Without its thorns, EarthBound Beginnings could have been thoroughly lovable in its strangeness and heart; with them, it becomes a quirky and moving tale that is obscured by a lack of much needed polish
George and Maria are a young couple, and they live a peaceful life somewhere in the rural heart of the United States. One day, however, the two of them disappear without a trace. George eventually returns home two years later; Maria, on the other hand, never makes it back. Unbeknown to those around them, the man and the woman were taken hostage by a mysterious alien race, and during that period they developed a strong enough relationship with the creatures to the point the couple raised an infant extraterrestrial, named Giegue, as if he were their own child. While Maria was able to live in perfect synergy with the strange beings, though, George had overstepped delicate boundaries, as fascinated by the psychic powers displayed by the race, he had begun to conduct a deep research on those strange skills.
When his work was discovered, George was promptly banned by the aliens and returned to his home planet; Maria, meanwhile, whether due to her own wishes or not, stayed behind to care for their adopted son. Such a punishment, however, did not stop George from continuing his investigation, as even back home he devoted himself entirely to it, without ever letting others know what he was doing.
EarthBound Beginnings, made available for the Nintendo Wii U as the long-awaited American localization of the 1989 NES title Mother, stars neither George nor Maria, as both of them have been gone for quite a while when the game’s adventure is put into motion. What happens during it, though, is a direct consequence of the events involving the pair, as their relationship with the aliens – especially their link to Giegue – serves as the core of the quest’s emotional component and is also intimately related to what the heroes of the game must do.
Because about eighty years following the couple’s abduction, their great-grandson, named Ninten, gets a call from his father early in the morning explaining to him that odd events have been taking place around America and that given his great-grandfather had been a researcher on psychic powers, the boy should go out into the world to have a look at what exactly is going on. And it does not take long for the hero and his friends to find out that the strange occurrences are tied to the aliens and Giegue.
As the prequel to the Super Nintendo’s RPG classic EarthBound, the title carries many of the traits that turned that 16-bit effort into a highly beloved adventure, even if they are not always featured in a state that is as polished and balanced as the one seen in its SNES counterpart. The replacement of traditional role-playing tropes with the conveniences of a modern society are very much present, as the characters use a telephone line to save the game, take advantage of the service of hospitals and hotels to heal and recover their energy, access the wonders of fast-travel via a train, and get cash out of ATM machines so they can buy equipment as well as items. On top of that familiar contemporary fabric, which is on its own already enough to separate EarthBound Beginnings from other entries in the genre, whether they come from the same era or not, the game deploys layers of heart and awkwardness that considerably widen that gap.
Situations and morsels of dialogue that run into the absurd are commonplace. EarthBound Beginnings is a quest during which players will visit a psychedelic dream world; deal with objects possessed by a poltergeist; visit a village of bird-people; fight aliens, animals that have become suddenly violent, gang members, and floating eyes; ride a tank; catch a cold if they talk to characters that cough; and encounter many other examples of the ridiculous. At the same time, amidst so many deadpan deliveries that verge into senseless insanity with the utmost seriousness, the game also dabbles into the emotional, portraying moments that are truly heartfelt and being led by a plot that is undeniably touching.
In a direct comparison to EarthBound, Beginnings does not execute any of those two veins as well as its successor. Its writing is, at places, clunky, as if Shigesato Itoi was still searching for the tone he would find a few years later during the creation of the SNES game. Consequently, its humor is simply not as strong, and it will come off as an inferior version of the comedy seen in EarthBound. Moreover, the development of its plot is irregular in its frequency, as perhaps due to the technical limitations of the NES, all revelations occur during the final two hours of the title’s twenty-hour quest.
Although noticeable, especially to those who have been through EarthBound, those flaws do not dent the game’s charm, as it is still an effort that is visibly different from all other creations of the era. Furthermore, it is quite pleasant to see how the major events that constitute the adventure can be approached in a non-linear fashion. Not too long after Earthbound Beginnings kicks off, Ninten is tasked with recovering eight melodic sections of a song that is imperative to finishing the game, and there is a good degree of freedom to the order in which they can be collected, as the title unfolds over an open-ended world filled with various towns and other locations.
That setup, though, has its own negative ramifications, because the liberty given to gamers is paired up with directions that sometimes range between being too cryptic and downright non-existent. Therefore, especially following the quest’s initial third, numerous are the moments that feel impossible to complete without the help of a guide, as many players will constantly be clueless in relation to where they must go or find themselves lost in areas whose design is intentionally confusing and labyrinthine, a nature that is accentuated by how the map available to the party – although helpful in letting one know how to travel between towns – does not have enough details to aid the group in more meticulous navigation and cannot be used in indoors dungeons.
