The Greatest Games: Earthbound (1995)

EarthBound (1995)
Developed by Ape and HAL Laboratory

If Super Mario Bros. was weird out of an aesthetic necessity, Nintendo’s Mother series feels like their attempt at being as intentionally chaotic as possible. Perhaps the most striking thing about EarthBound’s style is the setting. Where most fantasy stories are set in distinct worlds with a tendency toward other technological eras, EarthBound is set in a modern bizarro version of America. Its surreal presentation of modern society makes it feel more alien than a traditional fantasy. We can easily accept combat when it features warriors and fantastical creatures. Seeing a kid in a striped shirt and shorts beating up on crows and hippies feels uncanny, simultaneously otherworldly and familiar.

Everything about this game feels like it was randomly generated. The overarching plot stays rather buried as Ness seeks out magical sanctuaries. Every location surrounding these sanctuaries feels pulled from another reality. Cults, evil circuses, a shadow city; everything’s so consistently unconnected that it somehow starts making its own twisted sense. The game is dominated by goofy unease, which is not an easy form to maintain but EarthBound rarely falters. There’s moments where the game even teeters on the edge of outright horror. Tonal inconsistency is usually a bad thing, but EarthBound made it central to its identity.

Where most RPGs have some clear big bad to pursue, the lack of a clearly defined evil makes each area shine. You play this game less to advance the overall plot and more to see what the game will throw at you next; completely unpredictable, EarthBound is consistently fresh.

Despite being a turn-based RPG, there’s something frantic about the game’s combat. The enemy designs are all insane and paired with psychedelic backgrounds and pounding music. HP loss rolls over like a gas meter, meaning mortal damage can potentially be prevented if the character is healed in time. This forces you to power through the battle menus, which itself can cause even more damage.

Really, the music deserves its own special mention. Few video game soundtracks are this good. Most of the battle themes carry a psychedelic jazz feel, but the game also has its moments of pure ambience, ranging from the peace of a safe location to the droning horror of the final battle. I’m not sure the aesthetic oddities would work quite so well without such an intricate soundtrack.

Like other Nintendo JRPGs, EarthBound is disarmingly simple. But that does not mean battles are easy. This game can really ramp up the difficulty at times, and you must make the best use out of your limited abilities. Each of the party members have their own unique twist, meaning tactical consideration is key to successful boss battles.

The whole thing is great, but the ending deserves special mention. There’s a reason Giygas stands out despite barely having a presence throughout the game. He feels like a pure embodiment of evil, unable to truly be comprehended. The section leading up to him is just as dire. Adding to the cosmic horror is the battle ending in a truly jaw-dropping twist; the game plays a sneaky trick on the player that will hit like nothing else.

Infinitely clever and outrageously funny, EarthBound is a JRPG like no other.

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