EarthBound is probably the most identifiable RPG of all time. Above everything else, the game’s creator, Shigesato Itoi — already a minor celebrity for voicing the dad in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro — wants the player to feel welcomed, loved, and purposeful, even going beyond the conventions of video games just to make a personal connection with the player. The entire game can’t help but ooze a witty and clearly impassioned personality, which makes EarthBound a truly special experience.
However, at least in my mind, the sheer presence of unconventionality and personality doesn’t suffice for a great game, gameplay does, and I rarely see fans and critics talk about EarthBound’s gameplay because they’re too preoccupied gushing over the “personal connection” they experienced. That isn’t to say EarthBound is not a great game with great gameplay, it most certainly is, but personally, instead of its whimsy and charm appeasing me and solidifying its way as a masterpiece into my heart, certain moments rather detracted from my experience.
For no reason should I have to lay my controller down for a few minutes and sit through a reflection of my adventure so far just because I decided to drink some tea. I already know how far I’ve come. I already know who my party members are. I already know all this stuff; I’m the one who’s been playing, and I don’t need the game of all places to spell that out for me. Itoi’s sentiment blasts through the roof, and it’s here where his beloved RPG feels the most kid-oriented. As an adult, I can confirm this idea is just one long eye roll (and the worst part: it happens twice).
Ignore my lengthy dwelling on the negatives, though, as the rest of EarthBound tackles the “defenseless neighborhood kid goes on journey to save the world” adventure a lot more discreetly, which makes the player’s journey not only feel epic but important. The introduction ever so slightly and carefully eases the player into the experience despite stressing the urgency to save the world from a world-dominating alien.
EarthBound doesn’t differ much in its battle gameplay than most other RPGs from the time. Battle options include a default attack, PSI attacks (essentially the “magic” or “special moves” of this game), items, defense, run, and “auto fight,” which allows the game to take the reins for you (it’s not a terribly practical function because AI lack the strategical and logical thinking of a human player, which is nice because then players shouldn’t overuse it or put too much trust in it). And while the battles function as turn-based combat, a subtle timing mechanic can be felt in the attacks, which took me forever to realize; it’s a smart choice by the developers because it encourages more engagement and attention from the player — not to mention the enemies are capable of killing you from the get-go, something you’d never find in another RPG of this type.
The four party members attained in EarthBound are made so that one does not overshadow the other (except Ness in his…final stretch). Each member has their advantages and disadvantages. Ness and Poo are mostly all-around while Paula is PSI-oriented balanced via low HP, and Jeff is intelligence-oriented (almost to an overpowering degree) balanced via 0 PP (psychic points, used for PSI).
EarthBound isn’t concerned with pulling any crazy punches in its battle gameplay as much as it is its overworld gameplay, which, truth be told, isn’t reserved for much beyond walking and talking save a few instances. The torturous department store section exemplifies the unorthodoxy of EarthBound, pulling the rug out from under the player (though it does get hinted at by an NPC) and snatching one of the party members away from the player. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this brief segment because the difficulty is suddenly jacked up, especially since the enemies suddenly turn into powerhouses without any fair warning or transition, requiring extremely tough preparation, but it is never broadcasted to the player.
Nearly every enemy Ness and co. encounters exhibits some sort of quirk, whether by design (you literally fight taxis, road signs, framed artwork, trees, Dalí-esque clocks, record discs…just to name a few) or by ability. Take the “Territorial Oak” for example. They’re fairly easy to fight but explode when defeated, causing the party members to take massive amounts of damage guaranteed to terminate any party member. All the player needs to do, though, is spam the in-game text to finish the battle because the damage is not instantaneous, which will in turn keep everyone alive.
For a game that mostly deals with large numbers, though, the boss battles are the true highlight. They manage to be invigorating without ever feeling unfair and strategic without ever feeling complicated. A weak-Ness (not sorry) can be found in most bosses with enough keen observation, but sometimes pure grit is all that will carry the party through a battle. Attempting to defeat bosses can also be a process of learning, i.e. some bosses have shields capable of deflecting both normal attacks and PSI attacks back at the one who dealt it.
Besides EarthBound’s intermittently annoying unconventionality and sentimentality, the only other real issue is the grindy-Ness (not sorry) in its overworld. Fighting common enemies can be exhausting at times with unavoidable enemies placed one after another, and while it’s NESS-essary (not sorry) Ness and co. must level up somehow, spamming the landscape with nuisances was not the way it should’ve been done.
A little bit of scattering with the economy and tweaks in the progression system, and EarthBound would’ve felt seamlessly paced. The player should not have the curiosity to explore an area only to find a group of enemies, easily defeat them, find that there’s nothing there, turn back, and then have to defeat the exact group of enemies they just defeated. It’s just a little too much.
Otherwise, EarthBound is a superb RPG where its personality ultimately ends up being its greatest strength and most memorable asset. Itoi crafts a childlike yet mature adventure the player is likely to never forget, especially the unforgettably harrowing final boss battle against Giygas. It’s a little too much button-spamming in gameplay and sappy in narrative for my tastes but this is an already beloved RPG by many, so who cares what I have to say?