Sunday, September 14, 2014

Earthbound Review

Have you ever played a game that frustrated you to no end? A game where there are dozens of enemies but they’re mostly identical? A game where irritating status ailments are plentiful and what little enjoyment you get out of the combat is sucked dry by the persistent hassle? A game where you enjoy yourself more using a walkthrough because every single step is littered with obtuse bullshit triggers, so that you can only proceed when you think of things in the way the game designers did, as opposed to rationally in-universe? A game where, when you get down to it, everything is a broken mess that’s “old-school” in all the wrong ways? There’s a game like that...and it’s called Earthbound.

Have you ever played a game that defied your expectations? A game where, for better or worse, you can never really predict what’s going to happen next? A game where it’s in some strange middle-ground between absurdist parody and innocent, heartfelt story-telling? A game where there are strange but oddly compelling visuals and sounds, where you want to keep playing just to see where it’ll take you next? A game that can make you laugh, creep you out, and above all has an unusual earnestness to it that embodies the phrase ‘weird but wonderful’? There’s a game like that....and it’s called Earthbound.
By now it should be clear I have mixed feelings on Earthbound. There were a lot of things it did that drove me, as a game design enthusiast, up the wall. I grumbled my way through many portions; and I did indeed look up a walkthrough several times until I finally just gave up and went through the latter half of the game with it constantly open in another window in case I needed it. But the fact of the matter is I kept coming back. Now this is no special thing in and of itself, as I come back to a lot of games that really don’t deserve it. For example, I really should finish that Neopets article someday just so you can see the depths I’ll go to for a shitty RPG. But Earthbound is better than that makes it out to be, and every time I laughed at the game or heard some of its lovely music, I knew that I kept going because I wanted to, not out of morbid curiosity.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We can talk about why Earthbound is shitty and why Earthbound is awesome but first we need to mention what Earthbound is. Earthbound is an RPG for the Super Nintendo that came out in 1994 in Japan and 1995 elsewhere. It’s actually named Mother 2 in Japan, part of a whole series of games. However, Mother 1 (which is generally regarded as just okay) and Mother 3 (which is generally regarded as fantastic) are both games that have never seen an official release outside Japan (must to the discontent of Mother 3 fans). You may recognize the series from Earthbound’s main character Ness, who is a recurring fighter in every Super Smash Bros. game (as well as Lucas, the protagonist of Mother 3, who appeared in Super Smash Bros. Brawl).

Here are Ness and Lucas in Brawl, showing psychic’s apparently inherent enthusiasm for striped t-shirts.

Due to its international release and generally agreed quality, Earthbound is probably the most popular game of the series, and a year or so ago it received a re-release on the Wii U Virtual Console. I bought it just a few months after it came out, but regular readers probably recognize by this point my typical procrastination habits, which led to me not finishing the game until just a few weeks ago. Earthbound is a strange game, one that’s known for its strangeness in fact. The game is actually quite enjoyable in some ways, to the point where I could recommend it to people. But before we talk about what makes the game good, we’re going to have to get out of the way what makes the game bad. And unfortunately, there’s a decent amount to work with there...

This Combat Stinks!

Here we see the combat system in its natural habitat. Yes, some of the first enemies you beat up are indeed stray dogs.

Earthbound is in many ways a very traditional JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game). You have battles on a separate screen from walking around, in the view where you can only see your opponents and random trippy (there really is no other way to describe them) backgrounds behind them. You take it in turns to select actions, either hitting your opponents, defending, using items or using your psychic powers for various effects. If you’re not a fan of this type of combat in general, I don’t see this game changing your mind. Even if you are though...

A lot of the problems I have with Earthbound’s combat are rooted in old-school JRPG problems. Enemies die quickly but often times, so do you. Random chance is a consistent factor. Let’s say we can ignore the critical hits that often arbitrarily decide combat in this world of glass combatants who die so easily. Even then, normal attacks have a significant variance in how much damage they can do, making it hard to predict things with regularity. On top of this, the enemies are all strange and random, from aliens to sentient gas station pumps to possessed teacups and more. This fits with the strangeness of the game, but it makes determining what enemies do without foreknowledge more or less impossible. How was I supposed to know that the sentient tree would explode upon death, dealing massive damage to my entire party? That’s not a joke, that’s an actual enemy and its effect.

