This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
As RPG Month continues, we look back this week at a game that was massively underrated at the time but has developed a cult following since. EarthBound, also known as Mother II, didn’t sell well in the era of platformers and Mode 7 because it didn’t have great graphics, and it was an RPG before Final Fantasy VII made them mainstream. However, time has been kind to the legacy of the game thanks to its quirky sense of humour and the Batman-like visual effects. The sequel, the Japanese-only Mother III, got arguably the most prolific fan translation in history. It’s a beloved classic.
But is the praise warranted?
NOTE: This was supposed to run a couple of weeks ago, but I got slammed with both games stuff and work stuff. This week is E3. So I’ll run this as a lost episode of sorts, even if it’s only two weeks old.
HOW WAS IT THEN: Anyone who blew off EarthBound when it was new because the graphics weren’t very good missed two things: the point, and a great game. EarthBound‘s charm was in those simple graphics, but what lied underneath was a solid RPG with a decent, if not earth-shattering story, and deceptively difficult gameplay.
The first thing people would notice about EarthBound is the tongue-in-cheek nature of the game. In an era where it was a virtual requirement that RPGs had to be medieval fantasies, EarthBound featured young children in a modern day setting beating up possessed animals with baseball bats and frying pans, with critical hits being shown with an emphatic “SMA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-ASH!” graphic. Instead of magic points, the characters use skills based off of PSI, or mind control, which have the same effect. It’s a JRPG with classical traits, but one that has a lighter venier and some god humour. With that stated, EarthBound was surprisingly difficult. The difficulty curve could be prohibitive at times as early and frequent deaths can be a common occurance even to experienced players.
EarthBound was largely ignored at the time of release. If people think regular gamers are ga-ga over first-person shooters now, that’s how they felt about 2D fighters in the mid-90s, squared. However, those who played EarthBound enjoyed what they played.
HOW IS IT NOW: It’s easy to say that, despite its archaic look, EarthBound has stood up well. However, I’ll go one step farther: it’s because of its look and feel that EarthBound has stood up better than most of the similar games of the PlayStation era. EarthBound was ahead of its time.
EarthBound was a deep and engrossing game with some good mechanics despite its simple look and feel. Money management in particular was ahead of the curve; Ness was able to get money from ATMs, which was put into his account as he beat enemies. Since one of the penalties for dying is losing half your money, this actually benefits the player as it’s possible to use an ATM or call your father to have money wired to your account for safe keeping (he could also save the game and tell you experience a là the King in the original Dragon Quest). In addition to that, the money that you gain from beating enemies goes into the bank by default, meaning it’s untouched until it’s specifically taken out. This was a brilliant innovation off of Dragon Quest‘s feature. The game did other little things, such as the abilities to walk diagonally and to see your enemies before fighting them before Chrono Trigger. Such small things made a huge difference in a time when walking was literally the most time-consuming activity.
The challenge of EarthBound still stands up today, and in fact, the game is somewhat more challenging due to the hand-holding that modern RPGs tend to do. It’s nothing frustrating, and the game makes it easy to jump back into the fold, but it’s still not a game that someone is going to slam through. Due to that, some grinding is in order. There’s also the item inventory system, which can get in the way at times. However, these things are easy to adjust to. The humour of the game still stands up well today, and though the story isn’t anything as serious as Mother 3‘s, there’s more than enough personality to carry players through to the end.
The biggest strike against EarthBound is that, to play it in 2012, it virtually requires an emulator for those that don’t have the game. Simply put, EarthBound is ridiculously expensive; it will cost no less than $150 for just the cartridge, and anything with a box could run upwards of four digits. Even a ROM can be risky if the wrong version is used, as Nintendo put in some inventive anti-piracy measures to protect their product. Even a game as good as EarthBound isn’t worth that kind of money except to people who want to collect it just to say they own it.
With the above noted, EarthBound is definitely a worthwhile play that stands up well to the effects of aging.