Earthbound seems to either be an intensely personal experience, or absolutely nothing at all to the player -- it either totally clicks or it totally doesn't. Rarely do I see a tepid review of the game, an "It was OK, I guess" sort of thing. People either dismiss it early as being boring, having a repetitive and limited battle system, and amateurish graphics, or they become wholly immersed and feel they have experienced something well above and beyond the typical gaming experience. In spite of its relative obscurity it has inspired some of the most dedicated fandom in gaming, in the form of Starmen.net and all the projects and sites associated with it.
Why all the fuss? Well, for starters, Earthbound was something completely and entirely new when it came to the SNES in 1995 -- it had something of the same sort of bittersweet whimsy that Antoine de Saint Exupéry's The Little Prince had, only with fart jokes and hippies. It's a sort of "coming of age" story, set in a modern-but-fantastic alternate reality as seen through the eyes of the child protagonists. As such, adults are mostly a series of caricatures (such as The Annoying Old Party Man and the New Age Retro Hippie) who are constantly doing incomprehensible things and making all sorts of bizarre statements, and causing all manner of trouble as a result of their ignorance, shortsightedness and pigheaded selfishness. It is up to our little band of heroes to trudge through patiently, persevering with friendship and good cheer, eventually saving the world from the machinations of an evil alien force called Giygas.
Understanding how a game this bizarre and idiosyncratic could become a big-budget and Nintendo Power-hyped release requires understanding at least a little about its creator, who is probably the closest thing to a mad genius or a "renaissance man" that we have seen in the world of video games. I'm not sure quite how he pulled it off, but Shigesato Itoi went from being a celebrated advertising copywriter to something like a national rock star in Japan. Along the way he also became known as a sort of pop philosopher and essayist on humanist themes amongst many other endeavors, including his protracted and expensive attempted excavation of the fabled "Tokugawa treasure" (for which he was parodied in an episode of the anime series Samurai Champloo), an event that likely had an influence on Earthbound's plot structure as well. One way or another he inked a deal with Nintendo to produce the "Mother" series, of which Earthbound is actually the second; the first game, never officially released outside of Japan, was quite similar to this one.
Itoi has approached the Mother projects in more of a traditional writer/artist way than most games up to this point were made. He incorporates his own major influences and life into the game -- the soundtrack heavy with Beatles and dub riffs, a perpetually absent father as a major character, even a final battle that he has stated in interviews is based on his stumbling into a theater showing a brutal rape scene in when he was a young child. There are a lot of elements of the game that the almost wholly commodified gaming world would probably look at as too "personal", "excessive" and "risky"; Itoi gets away with it here thanks to (IMO) a combination of being a prominent public figure in a country that emphasizes tremendous respect for such figures, giving him a level of artistic freedom not accessible to most of those grinding away at the corporate game mills, as well as happening to make this game in a time period where rigid money-making formulas were less defined and innovative experimenting was frequently paying off quite well at retail. Incorporating a battle system that is almost virtually interchangeable for that of Dragon Quest, Japan's most massively popular gaming franchise, also probably helped sell the project quite a bit to Nintendo management (though this would actually turn out to be the game's weakest element by far).
Earthbound is the kind of thing that probably could only be designed by a professional ad man with philosophical pretensions. It's a brilliant combination of calculated emotional button-pushing and genuine human connection. It was exactly the sort of thing that an emotionally alienated, largely introverted and socially ostracized bunch of children of the Nintendo generation were craving, though they did not know it at the time, and thanks to the game's refusal to pander only a relatively small amount would find out. Evangelion would read this same social trend just as aptly and capitalize on it about a year or so later, as would Final Fantasy 7 and that whole "post-Eva movement", but they would do it in exactly the opposite way -- they would feed depression and negativity, focus morbidly on the self and self-pity in a mordant and messy flagellating masturbation ritual that served to do absolutely nothing of any human, emotional or social value for its audience. Itoi, on the other hand, tries to remind us that even in a world full of artifice, deception, greed and inevitable disappointment, there are things to pick yourself up off the ground and live for - friendship, love, laughter, beauty, community and the joy of helping others.
I often see it commented that Earthbound's graphics are "bad", even by staunch supporters of the game. They really aren't, though. They are a deliberate stylistic choice that reinforces the idea of playing as children, and seeing the world as a child would represent it -- a way that is naive, but also inherently able to detect and see straight through a lot of adult artifice and bullshit. They may not be to everyone's tastes, but they do not lack for either talent or effort.
One valid criticism that can be levied against the game, however, is that the battle system is rather tedious. It is; at least, the mechanics of it are. It's essentially Dragon Quest's system copypasta'd, with the major spells names switched to things like 'PK Fire' and 'PK Lifeup'. It has certain attributes that other games would do well to imitate, however; the varying fractal backgrounds are a simple but elegant way of generating something interesting to look at without having to draw a buttload of battle art, and the 'rolling HP meter' is a very considerate idea that should be implemented in more games. Though the battles can get boring, I do not feel they weigh the game down all that much. For one thing, the only portion of the game that requires any real amount of level-grinding is the first five or so hours. From that point on, simply fighting a reasonable amount of regular battles that you come across is more than enough to get you through the major challenges. Also, there are no random battles; all enemies are represented on the overworld, and can frequently be dodged, or "edged" off the screen by walking a bit away from an area then returning. One frequently gets the choice of whether or not to participate in battles, and when you do they mostly tend to go by quickly. The game would have been better with a more engaging battle system, but it is not overmuch harmed by the one it has.
The main purpose of playing the game is not the battles but the journey - the wonderful idiosyncratic and touching soundtrack, the brilliant and unexpected surrealist/Dadaist humor, the humanist values of the game that were so foreign to an electronic world to this point populated alternately by stylized sadism and empty-headed childishness, and a universe that was nothing like the oversimplified, lifeless, unimaginative, Tolkien-rewarming garbage, full of the mindless worship of archaic feudalism, that had become the de facto standard of the console RPG. Earthbound was the first console game to make me feel that gaming could become something much more than what it presently was, and I suspect that is what has made it endearing to so many other people to it as well.
* Bound Together - an Earthbound remix album
* I have no idea what the bus line name is
* Gameplay Video