Kickin’ It Old School – Earthbound

If spending much of the year at Syracuse University has taught me one thing, it’s that there really is no place like home for the holidays. Sure it sounds cliche and everything but it’s quite true. Home cooked meals, friends, family, Super Nintendo; home is definitely where the heart is.

While I am having an amazing holiday from school, and while I had a very merry Christmas, one thing has been bugging me. When I awoke Christmas morning, I was tremendously disappointed to find that Santa had neglected to bring me Keira Knightley as I had requested (and no Santa, putting Love Actually on TV Christmas morning didn’t count). Heartbroken, I decided to drown my sorrows in some Earthbound

Earthbound is my very favorite game ever. Period. Nothing else has ever come close. I love the story, the music, the gameplay, and, even ten years later, the campy toilet humor. I would spend all day playing it, even as the demands of chores and second grade tried to tear me away. I still spend all day playing it and still neglect whatever chores I may have (you don’t even want to see my dorm room). This column ended up taking a long time to complete since I’d write a few sentences, then I’ll want to play it, then I’ll write a few more, then back to playing, and on, and on. Look at it this way: if I wouldn’t stop playing to go to prom, this little column could stand to wait.

Earthbound (SNES, 1994)

Released on the SNES in 1994, Earthbound is the sequel to the NES game Mother – it’s called Mother 2 in Japan. It experienced rather lackluster sales in the States, as games like Final Fantasy 3 (or 6, depending on your country) had already set the bar high in the U.S. for RPG fans. It was sold with a strategy guide covering the entire game.

The story is very good and very easy to get into. The main character is Ness, a young boy living in the town of Onett, who is awakened one day by a meteorite crashing nearby his home. While he and his friend Pokey are investigating it and looking for Pokey’s younger brother, they are approached by a sentient bee from the future who introduces itself as Buzz-Buzz.

Buzz-Buzz informs them that in the future, an evil being called Giygas has taken over the world, and that Ness, two other boys and a girl are to destroy Giygas before his rise to power. Ness sets out to find his destined partners, helping others and tussling with gang members, cultists, and police officers along the way.

Over the course of the adventure, Ness has several run-ins with Pokey, who rather inexplicably becomes a bad guy – he explains that he aligns himself with the one man he finds most powerful at the time. Why a young teenage boy would be concerned with gaining power and influence instead of girls is beyond me. Then again, Pokey is rather fat and disgusting, so perhaps he’s compensating for that.

Anyway, Pokey eventually aligns himself with Giygas himself, though abandons him too when he declares Giygas to be an “almighty idiot” and runs away, setting up the eventual sequel. The sequel, Mother 3, was only released in Japan along with a Mother 1 and 2 collection for Game Boy Advance, which also never found its way stateside, thus further angering me.

In order to gain the power they would need to defeat Giygas, Ness and his new friends would have to go to 8 landmarks around their home country of Eagleland and absorb the power there. Each of these places is known as “Your (Ness’) Sanctuary”. Each is infested with enemies and guarded by a powerful boss. Once all 8 places have been visited, Ness falls unconscious and must defeat his own nightmares, after which he amasses enough power to take on Giygas.

Ness is joined by the girl of the group, Paula, after rescuing her from a cult with a strange obsession with painting everything blue, even those they’re fighting. The two boys, Jeff and Poo (tee hee!) join the party later. Each party member has their own unique abilities, strengths and weaknesses to be used to defeat enemies and solve puzzles.

As the game is set in a more modern period than other RPG’s (the ambiguous year “199X”), the weapons and enemies were created to reflect that. Ness wields a baseball bat, Paula fights with a frying pan, and Jeff uses a gun. Poo uses a traditional RPG weapon, a sword, but you have to defeat a certain enemy to receive it, and you have only one area to do so, so the chances are slim of being able to gain it.

In addition to material weapons, Ness, Paula and Poo are able to use psychic powers on their enemies, known as PSI powers. Some abilities are shared but many are unique to certain characters. Paula has several devastating psychic attacks, and the array of attacks she uses makes her effective against almost any enemy. Poo leaves the group at one point to learn a special attack called Starstorm, which decimates enemies with a rain of stars for lots of damage. Ness uses a special psychic move you name yourself when you first start a new game. Unfortunately, only 7 letters are allowed, so in my younger days I was disappointed to see that something like “PSI Ass Kicker” is out of the question, though the default “PSI Rockin’” does just fine.

Enemies in this game take the form of a variety of things under the influence of Giygas. At any given time, you can be attacked by humans, dogs, snakes, birds, rats, bats, moles, bears, fish, and dinosaurs. You can also be attacked by such inanimate objects as plants, mushrooms, road signs, taxi cabs, fire hydrants and cups of coffee. There is also a sizeable population of aliens and robots.

The battle system of the game leaves a little to be desired. Instead of seeing the characters attack the enemies, you only see your opponents with text on the screen describing what is happening. With games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger having a much more advanced battle system, this was a tough point to get over with some players.

The graphics are a little cartoony for the era, but that reflects the cartoony story and dialogue. The main country of Eagleland is home to many cultures and creatures, including the incredibly strange looking, yet surprisingly intelligent Mr. Saturn creatures, who play a large part in the game’s climax.

Earthbound has one of my favorite soundtracks to any game. The music changes in each new town and reflects the nature of that town (the zombie infested town of Threed has a scary-sounding track, the oceanside resort town of Summers has a tropical sounding track, etc.)

Part of the game’s charm is the humor it uses. Pop culture references, fart jokes, and borderline adult humor run rampant in this game. The Beatles in particular are heavily referenced in dialogue and even some music samples, as the developers were apparently big fans. Also, there is a Blues Brother’s-esque band known as the Runaway Five that help the group at various points in the game, and one of the non-playable sprites appears to be Mr. T.

While not commercially impressive, Earthbound continues to have a strong cult following among many fans, so much so that Ness has made other appearances in recent Nintendo games. The Super Smash Bros. series has included Ness as a fighter in each game so far, and the other characters of Earthbound appeared as collectible “trophies” in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Still no word on Mother 3 or the Mother 1+2 Collection coming over to the States though; I’ll continue to hope as long as I live.

Next week: An educational video game? I guess they can’t all be winners.