THE MINI SNES SAGA 2: EARTHBOUND REVIEW – “HARDLY DOWN TO EARTH”

INTRODUCTION

I know I hinted at Contra III last week, but I’m still working on Bloodborne DLC and I needed some sort of stress break. Maybe next time, though let’s be fair – maybe not. Probably not.

Instead, I finally carved another meaningful notch into the chipped, paint-flaking bedpost of my gaming knowledge. Earthbound was one of those titles I’d been hearing about for years, spoken about with the reverent tones of somebody discussing a religious event. Fair enough, but I couldn’t help but be a bit baffled by all this rumour, like hearing somebody talk about Bigfoot sightings. I know UnderTale raised the game’s profile in recent years by planting its flag firmly as one of Earthbound’s descendants, and the Mother series does stretch beyond this single game, but it was weird how all I’d heard was the rumour, you know? Almost no memorabilia, no posters, no sign of a wider continuity, none of the things you’d expect to see for a game that was so apparently legendary. Occasionally I’d get the equivalent of a silhouette amongst the trees, such as a cameo in Smash Bros. or a single, Earthbound-themed Amiibo (the second one of which shouldn’t count for much because even the Wii Fit Trainer got a bloody Amiibo), but I still felt I had no idea about what the game was.

Well, now I got my Mini SNES, I finally get to photo Bigfoot myself, so let’s see if people remember it too fondly, or whether they forgot about it too quick. Earthbound, that is, not Bigfoot.

 

STORY

“Oh, goodie, a chance to name my character and all the members of my team,” I thought as the game started. I ended up calling the hero by my own magnificent moniker, because that’s a cheap and easy way to provoke a bit of investment, but then I decided that if this was a role-playing game then I was going to roleplay, namely somebody characterised by poisonous levels of misanthropy. So when it came to labelling Lil’ Joel’s ragtag bunch o’ buddies and harrowed household pets, I named them Slave, Serf, Woman and Dog, not in reference to what I thought they might be called, but to how my absolute bastard of an avatar would be thinking of them. Though just to keep things interesting, those names weren’t assigned to the characters you think they would be.

And then just to make matters better, I got to pick out my character’s favourite food and hobby. Oh, Earthbound, you spoil me! Lil’ Joel’s psychotic tendencies meant a plate of congealed blood was his meal of choice, and what he liked to do in his spare time is best left unmentioned, though it kept the bodily fluids theme going admirably.

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I bet you didn’t think that Grimer could let itself go even more.

So the rough plot starts thusly: whatever your name, you play a small boy in a baseball cap living in small-town America (oh, sorry – I mean small-town Eagleland), who wakes up in the middle of the night when a meteorite lands on the next hill over, and right away I worked out something very peculiar about Earthbound that seems to give it an identity all of its own – it’s genuinely creepy in a way that’s hard to put your finger on, yet doesn’t feel totally intentional, and now I shall have to explain why.

It all comes down to a matter of not feeling quite real enough. The town of Onett feels a little too American, a little overly-emblematic of what it’s supposed to represent, but at the same time doesn’t quite seem to understand the particulars and keeps getting small but important details wrong. It’s almost like being in a sequel to The Stepford Wives, one in which the androids seem to have replaced all the townsfolk except for you and a couple of other people. Sure, everything will seem normal, but then your loving mother will give you a vacant smile and say “Sure thing, sweetie, why not go out sneaking past armed police barriers at two in the morning to find a burning meteorite we don’t know anything about? And better bring your sister’s baseball bat in case you have to defend yourself from the increasingly aggressive townsfolk. Boy, I do love drinking this Ovaltine.” Or look to a scene later on, when you ask the local police chief if you can get past a barricade, whereupon he takes you into a backroom and sets five burly cops on you just to see if you can handle yourself.

Thanks, Officer Crazy. You’re the only one we can depend on to Protect and Serve (me my own teeth).