Don’t you ever question me again.

Your psychic abilities occasionally mix things up a bit, but they’re mostly pretty standard. There are moves that deal lots of damage, or damage to multiple opponents. There are healing moves that restore life or remove status ailments. And there are utility moves that do things like giving temporary shields and buffs to party members. Though they add some depth, they aren’t all that original when you get down to it. And you won’t even use them most of the time, since this is a game where saving your resources is crucial. You’ll want to save your psychic powers for healing in between battles or blowing through a boss fight; so most of the time the combat simply consists of you attacking over and over. Throw in irritating status ailments (hey, ever wanted your combat skills crippled, your movement controls randomized and the only cure to be all the way back in town? You’re in luck!) and I generally preferred to just avoid combat altogether.

This isn’t to say the combat is completely without merit. In a relatively progressive move for the time, enemies exist outside of battle screens, so you can actively run past them, and you or your enemy approaching from the behind gives them a turn of preemptive strike. You even automatically kill enemies when you’re way too strong for them, cutting out hassle revisiting areas.

Another interesting quirk of the combat system that I’ve actually never seen elsewhere is the counter system. You see, your health and psi points are on little counters that roll by when they decrease. But it takes a while for the counters to move, particularly at higher levels, and you don’t actually die until your health hits zero. So you can have party members die and save them on your next turn before it actually happens, which is pretty neat. And simple though it may be the combat can occasionally present some mildly interesting strategy and resource management with your psychic powers and items. It’s just not near good enough in my eyes to carry the game, which is a shame.

PSI Confusion

What’s also a shame about Earthbound are the constant tiny irritations that poke and prod you as you try and progress outside of combat. First off, there’s the inventory system. Old RPGs had a habit of giving you a limited amount of things to carry, because for some reason in lands of super-powered children fighting mythical beats and demigods the realism of limited packing space is something we want to hold onto. In all seriousness, I can see some advantages of limited inventory besides blindly holding onto tradition. But Earthbound is without a doubt the worst inventory system I can recall seeing in all the dozens of games I’ve played that had such systems.

So imagine your character only has room in their bag for 20 items. Now imagine that your character has to keep all their key items - keys and maps and knick-knacks necessary to progress - in that same bag. Now imagine that for some god damn reason, the 4 pieces of equipment/clothing that you are currently wearing also take up 4 of those 20 slots. As you may have guessed, I’m asking you to imagine these things because they are all actually true, and it is a source of constant irritation.

You can also carry a bicycle inside your pack, which becomes bigger than you when you use it. This is something I’d accept in other games, but the limited space makes it sting all the more.

Now, there are some things that mitigate this. Every character has their own inventory, so that adds another 20 slots for each of the (eventual) 3 extra party members...well, 16 after you count their equipment. But it’s a significant number of hours into the game before you even get one additional party member. Not only that, but the amount of key items you can carry quickly gets overwhelming. I reached a point relatively early on where my inventory was entirely filled with my equipment and key items. Now, there’s a storage service you can use (at a cost of time and/or money of course) to get rid of some of these items. But you’ll never know when you’ll need them! The game doesn’t tell you when you’ll need key items, many of which are strange and innocuous. Sometimes, the game doesn’t even get rid of key items you’ll never use again once you’ve used them! So you’ll be lugging around some items of no actual use whatsoever unless you check the internet to see what gets used when.

The strangeness of the key items ties into another problem the game has: having no idea how to progress. Earthbound is, as I’ve mentioned many times before, very strange. This has the unintended side effect of giving it the same problem many old adventure games were known for. The key to moving forward in the story often involves you doing strange and comedic things, like using fly paper to trap zombies or having hallucinogenic visons from magical cake baked by a discontent wife. How are you supposed to predict such odd turns of events? aren’t! Though the game sometimes throws hints of how to proceed at you, sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes they’re frustratingly vague.

Well okay, this one isn’t vague; it’s just weird and annoying.

There are two ways to deal with this. The first is to constantly wander around lost, exploring every nook and cranny and talking to everyone you see in the hopes that it will trigger some event that moves the story forward, after which, if what to do next isn’t clear, you do that whole business over again. The second way to deal with this is to throw up your hands and look up a walkthrough on the internet, which is the option that eventually became my default. So that’s terrible, the inventory is terrible, and the combat leaves a lot to be desired. But now that I’ve vomited streams of complaints like I was Master Belch, a hideous pile of slime that is actually-one-of-the-games-villains-no-I-am-not-kidding...I think it’s time for a change of pace. Accepting all of that, why is Earthbound a good game? Luckily, there’s a lot to cover here too...

