It’s been a long time coming. Mother – the predecessor of beloved cult classic Earthbound – was released on the NES in Japan back in 1989. It was intended to make its way to the rest of the gaming world, but due to the rise of the 16-bit generation, the game’s (finished) English translation went unreleased, as Mother wasn’t an immediate success even in Japan. Its Super NES sequel would create a cult following unlike any other in the world of video games, and for over two decades fans have waited (often hopelessly, or so it would seem) for Nintendo to give the original an official worldwide release. And now, after all this time, we finally have just that. Mother has been revived under the new English title of EarthBound Beginnings through the Wii U’s Virtual Console! But does it live up to its almost mythical reputation?
On the surface, EarthBound Beginnings is a tried and true, old school RPG. Players traverse an overworld where they encounter various locations and meet many characters as they progress through the plot, while a traditional, Dragon Quest-style battle system provides the action. What sets EarthBound Beginnings apart from other RPGs is its personality.
Whereas most RPGs of its day (and today, for that matter) boast traditional fantasy or sci-fi settings, EarthBound Beginnings is set in a contemporary American-esque backdrop. Swords give way to baseball bats, potions are replaced with hamburgers, and filling the roles usually reserved for orcs and goblins are hippies and bag ladies.
The world of EarthBound Beginnings is funny and charming, complimented by fun character designs (the main cast resemble Charlie Brown and company from Peanuts). Though some of the visuals show their age, the game’s personality shines through its technical limitations. Better still, the soundtrack is one of the most versatile in the NES library, with the overworld tracks ranging from upbeat and catchy to melancholic and somber. The battle themes are similarly versatile, with riffs on rock and roll and more psychedelic inspirations accompanying appropriate enemy types. The music never quite reaches the heights of its successor, but it’s a standout NES track nonetheless.
But what of the gameplay? It’s here that EarthBound Beginnings, while mostly solid, can sometimes show the effects of both age and a lack of polish. The core gameplay itself is a fun enough RPG, and although it’s obviously retro, the simplistic battles grow on you the more you play it.
The trouble is these battles occur in the form of the most poorly-aged of all RPG conventions: random encounters. These random battles happen at an annoyingly frequent rate, and often when you just want to get from one place to the next you find the trip takes considerably longer than it should because of the amount of random battles you’re bombarded with.
What’s worse is that you’ll still run into weaker enemies once you’re strong enough to make the rewards they give you not worth the time. You have the option to run away, but it only works so often, and when it doesn’t it just drags the battle on that much longer. EarthBound would later fix these problems by removing the random aspects from battles and having weaker enemies either run away or being instantly defeated upon contact.
Another problem arises in the game’s difficulty. There are various points in the game where the challenge takes a steep difficulty curve. Even in earlier portions you’ll find yourself running into enemies that are well beyond your level. This, of course, means that you are often required to level grind for large chunks of time before you can progress further. Grinding isn’t a problem in RPGs when it’s optional, but when the player feels forced to take extended periods of time to level up just so they can continue the story, it really breaks the flow of things.
If you’re used to the more refined EarthBound, then going back to EarthBound Beginnings can feel like a big step backwards in these regards.
The narrative serves as another highlight overall, but it too is hampered by some underdeveloped aspects. The plot itself is simple, as an evil alien presence is creating a dark influence in the world. People and animals are acting strangely, robots are invading towns, and inanimate objects are coming to life and attacking people. It’s up to a young boy named Ninten (or whatever the player chooses to name him) to save the day. The plot is simple enough, but builds into something more profound, with the ending in particular being emotional in a way that’s rare to find even in today’s games, making it a piece of gaming narrative that was ahead of its time and then some.
On his travels, Ninten is joined by a young girl named Ana who, like Ninten, can use psychic powers in battle. A geeky boy named Lloyd, who makes up for his lack of supernatural abilities with his knowledge of fire crackers and laser beams, is the first mainstay partner Ninten encounters. Finally there’s Teddy, the leader of a local gang who uses more traditional video game weapons.
The game doesn’t include extensive moments of character development, but the moments it does have can be genuinely touching. Ana, Lloyd and even silent protagonist Ninten all leave their mark. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Teddy, who ends up only joining the party temporarily, leaving you to wonder why he was added to the game to begin with.
As stated, the story itself was ahead of its time in some ways. Sadly, the progression of that story isn’t always consistent, and sometimes it can be downright cryptic where you’re supposed to go next. I had to resort to online walkthroughs for much of the game, often because I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go.
Still, the game has enough novel ideas to keep players engaged even in its confusing moments. Having Ninten calling his largely-absent father in order to save is a nice touch, and the dialogue of just about every character you encounter further displays the game’s uniqueness, with NPCs saying things both trivial and contemplative. Rarely do they just point out the obvious goings-on with the plot.
When EarthBound Beginnings works, it’s a roaring success. The more dated elements do prevent it from reaching the same heights of its sequel that we’ve grown to cherish, but the simple fact remains that there are so few games that feel like this. Its personality, sense of humor and sentiment create a unique experience out of a tried and true foundation.
Mother was a unique oddity in its day, and its reputation has turned it into something of a legendary treasure. Today, EarthBound Beginnings feels like that treasure has been unearthed. It doesn’t always shine brightly, and may be a bit rusty. But in its own way, it’s a treasure nonetheless.