And when it’s not being weird it’s being downright Lynchian, such as one early scene where your next-door neighbours coldly tell you that your parents have borrowed so much money off them that they’re going bankrupt as a result, and I felt myself squirming uncomfortably as though I’d just found out something that I wasn’t supposed to. It certainly makes the fact that dad just wired me twenty bucks feel a bit awkward, though I’d be buggered if I was going to give it back at that point.

I’ll say now that none of this is bad, far from it. Earthbound’s combination of twee, childish innocence and subtle darker themes is pulled off in a way I’ve rarely seen before, mainly by ensuring that the nasty stuff is kept infrequent and to the background, and as a result it feels like the central group of kids never really understands its significance.

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Er… Hooray?

But the point is we go to see the meteorite, whereupon a bumblebee from the future shows up and tells us that ten years from now the world will be destroyed by a monster named Giygas, and the fact that everybody is getting more and more aggressive is a hint of what’s to come. In order to stop this, you have to go and collect eight funky beats from around the world that’ll apparently mellow out the Lovecraftian horror to the point where he’s just content to groove back to the 8th Dimension without destroying anything. That’s the theory at least, except even though I haven’t beaten the game yet I still get the feeling we might have to personally rap Giygas on the knuckles before this is all over. Call me paranoid, but it’s just this hunch I have.

 

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

I’m sorry to harp on about this, but even here it’s creepy! Whereas last week Megaman X had a whole style and aesthetic to call its own, Earthbound just feels peculiar. Environments look perfectly fine in the forty-five degree perspective, but the characters feel like they’re a few pixels too small for all the detail that the artists want to cram in, and consequently they look distorted and bizarre, such as the people who have three-quarters of their head taken up by a gurning, red-lipped mouth. Hindsight counts for a lot, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the years since Earthbound, it’s to draw character models with neutral expressions, because the audience can impose emotion over the top of that without too much mental strain. But when somebody with aggressive intentions and a fixed smile is advancing on you, it’s scarier than the rednecks in Resident Evil 7. Things improve immeasurably when you go into combat and the sprites have more space to breath, but there’s still elements that feel peculiar and a bit unnerving.

It’s given an extra layer of WTF by the fact that the whole thing feels like it was made by adults channeling the ideas of children, with mixed success. The visuals certainly look like pixel-art recreations of a kid’s drawings, which would certainly explain away all the misaligned facial features and the occasional wonky perspective. And even when it looks good, it has the style of a cartoon, right down to the extraneous features added on that makes it look like something from a Saturday morning show. I’ve no idea why the crows all wear sunglasses or what makes a pogo stick a formidable weapon in the hands of a gang member, but that’s playground logic for you. The day it stands up to proper questioning is the day it stops being what makes it special.

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Ah, the creepy circus at nighttime. What could go murderous? Wrong! I meant wrong. I definitely meant to say… Well, let’s just forget about it for now.

GAMEPLAY

So I walked out of momma’s house with my bat and baseball cap equipped, and immediately saw a little sprite of a snake wriggling towards me. One human/serpent collision later, and I was presented with a battle screen and what appeared to be the usual kind of turn-based combat we’ve all come to expect from early RPGs.

What makes this combat unique is a certain amount of nuance and a pleasantly laissez-faire approach to the whole thing. Taking damage doesn’t immediately take a chunk off your health bar, instead it ticks downwards over a period of time and can be alleviated by ending the fight quickly. Or if you’re up against a weak enemy, there’s an auto-fight button that allows you to slap at the guy in front of you, and reflexively use your healing power when you get into serious trouble. And best of all, if you’re attacked by an enemy so piddlingly pathetic that there’s no challenge whatsoever, Earthbound doesn’t even bother to let the fight start. The enemy automatically dies and you get the measly experience reward and items without having to lift a finger.

This last one is a brilliant idea and one which I really wish had become standard practice in the decades since. Yes, turn-based combat can be fun when done properly (I’ve been playing a lot of Darkest Dungeon over the last few months and so should you), but being set upon by enemies who can’t provide challenge isn’t anything more than busywork. Taking them out of the equation is like having an option in Pokémon Blue that stops you getting abused by cave-dwelling Zubats or all those bloody Tentacool.

