Friday, August 27, 2010

The Earthbound/Mother Retrospective

The Mother series



The mother series started as a project by Shigesato Itoi who became fascinated with videogames during the 80's Famicom craze in japan. Itoi was an acclaimed writer and tv personality in japan. He was amazed at the interaction videogames offered but wasn't impressed with the story telling. He decided to approach Nintendo about making a videogame for them. Nintendo jumped at the chance to have such a high profile writer working on a game and the implications it would have. What came of this was the Mother/Earthbound series, one of the most highly acclaimed game series ever that unfortunately isn't very well known in the west.


Mother / Earthbound Zero



Mother was Itoi's first game and was a collaboration between him and HAL laboratories. Although a US release of the game was planned Nintendo dropped it at the last minute. Fortunately a fully translated complete prototype of the game was uncovered and released through rom sites so non japanese speakers can experience it. Considering the rom is dated 1990 the translation is absolutely superb and head and shoulders above the nonsense that passed as a translation in those days or even 7 years later when awful translations like Final Fantasy VII's was considered acceptable. There is the usual nintendo censorship, things like crosses on the churches, cigarettes and some gore from the zombies removed, but over all the game is pretty much the same as the japanese version other than the addition of a run button.


Mother plays very much like the Dragon Quest series. You can choose between physical attacks or psychic 'Psi' atttacks that work like magic. It's very old school. You will need to do a lot of grinding in this game to get anywhere, even for the first area. However the battle system is rather good and there's a lot of strategy involved in the game. If there is a major issue it's that the difficulty of the final stages is ridiculous. You will need to do some ridiculous grinding to get through the final area and in the final section the normal enemies are way harder than even the final boss who can be taken on at much lower levels. Your best bet here is to run away from every battle. Also dungeons are complicated mazes so you are best to get maps and a faq to get through the game.


What sets mother and the whole series apart is the setting. Unlike the usual tolkien rip off or generic sci-fi we see in every RPG the mother series is set in a contemporary 90's setting, a rural 90's middle america in this case, albeit an exagerated japanese prespective of it which makes the game very unique. There's a 1950's sci-fi vibe underlying the plot as well. You don't buy swords or arrows but equip sports equipment like baseball bats and yo-yos to do battle. Even getting your health back requires you to eat regular foods instead of 'potions'. You don't kill enemies, they 'come to their senses'. You encounter a strange assortment of enemies, notable examples being getting attacked by your possessed lamp and new age hippies.


Plotwise you can expect something special with Itoi involved. The game starts with this weird message:


But it's not until the very end that you understand the significance of what is written here. The world of Mother is rather zany. You'll rescue a girl from zombie mafiosa, take on 1950's alien starmen and one sequence see's you driving a tank across a desert, destroying a massive robot before crashing into a cave filled with talking monkeys. The whole game revolves around learning the notes of a lullaby from such objects as a singing cactus, monkey, doll etc. It all seems weird and offbeat without any interconnection but the truth is that storywise the game is a serious work of art. The game really gives you a sense of nostalgia for the silly adventures you got up to as a kid and in this it really does succeed. There's a strange area in the game called Magicant that you will revisit a lot and once you uncover the truth about this area right at the end of the game you are greeted with what is really a very emotional scene that very nearly works and is only kept back by the lack of rom space to add enough exposition. It's amazing that a game can generate so much emotion on an 8-bit platform.


The game is technically outstanding for a NES game. It looks beautiful and the world map is massive, it's probably the biggest game area in a NES game. The biggest stand out is the music which really is some of the best written on NES. A vocal album was released that is incredibly rare to find but is well worth looking up on youtube:



The game is hard to recommend since its archaic ways are very difficult for most modern gamers to get over but as a culturally significant game to someone interested in the medium it really is worth experiencing as long as you know what you are getting in for. I'll leave this section with some screenshots from the beginning of the game.




Mother 2 / Earthbound


Unlike Mother, Mother 2 did get a western release under the name of Earthbound. Mother 2 was one of the most highly anticipated games for the SNES in japan and nintendo tried to kickstart an RPG craze in the US with Earthbound. There was a massive advertising campaign and the game was released in a massive box that included a walkthrough guide and scratch and sniff stickers. It sold well but not as well as nintendo had hoped. However the game reached enough gamers to start a cult following for the series in the west, but more on that at the end of the article.


Development of Earthbound started soon after the first game and soon turned into a nightmare development that took over 5 years (most games at the time had turn around times of less than a year). HAL laboratories and APE Inc. were both involved in the development of the game and this caused a lot of the trouble. Co-ordinating two separate teams spearated by a huge distance before the internet really took off was a major hurdle. The games cartridge size had to be increased multiple times to fit the game, starting out at 8-mbit and ending up at a massive for the time 24-mbit. The game did eventually come out and what we ended up with was one of the best RPG games ever made that is just as good today as it's ever been.


Gameplay is much improved over the previous game. It's much better balanced than Mother with no need for endless level grinding. The biggest addition to the game is the rolling health bar. If you take damage your health doesn't immediately decrease but drops slowly. If you can finish the battle or heal quick enough you can stop your health decreasing. Some enemies have attacks that take all your energy outright in one hit but taking them out quickly or healing before your health reaches zero will stop your health decreasing. This simple addition adds a lot of strategy and trepidition to a slow turn based battle system. Another big addition is that there are no longer random battles. All enemies are visible on screen and you can gain the upper hand by attacking them in the back, although they can take advantage of this as well. When you get to a high enough level you can instantly kill the enemies by touching them making backtracking a painless experience. I also love the psychadelic backgrounds that use the SNES mode 7 tricks to their fullest.



