When you first think of a Japanese role-playing game (JRPG), what comes to your mind? Do you think of a fantastical world filled with castles, magic, swords, and massive demons? Heroes that are decked out in armor trying to save the world or a princess from imminent doom? In all honesty, you’re not wrong with those thoughts. Nearly every JRPG in existence shares the same elements that make them so entertaining. It doesn’t matter if the title is a Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, or Fire Emblem game, a lot of the elements carry over to provide a sense of familiarity. People do love when things are familiar after all! The story can change ten ways to Sunday and yet the same basic elements persist. This is why when a new game comes out that completely upends previous conceptions, it has the potential to make a huge mark on the gaming world forever.
One such game is the sleeper hit Earthbound (Mother 2 in Japan) on the Super Nintendo developed by HAL Laboratory. The Mother series has never really found a home outside of Japan, but that didn’t stop HAL and Nintendo from finding a way to release the second game on North American shores on June 5th, 1995. It initially came out in Japan on August 27th, 1994. Tragically the game never found a market to really break into and the sales were less than desired. Keep in mind this came out before Final Fantasy VII made JRPGs the go-to genre for RPG lovers across the globe. The poor sales didn’t stop Earthbound from leaving a mark on people and those who were willing to give it a shot loved the game like no other. Now, Earthbound is getting another chance to shine in a much more accepting market with its July 18th re-release on the Wii U Virtual Console. So let’s take a little history lesson on this underground Japanese hit, why it broke all conceptions of JRPGs, and why you should absolutely check it out.
Earthbound stars a young boy named Ness who has psychic powers and a huge role to play in the fate of the world. You see, a meteor crashed by Ness’s home in Onett which signals the coming of Giygas, a hostile alien that dominates the universe in the future. It is up to Ness and his three friends that he meets along his journey, Paula, Jeff, and Poo, to find eight sanctuaries around the world and connect with the Earth to defeat Giygas for good. The game used some traditional RPG elements such as a turn based system, HP and PP points for each character, level growth based on experience, and a wide variety of locales to visit including villages and dungeons. What makes the game so different is how it’s completely focused on children saving the world, the world as a whole is modeled after Western society, and the weapons used to fight evil are baseball bats, yo-yos, and toy guns. You also withdraw money from ATMs and call your Dad to save your game via payphones. Did I mention that the enemies you fight are typically dogs, angry policemen, hippies, and piles of puke? Yeah that happens. You also fight melting clocks later in the game giving it a very Salvador Dalí style.
Branching off the completely changed JRPG style, Earthbound also had two very endearing qualities: its humor and how it gets really fucking weird later on. In regards to the humor, Earthbound consistently makes fun of RPG and sci-fi clichés, the concept of a “world saving destiny,” and even Western culture. From the very beginning of the game everyone knows that Ness is fated to save the world. He doesn’t even need to speak before his Mom lets him run off and save the world from imminent doom. Quite a lot of responsibility for a child! The fact that Ness is so young and everyone is okay with him becoming a world saving hero without issue is itself a stab at the classic RPG trope of a hero being exceptionally young. All of the cities in the game are based off typical American towns as well. Onett is a regular suburb filled with unassuming people whereas Fourside is a sprawling metropolis that contains uptight and rich assholes. You even have a beach resort called Summers marred with lazily sunbathing people. Later in the game you ride a yellow submarine (The Beatles) and fight diamond dogs (David Bowie), amongst others.
Then we come to how weird the game becomes. Earthbound is seriously one of the most bizarre games I have ever played in my life. Beating up angry piles of puke and cranky old ladies is just the beginning. You also make two monkeys fall in love, take a ride on a Loch Ness Monster copy named Tessie, and visit the town of Moonside. Moonside is this alternate Fourside where all conceptions of reality are completely thrown out the window. The world itself is backwards and filled with fluorescent lit buildings on a black background. This is also where you fight the aforementioned melting clocks (actually called Dalí’s Clock). Warp Men are present throughout the “city” who teleport the heroes to previously unattainable areas. Moonside citizens even break the fourth wall by commenting on the game itself, but that’s hardly new considering how you encounter a sign that says “Planning meeting for Earthbound 2” during your journey. Earthbound was truly nothing we have ever seen before and have yet to ever see again.
I didn’t have a chance to play Earthbound when it first came out on the SNES. In fact, I didn’t even know who Ness was until he was a secret character in the 1999 smash hit Super Smash Bros., also developed by HAL Laboratory. Considering how the two games are created by the same developer, Ness’s inclusion is hardly a surprise despite his limited audience outside of Japan. He really was the only character in the game I never heard about before. As I got older and Ness appeared in subsequent Super Smash Bros. titles, I became very interested in his character. This fueled by desire to play his game, which didn’t actually happen until I was in college. Despite how many years had gone by, the game excited me with its completely different style. I have played a ton of RPGs over the years and Earthbound stands out as being unique. It was a whole different experienc! I only beat it last year so my impression is still very fresh. However, I was completely taken aback by how relentlessly challenging the game is in the very beginning. It’s almost unforgiving towards the player. After playing it myself, it doesn’t surprise me that Earthbound didn’t have a market outside of Japan. The game was innovative but would definitely be way too difficult for people who have never played an RPG before. Needless to say, it’s not a game I would start with. It’s more or less experts only territory.
Earthbound is a fun game that is unlike anything you have ever played or will ever play. Ness himself has grown far beyond the popularity of this title and the Mother series thanks to Super Smash Bros. If you have the means, I’d highly recommend checking out this very underground hit. Early difficulty aside, Earthbound is completely different and a lot of fun to play. It has enough elements to make you feel somewhat at home, but the vast majority of it is a huge change up. It has been 19 years since the game first came out in Japan and it still holds up to this day. It should be, without question, on your radar if you’re in the mood for a real classic.