If in humor, heart, and theme EarthBound Beginnings showcases a strong connection to its sequel, the same applies to its turn-based battle system, which – like those components – comes off as a rougher sketch of the one seen in EarthBound, as it lacks the clever rolling HP meter of that game. With the exception of towns, the random encounters are triggered pretty much everywhere, and when that happens gamers are transported to a black screen where foes appear as static sprites and the party members are represented by a menu that displays their names, levels, HP, PP, and accumulated experience.
It is a configuration that is undoubtedly more bare bones than the ones seen in other major RPGs of the time, as it lacks visual effects – which are restricted to colorful screen flashes – and animation, but it works decently. Although the group of heroes is limited to three, gamers will get to control four characters during the course of the adventure, and each one of them has their own traits. Ninten deals solid physical blows and carries a good variety of supporting psychic moves, which he learns as he levels up, that can heal, generate shields, cure stats, and more. Loid, a geek who was bullied at school, mostly relies on purchasable gadgets that have a myriad of effects. Ana, who like Ninten boasts mental powers, has no physical strength but carries an even more impressive quantity of psychic skills than the boy, as she can support her peers as well as deliver all sorts of elemental attacks. Finally, Teddy, a gang leader, is all about brute force.
Together, it goes without saying, the four characters bring to the table a satisfying level of gameplay distinctions and strategic possibilities. Sadly, whatever joy could have existed in the battle system is drained due to EarthBound Beginnings’ fatal flaw: its atrocious balance. The quest is plagued by difficulty spikes that destroy any chance players have of advancing naturally through the game. Almost every single new area that is found will present enemies capable of bringing down the entire party within a few encounters, forcing players to either run away or grind for levels desperately in a previous location.
Fortunately, as far as the loss of progress upon death goes, EarthBound Beginnings is generous. Falling in combat will cause the heroes to be returned to the last telephone they used to save, but with the exact same level and experience points they had when dying. The only real punishment comes in the form of losing part of the cash – which is abundantly received – that Ninten had in his pockets upon defeat, a hit that can be completely avoided if one keeps the money at the bank at all times.
Still, no amount of light punishment can erase the frustration and annoyance created by the brutality of the foes, because even when players think they may be ahead of the curve after grinding for long minutes – or maybe more than one hour – they will still be surprised to come across, a few moments later, a new area with a fresh set of enemies that will tear down the heroes with ease. EarthBound Beginnings, therefore, is an endless grind, so much, in fact, that characters that join the party, regardless of how far into the game one is, always do so at level 1.
Even though there is certainly a public for that kind of experience, that nature makes it impossible to recommend the title to anyone who does not see the appeal of running around in circles fighting the same enemies over and over again until the characters reach a level threshold that will allow them to proceed without being murdered whenever the bad guys get lucky and deliver a critical hit or when players make a mistake. That frailty becomes more aggravating when one considers Ana has pretty low defense and HP, and that through most of the game the only way to revive a character is by walking to the nearest hospital, since the psychic power that is capable of resurrecting a character is only learned very late into the adventure.
EarthBound Beginnings has other flaws. Its controls are slightly clunky, as – for example – the actions of talking to characters or checking objects can only be accessed through the menu when they could have easily been mapped to a button. Moreover, the inventory of the heroes is too small, especially considering the game has a lot of important items and that getting rid of them can only be done by walking all the way back to Ninten’s home – or teleporting there once that skill becomes available – so they can be given to his sister.
Yet, when compared to Beginnings’ lack of balance, they come off as minor annoyances rather than actual issues. And the existence of such a major problem is an unshakable shame, because other than having a unique tone, the game also has technical qualities, like lovable and colorful visuals that give life to the wacky and surreal modern world where the quest takes place, and a wonderful soundtrack that packs various timeless tunes that have gone on to become videogame classics as well as some experimental songs that perfectly convey the creepy undertones found in some of the title’s more ominous segments.
As it stands, however, EarthBound Beginnings is merely average. In its best moments, it comes off as a rougher – yet charming – outline of a concept that would find its full maturity in the Super Nintendo; at its worst, though, it is badly hurt by spikes in difficulty that make a lot of its combats seem unfair and by an absence of direction that can easily cause one to get lost in its pleasantly vast and open world. Due to those shortcomings, the game becomes worth it only to those who are huge fans of the saga or to RPG lovers who can take the constant grinding without being overcome by frustration or boredom. Without those thorns, EarthBound Beginnings could have been thoroughly lovable in its strangeness and heart; with them, it becomes a quirky and moving tale that is obscured by a lack of much needed polish.