Friday, February 29, 2008

Retro Review: Earthbound

Earthbound (aka Mother 2 in Japan) is a game that is unheard of by most people, overlooked by others, and yet loved to bits by anyone who has had the fortune to play it. It's actually the middle part of a trilogy, but it is the only game in the series that Nintendo saw fit to translate into English and release (although not in Europe, only in the US). Exactly what makes this game so special its fans, and why should you care in an age when audio-visual extravaganzas like Mass Effect and Lost Odyssey are being produced? Pull up a chair and I'll tell you.

Format: SNES
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Ape
Genre: RPG
Region: NTSC (US)
Price: Around £30 (used)
***Tested on the GP2X***

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Earthbound has really great cartoon style graphics which are shown in an isometric perspective when exploring the world. There is a lot of detail in the many towns and dungeons that you will explore, including an arcade with little cabinets, a multi story department store and a town completely over run by zombies. Battles take place in a first person perspective very similar to Dragon Quest or Pokemon, and you will face off against many bizarre enemies throughout your adventure, including Mole Playing Rough, New Age Retro Hippy and L'il UFO. The whole game appears to have been created by people under the influence of drugs, as most evidenced by the decidedly trippy psychedelic backgrounds that appear during a fight.

These guys all belong to a cult that worship the colour blue - I told you it was strange!

Sound: 7 out of 10
The sound is just as quirky as the rest of the game - sometimes areas have no music and instead feature atmospheric background noise, such as the start of the game and whenever you enter a cave. Towns have more traditional RPG style compositions, and battles have rather offbeat tunes with unusual rhythms or tempos. There's nothing that here that would make you consider buying a soundtrack and listening to the music on your CD player, but what is here helps to add to the charm of the game.

Plot and Character: 8 out of 10
The plot of Earthbound, like all of it really, is rather daft. The main character, Ness, is woken up in the middle of the night by a meteor crashing into the hills near his home town of Onett. He goes off at three in the morning (like you do) to explore and discovers a benevolent alien bee by the name of Buzz Buzz which has come to warn the inhabitants of planet Earth about the evil Giygas, an evil being set on the destruction of the world. Buzz Buzz gives Ness the Sound Stone, an item he will need to gather the songs of sanctuary from various locations around the globe. Before Buzz Buzz can finish his message however he is squashed and killed by Ness's mum. Ness then sets out to save the world, and gathers several allies along the way.

The story won't win any awards, but the writing is really humorous... and really that's the whole point of the game - to be fun to play. The modern day setting and original situations you find yourself in is unlike any other game (apart from Mother 1 and Mother 3 of course) and is a refreshing change from all of the dozens of fantasy RPG's that are available.

Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
By all accounts Earthbound is pretty solid, traditional turn based RPG (apart from the presentation and storyline of course), but it isn't without its flaws in the gameplay department. For starters, when buying and selling items you do have to go through a few too many menus for my liking, as the game doesn't let you buy multiple items of the same type at once. You are also limited to carrying about twenty items per character, and you can expect four of these to be taken up by equipment, and another five or so to be used up by essential story items, so having enough room for healing items can be a problem. This is mitigated somewhat once you gain your second and third characters and you are able to heal with PSI powers (magic) instead of relying on items.

Each character is clearly defined with their own set of abilities, so Ness gets the majority of the PSI points with the ability to heal HP and cure status ailments, as well as few attacks. Paula has mostly offensive PSI abilities, such as fire, ice and lightning attacks, Jeff can spy on enemies to discover what they're strong and weak against, and Poo can be considered a backup healer/attacker as and when required.

In addition to these battle skills, some of the characters have useful skills outside of battle too. Jeff can repair broken items which usually become better weapons or armour than the stuff that you can buy at that stage of the came, but it only happens if his IQ stat is high enough and even then only randomly when you rest at your house or an inn. Poo enhances the effect of certain healing items so it makes sense to make him the main item user.

Instead of automatically gaining money dropped from monsters (which never really makes sense anyway - why would a snake need gold?), Ness's dad deposits cash into his bank account, and you then have to withdraw it from an ATM which can be found in drugstores and hotels. You also have to save by finding a phone and calling your dad. One of the great things about playing this game on a GP2X is that you can use the Save State function of your emulator to save anywhere you like and not have to worry about going all the way back to town before you can shut off the system.

Taking a stroll downtown with the gang.

Innovation and Cleverness:
8 out of 10
Earthbound scores plenty of points for innovation for merely daring to be different in a sea of cookie cutter fantasy RPG's. Little touches such as a rolling HP meter (which means you can save a party member from death if you act quick enough) help differentiate it from the other games of the time and even today there's been little that compares to it for sheer oddness, except maybe Contact on the Nintendo DS and of course Mother 3. It's also a pretty smart game, as the citizens of the many towns always have something amusing to say. It's obvious that a lot of love went into the game both at the design stage and also when it came time to localise it for the US market.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
The game features a good solid 30-40 hours of gameplay, which is just about right for an RPG in my opinion. While the game itself is fairly linear, it's such good fun to play through that you would probably replay it a few years later, and there's bound to be little things that you overlooked the first time through.

Overall: 8 out of 10
The fact that Earthbound failed to sell in high numbers and as a consequence Nintendo decided not to release the GBA sequel in English is a great shame, as this is a fantastic RPG that deserves to be played. It's only hope now is that the original game gets a release on the Virtual Console for the Wii and everyone realises how wonderful it is.

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