Earthbound

In 1989, developer Shigesato Itoi created an RPG for the Famicom known as Mother, which distinguished itself from other RPGs of the time with its contemporary setting as opposed to a traditional fantasy/medieval milieu. The title was originally to see a North American release under the title EarthBound, with a completed localization, no less, although Nintendo of America ultimately put it on indefinite hold. Years later, Itoi developed a sequel, Mother 2, for the Super Famicom, which saw its North American release the next year on the Super NES as EarthBound, retaining the modern setting distinguishing its predecessor and sporting some improvements.

Rather than using random encounters like its predecessor, EarthBound instead sports visible enemies in the game's various environs, which charge Ness and his party if their levels are low but run away if their levels are high enough. After contacting the enemy, three different colors of swirls will appear, blue indicating a standard encounter if Ness's party and the enemy face each other, red indicating a surprise encounter for the enemy if Ness's party is facing away from the enemy, and green indicating a surprise attack by the player's party if the player catches the enemy from behind. During the swirl, other enemies nearby may approach Ness's party and enter the battle as well.

When the battle finally begins, the player has a number of options from which to choose, including manually inputting commands for each of up to four characters, attempting to escape (with this option naturally not working all the time), or going into auto-battle mode, in which case all characters use normal attacks and healing magic. Normal commands include attacking normally, using items from a character's inventory, using PP-consuming PSI powers if available, and defending to reduce damage. All characters but Ness, moreover, have unique abilities, for instance, Jeff's Spy, which usefully reveals enemy weaknesses.

Once the player has selected commands manually or chosen auto-battle mode, characters and enemies exchange blows in a mostly-random turn order, with the frequent randomization occasionally leading to times, where, for instance, the player wastes healing magic on deceased characters. Fortunately, even if a character takes a mortal blow from the enemy, there is still a slight chance if the player casts healing magic or uses a healing magic in time, what with the system of "rolling HP," where, after damage or healing, HP "rolls" down or up like an odometer until ultimately stopping. Given this real-time aspect of combat, however, a pause button would have certainly been welcome.

If the player kills all enemies and wins the battle, all living characters earn experience for occasional level-ups, with money and the rare item also acquired as well. Battles move at a decent pace throughout the game, although there are certainly a few annoying enemies, for instance, robots that regularly use a command that completely heal themselves and other enemies. Even so, the encounter system even today is one of the best ever to appear in an RPG, largely preventing the player from wasting their time with weak enemies, with instant victories also occasionally occurring if the player's party is powerful enough. Ultimately, the battle system is one of the game's high points.

Controls are also decent, with an easy menu system and the ability to pay money to obtain hints on where to go next, although the limited inventory space, while adding to the effectiveness of the battle system by limiting the amount of items each character can carry into battle, creates the problem of having to discard items constantly. Luckily, the player can call Escargo Express delivery service to store unneeded items and retrieve them if necessary. There's also the issue of endless dialogue when shopping and saving the game, although interaction helps the game more than hurts.

The story, while its contemporary setting is a nice break from other RPGs with fantasy and/or medieval settings, could have definitely been better, and, while it was all right for a 16-bit RPG story, still hasn't aged well. There's little explanation, for instance, as to how Ness's neighbor Pokey Minch goes from his role in the introductory sequences to his antagonistic role later in the game, and there are some holes such as why no one cares about four unsupervised children wandering around on their own and why adults don't better help Ness and his party. There are also some holes with regard to the time travel aspect introduced late into the game, and the writers could have definitely given a better role to the photographer from the sky that stalks and photographs the party at times other than showing the player's journey during the ending credits.

The translation is adequate, though the game's humor really hasn't aged very well and isn't terribly funny, and there is the occasional Dub-Induced Plot Hole such as a band named the Runaway Five that actually has six members. The localization team also excised some pop culture references present in the Japanese version from the English release for fear of lawsuits, and there is the occasional punctuation and grammatical error, not to mention slight bit of censorship. Ultimately, while the translation was somewhat better than average for a game at the time, there are some aspects that could have definitely been better.

Perhaps the best part of the game is its soundtrack, consisting of some remixes of tracks from Mother such as the shopping theme and the hippie battle theme (based on Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode"), not to mention plenty of new, diverse tracks, such as the countless battle themes that prevent the soundtrack from becoming too repetitive. The town themes in particular stand out the most, such as the themes of Winters and Summers (the latter based on John Lennon's "Dear John"), with many other tracks paying homage to classic rock music as well, and consequentially preventing Nintendo from rereleasing the game for legal reasons. The sound effects, while they fit the comical atmosphere of the game, can get a tad annoying, but otherwise, sound is the game's high point.

The graphics, conversely, are a tad on the lazy side, particularly in combat, where enemies are inanimate and flash to indicate actions performed against the player's party, and psychedelic backgrounds take the place of anything resembling the environment in which the player encounters the enemy. The rest of the visuals, however, look nice, with Ness and his party facing eight directions instead of four, and colorful, well-designed scenery, as well. Still, the graphics could have certainly made better use of the Super NES's visual capabilities.

Finally, the game is somewhat short, taking a little less than twenty hours to complete, with few sidequests of which to speak and not much replayability. Ultimately, EarthBound is a solid sequel that hits most of the right notes, particularly with its encounter system setting the bar for future RPGs, not to mention its soundtrack, while still leaving a bit of room for improvement, particularly with regards to its narrative and battle graphics. Despite its flaws, however, it is definitely a shame that Nintendo is reluctant to rerelease the game or even consider localization for its development hell-plagued sequel, Mother 3, thus leaving modern gamers without any means by which to legally experience any installment of the Mother series, despite the acclaim it's received in Japan.

The Good:
+The gold standard of non-random battles.
+You can get hints on how to advance.
+Excellent soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Limited inventory.
-Story has some holes.
-Lazy battle graphics.

The Bottom Line:
An improved sequel despite its flaws.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Super NES
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 5/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 6/10
Localization: 7/10
Lasting Appeal: 4/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: Less than 20 Hours

Overall: 6.5/10

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