Review: Two NES Games You’ve Never Played

EarthBound Zero: [warning: bad pun ahead] If you liked EarthBound, you’ll like its Mother!

Final Fantasy III: They rereleased FF2 for Playstation and not this?

EarthBound Zero (a.k.a. Mother)

The EarthBound series (known as Mother in Japan) seems to be cursed. The SNES game EarthBound had a strange advertising campaign — scratch-and-sniff cards that smelled horrible. Deliberately. The creatively titled N64 game EarthBound 64 never saw the light of day due to the utter failure of the 64DD accessory, which it was intended to showcase. The original NES game in the series was slated for release stateside, even as far as being translated into English by Nintendo. But then, even though pretty much all the work was done for its release, Nintendo dropped it. Only a few prototype cartriges of the English version exist. But thanks to emulation, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to play. (Although the NES game is also officially called EarthBound, it’s usually referred to as EarthBound Zero to distinguish it from its SNES sequel of the same name.)

Briefly, the SNES EarthBound is an unusual RPG. Instead of taking place in some form of fantasy universe, EarthBound takes place in the 1990s. It follows the adventures of four children who have been foredestined to fight the alien menace that arrived on a meteor that crashed near the hero’s home. It’s known for its cartoonish graphics and bizarre sense of humor.

EarthBound Zero bears a lot of similarity to its SNES sequel. In fact, the SNES EarthBound is really more of a half-sequel, half-remake of its NES predecessor. The two games share a lot of elements in common. The main cast are essentially the same — the hero whose name is a truncation of Nintendo, the girl with psychic powers, the geeky boy, and the fourth character you don’t see much of — even though plot-wise they’re different. The graphics and sound are similar; although on the SNES they may have seemed overly simplistic, on the NES they feel right at home. The quirky humor that typifies EarthBound is there in full force. You can beat up hippies. The basic plots are similar: travelling around collecting fragments of a song in order to fight the alien entity threatening Earth. Many of the enemies and locations are carried over in one form or another; for example, Magicant makes an appearance, in a roughly similar context. The town names are either descriptive of the town (the starting town Podunk, the wintry village Snowman) or puns (the haunted town Spookane, the bustling city Ellay). There’s a cave full of monkeys in a desert. Even the technique needed to fight the final boss (Gigyas, although his name is translated differently) is similar, although here it’s more overtly hinted at in this game.

With all these similarities, it’s not surprising that many of the weaknesses of the SNES EarthBound are present here. Remember how small your inventory was in EarthBound? It’s even smaller in EarthBound Zero, and your main party’s size is capped at three instead of four. Sidequests are pretty much non-existant, and the plot is even more linear than its sequel’s. In fact, the game’s similarity to the SNES EarthBound is also in a way its biggest flaw: EarthBound Zero is enjoyable, but there’s certainly a persistent feeling that you’ve already played this before. (Of course, technically that’s a criticism of a lack of creativity on the SNES EarthBound’s part, but I played that one first.)

Overall, the battles in EarthBound Zero are well-paced, typically not requiring you to spend time fighting random encounters for experience (although I did have to resort to that to get through the final “dungeon”). And there are a few unique features that help to set the game apart from its better-known sequel. One of the items in the game, the bread stick, has two uses: you can eat it to restore HP, or you can use it to leave a trail of bread crumbs behind you, allowing you to warp back to where the trail starts. This ability isn’t particularly unique (the SNES EarthBound has the similiar but less flexible Exit Mice for this), but I do like how multiple possible uses are given to a single item. It’s a shame that bread sticks were, as far as I could tell, unique in this dual-use feature. Also, in EarthBound Zero, you get to drive a tank around in the desert. That’s fun.

Given my constant comparisons to the SNES EarthBound, you can probably guess my recommendation for EarthBound Zero. If you liked EarthBound and would like to play another game like that, give EarthBound Zero a try. If for some reason you hated EarthBound, don’t bother.

