EarthBound was released on June 5, 1995 in North America, and has just passed its 20th anniversary. Notably, of three games in the Mother series, EarthBound is the only release that has made it outside of Japan. Upon its initial release, critical and commercial reception were less than confident, pushing the game into rarity and obscurity. EarthBound’s protagonist Ness’ inclusion in Super Smash Bros. helped to raise popularity of the series and push interest for playing the game. Due to the limited run of the game and the sudden spike in interest, physical copies of the game reached prices that of ten times the original retail price. For years, emulation and deep pockets became the only way to play the game.
In 2013, Nintendo released EarthBound on its Virtual Console service, finally allowing interested players to play the game at an affordable cost and in a legal manner. Since its digital release, EarthBound has been frequently at the top of the “Best Sellers” list on the Wii U Virtual Console. Ness returned once again as a playable character, with his amiibo figurine causing GameStop’s point-of-sale system to crash nationwide.
In 2014, we launched our first cover story detailing games that had been forgotten by time. I had always been curious about EarthBound from my times with Super Smash Bros., but playing the game often led me to turn it off briefly after starting. Nothing about it really grabbed me, and I could never find the energy to explore much further than the introduction. When we were thinking of ideas for the cover story, I thought that Mother was a perfect subject to write about. This series has one of the most intense and interested group of fans despite the game being widely neglected at its original release.
I spent a few days researching every entry in the series. I read through fan forums, listened to interviews with the series’ creator, looked at hundreds of pictures of fan art, and tried to learn as much as I could about what makes these games so special. I wrote one of my favorite pieces I have written for the site, largely focusing on the series’ history and absence in America. It wasn’t long after going through all of the material and writing so much about it that I found myself ready to give a playthrough another shot.
I had previously purchased the game on Wii U Virtual Console, but even gave up on that attempt at getting anywhere. With a renewed interest in finally seeing the game to the end, I spent weeks casually playing through before finally spending every available second that I had making my way to the end.
In a very cliche sense, I was happy to see through the entirety of the game, but I was so saddened that my time in that world was over. Every character interaction was bizarre and reflected reality in a broken funhouse mirror. The design of EarthBound is so close to our home, yet lives entirely in its own space. I loved the feeling of exploring through each new area and seeing how strange Ness and pals’ story was becoming.
I defeated the final boss of the game in the late, late hours of the night. I was ready for the game to end, but I was also ready to save and pick it back up after getting a few hours sleep. I think being a little drained added to the affect that Giygas had on me in that moment. It’s still a boss battle that lingers with me and I will recall at random. Overall, it was haunting in presentation and execution. The way that the background, which resembled mostly what I had become accustomed to seeing throughout every battle in the game, had distorted to taunt me and play with my expectations changed the way that that final fight felt. The ultimate resolution of the battle, and what it required to defeat Giygas was unlike any other experience I have had in a game.
I was a bit worried about playing the game nearly twenty years after its release, in fear that it wouldn’t have as strong of an impact on me as an adult playing it for the first time. What I learned quickly was that EarthBound has some ideas and innovations that haven’t been adopted to this day.
The rolling health meter that allows you to escape death by rapidly healing or defeating your enemy, the way that random encounters change as you become stronger- none of these ideas have been taken into modern RPGs despite being fantastic gameplay tools for the genre.
While the gameplay itself is nothing more than it sets out to be, EarthBound shines in its story. Not so much the overall plot and development of the game, but the way that Itoi wrote sequences in the game. Each interaction with every character has the opportunity to become memorable and the combination of events in the game develop a strong sense of humor that shines through its straightforward delivery.
My love for the game, and the series as a whole, was cemented upon my first playthrough of the game as an adult. It reverberated into my personality and almost immediately changed the way that I played and thought and felt about games. It gave me a renewed interest in Ness as a character in Super Smash Bros. It made me want to be a stronger writer. It became the new standard for quality game making for me. Anything that I’ve played since EarthBound has been compared to the game in some fashion.
I hope that you take the 20th anniversary of this game as an opportunity to play through it if you have yet to do so. If you’ve been playing it since 1995, play it again just to celebrate how fantastic this game is.