Earthbound returns to the modern contemporary world of mother but this time with influence from both America and Europe but with that zany japanese perspective again. Equipment is standard sports paraphenalia and healing items are food stuffs you will find in any food store.  You can even use phones to order yourself a pizza that will get delivered to you. You need to use an ATM card to withdraw money. The attention to detail in this area is really what makes this game series totally unique in a sea of generic RPGs. The enemies you meet are crazy and include mushrooms that infect you with a mushroom on your head that if not removed reverses your controls, crazy bag ladies and unwashed homeless bums.




Itoi outdoes himself in the story telling department. There's no need to have played the first game either to enjoy the story. The game starts out with a meteor landing near the main characters house. When he sets out to investigate it he finds a fly living in it that can talk and tells him that he is from the future were everything is destroyed and he is the choosen one to save the world. That is until he gets mistaken for a normal fly and swathed leaving you without a guide. It all seems very generic but it turns into anything but. Some of the scenarios include rescuing a town from a haunted circus filled with zombies, taking down a cult that is obsessed with anything blue and making your way through a desert after getting stuck in a traffic jam. The game is full of memorable scenarios such as the famous mister saturns and your visit to the surreal Fourside which I won't spoil! Nintendo have to be commended on an absolutely stellar translation job that I can't find any fault in.


Itoi's input into the writing of the game is evident from how far ahead the narrative is even compared to games of today. Unlike the first game there's plenty of laugh out loud moments. The game actively takes ridicules many of the RPG conventions. A character in the game will keep coming up with ridiculous machines like the 'Gourmet Yogurt Machine' that seem to have no use but seconds later a character will say they need it, playing on the fact that you always seem to have a tool available to overcome even the silliest of challenges and crises in RPGs. There's even a man that you meet throughout your adventures that builds dungeons as a job. They start out a bit plain but get more intricate as he improves. Again there's real emotional heart to the game with nostalgia being a big theme. The game seems very jolly and light hearted but it all rings false at the end and the game features one of the most nightmarish and disturbing end sections of any game I've experienced. Again I don't want to spoil it but it's absolute genius and uses sound in the same way as the film 'Irreversible' to really upset the player. Itoi envisioned it as the end of innocence during childhood and it succeeds brilliantly. It lulls the player into a false sense of playfulness and catharsis before it's shocking and moving finale shatters these preconceptions.


Earthbound got a lot of stick from the press at the time for being a simple looking game. At the time Donkey Kong Country was the way people thought videogame graphics were going. However time has shown that Earthbound really was a gorgeous looking game while prerendered digitised graphics now look garish and ugly. The game had a really appealing and colourful mix of charlie brown and matt groening that is well detailed and pretty much timeless. It's a fabulous looking game. Music is also of a high standard although I prefer the melodies in the first game.


Earthbound is a game that I'd recommend every RPG fan to play. There really is nothing like it and for a game released in 1994 it's way ahead of it's time with a fantastic battle system and no random battles. However it's Itoi's narrative that really stands out. A true timeless classic that deserves the love and adoration it received. Now for some screenies:





Earthbounds Impact and its Community


The Mother series has built up a big cult following in the West. Earthbound seems to have a strange effect on people. Most people liked the game but there was also a lot of people that fell madly in love with it and everything about it. True earthbound/mother fans are totally obsessed with the franchise. The explosion of internet popularity at the time of the games release has lead to the fanbase to gather around a website that has become the go to source for westerners for all things Mother or Earthbound. That website is Starmen: http://starmen.net/


Earthbounds fanbase are like no other. There's a true community spirit between them all. There's none of the inane bickering that you get in other fanbases or gamers trying to show off how good they are in competitive games, digital dick waving if you will. Everyone just seems to get along which for anyone into gaming culture knows is quite remarkable. When Mother 3 wasn't getting released outside of japan two translation teams began working on translating the game. Usually this would end up in bickering between them both about who started it first and who would get it finished first. However in this case both teams decided to work together to get the project finished quicker, totally unheard of in fan videogame translation circles.


Make no mistake Earthbound fans are probably the craziest videogame fans out there but they kind of know they are and embrace it. Starmen.net has launched it's own line of clothing based on the mother series and brought out a complete glossy strategy guide for mother 3 when the unofficial english translation was completed. It really goes to show the amount of love the fans have for the series.


Unfortunately I haven't played Mother 3 so can't cover it which is a shame since it's even more interesting than the first two games. It had been in development starting as a game for the ill fated N64 DD add-on before becoming an N64 title. It was completed but scrapped by Itoi because he didn't like the art style due to the primitive 3D of the N64. The game eventually resurfaced years later on the Gameboy Advance. Itoi kept the same story as the N64 game. The GBA was popular enough at the time for the game to find it's audience but more importantly to Itoi could also provide the gorgeous 2D visuals he preferred to the N64's low polygon models and enviroments and kept the look and feel similar to previous games. The game was released at the end of the GBA's life and would have taken nintendo too long to translate so it never saw a release in the west but an unofficial translation by fans was eventually released on the internet after 2 years of hard work. I've heard the game is very emotional, dealing with the loss of loved ones and the unstoppable changing of the environment we grow up in and is supposedly one of the best games ever made. I hope I manage to get around to it soon.

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