Ever since joining The Backloggery, I’ve almost exclusively been playing new games and games I never finished, rather than the old favorites I know inside-out and would replay every year or two. I’ll make exceptions now for the occasional Mega Man marathon or END DAY celebration, but the bulk of my gaming these days consists of the challenging and unfamiliar. Why have guaranteed fun when you can have possible fun instead?
When, over the span of about a week, the cult classic SNES RPG EarthBound marched back into my life in a big way—coming up randomly in conversation and social media posts, continually popping up on my Winamp playlist, appearing in fan art I accidentally stumbled on, being discussed on multiple websites; heck, EarthBound might as well have been in my kitchen washing my dishes all week—I took that as a sign that I should finally eject The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse from my Super Nintendo. I needed a break from all these tedious and frustrating new and unfinished games, which were adding to my growing stress level from lots of Life Stuff going on; this was exactly the right time for a game I knew how to play and knew I’d enjoy. I dusted off my EarthBound cartridge, popped it in…and braced myself for the worst.
Nostalgia has a way of coloring our view of games, and it had been several years since I last played EarthBound—since before I started reviewing games with a critical eye, as I recall. I had recently played the English translation of Mother (EarthBound Zero in this case) for the Famicom, which had left such a sour taste in my mouth that EarthBound (Mother 2 in Japan) felt tainted by association, despite all the fond memories I had. I was fully prepared to be disheartened and disappointed by the rampant shortcomings and problems I had surely overlooked the first billion times I’d played the game.
It took only seconds. I switched the game on, got to the part of the pre-title-screen intro where the “WAR ON GIYGAS!” headline fuzzes into existence…and suddenly, I was 10 years old again, everything was amazing, and unicorns were real. I probably don’t need to extol the virtues of EarthBound to you—there are plenty of other places to find a proper review, including on this very website—but even the implacable critic in me was pleasantly surprised by the superb learning curve, the number of concessions made in favor of the player, and the absolutely unnecessary little touches that make the game so charming. If you haven’t played the game yet, or at least watched Paul Franzen’s video playthrough of EarthBound (from which I’ve borrowed all the images for this post), do so now, because I’m about to spoil a bunch of things. I’ll wait.
Well, I’ve waited three minutes, behind a waterfall, no less. That’s usually long enough.
Inventory management was still a hassle, but in a way, the limited space you have forces you to strategize when outfitting your party, which ultimately allows for more interesting and varied battles. I still don’t like mucking about (literally and figuratively) in the swamp in Deep Darkness, but that’s because I don’t like swamps and jungles and huge piles of upchuck attacking me, not because it’s poorly designed. The laughs weren’t always as gut-busting as I remembered them, but they still elicited at least a small chuckle after two decades or so, and that’s impressive. I hardly thought about how much of the soundtrack was recycled from Mother—the sound quality is so different that it feels far more like an upgrade than a rehash. If anything, EarthBound was better than I remembered it. Analyzing the things I once took for granted led me to a greater appreciation of how good a job the developers did in every single aspect of the game.
To justify replaying a full-length RPG I’d already marked as Completed on my Backloggery, I decided to push myself and go for Mastered status—in this case, my personal mastery challenge was to clear the game without a single Game Over. This was very doable: I knew the streets of Onett well enough to keep myself safe in the beginning. I remembered to carry some extra cash for the vendor on the way to Saturn Valley. I was sure to remove the Franklin Badge and other key items from people’s inventories before they left my party at various points in the game. I had a fair recollection of which enemies have reflective shields, explode when defeated, and otherwise require special tactics to fight responsibly. I kept an Exit Mouse on retainer at all times. With a little extra leveling (mostly beating up on the dungeon enemies who, in fear and awe of my power, fled from me after defeating a Your Sanctuary location guardian), a perfect run was in the bag.
