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Referring to Earthbound as a forgotten gem is a bit of a misnomer, as fans really haven’t forgotten about it at all. After all, demand for a remake or a re-release of this 1995 Super NES roleplaying game is immense. Mother 2, as it is known in Japan, is constantly at or near the top of Nintendo Power magazine’s list of the most-wanted titles on the Virtual Console.
Furthermore, two characters from the Earthbound / Mother series are playable characters in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and not only did the game receive a Game Boy Advance port, along with its predecessor, in Japan, but a third Mother title was also released on the GBA. Unfortunately, neither of those titles made it to the U.S. despite the best attempts of the game’s dedicated fan base. So it isn’t so much that Earthbound is a forgotten gem; rather, it seems to be the game that Nintendo hopes that all of us will forget about.
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One of the major things that differentiates Earthbound from other RPGs of the SNES era is the unique plot and setting of the game. Instead of some heroic fantasy knight wielding a huge broadsword, the player assumes the role of Ness, a fairly mild-mannered kid who lives in a typical modern-day suburban house and has a typical modern-day suburban family. When a spaceship crashes on a hill near his house, Ness grabs his trusty baseball bat and sets off to explore, fighting off enemies like stray dogs along the way. Ness has to call his dad to save his game, and eventually he sets off on a journey in which he has to face off against the likes of gang members and space aliens with the help of a psychic girl from a nearby town, a science geek who can attack with rockets, and a young prince / martial-arts expert. This clearly isn’t your average, ordinary, everyday roleplaying game, and that’s why fans love it.
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While the concept behind the game is unorthodox, the majority of the gameplay couldn’t be any more traditional. This is a standard, turn-based RPG through and through. Ness and his party have to fight enemies in random encounters, earn experience, level-up, purchase new equipment and so forth. Different characters have different preferred weapons and different special attacks, and while they are somewhat different from the norm due to the setting, at the core the game is essentially the same as old-school Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games in technical terms. On the whole, it is fairly average in this department, with one bright spot being that players will be awarded instant victories if they fight a creature that is significantly weaker than their party is at any give time. It’s a nice time saver that more games should implement.
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Graphics & Sound
Visually speaking, the game is lacking. At best, one could say that it definitely looks like an early Super Nintendo game, and at worst, one could say that it looks like a late NES title. In truth, the graphics are better than 8-bit games, but they really don’t take advantage of the SNES hardware like some of its SNES contemporaries like Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger. The music is suitably bouncy and catchy, and while Earthbound doesn’t have what one would call an epic soundtrack, it does fit well with the atmosphere of the title.
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There is a lot of fun to be had in Earthbound, but you have to be willing to put up with its decidedly old-school packaging to find it. It definitely will require players to grind levels, gaining enough power to face the challenges ahead and enough money to make sure that they can afford the latest equipment. Anyone who can accept those conditions will find themselves enjoying the game, thanks largely to the game’s writing and its offbeat sense of humor. Any game that has players combating new-age hippies and cultists obsessed with the color blue definitely stands out from among the crowd, and most gamers will definitely appreciate that. If you’re the kind of gamer who can appreciate the inherent wackiness of a game like Katamari Damacy, you will appreciate the style of writing found in Earthbound.
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The Mother series has been largely ignored in North America since Earthbound’s 1995, with Nintendo failing to provide fans with highly coveted remakes and sequels. Perhaps it is understandable, given the fact that the SNES title did not sell particularly well on this side of the ocean, but a whole new generation of gamers has been awakened to the series thanks to the inclusion of Ness and Mother 3 protagonist Lucas, as well as several other elements from the series, in Super Smash Bros. for the Wii. The good news is that Earthbound has been re-rated by the ESRB, and with luck it will be released on the U.S. Virtual Console sooner rather than later. At an estimated 800 points, this title would be a bargain for any fan of old-school roleplaying games, especially those to whom the unique concept and setting sounds appealing. Despite some flaws, Earthbound comes highly recommended.