Although the most recent Nintendo Direct on Feb. 9 was fairly divisive, there was one game that stood out to me above all others — and it’s nearly two decades old. “EarthBound” was originally released on the Super Nintendo in 1994 to lukewarm reception, but it has gone on to influence countless games and earn its title as a cult classic.
To the unfamiliar, “EarthBound” might look like a kids’ game or any other old RPG. The original marketing campaign was no help to the game’s success either, boldly claiming “this game stinks” and including scratch and sniffs on advertisements. However, the surreal, chaotic satire of Western culture has stood the test of time and remains as bizarre and hilarious as it was nearly 20 years ago.
“EarthBound” stars Ness, an average 13-year-old kid curious about a meteorite that landed near his house. After hearing of a prophecy that states a boy and his friends will save the world from a mysterious villain named Giygas, Ness sets off on an epic quest to fulfill it.
The game revolves around Ness traveling to new towns, occasionally finding new party members, beating up the local baddies and leveling up. Along the way, Ness faces many random encounters, wacky side characters and strange areas to explore with plenty of hidden nooks and crannies. In order to defeat Giygas, there are melodies Ness must record but to get them, he must confront endless obstacles — including his own mind.
Everything about the game is stylish, from its surprisingly complex 1960s inspired soundtrack to its clever puns and nostalgic evocation. The pixel art emphasizes the goofiest parts of the game but also creates surreal, disconcerting backdrops for enemy encounters. Some enemy sprites are highly detailed, showcasing the gears on a human-tank hybrid, and others are simply a plant with two leaves and legs. Each non-player character (NPC) is unique in their appearance and speech, adding depth to a deceptively simplistic world.
The variety of enemies keeps the already amazing combat refreshing, even in the midst of grinding. Yes, the game requires the player to get out there and face random encounters before moving forward, but there are key aspects to this loop that make this less cumbersome than the vast majority of modern turn-based role playing games (or RPGs). Unlike other games in the genre like “Pokémon,” the game never forces you into a fight with enemies that are so low-level they’re a waste of time. You also have the option to defend or run from a fight, making combat more strategic than simply bashing an enemy to bits. The health aspect of battles is unique as well, as your hit points gradually roll down, making death avoidable if you’re quick enough.
If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it absolutely is. “EarthBound” has been called one of the most influential games of all time due to its willingness to reinvent the genre. In the pre-“EarthBound” world, RPGs rarely took place in a modern time or setting, opting for fantasy tropes instead. Games also simply weren’t this … weird. Rather than battling a powerful king or a vengeful wizard, I found myself beating sentient garbage into submission with a baseball bat. That prophecy at the game’s opening? Yeah, that was spoken by a talking bee named Buzz Buzz that traveled from the future. This is not to mention the tiny, quirky details like “oh, baby” coming up every time a character levels up or the Blues Brothers-inspired musical sequence. Countless games were inspired by these details and systems, from “Undertale” to “Eastward.”
There’s also a heavy dose of puzzle-solving to get from area to area, and the game never tells you exactly what to do. In fact, Nintendo sold every copy of the original game with a player’s guide filled with hints and vague instructions. If puzzles aren’t your thing, Nintendo has the entire guide online for free, but as a sucker for puzzles, I reveled in my own confusion. Will the ruler taking up inventory space be useful 10 hours later in the game, or did I just spend my precious money on garbage? I’ll never really know until an optional NPC needs a measurement, but that’s entirely up to who I talk to and when. “EarthBound” is a game that refuses to hold your hand, and is as much about your investment as it is following the main questline.
The game is also a thought-provoking reflection on childhood, power, corruption and the dark parts of the psyche. Although Ness and crew are just kids, they are the only ones who can save the world — not neglectful parents, cult leaders or mysterious gangsters. However, they must first face xenophobia, violence, PTSD and other conventionally “adult” concerns. Story beats are perfectly placed to provide comic relief when needed but also increase the stakes by exploring the ugliest parts of society through the eyes of adolescence.
I had never heard of “EarthBound” until about two years ago when I saw demands for a proper “Mother 3” port (the Japan-exclusive sequel). Despite the absence of “Mother 3,” Nintendo’s decision to put “EarthBound” and its prequel “EarthBound Beginnings” on the Switch has revitalized interest in the game and introduced younger generations to the iconic series (myself included).
My journey as Ness has been nothing but entertaining, even when the only way forward is through hours of grinding. Every single part of the game, from the way it looks to the extremely well-written story to the surprisingly unique gameplay, is an absolute treat and way ahead of its time. Giygas isn’t the only time traveler — the game itself feels as though it was sent from the future. It’s hard to find a game as special as “EarthBound.” If you’re looking for a cult classic that will make you laugh, cry and say “fuzzy pickles,” hop into the weird world of “EarthBound” on the SNES Nintendo Online app.
Daily Arts Writer Harper Klotz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.