Timelessness is different than immortality. Immortality is everlasting presence, active in the here and now. Timelessness is a monument, a thing that existed within definite borders we celebrate as its whole self from beginning to end. Timeless art is rare, timeless games even more so.
Earthbound, the cult-classic JRPG for SNES, is such a rarity. It's less rare now that it's finally on Nintendo Switch Online, but its unique relationship with fans is legendary. Spend a few hours with it and you'll begin to see why.
A caveat for non-weeb readers: Earthbound can come across as not-your-cup-of-sencha. So if this is a genre you normally avoid, take a Criterion Collection approach this time. Go in with a little context and you’ll soon recognize why it inspires so many.
Some of these things will be obvious right from the start, most notably the writing. A masterclass in localization, the western version Earthbound captures the quirky, morose humor of the Japanese original. If you hate JRPGs for the torrential dialogue windows, this game is for you. Much of it is actually worth reading.
For everyone else who revels in the genre, there is no time like ASAP to play Earthbound again (or even the first time). Somehow, this 28-year-old game still feels refreshing. If you’re coming in hot off the latest JRPG-heavy Nintendo Direct, then you’ve seen a lot of what typifies the genre lately. Swords and fantasy and sweeping epics across the highest stakes imaginable. Every hero is more gorgeous than the last, breathlessly dialoguing about kingdoms or the apocalypse.
Earthbound wants to know your favorite food.
This isn’t to say Earthbound is mindless, either. The real genius of the game is how it slowly reels you deeper into dark and heavy waters. The juxtaposition of small town kids on an adventure against the bigger, badder events in THE WAR AGAINST GIYGAS! plays out perfectly. It needs you to be invested and, to get you there, it plays clever tricks like telling jokes and having Ness’ doting mother serve you [insert food here]. The soundtrack is also top-tier.
The combat wouldn’t win any awards today, but it's got enough solid fundamentals that you grind away anyway. The rolling HP meter is a fun gimmick, and can come in handy when a baddie strikes a potentially fatal blow — if you manage to get some healing in before the meter reaches zero, you’ll live to fight another day.
The clever writing also enhances the combat, with lots of strange items, idiosyncratic attacks, and abilities to explore. An autobattle feature helps when things get tedious, and once you’re strong enough, you’ll defeat enemies automatically and snag some quick EXP. It doesn’t totally erase the annoying scourge of random encounters that plagues SNES-era RPGs, but it helps. Level jumps are also very noticeable in Earthbound, an upside of an era when every RPG didn’t need to fill a 100-hr sandbox.
Playing Earthbound on Nintendo Switch Online also delivers a fantastic quality of life update in the form of capture saves. Earthbound on SNES required players to find phones throughout the map to log their saves. That’s still an option for hardcore players, but if you’re jumping into Earthbound just to get a sense of what the fuss is about then saving at your leisure will keep you engaged a lot longer.
The original game came with an extensive 100+ page players guide, which is still accessible online. Some of Earthbound’s later puzzle dungeons can be a real challenge if you aren’t prepared, so it’s worth having in your back pocket. If you’d prefer not to use a guide, here’s a free early-game pro tip: when the game prompts you to “wait five minutes,” take it literally.
Even if you get the gist and bail halfway through, who cares? That’s the thing about a timeless game. It can wait for you forever.
Earthbound is available now on Nintendo Switch Online.