Sunday, June 30, 2013

Do You Think They'll Drop the Bomb?

OK, kids, I came back from my vacation, almost immediately got sick, had to attend some out-of-town business last weekend -- and now I'm almost completely sure I have some kind of ear/throat infection.

Also, it appears I may have outed myself as a Grateful Dead fan with the title of that Serious Sam video I posted. Sorry if I have disappointed you, but no one's perfect.

That provides us with the perfect segue in the subject of today's post, one of the most intriguing and fascinating games Nintendo released for the Famicom. This game would not only be Nintendo's first RPG, but it was designed by a well known writer/media celebrity named Shigesato Itoi.  The game's setting would not be the standard fantasy/sci-fi worlds of most RPGs, but the world of suburban America, with characters resembling the cast of Peanuts. All of this sounds like it has a huge amount of potential, yet the final result fell quite a bit short

Oh, I get it now... "mother Earth."

We are, of course, speaking of Mother, released in July 1989, although the name given to its official English translation was Earthbound. Since it's US release was eventually canceled, Nintendo reused the Earthbound name for the 1995 SNES release of the sequel, Mother 2. To avoid confusion, the English version of Mother is often called "Earthbound Zero." The unreleased English translation turned up on a prototype cartridge which was subsequently made available to the public by Demiforce Translations.

Mother is an odd beast. Nintendo had originally focused on action/platform/sports games for most of its first party Famicom releases. In the years 1986-1988, a few new genres achieved massive success on the console -- RPGs, menu-based adventure games, and military strategy games.  Nintendo ventured into adventure games with the Famicom Mukashi Banashi games in 1987, and released its first mil strategy game, Famicom Wars, in 1988, but remained stubbornly resistant to RPGs until Mother's release in 1989.

The game has some rather obvious Peanuts references.

On paper, Mother looks like a winner. The story is stuffed full of interesting ideas that elevate it beyond the the typical "destroy the evil demon/wizard" plot of most Famicom RPGs. Familial alienation is a major them of the game. Each of the four main characters has an absent parent, with reasons ranging from overwork to unexplained disappearance to death. I understand, of course, that RPG protagonists are frequently orphans/castoffs, but in Mother the missing parent theme is foregrounded.

One character joins you in order to find her missing mother.

The writing is quite good, and many NPCs are full of character, such as the lazy mayor of Podunk or Loid's father, who you find hiding in a garbage can in a swamp. Mother is stuff full of charming moments; in the middle of the desert you find a guy who will take you on a sight-seeing tour in his airplane. In a bar in the town of Ellay your party will engage in a synchronized dance routine.  As for the music -- it's fantastic. Provided by Itoi associate Keiichi Suzuki and Nintendo's Hip Tanaka (Metroid, Kid Icarus, Duck Hunt....), Mother's soundtrack is one of best we've encountered in Chrontendo so far, capturing feelings of melancholy, nostalgia and eerie stillness.

So what's the problem with Mother? Well, having created interesting and unusual characters, settings and plot, the game designers simply took all this and bolted it onto a Dragon Quest chassis. The game's mechanics are taken direclty from Enix's RPG series. The same menus, the same black background during battles -- the same limited inventories -- the same "fight a random battle every two steps" deal. So if you liked Dragon Quest II, then you might be forgiving of Mother's old school approach to RPGs. And the grinding! So much grinding.... Even so, you'll find yourself struggling to keep your weaker party members alive during battles. Your stereotypical female magic user character, Ana, has some decent attacks, but ends up needing to defend or heal herself most of the time just to stay alive.

This could be confused with a Dragon Quest screenshot. But it's Mother.

Additionally, if you are a fan of lots of cool loot and gear, expect to be disappointed by Mother. You won't finds tons of cool weapons and pieces of armor, like in Final Fantasy. To illustrate this: the protagonist, Ninten, finds his first weapon, the plastic bat, at the very beginning of the game. In the first town, Podunk, I bought him the boomerang. Once I had the boomerang, there was no need to acquire a new weapon until I found a better bat shortly before the game's final area.  Thus, I spent 80% of the game with the same weapon. As for armor, the town of Magicant, which you reach pretty early in the game, has all the armor you'll ever need. There are treasure chests in Mother, but they tend to contain (very useful) healing items, or one-time use items that can be used during battle for offense purposes. If you're the kind of person who like to poke around every dungeon corner in hopes of finding the Kaiser Knuckle or Flame Sword, then Mother will disappoint you.

Enemy types are quirky and silly, but rarely do more than use physical attacks or shoot a laser beam at you. Status aliments exist, but you rarely get hit with them. I had a character get turned to stone once and got poisoned only a couple times. A few enemies perform very annoying suicide attacks that do insane amounts of damage, killing off weaker party members.  But for the most part, battles are entirely nonstrategic slugfests - you pound monsters with your weapons/magic while occasionally healing.

I guess even little kids need to get their groove on sometimes.

In summary, Mother is a game full of creativity, whimsy and imagination which is weighed down by its derivative, dull and frustrating mechanics. In other words, it's a JRPG. (Just kidding!) The game is worth a look, and I suppose its an essential game for hardcore fans of the Mother series.. But don't go into expecting an 8-bit version of Earthbound.

Once Chrontendo 47 is released, fans of squandered potential will get a double treat. Aside from Mother, we have Capcom's bizarre 8-bit version of Strider.


Brian said...

Strider was tops on the music front though! One of the best vaguely desert/pyramid tunes on the machine.

Javier said...

