As any JoJo’s fan who’s seen my videos can attest, I don’t shy away from stating my opinion, no matter how unpopular or controversial. I don’t try to be disagreeable on purpose, I swear. This is just an outlet for my uncensored thoughts, whatever they may be. That said, brace yourselves EarthBound lovers. Pretty soon, your blood may be boiling.
Although this is not a full review, it has been provided in a video format. As with all my videos, a full transcript is directly below.
At one point, this article existed as two separate reviews for EarthBound and Mother 3. However, as time passed and I made progress through both games, I eventually realized that I couldn’t talk about one without mentioning the other. As such, I feel my thoughts would be more clearly conveyed by a review-ish discussion, rather than an outright review. (Nonetheless, much like usual, I will refrain from mentioning any major spoilers for either title.)
First, some brief explanation for the uninitiated. In 1994, Nintendo released a JRPG for the SNES by the name of Mother 2, obviously being the second game in the Mother series. A little less than a year later, the game received a North American localization under the name EarthBound. In the simplest terms, EarthBound players control the main character, Ness (whom doubtless some gamers only recognize as “that psychic kid from Smash Bros.”), on a quirky, whimsical journey to save the world, meeting friends and facing dangers along the way.
Then, twelve years later in 2006, Nintendo released Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance. Much to the chagrin of some fans, this game was never released outside of Japan (though a full unofficial English translation surfaced within a couple years). Much like its predecessor, Mother 3 sends the player off on an outlandish adventure, this time as Lucas (whom doubtless some gamers only recognize as “that other psychic kid from Smash Bros.”).
While neither EarthBound nor Mother 3 enjoyed broad recognition here in the West, both games are critically acclaimed and have, over time, become recognizable cult classics (for certain people, at the very least). Some would go so far as to label them masterpieces of the medium. It is with this background that, in mid-April of this year, I purchased EarthBound from the Wii U Virtual Console.
Perhaps my expectations were too high. After several false starts and a stretch of time that saw hardly any play at all, I eventually decided to step up and put the game to rest. By the time I finished, it was July. That’s three whole months for what is by all accounts only about a 30 hour game. If you know anything about my gaming habits, this is slow. I’m a guy that beat the entirety of Persona 4 Golden, clocking in at around 80 hours, in under two weeks. So, with EarthBound, what went wrong?
Well, first of all, EarthBound doesn’t have a good start, from a gameplay perspective. It just doesn’t. It’s needlessly and frustratingly difficult. You have precious little money, health or psychic points. Your stats are awful enough that the most basic enemies have a real chance to kill you off, and you can’t even fight back effectively because your regular attack misses, without exaggeration, about half the time. On top of that, if you die and respawn, you have no PP, which wouldn’t be a problem with money to replenish it, but (as I mentioned) that’s another thing you really don’t have much of.
EarthBound’s battle system and mechanics aren’t inherently bad, but they were strangely implemented. You have to progress a fair ways through the game before any real intricacies can be recognized and exploited. Take the rolling health bar, for example. In EarthBound, your health does not immediately drop after being attacked. Instead, it ticks down from its previous value to its now current value. This is mostly useful for giving a few turns of leeway, upon enduring a mortal blow, before the actual death. A great idea on paper, because it adds another layer of strategy to the battle. Of course, I say “on paper” because in practice it’s not nearly so great. After an attack, health ticks down so quickly that, until the much later stages of the game, it’s much too fast to be functionally different than the typical, immediate health loss of any other JRPGs. It’s only when player health, and thus damage received, numbers in the hundreds of points that the rolling meter mechanic has any tangible effect.
Other early gameplay problems that get ironed out later on are the prevalence of status effects and your relative inability to deal with them. Two distinct events come to mind. In the first, I had been infected by a shroom that implanted me with a mushroom. This mushroom (aside from disrupting your actions during battle) absolutely f**ks with your movement, randomly scrambling the controls and making navigation a chore. The real kicker is that it doesn’t wear off and is impossible to cure until you work your way to a hospital that is, in all likelihood, more than a bit of a walk away (if you even manage not to die on the way there). The second event was a rash of UFOs and robots that all abuse “sickness beams” that, what else, give you a cold. Apparently it’s quite a deadly cold, because left untreated you will cough your way to death. At this point, sure, you have some healing moves and probably items too, but not nearly enough. Battle after battle and cold after cold saps you of your recovery abilities and PP, leaving you vulnerable to the long road ahead.
