|James: I've owned Earthbound for a really long time, and I've finished it a couple of times, but I've never really quite understood the appeal of it all. To me, Earthbound seems like an average RPG, except that its features, or lack thereof, make it feel almost like a step backwards for the genre. The idea is that you are Ness, a kid with amazing psychic abilities, and you're on a quest to save the world from an evil alien called Giygas. Like in most RPGs, you'll need to travel the world, solve riddles, recruit party members, buy lots of items and equipment, search dungeons, and fight many random battles along your way.
Now, I have a number of complaints with this game, but let's begin with the way the story is executed. It's supposed to be very weird and strange, and it certainly has its moments. Take Moonside, for example, a topsy-turvy town of neon lights and people who talk as though they're trying to give my old nonsense posts a run for their money. But I'm afraid I didn't find most of the "jokes" particularly funny (c'mon two fart jokes and a poop joke in one game??) The towns are so large and so full of people who tell you irrelevant things that it's easy to wander around aimlessly for hours, not knowing what to do, until you accidentally stumble upon the right thing (or resort to a FAQ or the Player's Guide that came with the game). Since solving most of the game's puzzles depends on acquiring an item and giving it to someone who wants it, it's very important to pay close attention to what people say. But with so many people telling you crap that's unimportant, it's easy to forget things! There is a hint man, but sometimes, his clues aren't very helpful.
I think one of the most fun aspects of RPGs is being able to form your own party and experiment with different characters and classes. That's the main reason I'm such a huge fan of Final Fantasy (the original NES game) and the Ogre Battle series. But in Earthbound, you only have four characters, and their abilities aren't all that distinct. For that matter, I think you play for far too long as just Ness. I also don't like that the battles are first-person perspective. I always prefer being able to see my characters actually performing their attack moves and spells. Yes, some could argue that that's just a graphical difference, but c'mon, it's an RPG! Part of the fun of a game that doesn't have you actually controlling any of the action should be in watching the action unfold. I agree that some of the spell effects are quite dazzling, but that's just not enough. And the inclusion of the vibrating backgrounds? To me, it just seems like laziness, as though the developers just simply didn't feel like drawing actual backgrounds. Judging from the way the rest of the game looks, it wouldn't surprise me if that was true. Yeah, the graphics have a unique style, I agree, but it's an ugly style. Graphics aren't everything, I know, but I think even Ogre Battle, at least in its battle scenes, looks better than this. Hell, the Breath of Fire games look better, and this game was released around the era of Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG.
So without a good story or graphics, what are we left with? The gameplay, of course, and I'm afraid I don't much care for what's here in that department, either. The dungeons are very simplistic mazes and they rarely have any puzzles. The battle system is like Dragon Warrior 2 with a few extra commands. You're supposed to be able to avoid fighting enemies by dodging around them, but it's usually impossible to avoid them. I'm sorry, but I just don't see what everyone else sees in this game.
|Junus: Well, maybe I can help you see what everyone else sees, James. I will say that this is not my top favorite RPG, but it is one that I like very much, and I'll be more than happy to counter some of your arguments. First of all, I know that you're a stickler for wanting to choose your own party in RPGs, so maybe arguing that point would be futile, but I'll do it, anyway. I don't think that's always necessary for a good RPG experience. Most of the times, gamers, including myself, will just choose the strongest characters, anyway (why handicap yourself?) And complaining that you don't have other characters to choose from sounds to me like you just want to recruit some ultra-powerful guy that will help you win every battle with ease, though that may not be the case with you, but I think it is sometimes the case with others when they use that argument. And, really, I think the characters in Earthbound are very distinct. Ness is good with both attack and magic (both healing and attack). Paula is not physically strong, but she has powerful attack magic (no healing spells, though.) Jeff doesn't use any magic, and he's weak physically, but only he can use some of the game's most powerful special weapons. Poo is kind of useless except for his Starstorm and healing powers, but I think that's because he arrives so late in the game and he's at LEVEL 1!! Geez! Of course, none of those abilities mean much if the battles don't force you to use them well, and I think Earthbound's battles do. Many enemies and bosses have shields that reflect attacks and/or spells, and you have to muster up the right strategy or risk wiping out your whole party with your own attacks. I also like how the rolldown HP meter adds tension to the battles.|
