March 05, 2015

That's A Wrap: Earthbound/Mother 2

warning: may contain spoilers

Ah, Earthbound. This famous SNES title is really loved or hated by most. Me? I've never really had a heated opinion of it. In fact, I hadn't played the game in something like 15 years. I vaguely remember playing it around the time it was released in 1995, but I don't think I ever owned it, so it just kind of faded away into a sea of RPGs that quickly drowned it out. All I can really recall from my first impression was that I found the game almost cartoon-y and colloquial, which was a nice change of pace compared to the other popular RPGs at the time. Compared to others in the genre, Earthbound is exceedingly simple in design, but it adds interest in other departments such as sound, story, characters and even puzzle material. If I had to sum up this long-overdue playthrough in one word: fun. But that's an awfully empty umbrella term, so let's have a deeper look at the game.
Originally titled Mother 2, the sequel to - you guessed it - Mother, was retitled "Earthbound" to avoid confusing American audiences when it was westernized, as we never received the original game in the series here. There is also a Mother 3, released in 2006 for the Game Boy Advance, and a fan-made sequel, Mother 4, is in the works. There are a number of minor differences between the Japanese and North American releases, but seeing as I only have access to the latter, I can really only draw opinions from it. It seems there are a number of political commentaries and other then-relevant themes that were changed or eliminated for our delicate American brains…

The graphics in Earthbound are a little all over the place. Character design is… underwhelming, to say the least, but the cityscape is beautiful and the visuals in general are noticeably bright and whimsical. It's an odd fit to the SNES era, but it somehow manages to compliment the atmosphere of the game.
The sound department is rather unique as well. The game is heavy on sound effects and ambient noises, even the music is more atmospheric at times. To switch things up, different baddies and bosses have different themes, rather than the generic "battle theme" and "boss theme" motif. The rest of the soundtrack is hit and miss, some tunes are awesome and fitting, while others are harsh in timbre and get old fast. But you can't deny that the quality of the sound in Earthbound is different from other games on the console; there are sounds that just shouldn't be able to exist in 16 bits. There are a lot of recognizable allusions to popular music, too, and others that just seemed to have wrote themselves, like the music you hear while at home… so calm and welcoming. Some other faves of mine include Dalaam, the soothing Your Sanctuary themes, and ironically, Winters.

In Earthbound, you play as the noble knight- wait… no. You're a wise magica- no that's not right either. Actually, you play as Ness, an exceptionally ordinary boy who's rarely separated from his favorite red cap. Ness (or whatever you choose to call him) is woken in the middle of the night by a loud noise, which - upon investigation - was caused by a meteor falling in his hometown of Onett, where police are very passive-aggressive. Of course it turns out that this odd event was no coincidence, and Ness is cast out on a journey to fulfill a prophecy conveyed to him by creatures of the future. You receive the mysterious Sound Stone, and are told to seek out eight sacred places to unlock your full potential. The prophecy explicitly mentions that you're not alone, though, and so we slowly meet our cast…

You're also quizzed on a few other things…
As a matter of fact, you're already introduced to the cast at this point, because the game insists you name them before even starting the adventure! They are, of course, Ness, the gentle brute child; he serves as your powerhouse as well as your healer and occasional magic user, too. Next you pick up Paula, who serves as your "black mage." She has the best offensive spells in the game but also has the unique ability "Pray," which causes a random effect each time. Then you meet Jeff, the tactician. Jeff has no magic to speak of, but he's pretty handy with repairing things, and builds himself a series of weapons over the course of the game. He also has the unique ability, "Spy," which shows him the stats and vulnerabilities of your enemies thus boosting your odds to eliminate them. The last member of your party is Prince Poo… no, I'm not kidding. If you follow me on twitter you already know how I feel about this...
Ahem… Poo is a highly disciplined monk from Dalaam, and has similar abilities to Ness, as well as the unique ability "Mirror," in which he essentially becomes the baddie in question and mimics their abilities. In my experience, it never works. You're also asked to name Ness' cowardly dog, which brought back a world of memories for me. Here comes story time, folks! I know this is going to sound extremely odd, but throughout the better part of my life, whenever I am asked or implied to name a fictional being, I always call him "King." I never made any connection as to where I got this brilliant idea, but after playing Earthbound again for the first time in over a decade, I'm starting to believe a lot of my lifelong creative inspiration may have actually come from this game! And King isn't all! I've also had a life-long obsession with frying pans as weapons. It's possible that this originated with my first playthrough, too. Curious, the power of repressed memory.
Anyway, back to the game: when King and other NPC's briefly join your party, they will help you in battle, and in spite of his cowardice, King is actually quite helpful at the beginning of the game. Early on, you'll also have the distinct pleasure of meeting Picky and Pokey, your obnoxious, fat neighbor. They seem rather insignificant at first, but turn out to be a rather important part of your adventure.
In an odd turn of events, I think I'd have to pick Paula as my favorite character! She's extremely well-rounded: a powerful offensive magic user, item host and packs a hefty punch with her frying pan, too. Unlike so many other females in turn-based RPG's, Paula is never really depended on for healing, and is arguably the most useful in the game.
Each time you gather a new member of your party, they regrettably begin their accompaniment at level 1 regardless of Ness' level. The exception is Poo, who starts in his teens and levels up a bit before joining you. This means that grinding is a way of life for Earthbound, and you should be ready to do a lot of it.

