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Earthbound Mondays

Only 17 years late to the Earthbound party, iamCornhoolio plays through the seminal RPG for the first time. Read on for the first in a regular feature sharing thoughts and impressions of playing through the game in the 21st century.

I’m ashamed to say, I have a dark gaming secret. Despite getting my first console in 1982, I never really “got” RPGs until I played Final Fantasy VII in 1997. Having missed nearly all the classic titles of the 1990s, I’m now revisiting the genre with a vengeance.

I blame Phanstasy Star II for my general sense of indifference towards early RPGs. I recognise now that it was a game that was well ahead of it’s time and that its release heralded the development of more sophisticated console RPGs, with deep, memorable storylines. At the time though it was just far too complex, difficult and hardcore for me. I didn’t have the patience to map out the sprawling dungeons and found myself constantly lost and dying. In fact the whole game was an exercise in frustration that I hastily abandoned, along with any future plans to pick up another RPG.

Although loved and vilified in equal measure by fans and detractors, I was completely won over by Final Fantasy VII. After seeing my housemate stay up for 48 hours straight playing it on release day (he was almost literally stuck to the armchair by the end of his first session) I decided to put aside my aversion to RPGs. 30 hours in I found myself enjoying the massive scale of the main adventure and experiencing the addictiveness of discovering new weapons, equipment, spells and summons.

Since then I’ve poured many hours into various current-gen Japanese and Western RPGs, but I still have never gone back and experienced the genre defining titles of the 1990s. It made sense to start these playthroughs with Earthbound for the SNES. Although it’s widely regarded by many as a masterpiece of 16-bit RPG design and execution, message boards suggest its one of those rare genuinely “Marmite” gaming experiences. People seem to either love it or hate it, with some very vocal gamers feeling that it’s creative, different, but ultimately not very enjoyable as a game.

I’m keeping an open mind as I’ve only experienced a few hours of the game so far. For anyone who wants a bit of trip down Earthbound memory lane I’ve done the following (spoilers ahead, obviously):

  • I’ve been woken up from my sleep to find out I’m a strong-willed boy called Ness, who won’t be stopped by his Mom from investigating the sound of a loud crash near his house in near Onett, Eagleland.
  • I’ve gone on a hunt to find my neighbor, Pikey, with his largely useless brother Pokey.
  • I’ve been told by Buzz Buzz (a flying bee from the future) that I am the chosen one who must stop an evil alien invader Giygas, who wants to destroy the world.
  • I’ve largely taken a backseat in my first boss-like encounter with Starman Junior, letting Buzz Buzz do all the work to send him back where he came from.
  • I’ve explored Onett for the first time and have rid the town of a gang of punks, led by Frank Fly, who I beat down twice using my first offensive PSI skill “Rockin A”.
  • I’ve explored and conquered my first dungeon (caves) looking to fill my first Sound Stone, beating the Titanic Ant in boss in the process.
  • I’ve fought off 5 cops in Onett to gain access to the next town and have just been let through the road block, to start exploring the game world proper.

So far the game is everything I was hoping it would be; quirky, full of charm and mysterious. I’m finding the modern-day, non-sci-fi/fantasy setting refreshing for an RPG, even today. The use of sound effects and music is really, really good. I could listen to the song in Ness’ house for hours and the sound effects and music match the general quirkyness of the title perfectly. The pacing of the game has been spot on so far. The first few hours have been a fairly gentle introduction to the game’s mechanics, with the difficultly only starting to increase when you are confronted by several members of the Sharks’ gang at once for the first time.

I was getting beaten fairly regularly during encounters with the Sharks, so I decided to pick my targets carefully and grind out a few levels to build my stats. I noticed that you could see your enemies wandering around and could avoid where  encounters would occur. I also started noticing that getting into fights with lower level enemies resulted in an automatic win for Ness, without the need for a fight. I’ve seen similar mechanics in modern RPGs, but at the time this must have been a really fresh approach to combat. Whether the need to grind to progress the story will become frustrating after a while remains to be seen, but I accept that this is a feature of the genre that I’m likely going to need to put up with.

For me the game’s charm has been its strongest selling point so far. Charm is a hard attribute to define and I guess my appreciation of the game for this reason is highly subjective. However, although difficult to define, it’s what has got me intially hooked. The storyline, characters, sound effects, music and humour seem to compliment each other perfectly, making the game more than the sum of its parts.

Whether these things together will be enough to hold my interest remains to be seen, but so far I can’t really fault Earthbound. The only negative comment I have so far is that I don’t really get the same sense of immersion in the game that I’ve felt with other RPGs (or connection with the characters), but this may well change as the game progresses. My next task is to explore Twoson and find Paula, so I’ll be here same time next week with tales of my next few hours in Eagleland. See you in a few levels!


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