“EarthBound” or “Mother 2” is a Japanese Role Playing Game released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1994. Originally not very popular, the game gradually developed a sort of cult following for its quirky story and interesting combat. Is EarthBound genuinely a great game, or are fans of it seeing through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia?
Story - 7/10
The story of EarthBound is undeniably the most distinctive facet. I have described it before as “a representation of how the culture of the United States is seen from the perspective of Japanese video game developers,” but even that doesn’t fully describe what EarthBound is. From one perspective, it is almost boringly typical of a JRPG. A great evil threatens the world, and a young boy is chosen by destiny to join with a group of friends and defeat this evil. The nuance, however, is just strikingly odd. It’s very much like asking someone who has never been to United States to describe Americana culture. They likely get the highlights and iconic pieces, but it isn’t anywhere near what you would get from asking someone born and raised in America.
The main cast of characters in EarthBound are almost placeholders, present only to give the player an opportunity to experience the game. Each character in the main party has a simple background given, but there is little to no character development over the course of the game. Besides meeting each other and becoming friends, there is no realization or growth as a result of the story events. The extent of the story’s resolution is basically, “Well, we saved the world. That was fun.” I wouldn’t say that I actively dislike the characters of EarthBound or that they aren’t memorable to a degree. It’s more that the game doesn’t explore the characters enough to make them any more than mild acquaintances to the player. I have a hard time getting emotionally attached to such flat, static characters.
Oddly enough, the auxiliary characters of EarthBound are significantly more interesting than the main cast. Mr. Saturn, with their weird text font and wonky behavior, are lovable in the way that you can’t help getting attached to the strange-looking puppy in a litter of otherwise normal dogs. The Blues Broth- I mean, Runaway Five are always getting themselves into trouble, but somehow manage to come through for Ness and the gang when they need it most. I was tremendously more entertained by various characters you encounter in the game, than I was with the people you actually play as.
Speaking of the Blues Brothers, all of the pop culture nods in EarthBound manage to tread a thin line between blatant and obscure. If you know of the source material, a lot of moments in the game will give you a good chuckle. Instead, if you aren’t aware of the reference, you still don’t really miss much. The allusions aren’t shoehorned in at all, but they are good for bonus entertainment if you catch them.
The individual areas of EarthBound are surprisingly varied. Instead of simple color and sprite swaps, some areas have mechanics unique to one location. Such differences include making Ness and company much smaller on the screen to give the image of a larger world, or having areas darked out to make them more difficult to navigate. For the era, this sort of variety is absolutely astounding in my mind.
I never noticed a play time indicator in EarthBound, but the length feels appropriate. There are 8 main areas in the game, with a little bit of buffer between each area. I don’t know how many hours I spent playing, but there was enough material that I didn’t feel it was cut short, nor was I ever just dying for it to end. It would’ve been nice to have some extra optional content, but I can’t complain about the length of the core content.
Replay value for EarthBound, as with many games of the RPG genre, is minimal. Once you’ve experienced the story, there isn’t much incentive to go through it again. There is only one ending, and no decisions within the game that have any bearing on the story. It’s nice to go along for the ride, but at the end of the day, you don’t really have any reason to play it again.
General Gameplay - 7/10
Navigation in EarthBound is simple, but in a good way. The first few areas of the game are in a scripted order, and the game throttles you in order to teach you the mechanics and build up a party. After maybe halfway through, you unlock an ability to return to any prior area. The best part about the navigation is basically that you don’t notice it. You just play the game, and things happen in a way that feels right.
Inventory management is slightly tactical, but also slightly annoying. Each character can only hold so many items, and players can only use items in battle that they are holding. If a character dies in battle, their items are off limits. This wouldn’t be that much of a problem, except that there are key items that only Ness can hold. There are enough spots that you can play through the game without much hassle, provided you regularly sell off items you won’t need, but it is something that must be handled. Equipping gear can be a bit of a pain, since players need to be holding the item before they can equip it.
