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Ask GR Anything: What's the deal with Earthbound?

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Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q&A column that answers questions submitted by readers (as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves). Got a burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments below and you may just get it answered!

There's one question that, sooner or later, every new gamer screams into the night in a fit of confused frustration: "What the hell is Earthbound and why is everybody freaking out about a seventeen-year-old game?" So this week, we thought we'd leverage this column's question-answering capabilities to shed light on one of gaming's most persistent mysteries.

To start simply, Earthbound is the only entry in the "Mother" series to make it to the West. There are three games in the series, and Earthbound is a localization of Mother 2. Despite the game's bizarrely large and devout fan-following, Nintendo has never announced further plans for the series. In a weird way, this complete lack of attention to the series may actually be feeding the fervor surrounding it.

"I think part of the reason that people really love Mother 3 is that it never came to the U.S.," said Jason Schreier, staff reporter at Kotaku.com and former JRPG columnist at Joystiq.com. "You essentially have to pirate it in order to play it in English, which means that if you do play it, you're immediately part of this semi-exclusive cabal that went through all the trouble of finding an emulator, downloading a ROM, and installing the unofficial translation patch just to play this niche little RPG. Instant street cred."

However, Schreier was quick to add that he also thinks it's successful because it's a great RPG. The story is one of the main reasons people still flock to the series today. Rather than focusing on knights, wizards, and medieval/fantasy landscapes like most RPGs did at the time, the Mother series is set in the present age – 1988, to be precise. 

In the original Mother, a young married couple from a small town in the United States mysteriously vanish after their town is covered by a dark shadow. Two years later, the husband returns, and he begins working on strange research. His wife never returns from the disappearance. The story then flashes forward in time and focuses on a young boy named Ninten (Ness in the North American version of Earthbound, and Super Smash Bros.). When his home is attacked, Ninten/Ness sets out to investigate paranormal events that are happening around the globe. 

In the second game, Ness investigates a meteor that lands near his house, only to find a droid from the future who sets him on a quest to defeat an evil alien called Giygas, who has become so powerful in the future that he dominates the universe. 

We don't want to ruin the stories for you, but that's the basic idea. Already, though, we can see why this series is so unique. What RPG do you know of that is set in the present day, and is focused more on beating things to death with a baseball bat than training the next level of a lightning spell? The game's tone lends itself to this bizarre change of pace too. Whereas most of the games of its era were hyper-serious and melodramatic, Earthbound was a little goofy. 

"EarthBound was one of the first RPGs to really act silly, utilize a modern setting, and have a more set piece-laden story, like you see with blockbuster titles nowadays," said Clyde Mandelin, proprietor of EarthboundCentral.com, a fan-site for the Mother series. "The game's presentation was also pretty ahead of its time - it has 120 or more different music tracks, which was unheard of at the time. And they're all from wildly different genres, it was just crazy."

The focus on music played into the gameplay itself too. "The combat has this unique rhythmic element where you can get extra combo attacks by tapping your buttons to the beat of the music," said Schreier.

The Mother series isn't completely off-the-wall, though. Its structure is based heavily on the traditional Japanese style of role-playing, with an overworld separating towns, dungeons, and other areas of interest. Combat is turn-based, with a player-selected party of combatants.

"Neither [Earthbound nor Mother 3] feels particularly modern," said Schreier. "In fact, Earthbound goes out of its way to feel like the resoundingly antiquated Dragon Quest. They both stick to some annoying RPG conventions (you can only save at save points, for example) and they're both strictly 2D."

So why do people love the game? "The game just has so much heart, the kind that's hard to find in most games," said Mandelin. "And the fact that only one game has been released gives it a sort of underdog feel, and everyone loves an underdog! If I had to give a third reason, it might be that the [game’s] unique look at Western culture from Japanese eyes – in game form, no less – has a charm all its own."

Unfortunately, even if your interest is piqued, it's kind of tough to actually play Earthbound these days. The SNES version of the game has become a rare item, and regularly sells for over $200 on eBay. The only other option is to download the games "illegally" and get the English-language mods. Unfortunately, we're not allowed to tell you how. Sorry.

Submit your own questions in the comments (or Tweet them to @sciencegroen) and we may tackle them for a future Ask GR Anything.

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40 comments

  • azureguy - February 10, 2012 8:10 a.m.

    I'm sorry that I don't say anything about Earthbound, but everything has already been said really. Instead I have a question for the next "Ask GR Anything" article: Whtat exactly is the difference of Producer and Director in video game development? What exactly does people in these two positions do and who has more impact and/or importance on the development process?
  • jmcgrotty - February 10, 2012 2:41 a.m.