Final Fantasy III (the Japanese one, not the U.S. one)

Anyone familiar with the Final Fantasy series already knows about the inconsistent numbering scheme caused by the fact that only one of the three NES FF games and two of the three SNES FF games were released stateside. Thus, what was released here as FF2 was really FF4, and what was released as FF3 here was really FF6. With the release of FF7 for the Playstation, Square decided to release the game by the same name in the states. FF5 and FF2 were later released as part of anthologies for the Playstation, leaving FF3 as the only game in the Final Fantasy series to still not have been released in one form or another in the United States.

And, frankly, I can’t figure out why. In my opinion, FF3 is the strongest of the three NES FF games. Plot-wise, it’s about as complex as that of FF2, a series of permutations on the basic “go to location X to get item Y to (rescue person P or access other location Z)” mold. Nothing as interesting as the later games in the series, but hey, it’s from back in the NES era, so you can’t really judge it too harshly by today’s standards. One shortcoming, however, is that as far as the plot goes, the characters themselves are completely undifferentiated, usually not even referred to by name. “Unlikely heroes, out for adventure” at its purest.

However, it’s the gameplay where it outstrips its two predecessors, particularly when it comes to the battle system. FF3 introduces the job system, where each of your four characters can be assigned a “job” that determines what sorts of things they can do in battle. For example, Fighters and Knights are good for bashing things, White Mages can cast white magic, Hunters can shoot arrows, etc. FF1 let you choose from six jobs at the beginning of the game for your characters, but you can’t change them once you start playing. FF2′s efforts at customization were interesting in theory, but failed badly in practice (more on this later). But in FF3, it works pretty well.

One thing I like about FF3 is how it encourages you to not just play through the whole game keeping the same jobs. There are several areas where there’s a definite advantage to switching most of your party over to a certain job; the game’s not forcing you to comply, but things’ll be a lot tougher if you don’t. For example, there’s one or two small (no pun intended) dungeons where you can only fit inside if you are Mini, and physical attacks are worthless when you’re Mini, so you pretty much have to be all magic users. It’s an admirable attempt to deal with the problem that there are definitely jobs that are all-around superior to others. There are good jobs (e.g., Knight, Karateka, White Mage), jobs that are good but there’s no compelling reason to switch to them unless necessary (e.g., Dragoon, Mystic Knight), jobs that are only really useful in one or two areas (e.g., Red Mage, Scholar), and jobs that are pretty much worthless and just there for flavor (e.g., Bard, Geomancer). But in general, there’s a decent variety of good jobs to use, so it’s not hard to have everyone have a different job most of the time and still have a strong party.

FF5 has a job similar to FF3′s, with two main differences. First, there’s no areas where a change of job is advised, so you typically stick with the same jobs more so than in FF3. Also, in FF3 there’s a small price (measured in vaguely named “capability points”) to switching jobs, and the more powerful jobs are costlier. It keeps you from switching jobs capriciously, but it’s not really prohibitive. In prepping for the final dungeon, I had no trouble switching all my characters to the just-acquired uber-jobs. I’d say I prefer FF3′s job system over that of FF5.

FF3′s battle system is round-based, like that of FF1 and FF2. This means that you choose what each character will do at the beginning of the round instead of in real-time. The major annoyance of FF1 and FF2′s implementation was that, if you told a character to attack a monster, and another character kills it first, that character will foolishly try to attack the dead monster, resulting in an Ineffective attack. In FF3, your characters are smart enough to choose another monster at random and attack it instead when this happens. (Magic spells, however, will still just be Ineffective, but you probably wouldn’t want to target random monsters with elemental magic anyway.) This change removes a lot of the annoyances of the earlier games’ battles. (Although, to be fair, in the Playstation rerelease of FF1 and FF2 Square wisely made it an option to choose between the two behaviors.)

Game balance also feels pretty good in FF3. I can’t remember a time when I felt a pressing need to wander around fighting random encounters to build levels. Sure, there were times I needed to get stronger to get through an area, but there was usually a sidequest or two to go on first instead that served just as well. That’s certainly something that can’t be said for FF1 or FF2.