To repeat myself, EarthBound’s early gameplay is needlessly and frustratingly difficult. I don’t take issue with difficulty itself, but I take issue with difficulty you can’t do anything about. You can’t adopt any real strategy to deal with these problems because you don’t have a wide-enough repertoire so early in the game. It doesn’t afford you any options except to suck it up and stick things out until they eventually improve.
But don’t worry, that’s not all! Not satisfied with making just battles a chore, the inventory and menus are almost hilariously clunky. Want to equip armor or weapons? Hope you’re ready for several layers of menu! Want to buy a swanky new murder bat for Ness? Sorry, your inventory is full, even though otherwise (if a slot was free) the game would prompt you to automatically sell your old bat. It’s bad, there’s no other way to put it. EarthBound’s menus are an infuriating mess.
But so far, I’ve only had legitimate complaints with the actual gameplay end of EarthBound, and the gameplay isn’t the reason why people revere the game. No, people love EarthBound for its quirkiness, its unique style, its charm, and I won’t argue that that layer exists. Yeah, EarthBound definitely has a wacky sense of humor and it shoves the player down some pretty deep rabbit holes... but, beneath that funny shell, what’s really there?
Neither EarthBound’s plot nor its characters are anything to write home about. The main squad of four, due to being almost completely silent, lack significant depth or characterization, coming off as pretty bland. The only thing you know about any of them is their immediate background leading up to the start of the game, which plants seed of character that the story proceeds to do very little with. Once they join Ness in his quest, they immediately revert to essentially a faceless fighting machine. All that leaves you are figures that can be described in a single statement: the genius (Jeff), the unfortunately named (Poo), the girl (Paula) and the main character (Ness). Pretty much everyone else you interact with is similarly forgettable, such as the genius’ father (Dr. Andonuts) and the rotund inventor (Apple Kid), with one exception: Porky, who at least undergoes some change, even if it’s just a spiraling descent into villainy.
The plot itself is hardly worth mentioning either, because it’s standard at best. You are given a quest from a time-traveling bug to save the future from an alien invasion, and prevent calamity. Ness’ parents are surprisingly unfazed by this development, and send him on his way with thousands of dollars in his bank account. What follows is the typical trek through various sceneries and locales, from the desert to the graveyard to, well, let’s call it a drug-induced hallucination. So, yeah, EarthBound does put its trademark quirky spin on the concept, but it doesn’t stray from those bare basic fundamentals in any significant capacity. Ness and company stomp through each destination sequentially, beat the final boss and call it a day.
Am I asking for too much from a game over two decades old? I don’t think so. I’ve played JRPGs from the same period, hell, even years prior, with much more weight to their stories (a couple big ones that come to mind being Final Fantasy IV and VI). I don’t know what else to say, other than that EarthBound’s acclaim is baffling to me. Sure, I chuckled a few times under the sheer absurdity of it all, but beyond that, what did this game offer me with its poorly constructed gameplay and flat plotline? I really can’t say.
After all that, you might think I hate EarthBound. I don’t. I think it’s criminally overrated, but after the beginning hump it was at least passable, even good near the end. Apparently, I liked it just enough to keep going and start playing Mother 3. As one could probably guess from the title of this article, I had a much better time. (I’d also like to point out that Mother 3 is about the same length as EarthBound and took me less than a quarter of the time to beat.)
Compared to EarthBound’s segment, this next bit might seem a little shorter. Why? Well, Mother 3 doesn’t always innovate. It didn’t need to. All it had to do was take everything EarthBound introduced (all the things I talked about earlier because there really were some interesting ideas) and improve upon them, polish them to a state of usability.
