To say Nintendo and HAL Laboratory's EarthBound is an odd game would probably be an understatement. Seldom do you find games that choose to so boldly march to their own rhythm. EarthBound doesn't so much throw RPG trends out the window as much as it lampoons them. I'm twenty years late to the party, but here are lessons I learned from this cult hit. If you've been following me on Twitter, you've likely got an idea of what's below.
[Caution: Spoilers for the game are included below.]
1. Why Give A Tutorial When You Can Give a Player's Guide? I'm not sure if this is a great idea, but it certainly feels like a novel one, particularly with the digital re-release of EarthBound on the Wii U Virtual Console. Common to games nowadays are two things: (1) overly simplified tutorials ("Mega Man! Mega Man! Watch out for those moving platforms!") and (2) internet walkthroughs. One's annoying and the other's always going to be there for the people who want it.
Historically, when EarthBound was released on the SNES back in 1994 it was bundle with the Nintendo's Official Player's Guide. Pretty cool, huh? Better yet, the guide was designed to fit the style of the game (cooky writing included) and laid out like a travel guide, as though you were going on vacation to the various locales.
I would much rather publishers provide their audience with reference material for understanding the mechanics of their games than bloating the first hour with tutorials and UI explanations which destroy the sense of immersion. If the guide is put together internally, it can even add to the immersion, like the EarthBound travel guide does. (I remember the first Pokémon instruction manual was titled a "Trainer's Guide" and look like an adventurer's notebook.) With the advent of "second screens" (i.e., Smart Glass for Xbox One), this could work great. It doesn't belong everywhere but is better than boring your players who are going to go look up information online anyway.
2. Embracing the Fact Video Games Are a Collection of Arbitrary Tasks EarthBound has a strange plot that doesn't try to make a lot of sense. You take control of Ness and set off on a quest to "fulfill your destiny" – which involves recruiting three party members and defeating the evil Giygas. This is accomplished through odd and roundabout quests, sending you to many different locations and even back in time. Most frequently, what directs you from one location to the next is rather incoherent. At one point, a series of NPCs approach your character, one after another to report the following (paraphrased):
Person 1: "I just invented a new machine that'll create any flavor of yogurt. Unfortunately it's broken and only creates trout-flavored yogurt right now. I mailed it to you with a cheap mailing service that will probably lose it."
Person 2: "The boss of this town you've been looking for just sent me out to find a machine that creates trout-flavored yogurt for an upcoming party. Can you find one for me?"
Person 3: "I was supposed to deliver a yogurt machine to you, but I lost it in the desert. Sorry!"
Person 4: "Our master in the desert would like to see you. He has something you may need."
All of this happens without you being able to walk anywhere or ignore the conversations. Why? Apparently because the game designers wanted to send you into a dungeon in the desert.
Loads of games (most games) do this frequently. Every MMO sends you on dozens of quests to "collect the things" just so you can be introduced to a new area, encounter a new plot point, or progress your character further. Everyone's least favorite part of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is being sent across the ocean searching for Triforce shards. In the case of Wind Waker, and with many other RPGs, these tasks are decorated with some sort of "plot" details – the Triforce was broken into shards and scattered across Hyrule with the passing of the Hero of Time and now you must claim them from the bottom of the sea in order to defeat Ganondorf – but really they're just time sinks and excuses the designers use to send you places. (I'd argue at least 70% of every Assassin's Creed game is this.)
Some games, such as The Last of Us or Heavy Rain, do a much better job of directing the player with story. Other games, like Journey or even the original Resident Evil, don't so much as direct you as let you explore. Both of these types feel less like To Do lists. I'm not saying the To Do lists are bad, but I am tipping my hat to EarthBound for ditching the façade and calling it like it is – then letting you, the player move on with having fun.
3. Status Conditions Can Make or Break Your Combat "Mushroomized" is the second-most obnoxious status condition I've encountered in a game, just behind being turned into an eggplant. Status conditions are tough. They can quickly destroy combat balance and devour a player's fun. They can also add a lot of urgency and keep combatants on their toes. What makes Mushroomized so devastating – much like the eggplants – is that there's nothing you can do once you have it except leave the dungeon your in and go back to the nearest hospital. Effectively, the condition says you need to stop progressing – stop having fun for a moment – and go back to Point A.
A handful of times while playing EarthBound I would find my team completely wiped by an unfortunate collection of status conditions. Ness is diamondized; Paula is confused and keeps healing the enemy; Jeff can't stop crying; Poo is confused and appears bent on killing Paula now. Normally, I could defeat these enemies with a set of standard attacks, but under these conditions I must sit and watch my party crumble to pieces. Again, the pain here comes from having any sense of control taken away – I can't do anything but watch. Older FINAL FANTASY titles are egregiously guilty of this with their notorious "back attacks."
Status conditions are great for giving the player a new, sudden challenge to overcome. They are bad when they prevent the player from, well, playing.
4. Justifying the "Chosen One" Trope EarthBound, like so many other RPGs, centers its story around the primary party member, Ness, the "Chosen One." Generally, this means your primary party member is obviously stronger than the rest of your party, or has some special property that marks him apart from the crowd, and that's about as far as the "Chosen One" label interacts with game mechanics – the rest is fluffy story stuff. Here again, I found EarthBound acted differently: Ness kind of sucks.
Well, maybe he doesn't suck, but he's not that great. Paula has much better PSI powers and speed; Jeff has handy-dandy gizmos; and Poo learns the more powerful spells. Ness's defining traits are high HP, good healing, and a baseball bat. (In fact, PK Flash is the only move Ness uses in Super Smash Bros. that he actually learns in EarthBound. I feel so betrayed.) For the majority of the game, I found myself pretty underwhelmed by our hero.
Near the climax, the designers redeemed him and made the "Chosen One" title feel more special. Through some plot, Ness faces some inner turmoil and "awakens" as the Chosen One, getting a significant burst in all of his stats, as well as learning a few more powerful PSI powers. This reveal gave weight to the name and made it feel more special. After this event, I found myself brimming with new confidence, ready to take on the final challenges ahead. If Ness had been powerful and felt like the hero through the whole game, I wouldn't have gotten that sudden feeling of arriving at my destiny.
"Becoming" is much more captivating than just "being."
5. The Benefit of Including the Player The last little cherry on top of playing EarthBound was being personally thanked in the credits and called out in the final battle. It was a small touch, but it felt great to have Paula ask specifically for my faith to get them through the conflict with Giygas for the fate of the world. I would like to see this style of 4th-wall breaking reused.
EarthBound was not a perfect game and will not live on as my new favorite RPG. However, I will remember it fondly for the tropes it lampooned and the rhythm it marched to.
Earthbound was developed by Ape and HAL Laboratory and was published by Nintendo.