Mother / EarthBound Beginnings
Many fans of EarthBound who played the game upon its 1995 release had no idea initially that it was a sequel. Back two decades ago, it was quite normal for North American releases of games to omit the fact that they were sequels of games not released in North America. For proof of this, you can look at the releases of other RPGs on the SNES like Final Fantasy II & III, which were actually IV and VI respectively in Japan. Of course, just like Final Fantasy II, III, and V, Mother would eventually be discovered by eager Western audiences and would get a localized release. It definitely didn’t happen in a timely fashion though. There’s a storied history behind both the “bootleg” ROM release and the official Virtual Console release of Mother on the Wii U. We will get to all that another day as it’s a long story in itself.
Mother was a rather unconventional first effort from a wily Japanese copywriter named Shigesato Itoi. Looking at it from a gameplay standpoint, Mother appeared like a standard Dragon Quest clone as it was an RPG that used a turn based battle system in first person perspective. In battle, you had options to “Bash” (physical attack), “PSI” (Psychic Powers, similar to Magic in a traditional RPG), “Defend”, “Goods”, etc. The game uses tiled windows with minimal animations, with much of what’s occurring being described in text in a window at the top of the screen.
Outside of battles, the game begins with a brief backstory of a young married couple named George and Maria told in text. Shortly after, you are thrust into the role of the main character, often dubbed “Ninten”, which appears to be short for “Nintendo”. Ninten and his family experience a paranormal occurrence in their home. He learns from his father, who you speak to only over the phone through the course of the game, that Ninten’s great-grandfather had studied psychic powers and Ninten must embark on a journey to unfold the mystery of what is causing the new perils facing the world.
What was quite noticeable at the time of its release was how much the game broke free from the medieval trappings of its contemporaries on the NES. Whereas Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy very much focused on generic knights, swords, magic, and the like, Mother was set in Shigesato Itoi’s idea of North America. The original Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior were very rooted in pen-and-paper RPG ideals. Mother opted instead to thrust you into the role of a 12-year-old boy with a baseball bat. Instead of mysterious “Magic”, he was given psychic powers. Instead of drinking potions to restore HP, he ate hamburgers. Mother’s world was almost a parody of how Japan saw North America, as well as a tongue-in-cheek parody of RPGs in general. EarthBound would take these ideas even further and with greater detail and wit, but at the time, Mother was much more of a breakthrough as there were no other NES RPGs quite like it in 1989.
Unlike EarthBound, where you can see enemies on screen when exploring the game-world with the ability to avoid them by using in game objects to sneak around, Mother has random encounters. Random encounters in RPGs on the NES were pretty well a staple. For anyone starting from one of the later games in the series, it can be quite frustrating even if you are used to random encounters in other games. Not only did Mother have random enemy encounters, but those random encounters occurred much more frequently than what is expected today.
For many years the only way to play Mother as a Western gamer was to either learn Japanese and play it on an original Famicom or on a Gameboy Advance in the Mother 1+2 compilation. Of course, kids hip with game emulation and the common sense to know how to locate a ROM would be able to download “EarthBound Zero” and play the English version of the game. Of course, there have been various petitions from EarthBound’s rabid Western fanbase to have the game officially translated in some form. For many years it seemed to have been falling on deaf ears. At times it was easy to feel like Nintendo wanted to pretend EarthBound hadn’t existed after the release of EarthBound didn’t meet up with their sales expectations.
All of this changed finally during the 2015 Nintendo World Championships when it was announced that Mother would finally be released in English form as “EarthBound Beginnings” on the Wii U Virtual Console. Finally, fans of the Mother series could play the first game in the series in English without having to resort to emulation, reproduction cartridges, or other unsavoury methods of not supporting Nintendo and playing the game.