The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was already a hit in the 1990s, powered along by its staple Mario franchise plus Zelda, Donkey Kong, Final Fantasy, and the rest of the acclaimed classics. If the SNES never got a sleeper hit, it couldn’t have cared less. But one game, one very original, unique game, surfaced within the SNES game catalog and was the underdog which would eventually rise above them all.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of its North American release. Its cult is STILL growing!
Take it away, opening theme!
Earthbound released to no fanfare and no hyped reviews. It was a complete mystery which we all encountered, one at a time, on a Blockbuster rental rack or the cartridge shelf at Target. One at a time, we all tried the game out of curiosity, intrigued seeing it was an RPG that was not by Square Enix for a change. It didn’t help matters that neither marketing nor the box art gave us little clue what the game was even about. The AVGN takes honors for capturing what a surprise Earthbound turned out to be:
Even though AVGN just has to document every grudge he has with the game, the quirks of Earthbound are all so unique that you don’t mind the annoyances as much. Like the photo guy dropping in – it’s like a little practical joke that keeps triggering at the most unexpected time. Just when you forget he existed, you wander over to an area and – ta-da da-da-DA-daaaaa da!
What made this game so special? You can’t possibly describe Earthbound, you just have to play it. It’s as if every single idea from every RPG before it was listed, then crossed out one at a time and substituted with a better idea. The modern contemporary setting, the half-isometric perspective, the unique battle mechanics, the huge cast of characters, the huge world crammed with levels, the mind-blowing music, the endless zany dialogues, the menagerie of original enemies, the psychedelic surreal scenes, the crazy little village tribes, the clever satire, the endless inventiveness!
Well, that is one thing that makes Earthbound stand as such an honored classic today. There is so much attention to every detail! Nothing here is phoned-in, nothing is just filler to pad out playing time. Earthbound is just packed with so much cool stuff and so many original ideas, it could easily encompass the life’s work of a group of accomplished artists. Playing Earthbound is like having Disneyland all to yourself. You can explore for months and not uncover it all.
And then when you get done with that, you can explore the fandom and then the fan-made merch and never discover the end of that either. I mean, try Googling “Earthbound tattoos” sometime and that alone will fill a few hours’ scrolling.
Earthbound Franklin Badge
Of course, you don’t want to venture too far without your Franklin Badge. This is necessary in the early stages of the game to withstand the battle against Mr. Carpainter, leader of the Happy Happy Valley… blue cult. Yes, it’s an entire religious cult centered on the color blue. You have to defeat them in order to free the captive Paula, the second of four members which will eventually make up your permanent party. The fight with Mr. Carpainter is exactly the last time Ness has to go it alone.
Here’s the whole Starman collection. The Starmen don’t get explained much, but they’re part of the intergalactic legions of Giygas. You meet your first Starman early in the game when a spiritual advisor, a bee named “Buzz Buzz,” joins your party temporarily and fights the Starman for you because you’re too weak to take him yourself. Later your whole party has to mash their way through whole battalions of Starmen, who keep getting upgraded to even more powerful versions.
A fan favorite character from the game, Mr. Saturn and Saturn Valley is one of the weirdest points in Earthbound. All the Mr. Saturns are alike and have the same name. They all have goofy dialogue and even get their own font. The whole Saturn Valley sequence feels like it came out of a surreal European artist’s canvas – somebody like Joan Miro, I’m guessing. They’re your last stop before Belch’s Factory, after you’re gained a couple party members and defeated the zombies in Threed. In the middle of all this, you end up talking to some troll-doll sized guys with a verbal tick of “DING!” and “ZOING!” Oh, and it’s also the first “coffee break” location, yet another bizarre and unique element only found in Earthbound.
This is a clever idea! I know face masks as a novelty item are starting to get played out, but we’ll make an exception here. The TV sitcom “F·R·I·E·N·D·S” and Earthbound came out at about the same time, and the game does have a friendship subtheme going on. So if you want two ’90s tastes that taste great together, get this and broadcast two fandoms at once. It’s more efficient that way.
The “SMAAAASH!” effect is a fight mechanic in Earthbound. It’s the equivalent of a critical hit in other RPGs. During battle, your typical attacks deal so much base damage within a range, but when you see that “SMAAAASH!,” that’s a damage multiplier. Furthermore, your chances of dealing a critical increase with the personal stat “guts.” Whenever you get a guts capsule, give it to Ness to drink and he’ll do even better with his baseball bat. In the meantime, a glow-in-the-dark “SMAAAASH!” pin is just the empowerment you need in the darkest times in life.
“Fuzzy Pickles,” of course, is what that magical photographer tells you to say as he snaps your picture. At any point in the game, including places and situations where a photographer would make no sense, he comes spinning down out of the sky and stops absolutely everything to take your photo. He’s one of the icons of Earthbound. And yes, Ness always poses that way, sometimes with his fingers behind the head of a traveling companion.
These are just too adorable to pass up. You get fan-art sets devoted to one of the main characters or a Mr. Saturn. Ness, Paula, Jeff, Poo, and Mr. Saturn each come with extra themed items. And man, can you tell this person knows the game? Perfect thing to accessorize the throw-pillow pile on the futon in your game room.
OK, here’s something I’ve always wanted to do: My top five favorite music tracks from Earthbound!
5 – Earthbound – 34 – Buy Something Will Ya!
Sure, it’s repetitive, but the folksy banjo is just toe-tapping irresistible. It’s consistent and easily recognizable from one store to another even in different towns, so the theme follows you through the game whenever you stop to buy something. Sure, you have to buy quantities one at a time, but you’ll find yourself selecting menu items right to the beat of this song without even knowing it.
4 – Earthbound – 120 – Bazaar
This one’s just hilarious. That is unmistakably a duck’s quack, but it’s on some obscure middle-eastern musical instrument. It sounds foreign and distant, going with the exotic surroundings in the marketplace of Scaraba. It repeats a few choruses making you think it’s a short loop, then it breaks down into that fluttering, complex bridge before a catchy recovery to the beginning. You want to get up and walk like an Egyptian to it.
3 – Earthbound – 83 – Winters White
This is the song that plays outside when you get to pilot Jeff solo. It’s a haunting, complex tune filled with sleighbells and atmosphere. It goes perfectly with the snowy landscape, and this Kafka-esque point in the gameplay where all your hopes are pinned on a nerd breaking out of university to fight wilderness beasts armed with nearly nothing. It sounds like Santa on the day after Christmas telling you why you couldn’t have exactly what you wanted.
2 – Earthbound – 95 – Hi Hi Hi
The Saturn Valley theme proper. What even is this? It’s a tipsy, proud march for little roly-poly guys with short feet, recorded and played back over a scratchy phonograph record with a wobble in the turntable. It seems impossible that the SNES sound system could even produce this. Even the meters are mismatched, making it sound like half the percussion section is lost. It seems like it’s always one note away from being out of tune. This is perfect for meeting a surreal race of funny little potato people, but not good for anything else. It sounds like Laurel and Hardy trying to blend in with a marching line of penguins.
1 – Earthbound – 77 – Runaway Five on the Move!
Not only are the Runaway Five a great Blues Brothers’ tribute, but they pop up a few times along your journey. They put on shows in the theater, and their fates are intertwined with yours, so expect plenty of songs in tribute when you help them out. But at one point they offer to give you a lift to the next town, and this song sounds just as uplifting and carefree as you’d expect a free ride on a blues band tour bus to be! It sounds like all good blues songs, a mix of gospel and jazz.