(And yes, I know there were repels on sale in every shop you found, but that’s the game just selling you a solution to a problem it created, so shush yo’ mowf.)

But here’s the thing – these are all good ideas for the turn-based combat, but the core combat itself is just sort of… basic. It’s certainly serviceable and given a bit of spice by being quite challenging, but all the stuff above is only methods of alleviating the problems that come with this kind of gameplay. What they aren’t is a unique selling point that captures the imagination or adds a new layer of tactics to the gameplay, like XCOM’s base management, Steamworld: Heist’s ricochet mechanics, or Civilisation’s oddly nuke-happy Mahatma.

And again, I know what everybody’s going to say: the game was invented in the 90’s before the time when turn-based combat had become quite so standardised, and can’t be blamed for being part of the phase that caused that standardisation later; much in the way that you can’t blame Tolkien for every other fantasy writer stealing elements from Lord of the Rings.

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Hello, Mr. Saturn. Is it off to work you go?

And I certainly don’t think less of Earthbound for that fact, but this isn’t the 90’s anymore, and I’m more interested in seeing how these games hold up, especially considering that Nintendo is still charging money for them. The best thing Earthbound has to a defining USP is the fact that you can bring multiple characters into battle, but even then this wasn’t especially new and doesn’t really shake up the gameplay in the way you’d hope.

And while I’m getting comfortable complaining, the game is rather poor at telling things to you that could be very important. Remember earlier how I mentioned that my in-game Pa had wired me twenty bucks? Well, I presumed the way to make more money was to scavenge items from defeated enemies and flog them at the drugstore, because nobody had had told me any different and this was all I had to go on. But this turned out to be a very slow and unreliable method of saving up, because not all enemies drop items and when they do they’re usually not worth squat, as you’d expect for a stale cookie that’s had two previous owners (ew).

But I persevered until I’d scraped together about forty bucks, and went to stick my handful of crumpled bills in the ATM for safe-keeping. So it was only then that I realised that Dad had given me five hundred dollars and neglected to mention it. What?! No wonder the neighbours are bankrupt if we’ve borrowed enough cash to pay Joel Jr. several grand per week! And consequently when I went to buy all the best weapons and armour with my new wealth, my stats made me feel over-levelled, because I’d spent the last two hours kicking snakes to death for handfuls of spare change, not realising that my father was also try to play the role of my sugar daddy (again, ew).

 

CONCLUSION

Looking back over the review, I wonder why I like Earthbound as much as I honestly do, because I’m not entirely sure what it’s done to deserve it. I remember playing it and enjoying it, but now I feel hard-pressed to justify that. If the gameplay was a bit unimaginative, the visuals were janky and they weren’t telling me stuff I need to know, then what on Earth was I getting out of the experience?

It might be because of the difficulty, which became startlingly well-balanced for tension once I got over the initial up-down bump in the road caused by Dad holding out on me. Or it might be because of the item and power rewards, which are varied and palpable and motivate you to keep playing.

Or it might just because of how weird it all is. Yeah, I think that might be it. Even now I’m not entirely sure how much of Earthbound’s surreal, slightly uncomfortable atmosphere is intentional, but I don’t think it really matters, because it’s there regardless and certainly makes it feel different to anything else I’ve played.

In fact, nearly everything that’s wrong with this game is somehow made to work for it, turning the errors and lapses in style into a style all of its own, like a demented, flea-bitten puppy with several chunks taken out of its ears (shout-out to the mysterious dog who wandered over to my table at that moment to inadvertently provide inspiration for that simile, who’s a good boy?). It feels like the kids who starred in the game were the ones making it, and luckily they just happened to be very talented.

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I wanna see the bloody car crash! I wanna see!

