Earthbound vs Chrono Trigger - Ness and the gang walking around

Why is Earthbound so Much Better than Chrono Trigger?

It’s Earthbound vs. Chrono Trigger in the ultimate RPG face-off!

How many times have you been presented with a “this or that” style question in your life? A lot? I think a lot is a safe number because people are constantly looking for the best option between subject A and subject B. It is natural for us to try to determine which things are our favorite things.

The question also helps to open up a dialog when it comes to the subject, even if the opposing parties disagree. So when I was asked which is better: Earthbound vs. Chrono Trigger, I could not believe how easy the decision was going to be. 

Won’t you take a walk with me?

Earthbound. 

Earthbound all the way!

Earthbound was mistreated.

Earthbound never got the fair shake that it deserved.

Sure, both games are on Wikipedia’s Greatest Games ever list. And sure, people will argue that Chrono Trigger was much more innovative than Earthbound for the time.

But without the tumultuous start that Earthbound had when it was released and the obscene price tag currently affixed to the original Super Nintendo cartridge, I am one-hundred percent positive that a face off between Earthbound vs. Chrono Trigger would end with Earthbound ripping and tearing and coming out the undeniable victor.

For those that are not in the loop – both of these games are commonly linked together because they are both role-playing games (JRPGs more precisely. You can learn all about the Birth of JRPGs in Steven Long’s deep dive on that topic) that were released for the Super Nintendo around the same time.

Chrono Trigger had one world-wide release in 1995, while Earthbound had a Japanese release (1994) and a North American release (1995).  While only thirty percent of the world got to enjoy Earthbound, one-hundred percent of the world had a chance to purchase Chrono Trigger.

Mind you, the internet was not as pervasive as it is now. Most people received their information through word of mouth, magazine, television, and the newspaper. That means there was a whole seventy percent of the world population that had limited exposure to Earthbound when it was released!

Chrono Trigger vs Earthbound a scratch and sniff marketing insert.
Still smells better than Chrono Trigger.

The marketing strategy used to sell Earthbound was, to put it nicely, unorthodox. Nintendo strictly used magazine ads to promote the game with a campaign called “This Game Stinks,” attaching a foul-smelling Scratch and Sniff copy. GamePro said that this ad had the most complaints ever. 

On top of that, the game came packaged with a player’s guide, which increased the size of the box and the price. Nintendo spent two-million dollars on marketing Earthbound in North America and only sold 140,000 games. Meanwhile, Chrono Trigger sold 289,000 copies in America alone with a typical marketing campaign. Earthbound did not get a re-release opportunity until 2015.

G to the Next Level's in-box copy of Earthbound
Earthbound’s too-big box. Image credit: @GToTheNextLevel

And lastly, Earthbound was not taken seriously because of its cartoonish graphics, adult humor, and modern-day setting.

Whenever a critic would touch Earthbound, their first comparison would be Final Fantasy because that is the standard everyone has judged a role-playing game on. If you took out everything that is innovative about Chrono Trigger, you would have just another Final Fantasy clone. Chrono Trigger appeased the majority of the video-gaming audience while Earthbound was “too different” for anyone to play seriously.

The obligatory “Don’t get me wrong”

Don’t get me wrong – Chrono Trigger is a good game. Instead of disappearing into a new screen to resolve combat, Chrono Trigger would have your team battle the enemies on the same screen.

Enemies do not randomly appear on the screen; instead, they walk around just like your team does on the map. Some of them can even pop out and surprise you! This was a huge evolution to the Active Battle System that was implemented in Final Fantasy IV.

Chrono Trigger vs Earthbound - an animated scene from Chrono Trigger
Chrono Trigger

The storyline in Chrono Trigger is interesting as well. The main character, Chrono, gets into all sorts of trouble with Marle and Lucca.

Marle gets lost while time traveling. Lucca discovers that Marle is royalty from another era. Chrono is put on trial and sentenced to death. Marle refuses to return to her kingdom. They fall into a future where the world has been destroyed by a time-traveling parasite that wants to drain the planet of its energy. Then they save the planet. You know. Your typical Tuesday stuff.

But that is all of the innovation that Chrono Trigger has to offer.

