Super NES Mini Countdown: #9 | EarthBound

Join the cult!

Nintendo's Super NES Classic Edition mini-console arrives at the end of the month, and the Retronauts writing team has voted to rank the 20 classic games on the mini. Unlike last year's Classic NES Edition, the Super NES mini doesn't have a single dud on it, so think of this as a countdown from good to great. Today, a game that barely even got noticed in its first go ’round.

10. EarthBound

Developer: Nintendo/APE/HAL Laboratory
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: RPG
Release date: March 21, 1996 [JP] September 20, 1996 [U.S.] January 23, 1997 [EU]

What makes EarthBound a worthy inclusion?

You know how much a cartridge-only copy of EarthBound for Super NES costs? A lot more than a Super NES Classic Edition is gonna set you back, even if you resort to paying eBay scalpers to get a system. That's how much.

Fan gamers
You know why EarthBound is normally so expensive? Because it fizzled at retail back in the day and ended up going largely ignored. Nintendo put together what might have been the most deluxe standard release package in the company's entire history for EarthBound, bundling it in a huge box with a complete strategy guide and pushing it with a massive (if slightly misaimed) marketing campaign. They had high hopes for it… and it flopped, ultimately being cleared out of retail chains for less than $20. But a few years later, more and more people started to cotton onto the fact that there was something a little special about EarthBound. It developed a small cult… which then grew in size… which caused greater general awareness of EarthBound… which caused the price to inflate… which led to it becoming a genuine minor phenomenon. EarthBound perfectly epitomizes how the world can warm to a good but unconventional take on a familiar format; setting aside the actual quality of the game (which is quite good!), EarthBound deserves canonization simply for its history within game culture.

As a game, though, EarthBound presents a clever take on the role-playing genre. It introduced concepts that even now feel surprising in their freshness. Every once in a while, you stumble across some element of subtle brilliance in EarthBound and have to stop to ask yourself, "How has this not been imitated far and wide?" Like, when you bump into a "random" monster on the overworld (there are no actual random encounters, by the way), you'll automatically win if your party's experience levels are sufficiently high, removing the tedium of disruptive minor battles. You can enhance consumable items with support items — but this option can't be abused, because your limited inventory space forces you to make strategic choices about what to carry with you. And then there's the rolling hit point counter, which displays your characters' health as a sort of odometer that actively clicks down when you take damage; EarthBound uses a turn-based combat system, but the HP counter mechanic allows you to save a fatally wounded party member with quick reactions. It's brilliant, and subtle, from top to bottom.

There's more to EarthBound than simply smart interpretations of genre standards. In many ways, the game transcends the boundaries of genre. Yeah, you ultimately have to defeat an otherworldly menace, but by and large EarthBound concerns itself with other matters. Concepts like loneliness, growing up, and the uncertainty of childhood factor heavily into the dialogue. And it's that dialogue that truly sells the game; EarthBound has the rare luxury of claiming an award-winning author as its writer: Shigesato Itoi, a humorist and copywriter who took an interest in video games. The nature of Itoi's day-to-day writing made him comfortable with the terse, limited dialogue available to 16-bit games, and the text he came up with effectively turns every line of non-player character conversation into a bon mot or poetic fragment. Impressively, all of this comes through wonderfully in the English version; Nintendo's localization team gave EarthBound a translation that transcended its time and format as well.

The surreality, philosophy, and general weirdness that suffuse EarthBound work in large part because the game is otherwise so grounded. Rather than taking place in a bizarre sci-fi setting, it transpires in the real world, or something like it. Your protagonist, Ness, is a normal school kid, living in a small town, dealing with musicians and policemen and eerie cults not unlike those you encounter in real life. Itoi writes EarthBound's world as the America seen through the eyes of an outsider, often with a satirical edge, which means it plays out almost like some lost Spielberg coming-of-age movie remade as an anime parody. It feels familiar, and that allows its improbable elements to run free.

Interesting facts about EarthBound

Mother do you think they'll like my game

EarthBound is known in Japan as Mother 2; it appeared as sequel to 8-bit RPG Mother (no relation whatsoever to the recent film). Nintendo had plans to localize the original Mother for America — plans that made it so far as the completion of a fully translated and playable build of the game that eventually made its way to Virtual Console — but those fell through largely as a matter of timing. The first game can be a little tough to love these days (EarthBound made a lot of improvements to mechanics and balance), but there is a narrative through-line between the games…

Iwata saves the day (again)

The late Satoru Iwata had a habit of saving Nintendo's bacon with his technical programming prowess that began back in the early 8-bit days, and he stepped in to do it again with EarthBound… even though he had already been promoted to president at HAL Laboratory by that point. The EarthBound games, despite their superficial simplicity, always suffered from a bit of development hell. Unfortunately, even Iwata couldn't help with Mother 3, which was intended to ship for Nintendo 64 in 1998 and didn't appear until 2006 on Game Boy Advance.


Critics — at least in the U.S. — had a tough time getting past EarthBound's graphics. To them, the game appeared decidedly 8-bit in appearance, and 8-bit consoles had retired once and for all the year before when Nintendo stopped producing NES hardware and games. Never mind the outlandish graphical effects that spice up battle backgrounds (which wouldn't have been possible on 8-bit systems); the visual design of EarthBound helped sell its themes of nostalgia and childhood by reminding players at the time of the games they had been playing a few years before, when they were young. Of course, that worked a lot more effectively for Japanese players, who actually had played the first Mother. But still, it means EarthBound was perhaps the first game to embrace the idea of creating somewhat dated-looking visuals for stylistic reasons. 


Plus, EarthBound's "primitive" graphics allowed the developers to implement interesting design tricks, such as breaking from the game's standard visual perspective for a single area to allow it to feel quietly unnerving: The town of Fourside is the only area in the game to use standard isometric perspective for its backgrounds rather than the oblique projection seen elsewhere. They look quite similar at a glance, but the subtly "incorrect" style sets Fourside at odds with the rest of the world… which is kind of the whole point.

Fuzzy pickles
Finally: Remember to always smile for the camera man! It pays off in the end.