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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EarthBound Beginnings Impressions

*Note: The following are just brief impressions about EarthBound Beginnings based on a couple of hours of gameplay. I’ll write a full review once I delve deep enough into the game.*

EarthBound Beginnings

After a twenty-five year delay, the original entry in the Mother series has finally made its way stateside under the title “EarthBound Beginnings.” After two and a half decades of demanding an international release, EarthBound fans finally had their wishes come true through the Wii U Virtual Console.

The first thing I noticed with EarthBound Beginnings is its surprisingly somber tone. Its opening music sounds melancholic, and some backstory-filled opening dialogue give the idea that a tragic mystery is about to be unearthed. Of course, it doesn’t take long for the game’s sense of humor to kick in, as the player is almost immediately attacked by a lamp of all things.

I love the game’s juxtaposition of sadness and goofy humor. The series is often noted for its contradicting heart and humor, and its very apparent early on that the original game started this unique trend.

I find myself enjoying the story moments and overall tone so far, but I have to admit some aspects of the game do show their age, even with my currently brief playtime.

First and foremost are the random battles. That most aged of all RPG conventions rears its ugly head in a bad way. You’ll often find you wrap up with one battle, only to immediately find yourself in another after a step or two. As you level up and grow stronger, you’ll still run into weaker enemies within these random battles, which grant decreasing rewards for your efforts. The option to run from these battles is there, but rarely seems to work. And every time the run option fails, it leaves you more vulnerable to attacks.

EarthBound BeginningsThe sequel, EarthBound, would fix both of these problems by having enemies appear onscreen, removing the random aspect from the equation, and by having weaker enemies run away from you once you’ve leveled up. You could even defeat some of the weaker enemies just by running into them once you grew strong enough. I know Beginnings is the first game in the series, but after being accustomed to EarthBound, it’s actually a little harder to jump into EarthBound Beginnings.

Another problem I’ve ran into is a strange difficulty curve. I’ll be fighting enemies that put up a decent challenge or weaker enemies one minute, then after walking a few more feet I run into an enemy that kills me in a few short hits. In one instance, I tried talking to an NPC who didn’t look any different from the other townspeople, only for him to turn out to be a zombie that took me out in two turns. Things like this have made the game notably difficult even in its first few hours, and when you’re just trying to get accustomed to the game it can get a little aggravating.

The gameplay itself is a solid, old school RPG. The NPCs are given fun dialogue, so you never really feel bored when you’re just talking to people around town, and the battles, while simple, are really fun once you get into the groove of them. It does feel less refined than EarthBound, but I suppose that should be expected.

EarthBound BeginningsThe graphics have a nice NES charm to them, but they lack the timeless appeal of the 16-bit sequel. When playing EarthBound, you feel like the game could have been made today, but with Beginnings, it feels like you’re playing a retro title. Overall I like the look of the game and its wacky characters (something about them reminds me of Peanuts), but its visuals understandably don’t hold up as well as its sequel. The music is already showing a sharp sense of versatility, however.

Overall, I am having fun with EarthBound Beginnings and I hope it gets better and better. But the fact that I’ve already run into some elements that show the game’s age has me a little concerned for what lies ahead. It’s already a solid experience, but after such a long wait, I’m hoping for a great one.