To help keep the experience fresh after so many times through the game, I challenged myself to live dangerously, saving only at the end of a playing session, and after any serious exploration or inventory management that I’d hate to redo if the game suddenly froze or lost power. I made it a point to try out each and every one of my PSI powers at least once or twice. I made an honest attempt to carry Insecticide Spray and other novelty offense/support items, and to use condiments such as ketchup and salt packets to boost the recovery power of my food items—an interesting, but not altogether useful, endeavor that highlighted the need for effective inventory management.
Despite their low rate of connecting with a target, I took a chance on equipping and sticking with yo-yos, slingshots, and the fabled Casey Bat, and found I was right to avoid them all these years—the unpredictable nature of these weapons threw off my strategy and made battles longer than necessary, and sporadic SMAAAASH hits that would bring the battles abruptly to a close. Even though I knew exactly where to go next, I frequented the Hint Shop, and I periodically returned to sleep at hotels I’d long since left behind (reading the local newspapers in the morning) to see whether there were any bits of amusing dialogue I may have missed in all my previous playthroughs. That’s where the laughs came in. (Morning newspaper from Hotel Onett: “Local survey shows most popular career among kids in Onett is adventurer.”)
Perhaps my favorite way of keeping the game fresh was switching up the names I got to enter for various people and things. I started off with the familiar defaults: Ness, Paula, and Jeff were my first three permanent party members. But Poo? Who names their child Poo? He could be Kato, another default if you continue cycling through the options. The dog abdicated his title of King and became Rover instead, another of the default options. Small changes; these characters were firmly engrained in my memory, and I wasn’t quite ready to give them a complete overhaul.
But then I got ridiculous. The “favorite thing” that would become my strongest psychic attack was PSI CAAAT!; My wife and I have a habit of shouting, “CAAAT!” whenever we see a cat in a TV show or movie, residual from watching the anime Trigun and trying to spot the cameo made by the black cat in basically every episode. Ness’s favorite food was not steak, not pasta, but gruel (lowercase “g”, so it flowed better when the NPCs used it in a sentence), narrowly winning out over “babies” because that would be horrible. (“Pokey, you don’t like babies, do you? T O O BAD!”) It’s difficult to overstate how much more interesting the game was on my umpteenth playthrough by choosing something other than King, Pizza, Gaming, and Poo for the name of my friend, the name of my dog, my favorite thing, and my favorite food, not necessarily in that order.
Deliberately playing the game differently than usual led me to some unexpected discoveries. Did you know that the secret treehouse in Onett locks its door when the town is under attack, even though it doesn’t have a door? Or that—unlike in practically every RPG ever—several bosses are susceptible to poison, sleep, and confusion? Or that the Tiny Li’l Ghost, which possesses you and normally has to be exorcised by a blue-haired healer or PSI Healing, actually has about 100 HP and can be killed by enemy PSI powers that target everyone?
Hour after hour, EarthBound was the fun experience I remembered it to be, and more. There were some tense moments—in large part because I kept taking a chance on powers, items, and strategies I’d wisely written off long ago—but I prevailed time and again thanks to good preparation, quick thinking, and probably more luck than I realized. By the time I got to Fire Spring, the final Your Sanctuary location, I was rich enough to discard items with no regard for their sale value, and blow as much money as I wanted on anything I wanted. I was powerful enough to decimate practically any enemy in one or two turns, and I was able to sustain myself almost indefinitely by strategically alternating Kato between PSI Lifeup and PSI Magnet, effectively giving the party an infinite supply of HP. There were no more negative consequences for spending too much, wandering too far, or battling too sloppily. I was invincible.
This sounds like the part of the story where you’d expect me to say something like, “Then, disaster struck.” Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I was invincible.
After Fire Spring, Ness is taken away from the party and enters the whimsical realm of Magicant. The battles here are a harsh reminder of how much you’ve come to rely on your other party members and their inventory space, and it’s critical to remember everything you have at your disposal and ration your items and PP carefully. With a Flying Man at my side—a manifestation of Ness’s courage in this world inside his mind—I was able to survive my first few scuffles, but I would’ve been dead three times over without him. Delegating most of the PSI use to Kato (and Paula, who also learns PSI Magnet) got me out of the habit of having Ness do much of anything other than alliteratively bash baddies with a baseball bat. All the Magic Pudding in the world wouldn’t change my conservative playstyle; Ness’s psychic powers were for emergencies and boss battles only. I should’ve gotten the hint when every battle deteriorated into an emergency after two or three rounds.