|James: Yes, I do think that the rolldown meter is one of the best features of the game, and perhaps the main reason I didn't end up totally despising Earthbound. The way this works is that when a character takes a hit, a certain amount of HP is taken off (as with all RPGs), but in Earthbound, the total amount isn't taken off all at once. Instead, a meter begins rapidly rolling down, giving you a chance to save someone from a mortal blow if you can heal them up before the meter runs down to 0. It can be really exciting trying to save everyone if 3 or all 4 of your characters have been mortally wounded. You have to think very quickly, on the fly, to have who heal who, to try to keep everyone alive in the battle. But other than that, there's nothing else really special about this battle system. Some of the abilities seem useless, like Poo's "Mirror" command. It hardly ever works, and when it does work, all it does is change Poo into one of the enemies and attack with that enemy's skills. What's the point? Enemies are rarely vulnerable to their own kinds of attacks. I'm also not too crazy about the way a lot of enemies in this game look. The actual designs aren't bad. I actually love those 3D models in the Player's Guide, but they just don't come across that nicely in the game.|
|Junus: Well, okay, we're on the subject of the game's graphics, and you don't seem to like them very much. Let's not forget that even you said that graphics aren't everything, and I agree, but what exactly is it that people think is so bad about Earthbound's graphics? They're a bit simplistic and they're not as pretty to look at as Super Mario RPG or Chrono Trigger, but they certainly have an offbeat style that seems so fitting to the game's theme. I wouldn't want this game to look like CT or SMRPG because it would just throw the tone way off. The vibrating backgrounds do take a bit to get used to, but I was allright with them. Really, why would you rather look at a closeup of a tree or a wall instead of that? There are millions of other RPGs where you can do that. And I agree that the spell effects, as you said, are spectacular.|
|James: Just because they wanted the game to look different, that doesn't mean it has to look so pale and lacking in details. I do have to admit that the style lends itself well to Moonside, but am I really supposed to find the Deep Darkness jungle as scary? Geez, it's just the same "tree" graphic from everywhere else in the game tiled a bunch of times. It doesn't emote a dark, scary jungle atmosphere at all. I did kind of like how your characters appear really tiny in the Lost Underworld so that the dinosaurs and everything else around you will look huge. But the price you pay for it is that your characters now walk twice as slowly as normal. Really, I just don't think this game looks all that good. And I know graphics aren't everything, but it detracts from the atmosphere and it's annoying when you're made to walk so slowly in favor of a graphic effect.|
|Junus: You can use a Skip Sandwich to speed up your characters' walking for awhile, if you don't like their normal speed.|
|James: I would use a Skip Sandwich except that your inventory can hold so little, it's not worth wasting space on an item that doesn't help you very much. And that inventory system is a bugger, another reason I don't like this game too much. Staying alive in this game is really tough, thanks to the oddball leveling-up system, and not being able to carry a lot of healing items makes it even worse.|
|Junus: Hey, that's the challenge of it, my friend. The reason you aren't given a whole heck of a lot of inventory space is so that you can't stock up on powerful healing items and just blow past everything. I sort of think the limited inventory problem is greatly exaggerated by some Earthbound critics. You learn healing spells early on, so why the heck do you even want to stock up a bunch of healing items? I hardly ever use healing items in RPGs once I learn spells.|
|James: Because you don't want to use up all of your MP on healing yourself. You'll want to save some to use for attack spells against the bosses. And what do you do once your MP runs out? That's another problem: This game offers very little for you to use to restore your MP!! I think only Water, Magic Truffles, and Magic Pudding restore MP, and you don't get any of those until later in the game!! So you either have to be really conservative or hope you run into a Magic Butterfly that can restore your MP.|
|Junus: Argh, well as you said, the dungeons aren't all that big, so if you're not getting through to the bosses with enough MP intact, I don't know what to tell you. And those butterflies usually do appear in the larger dungeons about halfway through. Going back to what you said about how you level up in this game...I really didn't find myself leveling up all that much. What is the problem that you had?|
|James: I hated that sometimes after you'd gain a level, you'd only get like 2 more max HP and nothing else. Or maybe one of your stats would raise by one point and that's it. WTF?! Is that what I get for my efforts?|
|Junus: I think it's done that way to discourage gamers from leveling up really high and toppling all the bosses and enemies with ease. And it eventually balances out, because you'll go up a level later on and receive a huge, bigger-than-normal, increase in one or more of your stats. The game just seems like it's trying to keep you from getting too powerful too early.|
|James: Well, you could be right, and again, I think's that one of the things that prevents me from hating the game entirely: The challenge is balanced rather well. That's one thing I like about Ogre Battle is that you're encouraged to stay the same level as the enemies so that you don't completely overpower them. Most times in Earthbound (unless I went back to an earlier area), I felt pretty much on equal terms with the enemies, but there were a few times when I felt very overpowered. For example, there's a part where you lose Paula for awhile, and you're left with Ness and Jeff. I was totally unprepared for this and I got stuck in the department store and, worse yet, Moonside for a long time. I was desperately trying to avoid enemies in these areas because they'd almost always kill Jeff in one hit and I'd run too low on healing items and magic (again, that damn inventory system!) But the difference between Earthbound and Ogre Battle, is that in OB if you WANT to play by leveling up and overpowering the enemies, you can. You can't do that in Earthbound at all.|
