Nintendo’s E3 this year opened with what I personally still consider the biggest bombshell of the entire show: EarthBound Beginnings not just announced, but released on the Wii U Virtual Console. It was a quiet Monday morning in Australia and I was excited to see what the Nintendo World Championships would bring, waking up early just to get hyped. However, it wasn’t until Shigesato Itoi appeared on the screen that I fell out of bed. He hadn’t said anything, but this man could only be there for ONE reason, something Mother related. EarthBound Beginnings was announced with this beautiful trailer, and some very touching words from Itoi. It melted my heart and I downloaded it straight away. I played through EarthBound on the Wii U for the very first time 2 years ago. It was the first time Australia actually got the game, so I consider that its official release here. I absolutely loved it, and since then have been patiently waiting for the other games to come over “officially”. Now, I’ve spent the last month playing through EarthBound Beginnings and making the most of the experience. From the look of the game and people’s vague impressions, I went in thinking this would be “EarthBound Lite”, just a more basic novelty version of EarthBound. Boy, was I wrong. This is a game that stands strong on its own, a finely crafted piece of work that expresses more emotion than anything I’ve played on the NES before. The game kicks off with a strange event unfolding, and suddenly you’re ready to go on an adventure. What does this world have in store for a 12 year old boy?
OI!! Give that back!! My sister gave me that!! You big meanie this is NOT FUNNY!! Do I have to attack you?!
Shit is getting serious right off the bat. Looks like I’ll have to teach this crow a lesson. “Attack” is my sole offensive option and I’m not sure what all this “PSI” stuff means. I don’t have any “Goods” after that arsehole stole my juice. Can I throw the Cash Card? Nope. Attack it is!! After a few beatings the crow goes down and my health is now half of what it was. I’m now standing on a lonely path with the entire world in front of me, and I can’t see my house anymore. Should I keep going? I can’t afford a second battle like that. I stop in my tracks and ponder. This is going to be one hell of a journey if every enemy is as mean as this crow.
The overworld of EarthBound Beginnings is MASSIVE and you are hit with its scope right away. Paths can go forever and there are numerous dead ends. I explored every one of them and I don’t regret it, because finding out the wrong thing is still progress on a journey like this. The open non-linear nature of the world map makes traveling feel dangerous and scary. Hold onto your orange juice.
The world isn’t entirely hostile, there is a friendly side to this game that is made even more valuable by the harshness of enemy encounters. Arriving in a town after a long trek is like talking to your friends after a long day of work. You’re just happy they’re around. In EarthBound Beginnings, you start off by yourself doing quests, but eventually make friends and meet some nice people as you travel to different towns. When you meet your first party member, there’s a sense of companionship that develops as you level up together and take her back to safety. She starts at Level 1 so it’s difficult to keep her alive, but this also means she levels up faster. It’s like she watches you fight and thinks “Oh, we can do this!!” and you both start kicking arse. Of course the game doesn’t always have dialogue for these things, but the very core design speaks to me. That’s something so few games accomplish and a big part of what makes the EarthBound games memorable.
Beginnings is noticeably more difficult than EarthBound, but I don’t think that detracts from it. I died a lot and got lost a few times, but if it was EASY, there would be less memorable encounters or depth in the battle system. If anything, these setbacks make you feel a bigger sense of accomplishment when you overcome an enemy that trampled you before. It also creates risk in battle when you’re low on HP and just have to hope your next attack does enough damage, or you have enough speed to restore health in time. The battle system is quite basic so the tension usually revolves around your situation, and the nature of the enemy. There are certain encounters that make more sense to RUN AWAY from because it just gets ugly for all involved, like avoiding a pointless debate on Twitter.
The barebones battle system is made interesting with the options you have. Besides one single standard attack, you have PSI attacks that deal different types of damage, up your offense / defense or heal your status. You can also use items. Most things in this game I would say have no effect at all, but it’s fun to try things out even if they are useful only for one specific moment. Enemies also have their own unique statements and approaches. This individuality in battle attaches itself to the entire game world. For example when a wild Hippie appears, I’m not thinking “oh, an enemy, kill it and move on“. It’s more like “What is this Hippie doing here? What does he want from me? There are also stray dogs attacking in this area, are they related? This Wally guy looks pretty angry, maybe the Hippies are setting his dogs free?”. Alright, my imagination goes a bit far sometimes, but I love this game for encouraging that. The variety and context of enemies surprised me throughout the game, which is quite a feat considering I played through EarthBound and witnessed a good amount of crazy there. You also don’t “kill” or “beat” the Hippie, instead he comes to his senses. Instead of a fight, it’s like you’ve just encountered an annoying person and told them to change their ways. Happened to me all the time as a kid on the streets.
