Review by Xenon
Archaic and Grindy but the roots of the franchise's charm are still there.
When Earthbound reached US shores in 1995, I knew nothing about it. It was weird, came in a big box, and was expensive. I thought about buying it one time when it was discounted, but my money was precious and I didn’t know enough (and I wouldn’t discover the RPG genre until a year later).
What I definitely didn’t know I wouldn’t until over a decade later is that Earthbound was a sequel. Called Mother 2 in its native Japan, Earthbound was actually a sequel to the obviously named Mother, an NES RPG originally released in 1989 in Japan and never seen westward. Given Earthbound’s tepid reception and Mother’s original skipping, it was no surprise when Mother 3, a GBA sequel, was skipped. Fans wailed and begged, but nothing happened and fans were forced to rely on fan translations.
Until E3 2015, that is, when seeking to inject some excitement into the failing Wii U (or perhaps just throw fans a bone), Nintendo followed up the Virtual Console release of Earthbound on Wii U with a newly translated version of Mother for the Wii U Virtual Console. Called Earthbound Beginnings, it was 26 years late, but I snapped it up immediately, curious to see this series beginnings (pun intended). But should you do the same? Only if you’re a hardcore fan.
Earthbound Beginnings is, in many ways, a very traditional RPG for its era. Battles are round based with only the enemies visible on a black screen. There’s an info box up top where the "action" is explained and an info box at bottom where your party’s status is displayed. If you’ve played any of the NES Dragon Quest games, you know what to expect. You have a party of up to three at any time, and while there is a fourth party member that will replace one of your three for a short period of time, for the most part you only have three characters to use. Characters level up with experience and 2 of the character learn new abilities as they level up.
But what made Earthbound Beginnings interesting to begin with was what was different. Unlike its contemporaries (and most of the genre to this day), Earthbound Beginnings is not set in a fantasy kingdom or a galaxy far away, but in modern day "America", or a weird Japanese parody thereof. The main character, Ninten, is just a normal boy who lives with his Mom and sisters and whose Dad is never home but always a phone call away. Saving is done by calling Dad on the telephone, and dear old dad will deposit your allowance into the bank that you’ll get with your ATM Card from one of the numerous ATMs spread throughout the land. Your enemies are not Orcs or Wizards but Farmers in a bad mood, Cars gone wild, and of course the occasional Alien invader. It’s this setting that gives Earthbound Beginnings its charm and sets it apart, even these decades later. There still just aren’t that many RPGs set in modern times, and because of that Earthbound Beginnings is still a bit refreshing to this day.
Unfortunately, the rudimentary nature of the game does catch up to it at this point. While unique in many ways, it still remains a game of its time. The quest is short and straight forward but with large difficulty spikes that will require grinding to get through. There’s little in the way of equipment and nothing in the way of customization. Ninten and Ana learn the Psychic powers (EB’s version of spells) that the game says when the game says, and Lloyd never learns any at all. That fourth party member joins at a certain point and leaves at another certain point, and that’s all out of your control. Battles can be slow and drag, even simple ones, and the game will occasionally seem to just kill you with little pity or warning. As is normal for the time, you also have little direction as to what to do. Talking to people in town will reference other people that you might look into, but where they are and what order you’re expected to do things is just up to guesswork. Sometimes you just have to go the direction you haven’t gone before, hope you noticed there was a path that way.
The nontraditional quest structure also causes a unique stumble. You can’t just get to the last dungeon and fight the last boss, doing so will result in failure. Instead, you must search out pieces of a song that you’ll need for the last boss. The game does a poor job directing you to either where you can get those pieces or that you need them at all, and if you realize late it’s a long slog to find the one or multiple pieces that you missed.
Overall Earthbound Beginnings was a fun 20 or so hours for me as a hardcore and fairly starved RPG fan. It’s a nice bonus for Wii U owners looking for things to play. But it’s short (for the genre), archaic, and very grindy. If you can handle its flaws, it’s a fun look into what would become a cult franchise, but you may be better served just skipping the original and moving on to its long available sequel.
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: EarthBound Beginnings (US, 06/14/15)
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