The rest of the gameplay is pretty linear, until the end anyway. So linear in fact, the first few towns are literally numbered (Onett, Twoson, Threed, Fourside…). While the world of Earthbound is open, it's a while before you have any motivation to revisit previous towns. Actually now that I think about it, I don't think there is any reason to return to previously visited places that isn't story related. There are no real sidequests in Earthbound (to my knowledge*). The game has plenty of ways to keep you busy though! There are a number of points in the story that require some puzzle solving skills: triggering certain events; having particular items or using a special strategy to defeat a boss (hint hint). There is also the overwhelming task of managing your inventory. Each character can only hold a maximum of 14 items, and those bags fill up fast, people! There are a great many items which you may have to keep on your person for chunks of the game, but you won't really know which without a guide. Everywhere you go, you'll be handed new items from NPCs, purchase them at shops, or find them in random gift boxes scattered throughout the land. Luckily, you can sell most of your obsolete items, and the rest can be left with your sister at home. Not to worry, you won't have to travel back every time. Sis works part-time for a company called Escargot Express, a pickup and delivery service which will meet you most anywhere to help you manage your inventory, 3 at a time! In addition to weapons and armor, you can host items for stat boosts, usually in the form of capsules; healing items - which range from herbs to burgers - and their accompanying condiments (which boost their abilities further, if paired correctly); combat items, which can either deal damage or cause status ailments for your enemies; adventure necessities such as the pencil eraser; and an array of random shit like postcards, toothbrushes and teddy bears. You also get a bicycle early on but it's… completely useless and a chore to control.
There are a number of other unique aspects to the gameplay, such as calling your dad to save your game! He also updates your bank account and boy do I ever wish my wallet grew at this pace! You can then withdraw money from ATM's in stores and hotels, but I don't recommend keeping too much excess on you**. Additionally, you'll get regular, extremely annoying visits from the game's photographer. Yeah, this douche pops up a billion times to take pictures of you and the gang throughout the game. It wouldn't be such a bad addition if he didn't constantly interrupt your groove.
To get around, you mostly just walk, which makes the relatively small world seem much larger. You also get the aforementioned useless bike, but you'll conquer most of your ground by foot, bus, teleportation, or the occasional ride from your pals The Runaway Five, a "familiar" band, ironically made up of six… Where applicable, you can summon a bus by reading the schedule on the back of the bus stop sign, one should appear within a few seconds. The most useful form of getting around is teleportation, but it comes with some qualms, too. For starters, it's quite a while before you get the ability, in the form of a PSI move. Secondly, using the skill requires one of two other stipulations, in the form of space. Teleport alpha requires the party be able to move in a straight line without interruption for a while, and Teleport beta requires a large, uninhibited space for the gang to run in circles. Failure to provide the necessary space means the skill will backfire, and you and your friends are barbecue, man!

*There are a few weapons you can spend time trying to find. The odds are extremely rare but it is possible. I guess this could be considered a sidequest.

