Earthbound for the Wii U is a nearly 20-year old re-release of a SNES JRPG that features simplistic, cartoony graphics, crushing difficulty at times and a simplistic combat system. That out of the way, it is also one of the console’s must have games due to the ingeniously creative story and themes that have influenced many a game since its North American release in 1995.
A story of its own
The game takes places in the small town of Onnet where a boy named Ness has his normal life interrupted by a comet crashing on a nearby mountain. Naturally, his mom is totally cool with Ness venturing to the mountain armed only with a baseball bat where he meets an alien bee who tells him that he has been chosen to stop the entity known as Gygas.
Except for the alien bee, this sounds pretty standard for a JRPG, right? Well, consider the alien bee the norm along with a population of indifferent, clueless and silly adults that are the rage today in modern media. Amazingly, Earthbound does it better.
The humorous handling of characters and crazy enemies is a huge part of the charm of Earthbound. The original developers, Ape and HAL Laboratory, knew they were stepping out on a limb with the story of this game and fully embraced the lunacy in a completely self-aware manner.
This is best captured in the descriptive name of the enemies as players just don’t face a “Slug,” they face an “Attack Slug” or a “New Age Retro Hippie,” or the “Ramblin’ Evil Mushroom.” There’s also the most ominous enemy of them all, “Abstract Art.”
There’s something to be said about a game where child toys like a baseball bat and a yo-yo can be used to save the world while regaining health by eating hamburgers or cookies and drinking juice boxes. But that’s where Earthbound resides and it completely owns this off the wall take of 1990s Americana while also subtly touching on the deeper themes of the meaning of evil, politics and capitalism without beating them into the player’s skull like some other games, TV shows and movies try to do.
Gameplay that set its own standard
Earthbound is presented with an overhead map that players can move Ness and his companions around in while also clearly seeing nearby enemies. This presents the player with the opportunity to avoid contact or to try and approach from behind to gain an advantage. In a genre still dominated by the random encounter, this still feels relatively fresh. Additionally, if the player’s group bumps into an enemy that is not a match, it is an automatic win. If the group vastly out powers the enemies in the area, they run away. These little touches make returning to an area much less of a pointless battle grind.
The world itself is alive with towns, buildings and characters who always have something to say. It immediately becomes clear which modern games have borrowed from Earthbound even down to the squat, cartoony character models.
Battles themselves are straight forward turn-based affairs where attacks, PSI powers or items are used. These are more notable for the psychedelic enemy backgrounds and catchy music than the mechanics. That said, the Earthbound does track hit points with a number wheel that scrolls down when players are hit. This allows for the admittedly neat option of trying to race and use a healing PSI power or item before the hit points spin down to zero and send Ness all the way back home.
No, Ness doesn’t die in combat per se but he is sent back to his house depleted of hit points, PSI points and money. The first two are easily recoverable by sending Ness to bed. The loss of half the money can be brutal though if players don’t remember to have Ness deposit his money at the ATM before getting in difficult fights.
It’s hard to believe it took so long for Nintendo to re-release Earthbound in a downloadable format but here it is in all of its glory for those that own a Wii U. It’s a definitively strange and humorous trip that handles a deeper message without shoving it in the player’s face. Wii U owners that love the RPG genre and have never tried the game before owe it to themselves to give it a spin to watch it bend tropes seen even to this day. Don’t be discouraged by the initial difficulty either. Nintendo has released the entire guide for free to the web in a format that is suitable for the Wii U Gamepad.
- One of the seminal role-playing games to come out of Japan and it still holds up well
- Creative and imaginative story with plenty of humor
- $10 price after years of SNES cartridges going for hundreds of dollars on the resell market
- Initial difficulty is high until Ness adds some friends
Platform(s): Wii U
Developer: Ape, HAL Laboratories
Release Date: July 18, 2013
A review code was provided by Nintendo for the purposes of this review.
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