Thanks to the lightning-deflecting Franklin Badge, which I remembered to add to Ness’s stuff before reaching Magicant, Electro Swoosh enemies were pushovers, and even a terrifying Kraken was, at best, somewhat harder than average. Mr. Molecule usually didn’t survive long enough to become a problem, and the French Kiss of Death was more of a nuisance than anything. Most of the enemies weren’t in a position to induce any kind of emergency. Except the Loaded Dice. When an enemy does nothing but call for help every turn, things get ugly quickly. I don’t recall exactly who all was invited to the party, but PSI CAAAT! became a liability when an Uncontrollable Sphere showed up. Let it live, and it pelts you with nasty PSI. Destroy it, and it blows up in your face for excessive damage—which is exactly what ended up happening, a calculated risk that just barely paid off. I limped away from that battle with my HP down in the double digits, but at least I was alive. My perfect streak remained intact.
Now is the part of the story where I say something like, “Then, disaster struck.”
The next battle was against—the grammarian in me cringes—a Loaded
Die Dice that summoned three, maybe even four Care Free Bombs, at least two of whom bypassed throwing their regular Bombs entirely and tossed Super Bombs at me. I stepped up my game and pulled out the big guns when things started to look grim, but by then, it was already too late.
I can normally catch a party member before they drop to 0 HP when I’ve got a full party to work with, but there were simply too many enemies taking their turns for me to have a chance. Ness got hurt and collapsed. My pride went with him. I stared at the Game Over screen for such a long time that my wife eventually remarked, “Are you going to keep playing or not!?” My perfect game was over. No Mastered status this time. Ness was dead inside his own mind, and my sloppy cockiness had killed him.
This is the part of the story where I wonder whether “sloppy cockiness” is the best choice of words.
Partially blaming myself, partially cursing the bad luck of fighting that many Care Free Bombs throwing that many Super Bombs, I reentered the fray with all the fierceness you’d expect from a boy in pajamas fighting disembodied lips for the right to live. I had a zero-tolerance policy for Loaded Dice. I snarfed down Magic Pudding like a champ. I used the “see your foes before you fight them” mechanic to my advantage and scrolled as many enemies off the screen as possible. I was going to win this one. Mastered status may have been out of reach, but my reputation as a gamer could still be repaired. I dove into the Sea of Eden, smacked a Kraken, and beelined for the boss of the area.
The confrontation with Ness’s Nightmare was a long, hard-fought battle—and I was fighting well, too—and then a cheap shot leveled me. And not in the good way, which makes this a confusing use of the word “leveled” in a post about an RPG. The boss killed me instantly with…too much light. Look, I don’t leave my house often, but I’m not that sensitive to light. I was infuriated. I had wasted a coveted Magic Truffle on this fight! I was ready to throw my controller at one of my all-time favorite games. I might not like a total party kill, but I accept my failures at least grudgingly when I should’ve prepared better or fought better. The first Game Over was rough, but manageable. This Game Over was unfair, and it broke me. I brought my best, and my best wasn’t good enough. I was a massive failure.
The road to recovery was a long one. I emerged from Magicant on my third try as a husk of the confident gamer I once was. I struggled with the next several battles, which felt incongruously difficult compared with what I’d faced up until Ness’s solo excursion. Knowing what the path to the endgame was like, I delayed completing the game for a week or two, unable to cope with the stress of thoroughly preparing my party for the point of no return.
