EarthBound Beginnings Review

EarthBound Beginnings

It’s been a long time coming. Mother – the predecessor of beloved cult classic Earthbound – was released on the NES in Japan back in 1989. It was intended to make its way to the rest of the gaming world, but due to the rise of the 16-bit generation, the game’s (finished) English translation went unreleased, as Mother wasn’t an immediate success even in Japan. Its Super NES sequel would create a cult following unlike any other in the world of video games, and for over two decades fans have waited (often hopelessly, or so it would seem) for Nintendo to give the original an official worldwide release. And now, after all this time, we finally have just that. Mother has been revived under the new English title of EarthBound Beginnings through the Wii U’s Virtual Console! But does it live up to its almost mythical reputation?

On the surface, EarthBound Beginnings is a tried and true, old school RPG. Players traverse an overworld where they encounter various locations and meet many characters as they progress through the plot, while a traditional, Dragon Quest-style battle system provides the action. What sets EarthBound Beginnings apart from other RPGs is its personality.

EarthBound BeginningsWhereas most RPGs of its day (and today, for that matter) boast traditional fantasy or sci-fi settings, EarthBound Beginnings is set in a contemporary American-esque backdrop. Swords give way to baseball bats, potions are replaced with hamburgers, and filling the roles usually reserved for orcs and goblins are hippies and bag ladies.

The world of EarthBound Beginnings is funny and charming, complimented by fun character designs (the main cast resemble Charlie Brown and company from Peanuts). Though some of the visuals show their age, the game’s personality shines through its technical limitations. Better still, the soundtrack is one of the most versatile in the NES library, with the overworld tracks ranging from upbeat and catchy  to melancholic and somber. The battle themes are similarly versatile, with riffs on rock and roll and more psychedelic inspirations accompanying appropriate enemy types. The music never quite reaches the heights of its successor, but it’s a standout NES track nonetheless.

But what of the gameplay? It’s here that EarthBound Beginnings, while mostly solid, can sometimes show the effects of both age and a lack of polish. The core gameplay itself is a fun enough RPG, and although it’s obviously retro, the simplistic battles grow on you the more you play it.

EarthBound BeginningsThe trouble is these battles occur in the form of the most poorly-aged of all RPG conventions: random encounters. These random battles happen at an annoyingly frequent rate, and often when you just want to get from one place to the next you find the trip takes considerably longer than it should because of the amount of random battles you’re bombarded with.

What’s worse is that you’ll still run into weaker enemies once you’re strong enough to make the rewards they give you not worth the time. You have the option to run away, but it only works so often, and when it doesn’t it just drags the battle on that much longer. EarthBound would later fix these problems by removing the random aspects from battles and having weaker enemies either run away or being instantly defeated upon contact.

Another problem arises in the game’s difficulty. There are various points in the game where the challenge takes a steep difficulty curve. Even in earlier portions you’ll find yourself running into enemies that are well beyond your level. This, of course, means that you are often required to level grind for large chunks of time before you can progress further. Grinding isn’t a problem in RPGs when it’s optional, but when the player feels forced to take extended periods of time to level up just so they can continue the story, it really breaks the flow of things.

If you’re used to the more refined EarthBound, then going back to EarthBound Beginnings can feel like a big step backwards in these regards.

EarthBound BeginningsThe narrative serves as another highlight overall, but it too is hampered by some underdeveloped aspects. The plot itself is simple, as an evil alien presence is creating a dark influence in the world. People and animals are acting strangely, robots are invading towns, and inanimate objects are coming to life and attacking people. It’s up to a young boy named Ninten (or whatever the player chooses to name him) to save the day. The plot is simple enough, but builds into something more profound, with the ending in particular being emotional in a way that’s rare to find even in today’s games, making it a piece of gaming narrative that was ahead of its time and then some.

On his travels, Ninten is joined by a young girl named Ana who, like Ninten, can use psychic powers in battle. A geeky boy named Lloyd, who makes up for his lack of supernatural abilities with his knowledge of fire crackers and laser beams, is the first mainstay partner Ninten encounters. Finally there’s Teddy, the leader of a local gang who uses more traditional video game weapons.

The game doesn’t include extensive moments of character development, but the moments it does have can be genuinely touching. Ana, Lloyd and even silent protagonist Ninten all leave their mark. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Teddy, who ends up only joining the party temporarily, leaving you to wonder why he was added to the game to begin with.

