The Game World
A typical RPG is either set in a fantasy realm, full of castles and dragons, or a futuristic world, full of cyber-punk imagery and post apocolyptic worlds. Earthbound is set in 90s America and the game world spans across some small towns, a large city, deserts, and forrests. The game also has a psychadelic side to it bringing out a dinosaur land, a world done completely with neon lights on a black background, a Chinese Kingdom, and even alien fortresses. It is a strange mix of locals but it works in the players favour, you are always experiencing something new and the change from one location to another is actually done smoothly.
Onett - The town you start off in. A typical little American town.
Moonside is on the other end of the spectrum. The colour scheme and art direction does a complete 180 from what the player is used to. But it is a welcome surprise and adds to the charm the game has.
Characters and Plot
What brings all the strange places together is the journey of the characters of the game. The game starts off with a meteor crash in which Ness (the lead character) is given the responsibility to defeat an evil being know as Giygas. He has to travel far and wide to find spiritual locations to unite himself with the earth. Ness is not just chosen at random, he has psychic abilities that allow him to manipulate objects around him. But Ness is vunerable in other ways that the typical RPG hero is not. Since the game spans such a great distance from Ness' original starting point, he can get homesick. If you do not call your mother on a regular basis he will become upset and begin to fail in battles. It is touches like this that humanizes the lead hero, and reminds the player that he is just a boy who is taking on something bigger than himself whether he has powers or not. He also relies on his father heavily throughout the game. Much like many children, Ness' father is constantly away at work and the only way to reach him is by phone. The father is soley responsible for saving the game when needed and putting money into Ness' bank account (the only way you get money). This again humanizes the experience since many people do have a parent who is constantly away from home but only does so in order to support the family. Even though the father is never visible, without him you could not beat the game.
The four main characters are in the center of this screenshot. They are Ness (red cap), Jeff (glasses), Paula (the girl), and Poo (Wearing white and stragne hair).
Throughout the game, 3 other characters join you; Paula, Jeff, and Poo. Paula is a lot like Ness in the way that she has the same abilities. You rescue her early in the game and she quickly becomes a valuable member. Jeff is a boy genious who helps along a lot of the Sci-Fi aspects of the game. He has no abilities like Ness, Paula, or Poo but can use a wide array of machines. Because he plays differently than the other team members he brings some welcome change to the gameplay. Poo is a Chinese prince. He has some of the abilities that Paula and Ness do but to a lesser extent. He is out on a spiritual mission as well, and helps ground the game in its psychadelic atmosphere.
The enemies in the game even have a completely different look than most RPGs. You will find yourself fighting everything from wild animals to aliens to zombies to new age retro hippies. Every place has its own unique cast of characters and with it brings new enemies.
Power of Prayer
A short but important part of the game and its message is Paula's Pray command. In battle Paula can pray which sometimes leads to your party being healed or some other positive status effect. It could damage your party, or it can have a negative status effect on your enemies. Either way it is a risky move to make and you can safely go through the game without ever praying. It should only be used as a last ditch effort if you are dying and have no items or PP points (what you use to cast healing and other magical attacks). It is an interesting addition to have your party pray for their own success while at the same time the player is praying that it will work, it is an appropriately named command. However if you are well prepared throughout the game you may never need to use it, that is until the last battle. Once you are coming to the end of the battle with the final boss your attacks are meaningless. The only way to defeat him is to pray. While you pray all the people you met throughout the game start to pray with you leading you to an eventual victory. It is not through violence that you beat the game but through the power of prayer. Its a powerful message that has a passive solution to a voilent enemy, it also shows you how much you connected to the characters around you throughout the game.
A sample of the last battle in Earthbound. You can see how prayer works in this battle. Also notice how the boss has some strange dialogue. This text was taken directly from an experience the lead designer had when he accidently saw a rape scene in a movie. It frightened him as a child and decided to use the dialogue to represent the ultimate evil in the game.