This isn’t one of those good things, but I felt like showing it before we moved on.

Weird and Wonderful

Earthbound opens with you finding a meteor crashed near your house, and a talking fly named Buzz Buzz appearing and telling you that you’re the chosen one. The fly soon dies and isn’t ever mentioned again because he wasn’t really important. You then begin a vast adventure across several continents and possibly dimensions, where you visit strange landmarks, recruit other psychic children, and generally find yourself in odd situations. The game isn’t always completely absurd, which is probably the best because it would probably be too much to handle if it weren’t somewhat grounded. But it’s never too long before you’re reminded of the game you’re playing. And that game is simply different, intentionally weird in ways I’ve never really seen before.

My teen years were already past when I played this game, so I’m unaware what the exact consequences of my foolishness will be.

The game takes place in a modern day setting (always a nice change of pace), but one that’s slightly off, as if the world were created by someone with an unusual sense of humor. (Spoiler alert: It was). Healing items are everyday foods like hamburgers, supplemented by condiments like salt or ketchup for boosted effects. You store your money in ATMs and call your dad to save your game and check up on your experience points. Talking to random people often yields expectantly random results, non-sequitur musings off the top of people’s heads that has no bearing whatsoever on what you’re doing. The fourth wall is occasionally broken, though intermittently so you never really expect it. You’re never quite sure of what the aliens you’re fighting want or even what they are, apart from the fact that they’re often rather creepy.

At this point, I think it’d be better for me to just let the images stand on their own.

If you notice a lack of outright jokes in this review, it’s only partially because I’m an unfunny hack. It’s also because there’s no need to make fun of what’s already ridiculous, and Earthbound has ridiculousness in spades. Though the general outline of the game was made clear from the start, I genuinely never knew what to expect next from Earthbound, what wacky little vignette the game would throw at me on my next step towards its inevitable conclusion. This above most things was what kept me playing, kept me involved. Sometimes the game would take a creepy turn, often times it would take a more humorous one, and sometimes it was just plain weird. But despite its strangeness, it was often unexpectedly...earnest. I’ll get to what I mean by that and wrap things up, but first allow me a quick interlude for...

Moody Melodies and Stones of Sound

Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t let a game pass by without commenting on its music. The gameplay and writing I always mention, and the visuals are apparent to anyone who looks at them, but the music can really give you a feel for a game, and enhance what’s already there. And the music of Earthbound is definitely a part of why I liked Earthbound. The songs vary wildly depending on the occasion. Sometimes the music was more of background ambience, often creepy sliding synths that sound strange and otherworldly. Sometimes the game seemed to take some cues from blues, jazz, or early rock and roll, with catchy off-beat tunes heavy on bass and horns. Other times it could be solemn and soft, dripping slow echoing beats into an ocean of silence. Whatever it was though, it made good use of a unique combination of sounds to be varied, but still sounds like...Earthbound. My musical vocabulary has never been perfect, and it’s even more difficult to use it to describe something as distinctive and varied as this soundtrack, so let’s get to some examples.

There are more worthwhile pieces of music in Earthbound than I can name here, but a good place to start is at the beginning. This music plays when you give the game your name, your 4 characters names, your dogs name, your favorite thing and your favorite food. It’s percussive and punchy, with a strong bass line and upbeat tone, like much of the games music. But it also has a stranger, potentially creepy side with its shuffled static-y samples of random people talking at the start. This actually turns out to represent the games soundtrack pretty well, in addition to being admirably catchy.

Onett is your hometown, and has a fittingly cheery musical beginning. It’s innocent happy music for walking about the town, and doesn’t need to be much more than that. I also particularly enjoy the sunrise introduction that plays the first time you hear this song. It’s happy and anticipatory, but also fits in a bit of the strange sounds that will accompany your adventure to come.

For a taste of what the battle music is like in the game, here’s Battle Against a Weird Opponent. In general, I don’t enjoy the in-combat or ambient music in Earthbound as much as the rest of it. However, the battle tunes, strange and occasionally weirdly structured though they are, can often have an underlying beat you can appreciate.

