Trouble is, EarthBound Zero isn't a prequel. "Prequel" implies that a game takes place before the events of another game, but was created afterwards, potentially streamlining and improving on the original. In truth, EarthBound Zero (Mother) is the original, and EarthBound (Mother 2) streamlines and improves on it in virtually every way possible. EarthBound is a shining example of a sequel done so well that it's almost a waste of time to go back and play the original—which makes EarthBound Zero one heck of a lousy prequel.
Expectations make a huge difference in a person's enjoyment of a game. If you've read my review of Gemini Rue, you know that I've been guilty at least once before of letting myself be disappointed by a game for reasons completely beyond the game developers' control. Perhaps it was foolish of me to expect that EarthBound Zero's menu system would be as elegant as the one featured a half-decade later in EarthBound. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that a contemporary of Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior would also have endless random battles out of nowhere. I might've been happier taking each new party member at face value instead of holding my breath for a full compliment of four party members, which I was certain was the standard. By playing the unreleased English version of Mother like it was a prequel to EarthBound, I found myself growing more and more disenchanted with the game.
Yet it wasn't solely my expectations that brought me down. Once I got past the initial shock of how unrefined the game was by comparison, various aspects of EarthBound Zero continued to nag at me. The music, for instance—most of the tunes are recycled from EarthBound. But wait...EarthBound came later. So that means the sequel is guilty of recycling almost the entire soundtrack of its predecessor. That's so disappointing. And it doesn't end there—enemies, PK/PSI powers, weapons, even the heroes are nearly carbon copies, too. I don't know anymore whether to praise EarthBound for taking all the great ideas of its predecessor and presenting them in an altogether better package, or to deride the game for laziness, overdone nostalgia, or creative poverty. I'll need to go back and play EarthBound again with this fresh perspective to see how it holds up, but I suspect my high opinion of the game won't be shaken—after all, the novelty of a game doesn't matter as much to me as how the old and new come together to form a game worth playing.
EarthBound Zero? Incredibly novel for its time. And that's the best thing I have to say about it. Even with judging the game on its own merits instead of making comparisons, things don't get much rosier.
Locations are wastefully oversized, superficially inflating the length of the game—straying from the path at all to explore your surroundings is a sure-fire way to get lost, there's not enough variety in the scenery or the random battles to justify spending so much time traversing each area, and there's virtually never any reward for poking around. It's just cruel to let the player spend several minutes wandering into a part of the overworld so remote that there's got to be treasure nearby, only to find it's a dead-end. It's tiresome to continually backtrack through areas where the same four enemies you keep fighting are also the same four enemies you were fighting in the last area, and the area before that, and the area before that.
Character progression is a mess: I fended off the attacks of inanimate objects in my home, explored the town of Podunk, rescued a girl from a zombie-infested graveyard, beat up loose animals at the zoo, marched out into the boonies, transported myself to the dream world of Magicant, wandered across the clouds, navigated an underground maze of ladders, limped my way through the mountains down into town, stopped at the ATM for cash, got run over by crazed vehicles a few times on the road back to Podunk, and hiked back into the boonies to return to Magicant with more than $20 in my pocket to buy MY FIRST PIECE OF ARMOR IN THE GAME. At which point I had amassed so much money that I bought out the entire store and was decked out with all the best protective equipment in the game before meeting my first new party member.
Then there's the issue of talking with townspeople. Nevermind that I kept anticipating they'd be as entertaining as the NPCs in EarthBound (there are a few chuckles in EarthBound Zero, but I get the feeling the localization crew was more focused on basic readability than flavor). Instead of spouting humor from their mouths, EarthBound Zero's townsfolk more often spout status ailments out of their noses. Talking to people is a liability—if they're not sneezing on you and giving you a cold (which deals damage as you walk and is stupidly expensive and inconvenient to cure), they're getting you thrown in jail and overcharging you for tickets and picking fights with you. I have never played a game with so many negative consequences for striking up conversations with strangers, and while that might be more realistic or an interesting change of pace for the genre, it happens so often that I actually stopped talking to people altogether toward the end of the game. The NPCs are neither helpful nor humorous enough to justify the hundreds of dollars I spent on hospital visits and mouthwash to cleanse myself from speaking with them.
The entire time I played EarthBound Zero, my list of grievances grew. I bemoaned everything from the unwinnable giant robot battle that no one warns you about, to the overly rapid progression of PK powers (you gain new powers more quickly than you can reasonably figure out how to use them all), to the terribly unfocused plot (You there! Eight-year-old boy! Leave the house and go do something! Oh, and your grandfather was important somehow). Music, controls, graphics, gameplay, story—everything that could possibly find a way to annoy or disappoint me did somehow. Both as a precursor to EarthBound and as a standalone game, EarthBound Zero let me down. I resorted to frequent consultation of maps and walkthroughs about halfway through the game to ensure I wasn't wasting any more time on this than I had to.
What kept me playing, then? For one thing, a curiosity about the game that paved the way for one of my favorite RPGs of all time. For another thing, I'm a completionist, and it doesn't sit well with me to drop a game after I've already invested enough time to make a dent in it. As a review writer and student of gaming history, playing bad or mediocre games can be creatively and intellectually stimulating, providing me with more to talk about and offering me a broader perspective on this pastime I enjoy so much. Then there's always this hope that the game will suddenly improve if I keep playing (which is not totally unfounded—tough games like Mega Man X3 get better as you get better, and the last quarter of Golden Sun: The Lost Age is disproportionately fantastic compared to the rest of the series up to that point).
Most importantly, though, I continued playing because there were things worth playing for. The core mechanics are solid. The enemies are creative—I love that there's a cave-dwelling enemy called The Fish, who pops out of a hole to fight you, and I'm amused by Dr. Distorto and his band of scrapyard robots. I actually laughed out loud when I thought about the ramifications of disgruntled farmer Wally chasing me around the countryside despite repeated wallopings. I also laughed about finding "that weakling" Loid hiding out in a trash can, only to meet his father later on who also hides in a trash can. Having the nonlinear freedom to go wherever I wanted, provided I was strong enough to survive the battles in any given area, was refreshing. Riding around in a tank and teaming up with a super-powerful and incredibly tall robot was a figurative and literal blast. Having an item that instantly teleported me back to Magicant at any time for emergency saving and healing was immensely useful.
So many good things in this game. So many things to interfere with the enjoyment.
EarthBound Zero was a slog. It started out fine, and slowly descended into tedium peppered with just enough creativity to keep me curious about what else the game had in store. Had I grown up on the game, I probably would've loved it, and would be more forgiving of the flaws. But I grew up with EarthBound, and there's such a world of difference between the two that it's difficult to go backwards. Many of the ideas are the same, but it's the execution that launches the sequel so far above the original. Unfulfilled expectations were simply the beginning.
Despite all my complaints, I did buckle down and beat the game. With an exhausted sigh of relief, I almost let the ending run without me as I stood up to stretch and walk around. Neither the story nor the characters had hooked me enough to care too much about how things got resolved, and I was so weary from the gameplay that I didn't want my hands anywhere near the controller for a while. Whatever positive things I had gotten out of EarthBound Zero, I was happy to be done with it. I could update my Backloggery and move on to other games that weren't so needlessly drawn-out, narratively disjointed, and inconsistently fun.
Naturally, my first instinct was to replay Mega Man X7.
[Continued in Part 2.]