Version Played: EarthBound (NES – ROM)
Mother, more popularly known as EarthBound NES or EarthBound Zero, was released in Japan on 27th July 1989. The game was fully localised and a release planned for North America but due to the dawn of Nintendo’s new SNES and the lacklustre sales of RPGs outside Japan, the game never came to fruition. That is until 1998 when a cartridge of it was sold at auction and a ROM eventually made available to the public. A dedicated fan base has since tweaked the game numerous times, tagging on the Zero to its localised title to distinguish it from the SNES sequel released in 1994. However an official release from Nintendo still eludes us today, so are we missing out on something special?
The game takes place in America 1988 in which a young boy named Ninten (though the player is encouraged to personally name all their characters) travels the world to thwart an evil alien invasion while discovering the origins of his strange PSI powers, both of which are tied to the mysterious abduction of his great-grandparents at the beginning of the century. Gameplay is your typical RPG affair, split between exploration fields and Dragon Quest style battles, with a wonderful 8-bit soundtrack (which for Super Smash Bros. players will sound charmingly familiar in places) to hold it all together.
However thematically, Mother offers a much different experience. There are no mythical creatures, great castles or crystals to fight for; instead outside Ninten’s front door are Crazed Hippies and the Local Farmer. Rather than potions and ethers to heal, there are Hamburgers and Cough Medicine and for every typical RPG ailment such as Poison and Paralysis, there are Asthma Attacks and the Common Cold to join them. What’s wonderful about Mother is that it takes the ordinary aspects of our everyday lives and moulds them into a RPG experience to rival the very best. The idea of traipsing around the countryside with a Baseball Bat getting mixed up with the local Bag Lady is, in a sense, every kid’s mundane Saturday afternoon. If there were no alien invasions taking place one would think we’d simply digressed to our much simpler youth.
However peril is around every corner in the world of Mother. In the first town alone there are inanimate objects coming to life, zombies rising from the dead and animals rampaging from the local zoo. However the citizens of Podunk are content strolling about the streets and are far more interested in having breezy conversation with you than dealing with the dangers at hand. What becomes so engaging about Mother is that, underneath the Peanuts inspired front, it portrays a dark and moody world in which the dangers of growing up are fully realised. There’s a particularly memorable moment when the party is escorted to the Police station after being caught underage drinking. Indeed many adults here will do more harm than good and without a noble cause these kids could come very close to losing their way altogether.
Yet, without adults to guide our heroes they would lose their way altogether. There is a town later on in the game in which all the adults have been abducted by the alien threat, since becoming quite a bleak place where the kids left behind just want to be held by somebody while desperately trying to maintain a sense of everyday life. Without the love of their parent’s these kids are lost and since Ninten’s mother and father are very likely separated, it’s quite a touching motif when all Ninten’s dad can do is for his son is phone him with a few kind words on his dangerous journey. Love sustains this world and while adults cannot actively assist us on our quest, they are integral to giving these kids the courage to move ahead.
Despite this for everything there is to appreciate in Mother, there are very obvious problems that make the experience a very frustrating affair. Random enemy encounters are horribly frequent in what are very large and empty maps and until you attain more party members, these can easily overwhelm the player, considering running away is so unreliable. The necessity to level grind doesn’t help the pace either as most new areas provide a significant spike in enemy strength which is not helped by the fact that new characters join the party at level one. Each character has a very limited supply of items which wouldn’t be so annoying if the item bank weren’t situated in one of the top corners of the world map, away from all the later areas of the game. To top it all off, the original title was not tested for bugs or balance issues during the final chapters of the game meaning that all that hard work training throughout is wasted because the enemies become unfairly strong and overpowering. Indeed any of these as isolated issues wouldn’t bring the game down so much, but the fun of discovering and engaging with what this rather unique world has to offer is tarnished by a laborious, mean and unforgiving framework.
Ultimately the crux of the matter is that everything Mother accomplishes, its two sequels accomplish to a much greater extent. Many of the issues in the original are addressed for the sequel allowing the world of Mother to shine through the way this game only dreams it could. Not all hope is lost however as fans have created a version which includes an easy mode to help players enjoy the experience more. Perhaps if Nintendo ever decide to remake this title with the refinements of its successors (or if the fan remake finally sees the light of day) then Mother’s day will finally come but for now it is far too heavily weighed down by a mean-spirited RPG framework to truly recommend to anyone.