Earthbound represents more than just a game; it is a culture unto itself. Since its original American release in 1994, it has developed a huge cult following (far more so than the first game in the series, Mother, which was never released in America and has been played by few people outside of Japan). I am one of these cultists. About once every year or three, the itch hits me and I replay this game. It hasn't gotten boring for me yet in the ten years I've been playing it, and it won't for a good long while.
First, the basics. It was developed by Shigesato Itoi, a Japanese cartoonist. The plot is deliberately out of a bad 1950s sci-fi movie. An evil entity from another dimension, Giygas — while the game was in development he was called The Geek — is attacking Earth from ten years in the future, and his coming is heralded by flying saucers appearing, meteors striking in small-town America, and dogs (and snakes, and yaks, and policemen, and aging hippies) turning evil. You play as Ness, a typical teenaged boy from Eagleland (read: America) whose developing psychic powers can be used for (to paraphrase a blurb from long ago) fighting enemies, helping his friends, and cheating at volleyball.
You and a constantly shifting party of friends, man's best friends, teddy bears, giant men-turned-into-dungeons and insects (not to mention the three other "main" party members) travel across the world, from your sleepy hometown, to a British boarding school, to faraway Scarabia and Dalaam. Although the basic framework of traditional console RPGs is present, it is stretched and mutated to fit the game's style.
Almost everything in this game is either satire, weird Japanese humor that may or may not translate well into English (resulting in an inimitable style), or other bizarreness. You'll meet characters like the blues band The Runaway Five (renamed from the Runaway Brothers, as their source was a little too obvious), the genius inventor the Apple Kid (and his immaculate rival the Orange Kid), ride Nessie, fly in spaceships, interact with the bizarre Mr. Saturns in their hidden valley, and generally experience a range of weirdness not seen in any other game.
Items work strangely compared to some games — as the heroes are not supermen, they can only carry so much, and must divide the load between themselves, or have them stored in a warehouse for later delivery. Puzzles are solved with items like the Pencil Eraser, the stronger Eraser Eraser, the King Banana, or a host of other weird gewgaws. HP-restoring items are almost exclusively food (although you do get a "Hand-Aid" at one point), which can be enhanced by using condiments to enhance flavor. Because it is just normal food, you can find more by digging through the occasional trash can, ordering a pizza (guaranteed to arrive anywhere within space and time within three minutes or your money back), shopping around in a Middle Eastern bazaar, or haggling with the waiters in a posh resort restaurant to smuggle food out for you.
Many standbys of the genre were altered in order to accomodate the setting of Earthbound: in order to save your game, you must call your father on the telephone and tell him about what happened — and don't forget your ATM card, or you won't be able to withdraw money from the bank to use a pay phone! Instead of fighting with swords and shields (with the sometimes exception of Crown Prince Poo), your characters use yo-yos, baseball bats, pop guns, and frying pans. If you want to get quickly to the next town, you can hop aboard a bus, or just bum a ride from the Runaway Five, who you repeatedly rescue from evil managers and similar types.
Battle is often criticized, but I'm really not all that irritated with it and its shortcomings. It's heavily turn-based — you choose the attacks for your entire party one after the other, and then the round plays itself out. You can attack normally, use psychic abilities (read: "magic"), fight with stuff out of your bizarre menagerie of an inventory, or even pray for divine intervention (which more often than you'd think gets your party hit by lightning). If you're tired with repeated battles (which aren't random, but it's not always easy to avoid running into enemies in dungeons), there's an option to Auto Fight, with the computer having your party use their normal weapons and heal as needed. If you get into a fight with an enemy who's much weaker than you are, the battle will probably won't even happen: you'll win without leaving the overworld screen, and the game will award experience and items to the party without any fuss.
The diversity of monsters you fight really helps to enforce the game's mood. Because normal things are being influenced by Giygas' evil, you'll find yourself fighting stray dogs, off-duty policemen, angry mothers with agendas, modern art, space robots from the future, evil stop signs, ancient mummies, enormous molecules, djinns, and a ridiculous range of other bizarre and funny opponents. And they're not killed at the end of battle — they return to their senses, sometimes even helping you afterwards.
In this game, don't expect to be poisoned or silenced often — it's more likely that you'll catch a cold, a flu, sunstroke, have your head turned into a diamond, get high on spores from an evil walking mushroom, or even get homesick (in which case, you'd better head home or at the least call your Mom if you don't want Ness to get sick of saving the world and break down into tears in the middle of a battle). You can heal your characters through medication, psychic abilities, or simply checking them into a hospital (or, in the case of shrooms, selling them to an off-duty orderly).
The game will eventually take you around the world, into the future, into the Bizarro version of the town of Fourside, to a lost underworld full of dinosaurs and bad puns, and at one point into your own psyche, clad only in your jammies (your birthday suit in the original Japanese version) to converse with the people and things you have bottled up within your mind.
I can't stress enough how much I love this game. Give it a chance if you can find a copy, play it through, laugh at the jokes you understand, accept the ones you don't, and hope beyond hope that Mother 3 will be translated into English once it's finished. The game is on a level of its own, as the slavish hordes of Earthbound cultists will tell you. There is no other game which I'd rather bring with me to a desert island, and for good reason. Someday, when I'm old, senile, and irritable, I'll still be quoting Earthbound and annoying my great-grandchildren.