As I mentioned before, there isn’t any sort of optional content in EarthBound. Hence, there aren’t any collectibles either. The benefit of this is that you don’t have to read up on missable items and pay attention to what you have and haven’t picked up. The downside is that when you beat the game, it’s just done.
Enemy encounters are one of the best aspects of EarthBound. Enemies have sprites in the world, and only trigger an encounter if they touch you. This mechanic offers a lot of variety to how you play the game. When you enter an area, if you don’t like the spawn pattern, you can just leave and return to try for new enemies. This also works within the same area if you have enough distance. Beyond managing what enemies appear, the game has a system where enemies can actively pursue you or flee from you. If you’ve reached a high enough level, depending on the enemy, they will run away from you. This makes it much easier to get around in previous areas, so that you don’t have to deal with repetitive encounters that will yield very little reward.
Combat - 10/10
The combat in EarthBound is quite possibly the best turn-based combat I’ve ever played. The game employs a “rolling HP meter,” which means that an attack’s damage takes real time to fully apply. There are numerous enemies that deliver a powerful final attack as they die, but you can avoid most of the damage if you quickly exit the battle. Furthermore, a player that would have normally died from an attack can be saved if healed before their HP hits zero. This gives players incentive to be quick with their actions in certain situations, but they can just as easily play at their own pace and have the damage of an attack applied normally.
EarthBound also employs a system of early attacks or ambushes depending on how Ness hits the enemy’s sprite. If Ness hits the enemy head on, or by most angles to the side, the battle starts normally with both the player and enemy getting a full turn. If an enemy hits Ness from behind, the enemy gets a full ambush turn before the player gets a chance to attack. Alternatively, if Ness hits an enemy from behind (which becomes significantly easier once enemies flee from him), the player gets a full turn of uninterrupted attacks. The fact that ambushes and pre-emptive strikes aren’t determined randomly, and that the player has a say in how they occur, is absolutely spectacular.
Difficulty - 4/10
The difficulty of EarthBound is moderate, and can be minimized with grinding. If you blow through without any grinding at all, the game can be harder, but still not necessarily hard. Plus, if everyone in the party dies, you can just “try again” from the beginning of the dungeon you were in. With the rolling HP meter, you can err on the side of caution and heal before most characters die anyway. I died a few times through the game, but most of them were due to me playing risky. None of my deaths were unfair, just a consequence of my play style.
Graphics - 7/10
EarthBound graphics stand out in their style, as compared to the anime style shared by most other games in the 16-bit RPG era. They’re simple, bright, and colorful. I wouldn’t describe them as notably “good,” but they also aren’t bad. On their own, the graphics are alright, but I respect that the designers didn’t go with the status quo and tried something a little more unique.
Music - 9/10
Often cited as a potential reason why the game went so long without a release or remaster on modern consoles, the music of EarthBound is absolutely fantastic. I could easily listen to the soundtrack on its own. Tracks for different areas just sound appropriate. Some are cheerful, some are eerie, and some are just strange. The best music in the game occurs during the Runaway Five and Venus shows. While the player won’t confuse these segments with actual recordings of live shows, the composer absolutely nailed the musical style.
Combat in EarthBound is fantastic, and I wish more games would emulate it. It’s the perfect balance between active and static.
The main characters are boring, and the core of the story is the same as pretty much every JRPG that has ever been released.
It’s weird. For better or for worse, EarthBound is just a weird game.
Overall - 7/10
EarthBound is entertaining in its quirkiness. To call it “one of the most unique games of all time” would be absolutely true. To call it “one of the greatest,” is taking some liberties that I just don’t feel it deserves. Yes, I do think the combat and music are amazing, but I don’t think they make up for the characters and story. It is fun, no doubt, and I would say it is still completely worth playing. Just don’t go into it expecting something life changing, from the way the game’s cult following praises it. EarthBound is undeniably weird, and certainly good, but not quite great.