For all but the most emulator-savvy of UK Wii U owners, EarthBound is basically a new experience. As a title that’s been anecdotally heralded as a retro classic by those few who picked it up the first time – or, more likely, downloaded it illegally – EarthBound is, especially by modern Nintendo standards, an esoteric title with an almost Peanuts-like tone, elevated enormously by its early Nineties American pop culture influences. Without that, it’s an RPG of a few curious ideas, but far from revolutionary compared to its SNES stablemates Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger.
EarthBound’s reputation almost certainly comes from its world and characters, then. Unusually for a Nintendo title, the setting is an amalgamation of different real world locations and ideas; enemies range from evil hippies to bears, zombies and robots. There’s no thread, really – there’s a collection of everything from different movies and TV shows. The visual language that brings them to life is consistent, however, and the Charles M Schulz edge to the character design successfully unites so many sources.
That artistic choice is nicely enhanced by the scriptwriting, too. Fans of the leftfield comedy stylings in the Mario & Luigi titles will appreciate much of the funny dialogue, here, where the game can be a little mature in the sort of lines it throws out there (you’re mocked for using the talk button when there is no-one around to speak to, while one NPC refuses to let you in their home in case you’re a member of the Happy Happy Religious Group). There’s a talking mouse that’s self-referential about being as such; one especially funny idea that stuck with us was the morally compromised character Pokey ‘apologising profusely’ as his chosen move in an early battle. The designers of the game will talk to you via NPCs.
EarthBound isn’t simply a grab bag of quirky concepts – this is quite obviously shaped by director Shigesato Itoi’s experiences and interests, which is manifested through the game’s relationship with popular culture and its strangely existential narrative framework. The touch that will leave you dwelling on its creator’s background in particular is the use of the telephone. You can call Ness’s mother and father at any time, the latter of which is partly functional, as you need to call dad in order to save progress – she wants to make sure Ness is okay, while he remains completely unseen, encouraging you during your brief exchanges but playing no further role in your life beyond that of a distant voice. That, quite importantly, leaves you with something to mull over beyond the silly monsters and daft Beatles references.
As Ness meets the three other main characters Paula, Jeff and Poo (you can change their names), the specific nature of EarthBound’s fiction becomes its main attraction. EarthBound feels fresh because it’s exactly the sort of title that would thrive today as an indie hit, where such personal expression is key to those titles resonating with audiences hungry for that type of game. To have done that in 1994 is remarkable, and evidence of Nintendo’s enduring dedication to the personnel behind such titles – if EarthBound dropped on Steam, PSN or Xbox Live today as a brand new release, these elements would still be absolutely relevant, and consumers would no doubt respond to them with the same kind of passion as the game’s existing fanbase.
There’s an overarching ‘chosen one’ story that amounts to a reasonably throwaway Link’s Awakening/Goonies hybrid narrative, yet the quality of settings and the supporting cast makes it as compelling as any of its genre stalwarts, even when you’re fighting against some relatively pedestrian combat. While the execution of subject matter was ahead of its time, the mechanics are certainly not. With first-person, Dragon Quest-like turn-based encounters, there’s little to get excited about in the battles, sadly.
Yet some of the ideas that accompany the combat system are actually pretty smart. Encounters aren’t random, with enemies wandering the environment prior to encounters (Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 used a version of this), and later scampering out of Ness’s way when you’re of a much higher level than they are, Ni No Kuni style. This is quite useful when you’re revisiting places, but even better, when you engage with enemies who are largely inferior to you, you’ll automatically kill them without even needing to enter the battle, keeping all related experience points and items. It’s a bizarrely modern-style time saver that means you’re both rewarded for grinding and able to explore without too many breaks in the pace. You’ll quickly identify enemies you can bump into again and again, earning quick experience points with zero effort and repeating to your satisfaction – that might sound like cheating, but all it really does is ensure you get more of the best bits of EarthBound, as opposed to the part of its design that’s aged the worst.
You may know EarthBound well already, and as such, perhaps this will just remind you of what it represents in Nintendo’s canon, that the individual voices of creators have always mattered to the Japanese giant. There are so many players out there who will come into EarthBound fresh on the Wii U, however, and for them a very high quality curio awaits – one that is at times both atypically and anti-Nintendo as an overall piece, and therefore something not to miss.