There are those who prefer the swords and sorcery, the mystical storyline, the chivalry of games of yore such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy I. There are others who enjoy the futuristic RPGs like Xenogears and Final Fantasy VII, with technology far past our own. But a special group prefers a game with Happy Happy Cultists, New Age Retro Hippies, and large women in mu-mus: EarthBound.
Sesame romance. Doing!

   The storyline is a simple one - boy sets out on journey, boy finds friends, boy completes a set of tasks to unlock hidden powers, boy defeats evil. While it sounds ordinary, the actual depth of the plot is surprising for such a seemingly basic role-playing game. One night, in the rural town of Onett, a boy named Ness is awakened by a meteorite crashing into his town's upper cliffs. He and his pudgy next-door-neighbor, Pokey -- who later becomes an equally pudgy villain -- set out to investigate the meteor (and look for Pokey's missing younger brother). Instead, they discover Buzz-Buzz, an alien bee of immense strength sent back in time from ten years in the future. Buzz-Buzz reveals the catastrophic future to come at the hands of the alien Giygas, and tells Ness it is his destiny to save the world. But Buzz-Buzz is soon swatted by Pokey's mother, and Ness must set out alone to find the eight Sanctuaries from which he will draw the planet's power. Only with the Sanctuaries' strength can Ness defeat Giygas and his legions.

   Along the way, Ness meets the rest of his party -- Paula, Jeff, and Poo -- who each contribute to the group in his or her own ways. Jeff, a handyman, will repair things when necessary. Paula has a knack for making miracles happen with her prayers and is strongly focused with her Psychic powers. Prince Poo -- yes, that's his real name -- is a strong martial arts master. The party bonds together as they travel through many exotic locations such as the Great Underworld, a zombie-infested town called Threed, and even Ness's own mind in a place called Magicant.

One of the many flavors of Starmen

   EarthBound's storyline is different, to say the least, but the battle system is similar to many games before it: A turn-based, fight/item/magic/special system that does little to innovate. One small innovation is that damage is dealt via a "rolling meter," not all at once, letting fast-acting party members minimize their wounds. The battle system may be ordinary, but the enemies are definitely something else. Some of the most noteable foes include Evil Cranky Ladies, New Age Retro Hippies, Master Belch, Slimy Little Piles, Circus Tents, Annoying Old Party Men, and the infamous Starmen, to name a few. The battles themselves resemble acid-induced hallucinations, featuring swirling and sliding backgrounds bursting with bright colors.

   The gameplay is moderately difficult with a small learning curve; anyone who's even been barely introduced to RPGs can pick up the game quickly. Instead of randomly encountering foes, you'll only enter a battle when you come in contact with visible, sprite-based enemies in dungeons and towns. This in itself is a large part of the battle system: If you meet the enemy head on, you'll fight an evenly-matched battle with no advantages for either side. However, if you catch the enemy from behind, or vice versa, the quicker party gets to strike first. Battles can be avoided, but the endgame can be difficult if you didn't spend a bit of time "levelling up" early in the game.

   The graphics look like they'd be more at home in an NES game than a SNES title, but their appearance is an intentional throwback to the 8-bit days of yore. Unfortunately, the first EarthBound (or Mother, as it's known in Japan) never made it to the U.S., so English-speaking gamers were less prone to "get the joke." Despite the overall lack of visual flair, the colors are vivid and many of the people, allies and enemies are well drawn and cleverly executed. And the aforementioned battle backgrounds may look like drug-induced hallucinations, but they're the best dang drug-induced hallucinations you'll find in an SNES game. The music and sound effects are also richly designed and fit the game's mood well -- that is, as well a mood as a funky, post-modern RPG cares to set.

 Mr. Saturn

   But what most gamers remember about EarthBound is the bizarre humor. The NPCs and environments are as odd as the party and characters. Towns such as Onett, Twoson, Threed, and Fourside dot the landscape. The Runaway Five, six swinging bluesmen who have a history of heavy debt, get your party out of many a fix. Call your dad to save your game, and get your money from the local ATM! nd who could forget the Mr. Saturns, a race of identically-named beings held slaves by the evil Master Belch. The Mr. Saturns' odd dialect -- "Do you want slumber? Kay-o." -- and specialized font are bound to get a laugh or two. The game has a large number of fart jokes. EarthBound's great humor comes not from its absurd scenarios, but from its deadpan delivery. Alien invasions, star-crossed sesame seeds, and Loch Tess monsters named Tessie are as common as the sun's rising.

   Unfortunately, EarthBound was little more than a sleeper hit in the U.S. upon its release. Even so, the game has since reached certified cult classic status. Nintendo released the game in a rather large box to accommodate the free Players' Guide contained within. Most "hardcore" players took this as a slap in the face from Nintendo ("You're too stupid to play a high-class Japanese RPG without using this guide."), and the game never really caught on in the states. EarthBound is the poster child for "quirky" titles, and gamers looking for a break from the standard RPG experience would do well to check it out.

Retrospective by Aaron Linde, Freelance.
Developer Ape
Publisher Nintendo
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium Cartridge
Platform Super Nintendo
Released 1991
EarthBound FAQ
36 screen shots
Mr. Saturn TrueType font