FF3 is also the origin of many things you might otherwise think started in FF4. FF3 introduces summon magic and sidequests to get the best summons, including Leviathan and Bahamut. Thankfully, in FF3 summon magic is just a third type of magic, devoid of the excessive FMV and special effects found in the more recent games in the series. Naturally, it also introduces a lot of the jobs or character classes you see in later games, like Bard and Dragoon.

Of course, that’s not to say that FF3 is without its flaws. Personally, I often had trouble just finding my way around on the world map. The main world is fairly large, but there’s no way to see a map of the whole thing all at once. At best, you can see a map of the area around where you are, which helps a little but isn’t nearly as nice. There’s also a number of situations where you’re told to go somewhere, with little hint as to just where exactly that is. The worst case of this is when you first get the airship that lets you leave the flying continent and explore the main world. Unfortunately, the main world is large, and almost entirely underwater. There’s maybe four landmarks amidst the seemingly endless ocean, and three of them are clustered near each other. There’s no indication in the game (that I saw, at least) to suggest so much as what direction to fly in. It’s awfully hard to explore when all you see is endless expanses of water. Even later in the game I never got a good sense of direction in the main world, which often made getting from point A to point B a chore.

Some of the dungeons had annoying features that made them a pain to get through, too. Invisible passages are a neat way of hiding the occasional treasure, sure, and there’s usually a clue as to where they start. But building a dungeon almost entirely out of sneaking through invisible passages in the wall gets tedious very quickly. Also, a couple of the longer dungeons would benefit from adding save points halfway through. Too bad such save points are only introduced in FF4. They’re useful not just to checkpoint your progress but to let you take a break after a while. Exploring dungeons for treasure is fun for a while, but after about an hour and a half I want to take a break and go do something else. Because I do have things to do besides play FF3 and all. And on that note, whoever decided to not have the Exit spell work in the final dungeons has a lot of explaining to do. The final dungeon is really long if you’re not just trying to beeline your way through it (but still not as bad as the marathon that is FF2′s final dungeon).

Speaking of FF2, here’s why FF3′s options for character customization surpasses those if its predecessors. FF1, as I think I mentioned already, lets you choose jobs for each character at the beginning, but they’re unchangeable after that. If you decide later on that a second Fighter would’ve been much better than that Thief, too bad. FF2 tries to let you customize characters based on a sort of exercise system. Basically, whatever a particular character does, he or she gets better at it, and skills that aren’t exercised atrophy. Fight and you get better at fighting, cast magic and you get better at casting magic, cast particular spells and you get more powerful versions of those spells, etc. It sounds like a good idea, but there are glaring flaws in its implementation. First, the only way to grow HP and MP are to lose half or more of your max HP or MP in battle. This is annoying for HP (and trains you to not Cure your characters) and downright frustrating for MP; the only way to use up that much MP is to repeatedly cast spells that don’t really do anything and set in the same battle for ten minutes until you use up enough MP. The same problem holds for trying to exercise certain spells, and it’s not at all clear what advantage, if any, Shell 5 has over Shell 4; is it worth spending half an hour casting Shell repeatedly to get it? Who knows? (This isn’t to say such a system is inherently flawed; I thought it worked pretty well in Secret of Mana.) It’s no coincidence that every guide from FF2 I’ve seen suggests to one degree or another exploiting a bug that lets you exercise things more quickly than intended. Even worse, FF2 likes to do away with your fourth character every now and then without warning; any time you spent customizing him or her then becomes wasted, and you have to start largely from scratch, especially as far as magic goes. FF3 avoids FF2′s problems by going back to an experience-based system and by keeping the same four characters throughout the game.

In summary, since this post is getting long enough as it is, if you like the older (pre-FF7) games in the Final Fantasy series, FF3 is certainly worth a try. Naturally, since it hasn’t yet been released stateside, the only way to do so is find a translation hack ROM of it somewhere. There’s one floating around that has a pretty decent translation, actually. Not perfect, but par for the course as far as NES-era games go.

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