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A Japanese RPG Primer: The Essential 20

March 19, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 10 of 21 Next
 

Earthbound

Developer: Nintendo

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.

 


Article Start Previous Page 10 of 21 Next

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Comments


Shaun Huang
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.............

What about Star Ocean? Tales of Phantasia? The hentai RPGs? the horror RPGs? The intro talks big about "studying" the japanese rpg primers but the content seem more like one person's list of favorite rpg instead of a comprehensive overview.

Tom Newman
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Great article! FF heavy (I disagree about FFXII, and definately disagree about Chrono Cross), but my top 5 made it in including the much overlooked BoF:Dragom Quarter and SMT:Nocturne)

Aaron Lutz
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Shaun,

There's a reason it's called an "opinion" piece... it's this guy's "opinion" of the top 20 JRPGs. And he did define the requirements to be included in the list early on.



To the Author,

Thank for this illumination. Sadly, I don't play as many RPGs as I would like, and Gamasutra continues to inform me about games that I never knew existed. This is no different. I agree and disagree about a few choices, but all-in-all it's a good read. Thanks!

Anonymous
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I agree with Zero Punctuation's view on JRPGs. They all look, sound, talk, feel smell the same.

Anonymous
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If you're going to say that all JRPGs are the same, then I think it's pretty clear that you haven't explored the genre much.



Also, this list needs some Disgaea on it, or just any sort of recognition towards Nippon Ichi Software.

Hayden Dawson
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The inclusion of titles such as Dragon Quarter and the Shin Megami's do a strong job of showing how varied the genre is. For places such as g4 and other US sites that have been the most vocal in bashing JRPGs lately, I find it so humorous that they hold FPSes up to some gold standard when if anything, such titles even more guilty of the same old same old.



i would agree that the most obvious series not covered (as he did specifically define JRPG for the article) is something from the Tales series.

Nicholas Karpuk
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I found this article really insightful, since the world of JRPGs is often intimidating, since a bad investment can mean a dozen hours of grinding and plots that don't really satisfy.



It really highlights the benefit of the genre, which is an almost absurd level of depth when it comes to atmosphere and a sense of a larger world.



The main frustration of this article is that the games I was not already familiar with are by in large titles that I can't purchase legitimately without throwing down a large amount of cash.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

David Deeble
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Great article. Within the context you stated at the beginning of the piece I agree with many of your selections (the others I just haven't played).

I haven't played a JRPG for quite some time (Dragon Quest VIII was my last), the reason being that I find the genre may have already past its best, recent titles just don't seem to have the edge that made many of the games on your list so memorable - though I suppose it could just be a bout of nostalgia kicking in.



Still, one thing's for sure: The article's made me fall in love with Skies of Arcadia again...oh and I had my weekend all planned out. Curse you and your eloquent words!

Roberto Alfonso
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When teen, I could never decide whether Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger was the best role playing game ever made. Over 10 years later, I still can't decide.



By the way, isn't Pokémon a JRPG? And I would have mentioned Lufia instead of Final Fantasy VIII. The game starts in the final tower, with your characters at level 70. Back in 1993, that was revolutionary.

Anonymous
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No Super Mario RPG. No Lunar. No Lufia. No Secret of Mana. No Vagrant Story.



Could have dropped FF all but Final Fantasy VI and replaced them with the above.



Final Fantasy V is far from essential.

Jon Burke
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Secret of Mana and Vagrant Story aren't traditional JRPGs, which is what this list is.



Really the only one listed here that I don't agree with is Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Didn't care for the ring system much. It makes every action a gamble when things like using items and doing basic attacks shouldn't be.

Anonymous
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Lack of the Saga series is surprising. Not to mention Tengai Makyo Manji Maru for the PC Engine that lived on Famitsu's Top 20 best games ever list for years beyond its release. Then again, these 2 series are far more essential to Japan JRPGs.

Paul Rooney
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Fantastic article, very glad to see Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Persona 3. I couldn't agree more.



I'm a huge SMT fan for many reasons and Nocturne had many small but key elements that made it by far my favourite game. One of which having a demon that can cast estoma and riberama for exploration and levelling up. Took a lot of the frustration from random encounters right out but kept a huge level of tension due to the brilliant difficulty level because you always had to be on the ball, and if you were even flicking on 'Auto' was a great feature.



The plot(s) also grabbed me more because not only was it complex, it was dark and sometimes optional. For me a guide is essential for this game because its absolutely huge.



Devil Summoner was also great as it had a fantastic and distinct atmosphere that almost felt tangible at times.



Anyway a fantastic list, some of which I havn't played. You can use this list as a must play quality RPG list.

Ryan Barrett
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Kurt, where oh where is Crystalis!?!?

AND Vagrant Story!?!? OMG and Secret of Mana and oh i'm sure everyone above me said something too that you didn't have. You really shouldn't have combined 4, 6 and 7 into one. And 5, 8, and 12 are HARDLY worth playing. Sorry Kurt, but your list fails.

d
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Ignore the haters, Author. This was a great read.

Tawna Evans
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Too much to read! I ended up just scanning titles, and I read only the pages of games I am familiar with. It would be nice if the article were shorter... maybe provide one paragraph per game instead of a whole page.



The author seems heavily biased in favor of Square Enix games. I saw multiple Final Fantasies and such.

Aaron Gingras
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I think the inclusion of an abundant of Square-Enix RPGs was to be expected, considering they've been the primary developer of some of the best J-RPGs out.



Still more into Computer RPGs myself, though.

Anonymous
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I liked the list a lot, it was the most accurately critical and praising the various underlying "segments" that make up each rpg and it's gameplay that I've seen! And while I feel that a few did get left out, and for me final fantasy is vanilla meh, I thought it was a pretty comprehensive list of the mainstream JSRPGS also. Kudos, mebbe now I will finally try Phantasy Star IV my friend has recommended.



PS you left one thing out -- its a bigger mystery than not releasing FF V, another Chrono, etc etc combined that Earthbound II(Mother 3 if you prefer) was indefinitely delayed, then pissed away on a Japanese Cell Phone.

Shame on you, NIntendo!!

Anonymous
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Good list all in all, though like many above me I'd take issue with many of them. For one I found Chrono Cross' battle system anything but friendly to an rpg veteran like me. I'm all for new systems in rpgs, but seriously having to melee attack to charge up to use a HEALING item was something that made me wanna be violent. Spells I could see doing such with but items always made me annoyed.



Other than that I don't have much of a problem with the list at all. I would have grouped all the final fantasies together to make room for some others (yes I know a lot of FF games are very diffrent from each other, so sue me it's still the same name they should be together) but it's a minor gripe.


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