Snowman is the theme that plays when you first encounter your third party member, who gets his own perspective shift for a while. Apart from the obvious connection to his homeland of Winters, it’s a softer and slower song than some of the cheery themes I’ve presented to you before. Nonetheless, it’s good stuff.

I think I may have a slight preference for string music as opposed to band and horn-heavy music. The city of Fourside definitely shows that I’ll make exceptions if the music is good enough. Starting with an opening build-up as you cross the bridge into the game’s biggest city, the song is aptly majestic. The slow, deliberate yet flowing horns embody a grandeur not found in other places. It’s also catchy as hell, and I can listen to it on loop for quite some time.

Bazaar is a theme to a late-game desert town that isn’t particularly notable. However, I like the music and am really pushing the amount of songs I can comfortably embed in this article because I have gone mad with power.

The main plot of the game has you visiting strange landmarks adding segments of music to your sound stone. This eventually results in Eight Melodies, the main theme of the game. The version I prefer is the one here, which appears in a flashback when you finally assemble the full set. It has a slow build-up from its most basic, music box style form to a more complete version. I love this song. It is, I feel, emblematic of some of the best parts of Earthbound: the strange but oddly sincere. I also get this feeling from...

Home Sweet Home is the song that plays when you return home, and before I completed the sound stone I thought of it as the de facto main theme of the game. Like everything in Earthbound, it keeps a certain strange, otherworldly sound to it. The tinkling guitar, the strange synths, and the ebb and flow from loud to is, above all else, a wonderful piece of music. For lack of a better word, it really is just...heartfelt.

Super Smash Bros Melee’s song representing Mother 2 was a heavily remixed version of this song: It’s a pace and feel more suited to a fighting game, but it lets me know that I’m not the only one that really likes this music. And these last two songs lead up to one last point I want to make about the game Earthbound.

Home Sweet Home

You may have noticed that here and there I keep mentioning Earthbound is earnest, and you might not know what I mean by that. The thing about Earthbound’s often quite funny. I enjoyed its strange sense of humor and its weird antics, but I don’t think I would have appreciated the game quite as much as I did if that was all it had. Aside from the absurd events, the occasional creepy undertones, and the constant comedy, Earthbound comes down to a story about kids going on an adventure. It’s not a perfectly written story. Some sections of the game are duller than others, there aren’t many interesting twists and turns in the overarching plot, and the main characters are unfortunately mostly bland and one-dimensional, each getting like up to a dozen lines in the whole game. But rarely mentioned beyond all this is what feels like an innocent joy to the proceedings.

It’s hard to describe...but perhaps this will help: Your main character Ness is usually quite strong. But sometimes, long, somewhat random periods apart, he will be struck with a status called homesick. He’ll perform worse in battle, sometimes stopping to think about home instead of fighting. The only way to cure this status is to either visit home or call your mom. If you call her, she won’t say anything special, just give you small talk about what she’s been doing and occasionally cheer you on. Likewise, going home doesn’t cause some charismatic speech about believing in yourself, or anything like that. Your mother just makes you a plate of your favorite food and you sleep in your own bed. But even though it doesn’t do too much in terms of story or gameplay, this feature says something about the game, and the feeling of it as a whole.

Earthbound is a game with many flaws, and I can’t pretend those flaws aren’t there. The fact of the matter is the persistent annoyances of the games mechanics and structure will probably keep some people from enjoying it. Even the good parts of the game aren’t exactly perfect. But even if the game isn’t perfect, I can say with a shadow of a doubt that it’s unique. There is no game I have ever played that was quite like Earthbound. It’s strange, it’s funny, it’s interesting to experience. And past that strangeness, when you’re not distracted by fighting hippies with rulers or purchasing bags of poisonous snakes, there’s a sincerity to find there. The characters in this game aren’t wizards or princes; they’re kids from the suburbs. They don’t make grandiose speeches about truth and justice; they’re weird and socially awkward. And the moral center of this game isn’t some big idealistic stand; it’s just the innocent appreciation of loving family and friends. So if you happen to see what I do in Earthbound, you’ll enjoy the game. You’ll enjoy it because it’s funny, because it’s strange, and because it’s not quite like anything else. So for all its flaws, in a basic, heartfelt way, Earthbound is simply...weird and wonderful.

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