That awful menu? Gone! So, does Mother 3 have some kind of revolutionary, genre-shaping menu? Hell no! It just manages to be not an archaic, clunky mess of layers and inventory. It’s a normal, fully functional JRPG menu. This is all I ever wanted from EarthBound, simple ease of use. They even added a run button, which I didn’t realize I wanted until I had it. I love it, Mother 3, keep it up.
Speaking of love, it’s classically a healing force, one that can overcome any obstacle to bring people together. Naturally, Lucas uses the power of “PK Love” to obliterate his opponents. Not that I minded the contradiction, because they gave the gameplay a facelift too! I think my initial thought process went something like this:
Oh, this is too much, Mother 3! The health bar ticks down slowly enough to actually have some strategic presence? There are new debuff moves, too?! You mean I don’t have to endure hours of grinding and levels before I can plan and strategize? The early areas are designed to actually give you a fighting chance, and not bombard you with repeated death? Marvelous!
And we’re not done yet! (In keeping with my previous commitment to avoid spoilers, this may be somewhat vague, but bear with it.) The plot! It’s not straightforward! You control multiple characters, it plays with your expectations, it has tons of twists, it has subtlety, far more subtlety than I expected out of the gate. It even builds off EarthBound’s story in some obvious and not-so-obvious ways, which is great. I wonder how these games can even born be from the same writer because this is leaps and bounds better than EarthBound’s almost lax narrative. It has so much more depth, there’s no better way to put it.
And the characters, too! Everyone (with the exception of the monkey, I guess) speaks a lot (though is curiously silent whenever you have direct control). The cast actually has a story to them, they have relationships with each other, they have motivations and emotions beyond just a nebulous need to save the world. In other words, they feel much more real, which is far more effective for delivering any sort of impact when the big story curves eventually hit.
Of course, Mother 3 maintains the light tone and bizarre humor that put EarthBound on the map in the first place. Fine by me, because the strange comedy was that game’s most memorable feature, managing to inject some degree of satisfaction into certain bits that were otherwise pretty painful. No problems here, they knew where their bread was buttered last time and made sure to maintain the wacky whimsy for Mother 3.
All this is not to say, however, that Mother 3 is flawless. A new battle feature introduced to the game are “Sound Battles”, and the results are mixed. Basically, you can score extra hits by repeatedly tapping your attack button in time with an enemy’s rhythm, which can be heard by putting them to sleep. This takes a lot more practice than you’d think, and I had enough trouble getting the hang of it that I more or less gave up. Thankfully, the game by no means requires you to learn this mechanic to progress, which was very nice. So, actually, this might be another point in Mother 3’s favor. It’s difficult to design a battle mechanic that produces an additional, unobtrusive layer without impeding the players that don’t care for it, but Mother 3 managed well enough.
You might laugh, but another annoyance of mine was small stalls for time. When anyone in your squad gains a new move, it disables your ability to run until you’ve walked off their fever. This is one design decision that I don’t understand much at all. Unlocking moves is dictated by character level anyways, so why not just give it to you automatically after a level up instead of wasting your time with running around in circles for half a minute?
EarthBound is considered a cult classic, and I can see why. The sense of humor, the clever fourth walls breaks, the escalating bizarrity, etc. My primary problem is that, as a game, EarthBound is lacking. I had to force myself to play for hours before reaching a point where the clunky, weird or outright bad features were weak enough to be overridden by other, better aspects. Mother 3 must’ve learned from its predecessor’s shortcomings, because it delivered a wholly superior experience in, well, every way I’ve described for the past few paragraphs.
In closing, though, I would like to be frank. I don’t think Mother was really a series for me. Even Mother 3, which I enjoyed far more than EarthBound, I wouldn’t consider even close to being one of my favorite games of all time. I guess in the end there’s no accounting for taste.
Nonetheless, don’t let any scathing remarks I’ve made here discourage you from trying these games out for yourselves, specifically EarthBound. Regardless of my final thoughts, it was undeniably a unique experience and does deserve a shot. Just, if you get all the way to Fourside and it’s still not doing it for you, at that point you can safely drop it and maybe try out Mother 3 instead. Who knows? You might be like me, and like it a hell of a lot more.