There’s something chill about navigating NES menus. The cursor becomes your friend, revealing words behind words in a tree of programming. Menus are easier in today’s games, but it also results in them fading into the background. There’s one extra step for every option in this game, but things feel so organised as a result. Not everyone will enjoy this but in 1990 this is what you had. Even compared to EarthBound, it has slightly clunkier navigation and less item slots. This is obviously a handicap, but it didn’t bother me as I see menus as part of the game in an RPG like this. Having 8 items instead of 30,000 makes what you have feel more purposeful and legit. This is the same reason I still enjoy the first two generations of Pokemon, despite all the menus becoming “easier”. It just gives more weight to what you’re doing. For example returning an item somewhere becomes a quest in itself. A modern gamer with a short attention span might say “Oh, how annoying, I have to do another thing!”, but I say “No! We GET to do another thing! Yay!”. It makes an item tangible. Do you expect this key to just disappear? Are you going to hide it in your shoe? I imagine that’d be quite frustrating while running around and battling. What if you need it later? This is a real problem we are going to solve and take seriously.
One thing that DOES bother me about this game’s archaic nature, are the core controls. Movement is very sloppy, and while the run button makes traveling faster it also makes your trajectory imprecise. A good comparison is the bike in Pokemon, which can gain so much momentum you lose control and crash into walls. It creates an awkward experience with NPCs if they decide to walk away as you approach. Now you’ve got to slowly tap the button to line them up again without running past them, it’s a struggle. You could say the game is making a statement that social communication is hard, but no, it’s just crap. I did some investigating into this, and found out they added the run button at the last moment for the American release (which didn’t actually happen, but the translation of the game was finished in 1990). As a result, some of the coding of the movement got messed up. Even when you’re walking instead of running, sometimes you have to hold the direction for a bit before your character will move, making it difficult to move just one tile since you’re fighting the button to move in the first place. While it’s still playable and you learn to compensate for it, it definitely puts a damper on the game. This is one of the biggest differences between EarthBound on SNES, which has very satisfying and easy directional movement.
You might have noticed one of my party members is named Iwata. I named him before he passed away (bless his beautiful soul) so this became even more of a unique experience for me. I couldn’t play the game at all a few days after it happened, it hit me pretty hard. I thought about doing an article on that but no words can really express it. Instead I got back into the game and now I’m proud to say I finished it. This just highlights another unique aspect of EarthBound, the game feels different depending on what you name everything at the start of the game. I spent a good 20-30 minutes at the opening screen, trying to figure out where I was in my life, the definition of good food, what people I want around me, and what kind of person I want to be. Luckily the name selection screen music is GREAT in both EarthBound games!
Speaking of MUSIC! Check this shit out. I felt so happy when hearing this on the overworld. When you open the menu or talk to somebody, the drums disappear from the arrangement. Obviously a limitation of the NES, but that also creates a feeling of HYPE when you exit the menu, start walking and the drums came back. I’m gonna fuck you up, crow! To my surprise the music in this game is not only comparable to EarthBound, but some tracks are even better. The quantity and variety is not on EarthBound’s level, but it does a very good job creating necessary feelings and memorable moments. The visual aspect of the game is less impressive, with graphics that are functional but not very exciting. Visuals still make an impact with some surprising twists in the game’s presentation, but not on a technical level. There’s also a bit of blur going on with all NES games on Wii U’s Virtual Console that makes my eyes watery after playing for long stints. Maybe that was just the feels hitting me, who knows. I’m pretty sure this game has feelings embedded into the coding.
That’s all I have to say really. There’s key events in this game that hit me hard, but if I say specifically what they are it’s going to impact your adventure and I don’t want to do that. EarthBound Beginnings is about you. I highly recommend playing this game. The difficulty is high but manageable, I think people overhype this too much. It’s always obvious when you’re walking around in a dangerous area, and you have options to deal with it. You get items to warp and heal and one piece of advice I will give is to take every battle seriously. Even if you’re just grinding some buffalo, you can still die. Most of the times I died were from getting careless and just assuming I would win, or an enemy wouldnt use their best attack. They will take any chance to be dicks.
I think EarthBound on SNES is a better game, but it doesn’t detract from Beginnings at all. Both of these are worthy experiences in my book. If you think all these “quirks” of Beginnings sound annoying, they probably will be. Take out the characters, music, writing, and structure and you are left with a terrible game. In fact you have nothing, because these things ARE the game and the entire reason it’s brilliant. It’s a joy to walk around, because I like it here. Thanks for reading friends. Even though I have finished this game, I’m not going to say goodbye to it. I know we’ll meet again.