Beyond the admittedly epic plot, the settings are very typical for a role-playing game. The main characters in Chrono Trigger will frequently travel through time so they can obtain allies, fight enemies, gather equipment, and learn information that will help them on their quest.

Chrono Trigger’s generic fantasy world.

The time-zones they will travel to include a prehistoric age, the middle ages, a post-apocalyptic future, and the End of Time (which is more like a hallway between the time-zones as opposed to being a typical End of Time scene.)

The items you are typically looking for include swords, guns, bows, armor, accessories, potions, keys, and tools. The non-boss level enemies you fight includes knights, aggressive animals, and demons. Everything that I have listed in this paragraph can be found in just about any role-playing game released before 1995.

Earthbound did something different.

Earthbound, on the other hand, offers a completely different experience compared to any other role-playing game released before 1995.

Only one role-playing game in existence up until this point has used kids as the main characters in their storyline. That game is called Mother, the prequel game to Earthbound. It was released in Japan in 1989 for the Nintendo system. Mother was not released anywhere else in the world until 2003 (which was then renamed to Earthbound Beginnings and released on the Game Boy Advance).

Some weird dudes up in this game…

The fact that the protagonist are kids also influenced a lot of other development decisions that were made in the game. Several examples includes:

•The weapons of choice are baseball bats, yo-yos, slingshots, and frying pans.

•When you defeat an enemy, instead of collecting money from them, your father deposits money into a bank account for you.

•Instead of killing an enemy, you make them good.

•When saving your game, you call your father from a payphone.

The combat system in Earthbound is also innovative for its time. Sure, you disappear into a new screen when you start combat. But the enemies do not sneak up on you randomly. Instead, combat starts when two characters make contact with each other on the map. If someone touches the other from behind, the initiating character gets an attack of opportunity.

Hit points and psychic points are tracked on an odometer at the bottom of the screen. Damage and used points are deducted by “rolling down” from the odometer. Each character can make one of five actions:

•Attack

•Heal

•Spy (reveal an enemies weakness/strengths)

•Mirror (emulate a specific enemy)

•Run Away

As the game progresses, if you attempt to fight a weaker enemy, the game will automatically give you the win. Weaker enemies will even flee from you if you attempt to approach them!

And I have yet to get into the story!

Earthbound starts off with Ness investigating a meteorite crash with his neighbor, Pokey. They discover that an alien force, named Giygas, has encased the world in hatred!

A small creature instructs Ness to collect melodies into the Sound Stone from eight Sanctuaries so he can stop Giygas. With the help of several new friends (Paula, Jeff, and Poo), Ness visits several locations in search of the eight Sanctuaries.

I could go on, but…

Let’s just say, in my opinion Earthbound is a far superior game to Chrono Trigger.

Chrono Trigger does have some good points, and it wasn’t totally without innovation, but difference between it and Earthbound in setting, art-style, characters, story structure, and combat format, really favor Earthbound.

Earthbound did what no game was doing at the time. It has an ability to be playable, fun, and deep. But at the same time, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It was really and truly ahead of its time.

It’s such a shame that Earthbound never had a chance to thrive in 1995. Thanks to weird marketing choices and spotty releases around the world, it was never able to get the spotlight it richly deserved. Maybe the world just wasn’t ready for it. Maybe we still aren’t. (Dramatic silence)

Trying to start or grow a retrogaming collection of your own? Check out our Ghetto Guide to Collecting Retro Games.

2 comments

  1. Super biiased, you don’t even mention the combined techniques on chrono trigger, or the multiple endings. You make it sound like a boring lineal story that just jumps on and off into the past/future. It has a bunch of twists, your initial antagonist ends up joining you.. it’s pretty good. And toriyama did the designs, that’s a big plus.

    Earthbound is super charming and i love how it dared change the setting and have weird enemies (a mad duck? abstract art? fuck yeah). And it’s a very nice ride all the way through.
    It’s a glimpse of what RPGs could’ve been if developers to this day weren’t such lazy hacks. I can’t believe it’s 2020 and most RPGs are still set on medieval worlds with wizards, dragons and magic.

  2. Earthbound is a great game. I’m glad to have been a kid during this time to experience it. But to compare it to chrono trigger is a little silly. FF7 might be the only other game in the same class. There is no comparison here. Innovation is not enough to be considered a better game.

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