your hands on one if you're a big fan of the game.

Posted by cat_doter

@terradelu: It's not exactly non-trivial, they'd need to develop a functioning emulator on the 3DS. Emulators are always very specific to the hardware they're on, you can't just plonk the WiiU's emulator onto the 3DS and go, it'd need to be specific to the 3DS. There's always the possibility that the processor overhead for SNES emulation is beyond the 3DS, since you need a PC orders of magnitude more powerful than a SNES to run an emulator, but it's capable of running gameboy advance games which is fairly similar hardware wise. Then again, the 3DS's GBA emulator is pretty bare-bones.

Posted by JazGalaxy

I'm a vocal dissident of the idea that video games "hold up". In my opinion, if a game was ever good, legitimately, it will ALWAYS be good. Simultaenously, if you go back play a game and it "doesn't hold up", the odds are good it was NEVER actually good.

Good design doesn't change. Tastes do.

That being said, I feel like the majority of people who play Earthbound for the first time in 2013 and say it's gameplay "doesn't hold up" are the same people who wouldn't have liked it when it was new. Earthbound was 100% counterculture even when it came out.

Posted by ghostyTrickster

I'm one of the crazy people who got a copy the day it came out, and still play it at least twice a year. Good to see you enjoyed it, Scoops!

Edited by JazGalaxy

@aetheldod:

I hate this way of thinking ; this iconoclastic ideas "does it holds up" .... arrhhhh!!!!! Of course it does , when a good game is a good game it is always good , if it was crap then it would´ve been crap when it came out!!!! So are movies , books and music etc. The things dont change only your tastes ... aso blame you instead of the "media" for disliking something.

Noye: This is not a bash against Patrick , but to all those who think this way. "Man up" and accept that you are the ones to fault , for not liking something that you once liked (if you actually ever did).

lol!

I agree 100%. I typed almost the entire thing ver batim before I scrolled up and read that you had already typed the same thing.

You see tons of gaming journalist talking about games being "relevant" and "holding up", but you rarely see any talking about the truth, which is that video games are incredibly trendy. For all the talk about game design, developers are frequently enemies of actuall good empirical design, and instead slaves to fads in the gaming sector. I remember when Warcraft 2 came out and almost overnight destroyed the turn-based gaming genre. Did all the people who love turn based strategy disappear? Certainly not, but the fad was RTS, and thusly it became impossible for developers to make a turn based strategy game until Advance Wars and, really, Xcom 2012.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

I'd play Earthbound if I was a desperate Wii U owner. It seems like its constant weirdness helps compensate for the otherwise simple RPG mechanics.

Posted by smcn

@cilliablack: I've heard the WiiU release comes with a digital version of the full guide. No idea if they implemented smell-o-vision for the cards in the back, however...

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