When you thought of the RPG genre in the 90s, what immediately came to mind was a high fantasy setting – swords and magic, monsters and dragons, caves and dungeons, the standard fare. EarthBound, or Mother 2 in Japan, was Nintendo’s attempt at creating a humorous RPG based on what was popular thus far (Dragon Quest III was insanely popular around this time) with a completely different mood.
EarthBound is the 2nd game in the Mother series, but the first one to be officially released outside of Japan. The first Mother game was completely localized but ended up being canceled as it was completed too late within the life cycle of the NES, with the release of the Super Nintendo already imminent.
The full English language prototype has existed as a ROM image on the internet for over two decades, however, as EarthBound Zero and later as an official release on the Nintendo Wii U Virtual Console as EarthBound Beginnings.
EarthBound dared to be different by setting an RPG in a more common environment – namely, an ordinary rural town in what appears to be a pseudo-facsimile of the modern-day real world. Great pitch for a game, right? Why not just go outside instead, explore a mall parking lot, punch some leaves, and call it a day? Well, as anyone who has played even a few minutes of the game will find out, everyday life in EarthBound is anything but ordinary.
You’ll be cast in the shoes of a young boy, Ness, whom everyone knows by now due to Smash, and go on a journey to save the planet from an invading alien conqueror, Giygas, who seeks to brainwash the entire planet.
Other characters that appear in EarthBound as unlikely heroes include Paula, a young girl being held captive by a deranged cult leader, Jeff, the boy genius son to a world-renowned scientist, and Poo. a martial artist and monk from a strange, far away land. Certainly a completely average and ordinary gang of playground pals.
EarthBound’s Charm Comes From its Quirky, Often Surreal Writing Style
Armed with a baseball bat, Ness and friends face hipster hippies, blue paint-obsessed cultists, and corrupt negligent local law enforcement to name a few. But Giygas’ mind control powers also extend to local oafs and hooligans, but also to area wildlife. Cocky ducks (those things are very punchable, seriously, screw that duck and its stupid expression), sunglass-wearing crows, and a mole-hole full of indecisive flunkies.
Here’s where it gets weird(er): Giygas’ powers apparently extend to inanimate objects as well. Due to the wacky and often unpredictable writing style of the game, it should be apparent that you’ll be up against anything, almost including the literal kitchen sink.
The oddball surreal real-world scenarios coupled with the style of music presented in the game (composed by game music and chiptune legend Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, Keiichi Suzuki, and Shogo Sakai) modeling itself off of Western music, for example, classics from the ’60s is reminiscent of a certain time period, type of person, and general psychedelic aesthetic in American history.
One must wonder if maybe there is no Giygas, and perhaps everyone in the game is just tripping balls – which would theoretically make the game seem even more realistic and feasible when you think about it.
Even the gameplay itself is rather zany. Other RPGs of the time will deal damage to characters in real-time, resulting in sudden death. EarthBound features a cartoon-esque rolling health gauge where your characters’ HP values will slowly roll down as they take damage. Even if a character is dealt potentially lethal damage, that character will not faint until the value rolls down to zero.
If you defeat your foes beforehand or apply aid in the form of healing to the character in question, the fainting can be prevented. The way I picture this scenario playing out in my head is Ness is running around, screaming at the top of his lungs that he is bleeding out after being “bitten” by an animate painting. If he eats a cookie in time, his blood sugar will balance out, and he will regain his bearings if only slightly.
If not, a dreadful panic attack is imminent and he will pass out. When a game has such imaginative writing, the imaginations of the players only make it better by several-fold.
Featuring Cults, Admired by Cults
Even if the basic turn-based gameplay is a little bit stale, how is it possible to not find the general mood of the game amusing? For this reason, the game has earned a special place in the hearts of gamers.
Even gamers who are not typically fans of the JRPG genre were eventually lured in by EarthBound’s reputation for having a unique goofy, entertaining style of writing.
As SNES games are no longer produced except by 3rd parties in limited runs, the number of games in circulation has gone down with time. While EarthBound was not an exceptionally rare game to begin with, the fact that it has achieved cult status, coupled with the special packaging and accessories (an official pack-in guide book, scratch and sniff cards) sold with the initial run of the game has led it to become a highly desirable collectible within the realm of classic gaming.
A complete in-box copy of Earthbound tends to be listed on online auction sites such as eBay from anywhere starting in the $600 USD to $1000 USD+ range these days, while a naked cart tends to fetch between $100 and $200 USD. This makes it one of the most expensive SNES games to purchase in the secondhand market.
The fact that it goes for such a premium price is enough to turn heads and drive up hype regarding the game, essentially recruiting new audiences to try it out even though 25+ years have passed since its initial release.
The Mother Series is Something that Everyone Wants and Expects to Eventually See More of
Following the SNES release of EarthBound, plans to move forward with the franchise and release a Mother series game for the Nintendo 64, namely on the N64 disk drive auxiliary attachment was announced. There is even a mock-up featuring preliminary footage in a video showing a montage of potential upcoming N64 releases that was released in the late 90s.
Unfortunately, the N64 disk drive being as impractical as it was ended up flopping, with very little software support in Japan. It was scrapped in the West entirely, and thus EarthBound on the N64 never had a fighting chance.
The next complete Mother game would end up being Mother 3 on the Gameboy Advance in 2006, once again so late within the life cycle of the console that expecting an official localization was all but a pipe dream.
A fan translation was announced before long and completed in swift fashion (especially for a fan translation, which typically takes many years to complete due to lack of direction, technical difficulties, and general work-flow organizational problems).
With EarthBound Beginnings appearing on the Wii U Virtual Console, the community expected an eventual official Localization of Mother 3 to follow soon after. However, this was not the case.
While EarthBound didn’t sell exceptionally well at the time, falling far short of the goal of one million units sold overseas, it became a cult classic that has inspired a generation of gamers. With the popularity of Smash reaching far and wide, and several Mother franchise characters from multiple games being a part of the Smash line-up, recognition for the series continues to grow.
There are also new ways to attract another generation of gamers, such as the SNES Classic Mini. With the convenience of the Nintendo Switch, and series recognition at an all-time high, will Nintendo decide to move forward with the Mother series and release the 4th installment in the near future? Or perhaps the Switch will see rereleases of EarthBound, EarthBound Beginnings, or even an official localization of Mother 3?
It’s hard to say. It’s clear that Nintendo is very fond of what they have created, based on their insistence of Mother being an iconic game with iconic characters that deserve apt representation everywhere that Nintendo has a presence.
Unfortunately, many of the key players in the inception and success of Mother and Mother 2 are no longer with us. Satoru Iwata, who was credited with having the programming know-how that single-handedly saved EarthBound during a period where the development of Mother 2 was facing problems, passed away from complications that resulted from a tumor.
Even the main writer and director of the series, Shigesato Itoi, has been cited as not being interested in working on a 4th installment of the series. Many of the other creative minds involved in Mother including the composers are still active in the industry to this day. If the popularity of the series grows further and the demand from the fans increases, perhaps a spiritual successor to Mother has a place in Nintendo’s future.