When I finally did suit up for the final battle, it was because I had nowhere else to turn. In my free time, I was doing a lot of writing that was enjoyable, but that strenuously brought out the worst of my perfectionism. The only other games I had going were King’s Quest VI, where I was trying to reach the ending without a walkthrough, and Mega Man Battle Network 3: White, which had devolved into one big cycle of tedious backtracking. Once again, I needed something relaxing and reliable to help me unwind, and with so many side projects going at the time, it would be good to finish something for a change. I set aside three hours to attack the finale and then fully explore the post-game section. That might sound like an overestimate, but I ended up going only 20 minutes or so over what I budgeted. At least I still knew some things about playing the game; perhaps I wasn’t the shameful failure I’d pegged myself as.
I prepared well. I fought well. I restored some semblance of honor to my name. I even wandered around unnecessarily in the penultimate room of the game in search of a Bionic Kraken to fight, because no endgame scenario is complete without a superficially science-fictiony fire-breathing sea beast roaming around on land. And when I arrived at last at the final boss, I remembered enough about the battle to survive, but not quite enough to avoid some thrillingly close calls that gave me a chance to bust out some of the contingency plans I had lined up. EarthBound was fun again, and that dark blemish on my record was already looking a bit smaller than I recalled.
Perhaps the best part of this was the fruition of my clever experiment with entering a name for myself—me, the person holding the controller. In the end, when the entire world is praying for the safety of Ness and his friends in a touching montage between rounds of combat, you get to see your very own name onscreen as one of the people invested in the party’s well-being. Assuming you enter your own name. I created a charming existential crisis as Giygas prayed for the success of Ness and his friends against…um, Giygas.
Victory, at last. Thanks for the assist, Giy.
EarthBound has the longest dénouement out of any game I’ve played, and I milked it for all it was worth. With the great evil defeated and all the stray dogs and whirling robots and drunk old men off the streets, the world is at peace. You are given free reign to revisit everywhere in the game to see the impact your heroism has had on the world. I normally teleport to each of the major locations and say hello to the people there, but this time I wanted to be thorough beyond thorough. I was a dimwit and forgot to visit Onett Town Hall and the Sky Runner enthusiasts who “painted over all the damaged parts”, but at least I’d seen them in previous playthroughs.
I hiked back to Happy Happy Village, noting that half the villagers had now been brainwashed into saying the same bit of dialogue, and discovering a photo opportunity I’d missed before. I trekked across the desert, through the pyramid, and into the heart of Dungeon Man to see if dungeon designer Brick Road had anything clever to say (he didn’t, but it was worth a shot, and I picked up a Wet Towel I didn’t have room for before). Naturally, it took me a week to bring Paula home to her family because we had to stay overnight in every hotel in the world. For the morning newspaper. (“Terrible sound recently heard. Possibly the sound of evil being destroyed beyond our time and space.”)
Lastly, I decided to put the game’s polish and player-friendliness to the test. With no more enemies to fight, there was a finite amount of money in the world. Run out of cash, and you can’t rest at a hotel to recover your HP and PP. Run out of PP, and you can’t teleport back home from such far-flung places as Winters to be able to end the game. Was it possible to run out of money and items and dead-end the game, or even get yourself killed somehow, after beating the final boss?
Result: Yes, I think it is. But you have to want it. The swamp in Deep Darkness doesn’t suck away your HP anymore, and every location to which you can teleport has at least one source of free HP/PP recovery within walking distance. Dungeon Man has benches. The Tessie-Watching Club invites you to have stew. The Lost Underworld has recovery geysers. The Magic Cake lady in Summers gives away free samples—and that’s where you can get yourself stuck. You’d have to load up Ness’s inventory before the final dungeon with every plot-critical item that cannot be dropped—e.g. the Bad Key Machine, the Franklin Badge, the Backstage Pass—so that there was no way to make space for that vital PP-recovering morsel. Teleport a few times too many, and you’re stuck in Summers forever. Which, all things considered, is not such a bad way to go.
So, if you ever get a hankering to replay one of your absolute favoritest games, I might recommend going in with a little bit of humility, and a whole lot of silliness. If EarthBound is any indication, it might even be even better than you remember it.