    First, let me say I like this game, and in fact was playing it a few days ago. Having said that... This has always bugged me as to why everyone loves the game. It's a decent change of pace (A RPG taking place in modern-day Earth), but it isn't a mind-blowing experience, at all. And one part of the intial article is a bit misleading: "Despite the game's bizarrely large and devout fan-following, Nintendo has never announced further plans for the series." Not quite true. At first, a sequel was in the works for the 64DD. After that whole debacle, it was moved over to the N64. From there, it died. It's one biggest claim to fame these days is that it is notoriously difficult to find for sale. Prices can often approach $500 (If it's complete in box) and are (almost) never below $100.
  • andresrodriguez - February 9, 2012 8:56 p.m.

    I would like to point out that Ness and Ninten are two separate characters, they inhabit the same universe and have the same villain but from the timeline of the games, Ninten is old enough, and possibly is, Ness's dad.
  • gopikmin - February 9, 2012 5:36 p.m.

    I wonder whats wrong with the licensing and such that they can't at least bring back earthbound to US? Anyhow my question is how would you classify game species (like elves, drawves, aliens, zombies)?
  • andresrodriguez - February 9, 2012 8:53 p.m.

    It used a lot of licensed music like The Beatles when it first came out that would be a pain to get the rights of again.
  • superduper93 - February 9, 2012 2:27 p.m.

    in my opinion, this is the greatest game ever. <- completely biased btw. This game became a great part of my childhood. i was terrible at reading and this game got me better. I can not find any flaw in this game other than the fact that it has been screwed by copyright laws. the story in this game is unlike any other that i have played, and the music is soo amazingly memorable. This game has greatly shaped the man i am today and i would like to thank GamesRadar. Seeing this post today completely cheered me up. thank you for giving this game the recognition it deserves.
  • xarab4lyfex - February 9, 2012 2:06 p.m.

    It has that charm that made it so great. It had the most heart of any game, which is the opposite today of most games.
  • alexandre-bret - February 9, 2012 11:09 a.m.

    Medoicre RPG
  • BackwaterRifle - February 9, 2012 12:25 p.m.

    Mediocre user.
  • Andrew Groen - February 9, 2012 12:28 p.m.

    FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT.
  • codystovall - February 9, 2012 1:47 p.m.

    Manticore scuffle
  • superduper93 - February 9, 2012 2:21 p.m.

    NOW KISS!!!!
  • Pruman - February 9, 2012 8:12 a.m.

    I still have my SNES cart, box, and guide proudly displayed in my home office, and I wouldn't sell them for 1,000 times what they're going on eBay, because EarthBound is one of my favorite SNES games and sits high on my list of favorite games EVAR. Nintendo Power and the legendarily bad "this game stinks!" marketing convinced me to fork over the $70 for that ginormous box. Once I fired up my SNES, I fell in love with Eagleland and its quirky inhabitants. It's a damn shame that it's never been rereleased and that Mothers 1 and 3 never got to the US of A (although you can play both in English with emulators).
  • HumorTumor - February 9, 2012 6:55 a.m.

    A friend of mine found a beat up, cartridge of this at a local thrift store for a few dollars. In the condition it is in, it has no value. But sill, it was a good find. I knew a kid way back in I think 1994 who had the strategy guide, I would read through and wonder what the game was like. Sadly I'll never know unless I spend the big money or borrow my friends copy.
  • ThatsWhatSheSaid - February 9, 2012 6:52 a.m.

    yeah how has it Not been released on Virtual Console, 3ds, Dsi etc ... be purrfect for it!
  • PhantomDave - February 9, 2012 5:45 a.m.

    One of my all time favorite old school games that I had way back on the SNES. I so wished it would have spawned more like the crap-tastic Final Fantasy line did, but what ya gonna do...?
  • DirkSteele1 - February 9, 2012 2:52 a.m.

    I won a heavily fought battle on eBay for a mint condition, big box copy with unused scratch and sniff cards for just over £400 last year. The prices are crazy but it is a great game and it has the attention of both passionate fans and retro collectors (like me).
  • NearShartExperience69 - February 9, 2012 2:28 a.m.

    I am already familiar with the series, but this article was still a great read. It really reminded me of what I enjoyed so much in Earthbound; I guess that's another game I'll have to replay one of these days. Keep up the great work, GR!
  • XanderGC - February 8, 2012 9:33 p.m.

    Why I like Earthbound: * Because I got to name; the characters, fave food item, dog and my favorite thing which at the time was gaming. PK Gaming! and mom always made Tacos. * The music. * The graphics. * The zany. * The way if you got hit for a critical hit in battle but finished the fight while the hp meter rolled you could actually end up surviving. * The modern status effects such as; homesick, cold, sunstroke and nausea. * How once you outleveled enemies they would run away fom you in the over world. * Just how the story plays out. * and so much more.
  • jmcgrotty - February 10, 2012 2:43 a.m.

    With all due respect, Earthbound didn't pioneer the ability to personally name your characters. It had been around for years.

Showing 1-20 of 40 comments

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