So Earthbound gets a recommendation, but I think it’s worth discussing exactly what we can learn from a game that has created this enduring legacy despite everything wrong with it. being viewed poorly by critics at the time, and being the only game in the Mother trilogy to get a Western release, so unconvinced were Nintendo by its ability to stand on its own merits. In this era where the main industry is falling to more rampant homogenisation than ever and companies are stumbling over each other to cram in more brown-haired white guys and sodding loot boxes, how much goodwill does it really buy you? I don’t mean financial success, but how many places in people’s personal Top Ten Lists? How much ‘twoo wuv,’ to quote The Princess Bride?

It’s a tricky question, because being enjoyable isn’t actually synonymous with being memorable, or even interesting. Take Overwatch, for example. Overwatch is fun to play and I wouldn’t ever claim otherwise, but everything unique about it was hammered into the ground in order to force it to be as marketable as possible, with one of the most tedious superhero plots I’ve ever heard (and I’ve read Youngblood) and the vast majority of its characters reduced to maybe two basic ideas at most, and as a result there’s nothing there that has me thinking about it when the match is over. It’s filler, it’s fast food, it’s Modern Family.

By contrast, I can think of some heavily flawed but fascinating games that I would recommend in a heartbeat, and that stay in my thoughts far longer than Blizzard’s polished perpetual profit machine. Sunless Sea, for example. Or Bioshock Infinite. Or Quadrilateral Cowboy, Elite: Dangerous, Papers Please, and, for that matter, Earthbound.

 


8.5/10 

If Calvin and Hobbes made a video game, I suspect it might be a lot like this. Immature, clumsy, patchwork and downright surreal at times, it all somehow comes together and becomes something very special for it. Play it if you get the chance, because you probably won’t find this sort of thing anywhere else.

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THE FAILURE OF ROLE-PLAYING GAMES

Why do so many people hate Fallout 4? If you ask the players, they’ll say it’s because it went from a true RPG to a more shooter-inclined runny-gunny-crafty affair. And whilst I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad game, I do understand the problem that people have with it, what with it being marketed as the next installment in a chain of (now classic) role-playing games, not the exploratory shooter that it really happened to be.

And yet I ask them this – whilst Fallout 3 was indeed the superior game, especially in comparison to the time it emerged, was it really so good at the role-playing element? Oh, it’s better than most games in that respect, no question there. But did you ever really feel like you were playing anything more than a simple caricature? Trying to play a traditional hero is just about dropping all your points into healing and picking the selfless options in dialogue for a lot of games. Likewise, the inclusion of a karma system tends to make these characters feel more simplistic and mechanical than ever.

To my mind, this sort of thing rarely works, mainly because role-playing in games is limited largely by two things – context and mechanics, though to what degree you find yourself experiencing problems changes on a game-by-game basis.

Context is all about what the game tells you regarding your character, and everything you’re told is something that you don’t get to decide for yourself. For example, I can’t play as British aristocrat Lord Montgomery Fotherington-Mayfield in Fallout 3. It just doesn’t fit the story, because the game tells me in great detail that I was born and raised in Vault 101, that my dad is Doctor Liam Neeson and that my character is big on BB guns and cockroach killing. All these things make for interesting stories and characteristics, but they’re limiting my options as to what I can decide for myself. And I can’t pretend it’s not the case, as ignoring the context isn’t really the point when the world and its ongoing history is the main thing I’m here to interact with.

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Actually, this example may be a little too on-the-nose.

Mass Effect is probably the biggest example of this problem, but you can also see what it’s done to try and compensate. Shepherd has to be something very specific in order to fit within the plot – a tactical genius with a vested interest in saving the world – but that information is going against the RP in RPG. It’s pretty limiting from the start, and the best Mass Effect can do is to give us control of his/her appearance and methodology on route to that goal.

It’s true that context is a difficult balancing act to get right. You have to give the player the power to create their own experience, but crafting lots of options takes time and the player is incredibly likely to ruin a carefully-crafted story if given the chance. Going-off script usually goes poorly, because the script is where all the effort and intelligence is found. Hence why most quests tend to have two possible paths, good and evil, with maybe an additional neutral route if they’re putting the effort in.

