Bound for Glory
When EarthBound came out in 1994, Nintendo's cult RPG assembled a decade's worth of tropes and gave them each a swift kick in the ass. Simply put, there's nothing quite like EarthBound, and while most cite the oddball story, strange characters, and unique setting as its defining features, this classic RPG also contains a bounty of forward-thinking ideas that transform the typical turn-based action into something much more bearable.
Nostalgia might be a powerful drug, but the following innovations make EarthBound supremely playable nearly 20 years after its creation. And yet, modern RPGs still have much to learn...
EarthBound has: Random battle relief
Let's face facts: random battles suck, and they're still kind of random in EarthBound. Sure, you can see enemies on the map, but if they make a beeline towards you in a cramped cave, well, good luck with that. But, when you gain a few levels, something magical happens: enemies start running from you.
This cuts down on unnecessary battles, and also makes it much easier to get the initiative, or even win instantly. Plus, there's the added bonus of feeling empowerment as tiny sprites flee in terror from your godlike visage.
Current RPGs have: Random battle reliance
It's been nearly two decades since EarthBound, but old habits die hard. Take Shin Megami Tensei IV, for instance: a thoroughly modern game, and perhaps one of Atlus' finest RPGs. Yet even with some of the best talent in the industry behind it, SMTIV still forces you to wade through small fry enemies, regardless of whether or not you can wipe them out in one turn.
And in particular situations, like after defeating one of the game's many soul-crushingly difficult bosses, hordes of easily squashed demons can really come between your party and much-needed relief. SMTIV aims to be a challenging game, but it can do better than such a backwards approach.
EarthBound has: A very non-RPG setting
Upon its release, EarthBound surprised an audience accustomed to the trappings of Dungeons & Dragons as an essential characteristic of RPGs. With its backdrop of a modern world, the developers at Nintendo transformed the mundane into the magical by giving the objects of our very lives video game properties. Gone were the medical herbs, airships, and instances of Tolkienry; instead, EarthBound had your party buying hamburgers to restore their hit points, scooting around via mass transit, and using sports goods as offensive weapons.
Taking place in "199X," EarthBound examines modern life through the lens of the RPG--an approach few games have attempted since. And anyone that played the game knows that the devs found lots of room for quirkiness in the normal setting.
Current RPGs have: One of two choices
Fans of RPGs know games from this genre typically come in two basic flavors: future, and past. More often than not, an RPG developer will stick to the obligatory fantastical medieval flavor when designing a game, because hey, why not draw upon a rich history, even if it's been done to death? Skyrim, Kingdoms of Amalur, and Diablo III might have vastly different worlds, but they're still rooted in the familiar terms of swords and skeletons.
And though a futuristic setting can remove the overused fantasy tropes, RPGs of this variety usually drop you into the dreariness of blasted wasteland hellscapes or cybernetic dystopias. It might be safer for publishers to rely on familiar settings, but RPGs are capable of doing so much more.
EarthBound has: Battle beats
With an RPG, you're probably going to be spending about half of your play time in battle--which means a good 20-30 hours of hearing the same musical theme over and over and over. EarthBound recognizes this basic problem by providing a variety of battle tracks that differ based on whichever enemy you happen to be fighting at the time.
Sure, these themes will eventually burn their way into your memory, but they're short enough to loop at least once per encounter, and each area offers a handful of battle tunes to cut down on the repetition of turn-based battles. EarthBound has a soundtrack as good as any on the SNES, and it wasnt into limiting its deeper cuts to the overworld.
Current RPGs have: Battle boredom
Even some of the best RPGs can't escape the repetitive music issue. Persona 4, for instance, will keep you busy for 80-100 hours--yet it rarely deviates from the standard battle theme. And this is really a best-case scenario, seeing as P4s "Reach Out to the Truth" stands out as a quality (and catchy) tune.
If you're unlucky enough to be playing an RPG with a lousy battle song, expect to suffer through it (or maybe just the first 30 seconds) with only a brief respite during boss fights. Its unfortunate given the genres history of great music that so few invest any real variety into the battle melodies.
EarthBound has: A sense of humor
EarthBound doesn't take itself all that seriously. Though it focuses on themes of friendship and love, the game isn't above making a poop joke, or throwing hippies in your path as potential enemies. And while an interstellar insect tasks you with saving the world, everyday problems like traffic jams still pose threats to your success.
Nearly every element of EarthBound is seasoned in creator Shigesato Itoi's deadpan absurdity, giving its world a lightheartedness that provides even the most generic NPC with something interesting to say. Since EarthBound doesn't subscribe to any serious, self-imposed reality, it disrupts your expectations at every turn.
Current RPGs have: Big, bold, bland
Being such massive, time-intensive games, RPGs generally have a globetrotting scope and a world-saving objective. Serious times call for serious measures, so with games like Dark Souls and Demon's Souls, it's understandable why no characters are prone to crack wise. But nearly every RPG's attempt to be Big and Important usually makes them more than a little Bland, as they fill their worlds with stern characters who speak in faux-Elizabethan English and wouldn't deign to use a contraction.
Obviously were not asking for comic relief added to every heavy narrative. But after seeing so many self-serious exchanges of ellipses over the years, we think theres surely some room for another RPG that's as playful and irreverent as EarthBound?
EarthBound has: Post-game bliss
Once you've defeated the final boss, EarthBound opens up its world for exploration once again--until you decide to head home and start the credits. The development team gives players an incentive to travel the globe once again by providing every NPC with something new to say; and these messages aren't of your generic "Thanks for saving the world!" variety, either.
Revisiting your old friends usually puts a cap on whatever minor crisis they've been facing during your battle against Giygas and his minions. This collection of moments brings a sense of closure to not only your party's journey, but the world of EarthBound as a whole.
Current RPGs have: Post-game miss
Most RPGs end by kicking you out to a menu the second the credits wrap. After all, any content following the final boss would best be delivered via DLC or potential sequels, right? Where EarthBound allows players to bask in its setting one final time, so few RPGs allow you to make a return, and instead drop a pre-rendered conclusion into your lap.
If we save the world from unspeakable evil, shouldn't we at least get a few minutes to see it change for the better before being removed entirely via the Game Over screen? With the simple addition of dialogue, EarthBound shows how meaningful a game world can be when we're allowed to visit it both pre- and post-crisis.