Earthbound

And now for something completely different

The game uses a deliberately quirky isometric 3D view most of the time, getting the job done while paying little attention to realism or prettiness.

Earthbound is a strikingly modern game. It stands out amongst its peers with suburban settings, dialogue that would not be out of place in a school playground, and a rich ecology - inventive content prevails in everything from the equipment list to the enemy roster. It is clear within the first hours of play that this is not a game recycling the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons or Tolkien like so many other role playing games. Earthbound is something completely different.

And a Cleesian phrase is apt: inspiration here is taken from the slapstick gospels of Monty Python and the Goons. Playful, often juvenile dialogue it may be, but the quality of writing is unlike any other adventure RPG to grace the SNES. Absurd quips emerge from all angles with frequency - rarely failing to tease out a smile. Dragons make way for disillusioned hippies, Yo-yos are favoured over swords, and potions are replaced by pizzas.

Itoi's classic is culturally aware as well, contributing decisively to the mature and contemporary experience. There are references to the Beatles, homages to the Roswell conspiracy, and more toilet humour than even Wario could shake a stick at. It is generally delivered tastefully, innocently, and the accumulated effect is one of quality storytelling. The whole experience is - to use a word one could imagine the game's writers and translation team adopting - bonkers.

As a narrative or artistic work it is a stand-out piece in any forum: dense, consistently emotive prose that far eclipses other mid-nineties games in this genre. It is a game to be played at leisure and enjoyed - distractions are plentiful and as intoxicating as the main story thread.

Out of the blue

Absurd comments like this pop up throughout the game. Ye olde RPG this is not!Quirkiness aside, Earthbound is a solid RPG with a good sized Universe to roam and plenty to divert your attention In this town - one of the few genuinely aesthetically pleasing areas - this NPC reminds us that the odd middle-earth character can never be completely absent from even a modern RPG. Given one chance to sum up this game in the form of a picture, this would be a strong candidate. Note that the protagonist in this instance is called 'Poo'.

Earthbound seemingly came into being spontaneously: there being neither an outspoken demand for this niche of humour in a video game nor precedent for its suburban, middle America background. Pushed for a spiritual predecessor, one might observe that the erratic event-driven gameplay in Earthbound bears similarities to Sierra’s ‘Leisure Suit Larry'. It too broke from the supernatural content already well rehearsed in titles like ‘King’s Quest’, and replaced the usual ‘save the princess’ goal with one that required the protagonist to do nothing more righteous than to lose his virginity. This is, of course, far from a like-for-like comparison - Nintendo’s subject boasts a stronger game engine and infinitely more charm, for a start - but one cannot overemphasise how unexpected a departure this is from traditional themes.

Further contextualisation is difficult. There is nothing else like Earthbound. Zelda gets all kinds of subtle nods: there are helper monkeys, guards that limit access as the player becomes familiar with the immediate surroundings, places to get hints, eight dungeon masters ahead of the finale, and other subtleties that betray the supervisory role one Miyamoto San played in the creation of this title.

Back to basics

But despite the clever veneer and deft Nintendo touches, Earthbound is an understated role playing game at its heart. No class system exists and no party management is required. There is a run-of-the-mill levelling up system amongst other no-frills RPG staples. The fact that one recovers health with cheeseburgers and jerkies adds charm, but changes little mechanically.

Refreshingly – the game allows the player to keep their experience points even after they die in battle. This is balanced by the currency they have on them at the time of defeat being cut in half, but time spent stat building up to that point need never be repeated. The clever item storage facilities and automated bank telling machines add a cute dimension to the otherwise standard level building, and certainly makes losing more forgiving than most games of this ilk.

Beyond the stripped down combat system there are plenty of other instances where Ape have excelled in making the simple things beautiful. Examples include an automatic fighting option that is available throughout every battle. It not only features competent AI, but is also useful as a tutorial on how to use newly acquired skills and items. Once selected, the player can simply sit back and watch the action unfold. Of equal use are the item descriptions. Like so much in Earthbound these prove not only to be functional, but also contribute in no small way to the unmistakably zany writing style.

The back-to-basics implementation of the RPG elements is refreshing, and befitting of an adventure that never takes itself too seriously. The traditional fighting mechanics and character development systems fit in well with the rest of the package. Perhaps the fittest tribute would emerge shortly after the release of this game when the first GameBoy Pokemon instalments would fragrantly borrow so much from this title: including the iconic baseball cap, item storage capacity, bike, suburban setting and mobile phone. While Earthbound cannot compare in the innovation stakes with that series' combat system, it is telling that so much else has found its way across.

Unpolished Diamond

Detail where it matters: in an otherwise bland and stereotypcal environment for this type of game, care is taken to childishly draw a mustache on the sphynx (lest we take Earthbound too seriously!). Similarities with Zelda pop up from time to time. A welcome homage to another superb Nintendo RPG.

There are faults. The mandatory stream of text ahead of each save accounts for one of the few significant grievances in Earthbound. This phase cannot be bypassed and too much repetitive nonsense is spouted before one finally gets round to committing the save. Given the immaculate pacing of the textual content delivery through most of the game, these unwanted breaks in proceedings seem wholly unnecessary, disrupting the immersion and harbouring frustration.

Adding to the small list of problems is the omission of a run button. Traversing the sizeable game world by foot is somewhat laborious once the track becomes well-worn. Transportation skills learned late on in the journey go some way to appeasing this.

The existence of these issues are - quite simply - tolerable given that this is an experience where the good out-weighs the bad many times over. Furthermore, this is a title where the occasional lack of polish often adds to the character, and one need only glance at some of the bland screenshots on this page to realise that this is an all-too-rare victory for content over style.

The propulsion of the plot through bizarre characters and events may be the most commonly heralded hallmark of Earthbound, but even players who somehow fail to be touched by this will find competence and innovation in many other places before the credits roll. Earthbound sits comfortably with the Zeldas, Terranigmas, and Tales of Phantasias as a core part of golden era SNES adventure RPGs. Open planned, rich with diversions, and - as a way of storytelling in 16 bit games - peerless.

November 2008