There are only two menu features at your disposal: your command menu and your map. The command menu can and will be pulled up many times with a tap of the 'A' button. In fact, you have to pull up the menu to do just about anything.
As I'm sure you can imagine, "Talk to" only works when you're situated immediately next to another living thing. Otherwise the game asks "who are you talking to?"
Check instructs Ness to to do just that, which is handy for opening presents and using ATMs.
Goods brings up the character inventory, you can scroll through characters then inspect individual items afterward. Goods can be used, given to another character, dropped, or you can select "help!" which gives you a quick rundown on the item.
Equip has a quick look at the items you've got equipped, and allows you to change them, provided the character has applicable merchandise in their limited inventory.
Status brings up a detailed look at each character, including their max. HP and PP, stats, and allows you to investigate the character's PSI list, if they have one.
Bringing up the menu also gives you a quick look at your wallet, and each characters current HP (hit points, which are your health), PP (psychic points, which are your "magic") and if needed, status ailment (appears next to their name in a series of symbols. For example having a cold is a "runny nose" icon).
Once you've acquired the map, it can be accessed most any time by pressing the 'X' button. The map will change to suit whichever city you're in, but does not detail dungeons for you. The map will show you your location, as well as point out the various popular locations such as the hospital, hotel and shops.

So let's talk combat! You engage enemies by running into them (or allowing them to catch you). Sometimes they'll have some Pokemon-worthy words for you. If you catch your enemy off-guard, the screen will wind up green, indicating that you get a preemptive attack. Conversely, if you're caught unawares, the screen will go red. Otherwise the screen will go a blue-grey and you are then launched into a psychedelic wide screen in which your opponents line up in two rows and the turn-based battle begins!
So for those who don't play them, here is turn-based combat 101:
There is a text box up top which narrates the battle, including all the goofy shit that goes on. This reminds me a lot of Dragon Quest the way allies and enemies will do strange things like laugh, cry, grin or in the case of Pokey: apologize profusely, play dead, and use Ness as a human shield. Sometimes you'll get the cute, comic book-like "Smaaash!" when you land a critical hit. The odds of cirts seem to increase as your HP lowers. Most enemies also have a silly name to complete the goofiness of the game. This design keeps things fun.
Essentially, you can "attack," which for most of the characters is called "Bash" but will be "Shoot" for Jeff; use 'PSI', which are divided into 3 categories: Offensive; Recover and Assist, all of which do exactly what you think they do: attack, heal and create barriers or status effects; use an item from 'Goods', there are many, many items that can be used in battle. In fact I'm struggling to think of one that can't. Even if you "use" a piece of equipment, it will cause the character to reequip; 'Defend', do I have to explain this?; and lastly: the character's unique move, 'Pray', 'Spy' or 'Mirror'. Ness does not have a unique move, however he is usually the first in line so he comes with two additional options: 'Auto Fight' and 'Run Away'. 'Auto Fight' forfeits your control over the battle, and usually each character just begins bashing without a thought. 'Run Away' is of course an attempt to flee, but in my experience, fails more often than not.
If you change your strategy before inputting all four characters, you can simply press 'B' and return to the beginning of your turn and re-input.

"My girlfriend is my poltergeist" by Ness.
One REALLY unique feature in Earthbound is the character's rolling, odometer-like HP meter. When hit, instead of your HP just evaporating, you'll see the meter begin to roll down, and stops rolling once the designated damage is accounted for or the battle is over. This means if a character takes a mortal hit, but
finishes the battle before the meter reaches zero (they can still fight in the meantime!) they will survive! It also means that speed and strategy are a big deal against some enemies, but I'll let those surprise you as you play. If you should peril in your fight, your game over screen will transport you home, or to the most recent place of rest to restart. If only one/some of your members fall, they will follow you around as ghosts until you visit a hospital to revive them.
As you grow stronger, the weaker enemies will notice, and flee as you approach. Do with this as you may.
As mentioned before, the music varies depending on who you're fighting, and there are at least a half-dozen different themes.
The last thing you'll need to make note of is status ailments. In addition to the traditional falling asleep, confusion, and getting paralyzed, there are also attacks that will cause you to cry uncontrollably - meaning you miss a lot - or become diamonized, rendering you completely useless until cured. There are some other status ailments that will carry on outside of battle too, such as being struck by mushroom spores or becoming possessed. To fix these issues, you'll have to pay a visit to the nearest hospital. Mushrooms are particularly annoying to deal with, as this affliction alters your D-pad's orientation at regular intervals. Trust me, it gets old fast. Outside of all of these, you can also get sunstroke, catch a cold or be poisoned which will slowly deplete your HP as you walk, and perhaps the most annoying ailment of all, which can set in at any time… homesickness. Yes, at the most inconvenient times imaginable, Ness will suddenly miss home, his favorite food and his mom, and suddenly has no will to fight. Fighting without Ness is especially aggravating. To alleviate homesickness, Ness will have to return or phone home. A simple chat with his mum will do the trick, but there's no telling how long it will last. I've heard rumors that seeing baby chicks can also help with homesickness, but I've never seen this executed myself.

