Back in 1995, this second instalment of Shigesato Itoi’s much-loved Mother series (as it’s known in Japan) only received a western release in North America, where it sold poorly. Buying a second-hand SNES copy for silly money was most people’s only option until the Wii U came to the rescue, providing a full worldwide Virtual Console release in 2013 that made it easily available to all. This was followed by a release on New 3DS and inclusion on the Super NES Classic Mini. Wherever you play it, this game is still absolutely worthy of your time, and then some.
For anyone unfamiliar with the game, EarthBound — the second entry in the series — sees you take control of Ness (or whatever you care to name him) as you travel the land searching for eight melodies to help defeat the universal cosmic destroyer Giygas. It’s an RPG but with a modern (well, 199X) American-influenced setting, where vehicles are on the roads, department stores are visited, burgers restore health, cash is withdrawn from ATMs and, should a member of your party fall in battle, there are hospitals.
A large part of Earthbound’s appeal is the story. It entertains right from the start, with your mother happy to let you wander off into the night to investigate a crashed meteor because, after all, you’d only sneak out if she said “no”. Soon you encounter a bee-like creature from the future named Buzz Buzz and the adventure begins.
Things get wackier as you progress whether talking to a dog “being possessed by the spirit of the game designer” or battling a group of Policemen so they’ll remove the roadblock to allow you to pass from opening town Onett to Twoson (“we got this name because we weren’t first”). Naturally the following towns are Threed and Fourside, although there are plenty of other locations, too, and you’ll battle a range of characters and creatures along the way such as coil snakes, annoying old party men, mad ducks and a big pile of puke. No, really.
Impressive to this day is the game’s soundscape, with regular sound effects rubbing shoulders with otherworldly ones to create something quite unique. The music features a range of instruments and sounds coming together to make a variety of different, distinctive tracks; some fun, some mysterious and some surreal sounding ones, too. There are some fantastic pieces here; you’ll want to plug in your earphones for full aural experience.
By comparison, the visuals might seem underwhelming at first. However there’s a charming simplicity that suits the quirky storyline and the art style provides for a clean, easy-to-follow look as events unfold. There are decent, somewhat hypnotic background effects to complement the audio during battles and a lot of variety on display, with good use of the SNES’ colour palette for the different times of day, as well as woodland, desert and cave areas alongside the towns.
Buildings look sufficiently different and whilst there’s little scenic animation, there’s quite a range of characters, vehicles and objects around to provide visual interest. Lots of text on a small screen could cause trouble, but it remains legible throughout. It’s far from the most visually impressive game on the SNES, then, but it’s charming enough to win you over regardless. No one walks away from EarthBound thinking it looks ugly or basic.
There’s a lot of game here to keep you occupied, too, with events unfolding at a relaxed pace as you move from one to the next and do turn-based battle with enemies you encounter on the way. In battle you can choose to attack, cast spells using your PSI ability or use the Goods in your inventory, and if you feel your team is strong enough you can select the Auto-Fight command and let nature take its course. The game has lengthy sections not really suited for quick bursts of play, and you’ll likely welcome the suspension/restore point functions if you’re playing on a platform with them — it’s handy to tackle the game in whatever sized chunks you feel like, and quickly repeat any battles in the late-game which can get pretty demanding.
There’s a sense that EarthBound was ahead of its time in many ways. Once you level up sufficiently, the game doesn’t force you into boring low-level encounters — in fact, enemies scarper when they see you and you can even defeat them instantly by ambushing them from behind. While the pacing can be a little up and down in places, the game respects your time and intelligence in a way that many titles of its era didn’t. Your character’s hit point counter rolls down slowly, so even if you suffer more damage than you have hit points to withstand, you can still quickly heal yourself before the counter reaches zero and avoid falling in battle. Little touches like this give the game its unique, defining, and utterly irresistible character.
For those who never got to experience the game back in the ’90s there was always the chance that EarthBound was over-hyped bobbins, a game that couldn’t possibly live up to its reputation as a quirky, 16-bit masterpiece. However, as so many have discovered in the years since it’s become more widely available, Mother 2 (as the coolest kids call it) is still a touching, engaging, genuinely brilliant adventure to go on — a lengthy experience that’s wonderfully humorous and fun from start to finish. It remains an absolute must-play for any Nintendo fan and fortunately it’s much easier to play nowadays than it was for a long time. If you’ve never had the pleasure, get stuck in immediately and finally understand why bands of fans won’t pipe down about Mother 3.