As stated, the story itself was ahead of its time in some ways. Sadly, the progression of  that story isn’t always consistent, and sometimes it can be downright cryptic where you’re supposed to go next. I had to resort to online walkthroughs for much of the game, often because I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go.EarthBound Beginnings

Still, the game has enough novel ideas to keep players engaged even in its confusing moments. Having Ninten calling his largely-absent father in order to save is a nice touch, and the dialogue of just about every character you encounter further displays the game’s uniqueness, with NPCs saying things both trivial and contemplative. Rarely do they just point out the obvious goings-on with the plot.

When EarthBound Beginnings works, it’s a roaring success. The more dated elements do prevent it from reaching the same heights of its sequel that we’ve grown to cherish, but the simple fact remains that there are so few games that feel like this. Its personality, sense of humor and sentiment create a unique experience out of a tried and true foundation.

Mother was a unique oddity in its day, and its reputation has turned it into something of a legendary treasure. Today, EarthBound Beginnings feels like that treasure has been unearthed. It doesn’t always shine brightly, and may be a bit rusty. But in its own way, it’s a treasure nonetheless.

 

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Author: themancalledscott

Born of cold and winter air and mountain rain combining, the man called Scott is an ancient sorcerer from a long-forgotten realm. He’s more machine now than man, twisted and evil. Or, you know, he could just be some guy who loves video games, animations and cinema who just wanted to write about such things.

5 thoughts on “EarthBound Beginnings Review”

  1. Awesome review. I am glad to see that, despite its flaws, Earthbound Beginnings is a fun game.

    Given it is the only game of the series I have not finished, I should try it eventually.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was disappointed with the boss battles in this game. I think it was a mistake to make roughly half of them unwinnable through normal means (I’m referring to the giant robots). It just seems to make the process of leveling up the characters pointless in hindsight. I remember saving Lloyd’s bottle rockets, thinking that there would be a boss to use them on only for it to turn out that there’s a better character available for the toughest boss and the final boss can’t be hurt by them.

    Also, as you said, the story is such a non-presence that I’m not sure how people are supposed to beat this game without a guide. Some of things you have to do in order to progress aren’t even remotely hinted at.

    It was a good game for its time; Mr. Itoi sought to tie the story into gameplay in ways that were remarkably forward-looking and novel. However, I liken Earthbound Beginnings to the original Metroid in that both games are considered classics, but ultimately feel like prototypes to their respective SNES sequels. They’re possibly worth playing at least once, but very difficult to get into from a modern perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t believe I failed to mention the boss battles in my review (for whatever reason, writing this particular review took me way longer than usual, perhaps my brain just burned out?). That was also a big drawback for me. I’ve always loved boss fights, so the fact that most of the boss encounters in EBB felt more like scripted events was a big bummer.

      The first couple of “bosses” (Starman Jr., The Fish, Starman) didn’t feel discernible from regular enemies. And all three of the robots were either automatic victories, losses or draws. I’m alright with Giegue working differently, since he’s the final boss and it’s actually well done. But I feel like the Dragon was the only “real” boss fight in the game.

      Comparing it to Metroid is very fitting. Both paved a lot of new ground, but ultimately felt like visions that wouldn’t be fully fulfilled until their SNES sequels.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It doesn’t help that you fight the Starman Jr. and the Fish before you even have party members other than Ninten, making the fights a matter of just trading shots. Also, I think you can avoid the Starman altogether (even if you can’t, it feels more like a scripted encounter than it does an actual boss), so you are entirely right; the Dragon is the only legitimate boss in this game.

        As unconventional as it is, the final boss was brilliant. It still involves doing damage to him, but not in the way one would think.

        Actually, was Mt. Itoi (the final area) exceedingly difficult in the version you played? It was in the original; I just ran from all of the fights after I reached the plateau. Apparently, the reason it was so hard was because development was extremely rushed at that point, ergo, no extensive playtesting. It shows – two of the melodies are found in the final area within a few minutes of each other.

        Funnily enough, when I wrote a review of this game, I found myself taking a long time as well. I think it might have something to do with the fact that as interesting as it is, Earthbound Beginnings doesn’t offer a lot of material to work with, at least not without spoiling the end of the game, which I would go as far as saying is the only good thing about it.

        Liked by 1 person

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