|Junus: True, but I think that's a good thing. Ogre Battle penalizes you for doing that. What penalty is there in a more traditional RPG for that? None. RPGs are an easy genre of games as it is.|
|James: Perhaps a level cap would've been a better idea, like in Super Mario RPG. What did you think of Earthbound's music and sound effects?|
|Junus: Well, you said in our last review that music and sound is the least important part of any game because you can always turn the volume off if you don't like them. Don't know if I really agree with that too much, because if game developers had that kind of attitude, we probably wouldn't have all the great video game music that we do. I would say that Earthbound's music is very fitting to its style and theme, but it's not one of the best game soundtracks ever. It's certainly not something I'd want to listen to on a CD, like Chrono Trigger's music, for example. But I do like how it usually fits with what's going on. I thought the five-note tune the Mani Mani Statue makes when you're close to it was very eerie.|
|James: I guess that's one area we can agree completely on. As game music, it's cute and fits the atmosphere. I liked the Runaway Five's "big band" numbers, the happy "strolling-about-town" themes, the Chuck Berry-inspired Retro Hippie battle music, and the Dungeon Man's theme, which is so bad it's really funny! I also liked some of the sound effects, like the opening and closing of doors, the footsteps on stairs, and the explosions. Yeah, that Mani Mani Statue's sound effect sent a chill down my spine. It's evil and malicious to its core, which brings me to another point I wanted to make: The Mani Mani Statue and Pokey upstage the game's main villain. Giygas is such a non-entity. You don't see him until the very end of the game, and when you do get there, he's somewhat disappointing.|
|Junus: Geez, he's the essence of pure evil, man! What else did you expect? I think the Mani Mani Statue is scarier, though, because we see much more of its influence. But without Giygas, there'd be no Pokey. Giygas's influence over the evil in Pokey's mind is what makes him do all those villainous deeds.|
|James: I'm not sure the game really makes that clear about Pokey. But then again, he always does stay one step ahead of Ness when it comes to finding Giygas, so I guess something had to be guiding him. He's certainly the kind of villain you love to hate because he's always taunting you and succeeds even in failure.|
|Junus: Yeah, he's like Gary from Pokemon. I guess I liked the story. I won't say it's great, but I love the ending. I like how you can walk around and talk to everyone after beating the final boss. You can go anywhere in the game, and not enough RPGs allow you to do that.|
|James: Yeah, that was a nice twist. It's also nice to see an RPG with a more modern setting. I like the medieval fantasy stuff as much as the next person, but I don't think every RPG should have to be like that. I just wish that Earthbound didn't take so long to get out of the towns and into the more exotic locales. By the time I got to the fourth town, I was really wanting to see something new.|
|Junus: Well, even when you're in the towns, you still visit caves, waterfalls, a graveyard, a desert, an evil factory, and that bizarre Saturn Valley. There's lots of variety. I liked the game's puzzles, too. I liked how you had to solve a situation before you could move onto the next part.|
|James: I liked that, too, but I don't think there are enough puzzles, and the ones that are there can be tough to solve simply because of the number of people who tell you irrelevant things. It's hard to tell when something is really a clue and who you should be talking to in order to advance the scenario. And, really, some things are way too abstract, like the part where you have to give that gem in Poo's inventory to someone and the bit with waiting behind the waterfall. I was searching forever for that password. Was I supposed to figure those out without resorting to the strategy guide?|
|Junus: The thing with Poo's gem was kind of cheap, I suppose, but one of the Mr. Saturn guys literally tells you what to do at the waterfall. I guess it stumps some gamers because it's not what you'd normally expect to do after being asked for a password. But that's just part of Earthbound's charm - You never quite know what to expect.|
|James: Well, I've finished Earthbound twice now, and I don't think I'm ever really going to want to play it again. Truthfully, I might be interested in a sequel if I hear that it's an improvement, because I think there is some good here. I just don't think this game is as good as my favorite RPGs, like Breath of Fire 2, Final Fantasy, and Ogre Battle. It's got some good challenging moments, an innovative roll-down meter, and some entertaining dialogue and characters. But other than that, I'm just not too sold on it. I give Earthbound 2 1/2 stars.|
|Junus: I've finished Earthbound twice, too. The only thing preventing me from wanting to replay it more often is its length. It's a long game, but it's well worth the trip. I give it 3 stars.|
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