As per classic SNES days, the control map for Earthbound isn't too complicated, but it does come with one interesting feature: the entire game could be played with just your left hand. Have a look:
A brings up your command menu; B is back or cancel; X has a look at your map; Y does nothing. The start button doesn't do anything of significance, but the select button acts as a substitute "B" button. Up on the shoulders, the "L" button acts as the "A" button, while the "R" does nothing.
So as you can see, unless you desperately need to see the map, you could play the entire game without touching the buttons on the right side of the controller, by using the 'select' and 'L' buttons in their place.

Determining the difficulty of this game is kind of tricky. It requires a great deal of patience and perseverance that many gamers are simply not born with. This title is heavy on classic RPG elements, which means there is a certain skill set required that gets old quick for many. The beginning of the game presents quite a challenge in combat, and the punches keep on coming no matter how much time you spend grinding. Sometimes luck just isn't on your side, and you'll get a tough fight that somehow wipes you out. The "puzzle" aspects of Earthbound can also be confusing. Sometimes you'll spend hours looking around and talking to everyone just trying to find the trigger event to move on the story, it can certainly be tedious. I think if you play this game and find it failing to spark your interest, you may want to consider searching for a guide or walkthrough to follow. That would eliminate a lot of the trickery and brace you for upcoming battles without taking away the charm of the game. For me, this game is not terribly difficult, you just need to have patience with it sometimes.

Based on some rough time-keeping, I reckon it took me about 30 hours to complete Earthbound, over about 6 days; I was hooked, but also trying to rush. Consequently I'm 100% certain that I did not get all the items or upgrades possible, but I still spent a great deal of time exploring.

Playing this game with the Cartridge Club has reminded me that not everyone likes games that I like, or even genres and styles that I like. With that sobering fact in mind, I can't say I recommend Earthbound to... many people. You MUST adore classic RPGs, grinding, and challenging gameplay tactics. It requires a good guide and/or a lot of persistence. A sense of humor and appreciation for quirky things is an asset, too.
In spite of the repetitiveness, I really enjoyed playing this. The only true complaint I've managed to register is that the recover spells are titled 'Lifeup' and 'Healing'… which are the same damn thing to me. I repeatedly used the wrong one.
As I said in the beginning, I'd describe the experience as plainly "fun." That said, I waited a good 15 years to replay Earthbound, and I kind of feel like I could go another 15 without. It seems like a lot of my enjoyment stems from the fact that I couldn't remember much, so it was sort of like discovering the game for the first time. I can't proclaim the Mother series amongst my favorites, but I do have to say that playing Earthbound has left me with an uncontrollable urge to inspect the other titles in the series. I'm extremely curious of the story surrounding Giygas, and I'd like to see the evolution of the gameplay, too.

LOTIPS
  • "Always eat garlic and work out, it makes your body stronger." - Lier X. Agerate
  • **If you hit a game over screen, you'll lose half the money you have on your person at the time. Keep your wallet just full enough to cover emergencies.
  • Fight Foppy. A lot. And fighting in Moonside is non-negotiable, so make the best of it.
  • Teddy bears are your friends.
  • Don't be fooled by the Casey Bat…
  • Ooh! Pretty butterfly. Get it!!
  • The final battle against Giygas is tricky and confusing, so I'm just gonna spoil it for you…

---spoil-y people leave now---



You have to have Paula pray. When you reach the third stage of the Giygas fight, your attacks will do damage, but it never seems to end. Eventually, you're gonna run out of items and magic, too, and the only thing you'll have left is Paula's "pray" technique. Use it. A lot. In fact, don't stop using it. This is only important for the third stage of the fight.

The gentlemen on February's Cartridge Club podcast also add some great tips/cheats, too! Be sure to have a listen and subscribe to them on Podbean or iTunes!


1 comment:

  1. Way to wrap it up, Lo! This was an awesome read. Totally blew my mind with ONEtt, TWOson, THREEd and FOURside.....how did I miss that!? Thanks for this awesome Friday afternoon refreshment!

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