Very good review of Mother! Its incredible how those big names and talents ended up producing such a fair-to-mediocre game. Of all the elements only the music is unquestionably top notch. The GBA version of Mother 1+2 fan translated by Tomato is a bit more playable with a hacked "easy ring" that cut the need for grinding considerably, but still the game mechanics leave so much to be desired, and the overworld map is so empty and nondescript... anyway, despite all its flaws it was the predecessor of a slightly overrated cult classic (Earthbound) and a slightly underrated masterpiece (Mother 3) and that makes it all the more relevant.

By the way Dr Sparkle, I just discovered your Chrontendo blog and videos this past week thanks to a link in an article about the introduction of the Famicom written by Jeremy Parish in USGamer, and I´m totally addicted and fascinated! The concept and execution of this project of yours is just brilliant, and a big help to find the undiscovered gems or just plain oddities that are still lost to even the biggest 8 bit aficionados like myself. Your years long commitment and thoroughness is simply impressive! Im very glad to see you are going strong ahead up to this day, and I will certainly watch your Chronsega and Chronturbo as soon as I´m done watching the currently available Chrontendos.
I only wish all your earlier episodes (10 to 17, 1 to 9 I found outside your channel) were available in Youtube... I have a very slow and limited internet access that makes it difficult for me to enjoy the higher res versions that you offer in I´m from Venezuela, by the way... So now you know your amazing work has gained fans even in the more unlikely of places. Keep it up, until Wario´s Woods and beyond!

Shen Nung said...

I'm glad you mentioned how bad-ass the music is but firmly believe that the hippie battle music should get the most valuable piece of music award in Mother.

Mother 1 (EarthBound Zero) Music - Hippie Battle

but don't blame me if you end up doing the Mashed Potato all day.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Javier, welcome to Chrontendo! Yes, at some point I will have all the old eps up on Youtube. I've never played the GBA version, but it's nice that there is a somewhat less irritating option available.

Shen Nung - that Chuck Berry riff is really great and will be heard on the actual episode. But it does sound oddly out of place next to the rest of the music.

Regular GeoX said...

The best advice I can give for Mother is: when you have that giant Brickroad-type dude in your party, grind. When you think you've ground enough, grind some more. Then a bit more after that, and then a lot more. 'Cause once you lose him...holy damn do things ever get brutal.

Sean Clements said...

Out of town business.... I hope its what I think it is. But I can only speculate.

That song reminds me of a Chuck Berry 50's rock song mixed with some 60's surf music. Pretty cool stuff. Except it doesnt sound like "Hippie Music"

Was it this game or the SNES one that had all the issues with biting music from popular songs?

Doctor Sparkle said...

There were numerous ideas that Earthbound took from Mother - and the Brick Road/Dungeon Man is based on EVE, a supremely awesome robot that just OBLITERATES any enemies you encounter. RGX is absolutely correct - using EVE to level up before the last part of the game is a very good idea.

Sean - Mother 2/Earthbound lifted various tunes from a variety of sources. For example, you might note a similarity to the intro of a certain Who song:

Tork said...

Had Nintendo imported the game and Nintendo Power heavily promoted it, I probably would have loved EarthBound Zero.

But since it was only available after the glory days of JRPGs of the SNES and PS1 years, so I can only enjoy it as a warm-up for EarthBound. There's stuff to like but the game is so grind-y.

Kamiboy said...

It is always fun to imagine alternate history scenarios.

Imagine for an example how different video games would be if all those games that for one reason or another hit it big with the plebeian masses and generated enough sales to turn their rigid design template into an institution called a genre were better games.

Imagine how different things would be if Dragon Quest had not been so offensively dull and mediocre in the gameplay department. Why, JRPG's would prolly not be stuck in such a lament full quagmire gameplay wise today.

Imagine the same for other worthless genres. It is depressing how the nature of this industry adopts every little part, even glaring deficiency and ugly warts of a popular million seller into genre dogmas by way an army of clones created in the giant wake of notable money makers.

Sean Clements said...

I guess I don't need to speculate any more what that out of town business was, as the new Retronaughts podcast is up and I can see that indeed you were the mystery guest. I'm hoping that means you stayed around to record my mini episode on chron-gaming I funded as well.

I imagine Mother never got ported probrably due to the translation issues and the amount of money they would have to spend in an unproven genre. (Here at least) I seem to recall that even with Dragonquest they still were giving that game away with Nintendo Power subscriptions. Was that because they were trying push a new genre, or that they had a lot of unsold Dragonquest games? I can't imagine they would have thought that Mother would have done particularly well in the US. It seemed they only bought there own first party stuff over that were in established action genres and left there RPG and Portopia clone games in Japan.

Doctor Sparkle said...

I've always heard that is what happened with Dragon Quest. Nintendo greatly overestimated the demand and ended up giving them away. Better than a landfill.

I guess I'm now allowed to say that I did record a mini-episode, but not a chronogaming one. Maybe they'll ask me back one day?

Citric said...

Interestingly, or perhaps not, I would watch Chrontendo and play Mother at the same time. It's weirdly perfect for that, since there are long, looooong stretches where nothing really happens you can watch to something interesting and sort of absent-mindedly grind. Then, when something important happens, pause and read what's going on in Mother. Then back to the grind. The flaws don't matter quite so much if the game is something you're doing to keep your hands busy while watching or listening to something else.

PaulNoonan said...

Nice job on Retronauts Doc. I hope they do have you back. Would love to hear you on a more Famicom-centered episode (though you certainly were no slouch about the MSX and SG-1000).

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