Earthbound can be seen as a giant love letter to western culture. The designers of the game are all Japanese and only have a fleeting interpretation of life in the west the same way most westerners think of life in Japan. It is an interesting look at how they view our pop-culture. Earthbound could have dipped too far into plagerism, but instead they sprinkled references throughout creating a homage and not a copy.
One set of reccuring characters are the Runaway Five (part of the joke is that there are actually six members in the group). The two lead singers are complete homages to the Blues Brothers (Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi). In fact, the characters look so similiar that they had to change their clothes slightly for the American release in order to avoid copy-right infringment. Like the Blues Brothers they are constantly in trouble (in the game they are always in debt that they can't pay off) and Ness has to find a way to help them out in order to move on in the game. You can even watch them perform a bluesy song if you buy a ticket to their concert.
Starman is on the box for the game as well as a regular enemy.
The Diamond Dog is a boss in Earthbound.
There are many references to western music (more will be talked about in the music section) but there are three instances where songs take a phsyical form. One of the references is to the Beatles "Yellow Submarine." In the game you are in need of a submarine for transportation and finally get to a yellow submarine. There is a little joke sign next to it saying "The yellow color is a coincidence." The movie "Yellow Submarine" is a psycadelic journey of the four Beatles, making it a great tool for the psychadelic journey of the four lead characters of Earthbound. The other song titles that comes to life are both David Bowie songs. "Starman" is a famous Bowie song and also a main enemy in the game. "Diamond Dogs" is another David Bowie hit and a boss in the game is called Diamond Dog.
You can see how Aloysius Minch is a sleazy character.
One of the lead antagonists in the game is Pokey; a greedy little kid the same age as Ness. Pokey's father is also an evil character named "Aloysius Minch." This is a play on "Atticus Finch" the father figure in To Kill a Mocking Bird. Aloysius Minch is a twisted evil version of that character.
There are many more references to western culture but one of my personal favourites is the Mr. T character. All the towns in Earthbound are alive with many residents walking about and one of them looks exactly like Mr. T. This cannot be a coincedence
The music in the game also is influenced by western music and culture but first I am going to go through what I felt were the best pieces of original music in the game. The music in Earthbound is powerful when it needs to be, fun and light during the city exploration, and psycadelic when the game takes a turn into the odd and bizarre.
Onett is the first town you go to and has one of the most basic scores for the game. Its light, fun, and kind of sounds like something you would hear in a cartoon. It's the perfect music to welcome the player into the game.
My personal favourite song in the entire game. It starts off light and easy but takes a turn into a more heavy and chilling atmosphere. You first hear it when you visit Polestar Pre-School. The light aspect of the song blends with the environment of children at the preschool. However, one of the children has been kidnapped which makes the darker turn of the music make sense. You can feel that this once happy place has had a turn for the worst. Once you rescue Paula (the girl who was kidnapped) the music in this area changes back to a light hearted song permanently.
My other favourite song in the game is when you are drinking coffee. You have 2 instances where this can happen in the game. You can take a drink of coffee and reflect on how much you progressed through the game. During the song, text scrolls on the screen against a psycadelic background. It is probably one of the strangest songs in the game but it matches the way the game feels at this point. The first time you drink coffee is in Saturn Village, which is a strange place inhabited by odd looking creatures. The second time you drink coffee is in a cave where you have recently taught the creatures to not be so shy and believe in themselves.
A good deal of the music is not completely original but remixes of classic western music. I won't put all the references here since it would take too long to go through all of them, but here are some of my favourites.
Pink Floyd is one of my favourite bands, and it's in Belch Factory they are sampled. The intro to the Belch Factory score mimicks the intro to "Welcome To The Machine" by Pink Floyd.
There are pionts in the game that you are flying in the Skyrunner (an obvious nod to Skywalker from Star Wars). While you are flying, a remix of the intro from " We Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who.
Earthbound is a great game with so many layers to it. Not only is the game fun to play but it is obvious that the designers took a lot of time and effort giving the game a unique feel that is completely unmatched in any game. When Earthbound hit North America is was actually a failure since RPGs were not as popular at the time and the direction of the game was so radically different from what people were used to. In many ways it was too far ahead of its time and only now are some developers catching up.