In order to play To the Earth, the NES Zapper is required. With the NES Zapper, your goal is to aim and shoot at the oncoming enemy fighters and gain power ups. The enemy ships will shoot at yours, and will decrease your energy bar, which at the beginning of the game is at 100. There are certain actions you can perform that will either decrease or increase your health, and they include:
- Missed shot: -2 health
- Destroy an opponent's ship: +5 health
- Get hit by a meteor: -5 health
- Destroy the meteor: +5 health
- Get hit by bomb: -5 health
- Pick up energy: +50 health
- Destroy an ally: -90 health
Destroying an ally ship will almost always result in a game over, and is the most dangerous thing you can do.
There are various items and special attacks that the player can execute that will help him or her in one way or another. The Nova can be executed by shooting the emblem when it appears in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. Doing so will not decrease your health (missing will), and shooting it will cause all of the enemies on screen to explode. It will only appear after destroying 5 ships. Occasionally an energy capsule will appear on the bottom left hand corner of the screen. Shooting it will increase your health by fifty, though it disappears within a few seconds. Finally shooting the blue streak that every once and awhile appears will cause a shield to appear that will guard you from seven bomb (though not ships).
The stages of the game include planets that are beyond Earth (not towards the Sun) and include, in order, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, and the Moon.
Nester, a character that used to regularly appear in the issues of Nintendo Power as a comic character alongside Howard, appeared as a character in To the Earth as the president of the federation (named Nester the Magnificent).