A brief history of Mother

I am in fact referring to Nintendo’s Mother series, whose most visible legacy is a strange assortment of items and characters scattered through the Super Smash Bros. games. Remember Ness, Lucas and Mr Saturn? What is a Franklin Badge (hint: it has something to do with Benjamin Franklin)? In preparation for the upcoming Action Points discussions on Mother 3, we should probably get to know a little of this game’s back story.

Mother was released in 1989 for the Famicom (Japan’s name for the NES) and broke the mould by offering an RPG with magic, item management and random encounters in a modern setting, instead of a clichéd fantasy realm. The protagonist, Ninten, fights rambunctious animals, goes to the shops, uses public telephones, and visits cities with names like Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and Valentine. It’s a quirky tale of aliens attacking middle America and where a mother’s love is the strongest power of all. On the surface, it offers a fairly standard turn-based battle system with magic, health and powerful items. Its music, by Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka, is of particular note, and is important to the themes and events of the series. By the time Mother 3 came around, Shigesato Itoi, the game’s creator, felt it was important that the main theme be playable with one finger, after Mother‘s “Eight Melodies” theme proved a popular choice among elementary school students.

Nintendo of America had finished their localisation of Mother by 1990, but the rise of more famous RPG’s with relatively poor sales compared to other genres meant that by the time they’d pushed the release further and further back, the SNES had stolen the limelight and Mother‘s chance had disappeared. Originally intended to be localised as Earth Bound, Nintendo of America decided to instead focus their efforts on translating the sequel, Mother 2, under the title EarthBound.

The efforts of the translation team didn’t go to waste. The fan translation group, Demiforce, got hold of a prototype and distributed the ROM online. On January 15, 1998, the translated ROM was released as EarthBound Zero to match Nintendo of America’s naming convention.

Mother 2: Gyiyg Strikes Back was the first (and perhaps last) of the Mother series to find an official English language release [edit: Thanks to the recent release of Mother under the title, “EarthBound Beginnings” on the Wii U eShop, this is thankfully no longer the case]. Called EarthBound in the United States, its original release was a disaster. EarthBound_BoxAppearing in 1995, it came bundled with a strategy guide in an oversized box, along with the tag line, “This game stinks.” The premium price point and somewhat embarrassing public image led to smaller than expected sales, despite fairly decent review scores. Its cartoony graphics failed to impress when compared to many other Super Nintendo titles, but many of those who picked up EarthBound found themselves drawn in by the wacky dialogue, diverse cast and stunning soundtrack. EarthBound deals with important themes in a simultaneously outrageous and respectful tone. It even contains a character who expresses his homosexual desires (albeit in an extremely subtle way), which for such an era was unheard of in video games – and especially in such a family-friendly game. The final boss battle was inspired by the creator’s childhood trauma, when he accidentally walked into a cinema and witnessed a scene of sexual violence. The central character, Ness, would go on to feature in every iteration of the Super Smash Bros. series to date, along with his baseball bat and psychic attacks.

Shigesato Itoi has suggested that part of his inspiration for naming the series was the 1970 John Lennon song, Mother. It has also been said to have the intention of invoking a sense that anyone could play the games, and the slogan, “Adults, children, and even your sister” was the tag line used in Japanese Mother 2 commercials.

In 1998 several fans banded together to found the Starmen.net (originally EarthBound.net) community, which now holds an important place in the history of the Mother series. This group of enthusiastic fans and Mother evangelists went on to spawn major projects like EarthBound Central, The Fangamer store and various other petitions and movements within the Mother series fandom; the most important of which is perhaps The Mother 3 Fan Translation.

The development of Mother 3 began for the Super Nintendo, but then was shifted to the Nintendo 64 and even the failed 64DD system before finding its home on the GBA. Spanning 9 years and countless rewrites, Mother 3 was released in 2006 in Japan to rave reviews. Weekly Famitsu, Japan’s most famous gaming magazine, gave Mother 3 a score of 35/40 and inducted the game into its “Platinum Hall of Fame”.

The N64 work-in-progress vs the final GBA art style

The N64 work-in-progress vs the final GBA art style

Escaping the suburban setting of the first two titles, Mother 3 explores a set of islands and the simple villager inhabitants. It explores themes of capitalism, socialism, gender identity, grief, family and selfishness with both humour and gravity. Its characters often act with a naive optimism in contrast with the often terrifying events that occur in the game. The dichotomy of childish self-interest and childlike kindness, free from preconception, is a strong theme exemplified by one of the final boss’s desperate attempts to compensate for his own troubled childhood by recreating a new, “better” one in a very literal way. It retains the turn-based battles with the addition of a rhythm system of attack where hitting the attack button in time with the battle music will chain attacks into longer combos.

After Mother 3‘s release, Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin, the author of EarthBound Central and a co-founder of Starmen.net, began work on a fan translation. His team released v1.0 in 2008 and it remains one of the most impressive localisation projects of all time, demonstrating how cultural artefacts can be transposed with care.

Mother 3 is MUCH easier than either of its prequels. In the 2003 GBA re-release of the first two titles, called Mother 1+2, an extra item called the “easy ring” was added to the first game in the fan-translated ROM to bring the difficulty down to a more manageable level. Mother 3 is also a much shorter game than EarthBound, but has enough depth of character and story that it easily surpasses its predecessor in quality, both as a game and a narrative.

Itoi has said that he probably won’t return to the series for a Mother 4. The Mother games were ground-breaking in terms of narrative, style and auteur-controlled direction, and they stand as great examples of artistic integrity within a cliché-riddled genre. Itoi’s presence as an essayist and philosopher can be felt at every level of each game. The poignant dialogue and impressively expressive sprite work will ensure that the series will feel modern and playable for many years to come.

earthbound-Wii-UThe series has had a recent resurgence of popularity thanks to the worldwide re-release of EarthBound on the WiiU Virtual Console. This has been the first time the game has been available outside of Japan and the United States and has remained high on the list of most popular downloads since its release in July 2013. We will continue discussing each of Mother 3′s chapters here at on the website from my perspective as a long time fan, along with the other podcasters’ ideas as complete newcomers to the series. I hope you’ll join us. [Chapter 1 Discussion] [Chapter 2 Discussion]

Update: Lucas has been released as a returning fighter to Super Smash Bros’ Wii U and 3DS, and is available as DLC.

Update: In a surprising move, Nintendo has decided to release Mother on the Wii U eShop, along with an accompanying video from Shigesato Itoi, telling of his love for the series and explaining the timing of this exciting announcement. This is excellent news for fans who hadn’t managed to play the translated ROM, and hopefully paves the way for an official Mother 3 release in the next few years.

7 responses to “A brief history of Mother

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