EarthBound Beginnings has had a tumultuous journey to the West; released back in Japan in 1989 as Mother, Nintendo had plans to localize the game in 1990, but due to the incoming Super Nintendo, they canned it. So on the cusp of E3 2015, Nintendo’s announcement that they were releasing the prequel worldwide was an unexpected and welcome surprise. EarthBound is widely considered to be one of the greatest SNES games and a classic RPG, so to have the opportunity to see where its flair originated from is a joy. Those who have played the sequel will quickly be able to identify all the best bits of the game, but also the worst parts. EarthBound improved on its sequel in every imaginable way. This by no means discredits the game as a whole, but it stands as a reminder of what we missed in 1990 and of just how much things changed between the two games.
It’s great to see the origins of the Mother series, and this is no more apparent than in Shigesato Itoi’s distinctive style and wit. Ninten discovers he is the heir to a hive of PSI powers, and he must use these to solve the supernatural phenomena blighting America with the help of some new friends, Lloyd, Ana and Teddy. The simple plot is both hilarious and touching at times, if a little clunky due to the dated script, but this didn’t stop me from interacting with every character.
I believe playing the sequel first is advantageous to players in some ways, because the Mother series’ identity is so particular that many newcomers will struggle to adapt to its unique imprint, whereas returning players will be able to identify and enjoy those quirks and tropes and enjoy them. Magicant is the best example of this, present and correct in all its weird glory, where cats swim through clouds and shopkeepers insist that everything is completely normal.
For fans of EarthBound, the whole experience feels nostalgic and warm, from being accosted to hippies on the high road to talking to singing birds, everything falls neatly into place. It’s almost identical to playing the sequel — or at least a heartfelt demake of it. That’s not intended as a criticism, but more as an expression of disappointment because much of what EarthBound Beginnings does is improved upon in EarthBound, and many who will want to play the original will have already played the superior version.
The game’s presentation is up to scratch with other late NES titles. Even if many of the areas are cut-and-paste jobs, the environments are bright and colorful, and accompanied by a catchy soundtrack that you’ll be humming along to days after you’ve completed the game. They’re a great accompaniment as you travel across America. What EarthBound Beginnings does unlike its sequel is give players the freedom to explore and collect the Eight Melodies in any order. Even in 2015, games get a lot of criticism for being too linear, so this is fantastic to see in a 26 year old game. The freedom granted can lead to difficulty, as you’ll often be outclassed, but the open feel is something not often found in an NES game.
One of EarthBound Beginnings’ biggest problems comes in its battles. Even with an eclectic set of foes against you, there’s no denying that the game’s fights are tiresome. There are two reasons for this: first is the need to level grind so often. After every dungeon and every new party member, I had to take the time out to arduously train my party. These sessions took up over half of my game time and really sapped the enjoyment out of fights. The sequel’s rolling HP meter is non-existent here, so there’s no thrill or panic in healing your comrade as you watch their health slowly count down to zero. Most of the grinding is dull and feels like a wall intended to prevent you from progressing too far while your levels are too low.
This is where my second issue comes into the fray: difficulty. Many gamers proudly say that we have it too easy in games nowadays, and EarthBound Beginnings is a stark reminder of what things used to be like. Where you’re forced to grind so much because there are big difficulty jumps between areas that even when you hit an ideal level you’ll barely scrape through. Gone are the on-screen encounters, which are replaced by random encounters that occur at a ridiculously high rate. Not only does this drain your willpower to search every nook and cranny of each area, it also makes reaching the end a struggle.
The game’s overall difficulty comes in troughs and peaks, but the second half of the game feels like a gauntlet of alien-induced deaths as punishment for taking the time to look around. A good few enemies have the ability to render a party member unconscious in one hit, and forget about trying to protect against status spells. Every battle should be treated like a boss fight if you want to make it out alive, especially the final dungeon, in which Itoi famously ran out of time to test the difficulty level, and it shows. After all the hard work put into reaching the climax, it’s deflating to be reduced to fleeing. It’s a shame that the core part of the game is such a drag, because it spoils a lot of what is a fun experience.
Ultimately, EarthBound Beginnings feels like the prototype for EarthBound. I’ve said this is both a good and a bad thing, and I stand by that. The $6.99 price tag might be a hard one to stomach, especially for a short and frustrating experience, but those who’ve played the sequel should check this out if only to discover the seed of the Mother series and see what it was before it bloomed into EarthBound and Mother 3. There are a lot of rough edges, time restraints and console restrictions on the game, but at the core, there’s still fun to be had. It doesn’t reach the heights of its sequels, but EarthBound Beginnings reminds us that everything must start somewhere, and look where it took the series to over 25 years later.