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.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Goddamn, Serious Sam

So I picked up the Humble Bundle Serious Sam package. Because, well... it was a fantastic deal. Just a reminder for those who have played Serious Sam, there are moments that are frickin' ridiculous.

This room is like the Battletoads of first person shooters. There are a good 300 enemies that spawn in this one room.

A quick heads up -- this weekend is my wedding anniversary, and I'm headed out to the coast for a few days. I be back on Monday and will update the Chrontendo Tumblr. Maybe I'll also cough up a few vacation pics of sea lions or something.