Publisher: Nintendo (1995, SNES)
Few games have such a rabid cult fan base as Earthbound, known as Mother 2 in Japan. The first game in the series, released for the Famicom, almost left Japan, but never made it. Its sequel, this game, is regarded as one of the greatest RPGs on the SNES.
From a gameplay standpoint, there is very little new or interesting about Earthbound. It is an unabashed Dragon Quest clone, right down to the squat mini-characters and first person viewpoint on the battlefield.
The elimination of random battles is a nice touch, but other than the HP counter (which slowly drains when you take damage, potentially allowing for an extra hit before you fall), it could easily qualify as one of the many Dragon Quest ripoffs that flooded the Japanese market.
Yet Earthbound succeeds almost entirely because it's something so rare in gaming -- a parody. With all of its tragically melodramatic plot devices and absurd coming-of-age stories, the JRPG genre is ripe for hilarity, yet few games (outside of some fan-made games, like the near-brilliant Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden) ever seem to try it.
Earthbound begins with a young boy named Ness, whose journey is spelled out by a small alien the size of a house fly. Mistaking it for an insect, your neighbor's mom ends up swatting it, as the tragic music plays and the poor creature lays out the rest of your destiny in its dying breath.
From there, Ness adventures around the globe, gathering up party members and fighting against both nasty invaders from outer space and the equally kooky townspeople. The final stages culminate in a weirdly absurd plot twist, and yet it almost completely makes sense in the bizarre, backwards world of Earthbound.
Pretty much every aspect of the game is taken outside of the bounds of absurdity. Ness and his friends look like they were ripped out of a Peanuts cartoon, except they can wield psychic powers. One of the NPC sprites looks just like Mr. T. At one point, you run into a band that's a pretty obvious homage to The Blues Brothers.
Many of them have bizarre, frightening, permanent grins on their faces. The prologue seems ripped out of a 50s sci-fi TV serial. Some of the first enemies you fight are hippies, whose primary method of attack includes mocking you and calling you names.
The whole game is a warped, confused tribute to American culture, designed by people who've only experienced the country through books and movies. Yet it's never offensive or misguided -- rather it's a lovingly-crafted universe with a sly sense of humor that can't be found anywhere else.
Between all of the wackiness, there are some oddly poignant moments. As a young child wandering far away from home, you're constantly calling your father -- who only shows up as a voice over the phone -- in order to save your game and replenish your funds. It's strange that Earthbound can take something as impersonal as save points and turn them into one of the few reassuring voices in a world gone mad.
With its schizophrenic music, which bounces between "quaintly touching" and "hypnotically grating", and drugged-out psychedelic battle backgrounds, Earthbound occasionally feels a bit too weird-for-the-sake-of-weird. But let's face it -- with originality in short supply, it's hard to argue against that any of these are bad things.