As we move on to the limitations of mechanics, which to my mind is the bigger problem. Like I said before, there’s only so many routes and roads to endgame that a designer can think of, and as a result they tend to be… Broader, I suppose, but less impressive for that reason. With only the budget or time for about three paths per quest, most designers tend to default to that good/neutral/evil combination. And that makes sense to characterise those approaches with broad ideas, but any nuance, detail, or finesse – the stuff that makes a character seem realistic – gets lost in the process. Hell, we all know that evil choices usually default to a cackling, gleefully malevolent devil in human form.

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Pick your dialogue from the following: 1. Hello, fine friend! 2. I acknowledge your presence, functional companion. 3. Bow down before me, pathetic automaton!

But surely there’s more kinds of monster than that? What about the dark, silent, threatening figure who cuts people down without pomp or ceremony? What about the weak-willed coward who can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing, or the silver-tongued liar who tries to weasel his way through every situation? I’m not saying that there aren’t games that feature these options, but I doubt there’s many that feature all of them.

And the limitations of mechanics don’t stop there. If I’m riding the prisoner cart in Skyrim and I decide I want to play a legendary swordmaster who irked the Empire once too often, I do bump against the problem of my “One-handed” stat not even being high enough to worry the average rabbit. Playing Hatori Hanzo feels a bit out of the question when my stats tell me I can barely deduce which end of my blade is the dangerous one.

But alternatively, what about methods that the game doesn’t recognise? Video game, today I feel like pretending to be some dirty, underhanded fighter who doesn’t play by the rules and uses whatever tactics guarantee their survival in… Eh? You mean I can’t throw sand in my opponents’ faces or kick them in the ‘nads when they’re not expecting it? Guess that character concept is thrown to the wind with so many others, when all I can do is generically slash at people.

And of course there’s the problem of obvious mechanics that the game doesn’t take into account. Maybe I’m just a prude with an overdeveloped sense of privacy, but why is that after escaping the chopping block in Elder Scrolls, I can rock up at someone’s house at two in the morning to hand in a quest, shaking them awake whilst wearing only my underwear and a dragonbone helmet, and they don’t have a word to say about it? This might sound like a silly complaint, but role-playing lives or dies on immersion, and the fact that a world can and will function so weirdly breaks that immersion. Wait a moment, I’m not a wandering hero looking for the next paying job. I’m a poorly-shaved geek looking at a computer screen, and the person we’re addressing is just a stack of programmed data and carefully crafted textures.

Curse you, real life. You just love to ruin everything, don’t you?

Look, I’m not saying that the designers aren’t doing a good job, but they’re fighting a losing battle. A few gigabytes can’t match up to the breadth and depth of the human imagination, and as a result there’s something lost in the attempt to bring a fully developed human being to life in this way. It’s like cooking some humungous seven-course meal, only to find out that most of your guests have some kind of allergy or eating restriction. By the time you’ve cut out everything that can’t be used, it’s only dry rice and water.

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Greetings, sentient wood carving! Pull up a chisel and tell me what brought you here.

Fortunately, there are places to be found that role-playing thrives, namely the tabletop role-playing games of olde, a la Dungeons And Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, Traveller, Mutants And Masterminds, and so on. It’s a little easier to play a character when you’ve got somebody tailoring the experience to you, and it’s a lot easier when the whole adventure is designed with you in mind. One of the most role-play intense experiences I ever had was a one-player/one gamemaster series of adventures in the cyberpunk world of Shadowrun, where everything that happened was about my character and how the world related to him, adapting and developing in the wake of the actions he performed, and the people he blew up.

Perhaps D&D and its ilk have spoiled me in this regard, and I admit that I wouldn’t be surprised to see games stretching themselves to provide more and more options as time goes on. But true role-playing can only be limited by imagination, and a game can’t really accommodate all of human ingenuity. Besides, players live to ruin things for the person running the game. Any experienced gamemaster will tell you that.