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Earthbound
Earlier installments:
· Mother
· Eartbound
· Mother 3
· Mother 1+2
Last seen in: 2006
Publisher: Nintendo








Earthbound

Mother

"This game stinks," warned the ads for Earthbound that Nintendo Power magazine ran in the summer of 1995. It was an ominous step for the Mother series, but far from the only one. Mother, the first game of three, never saw an American release despite the existence of a fully operational, translated cart. The third, and probably final, installment in the series is only available in English as a fan-translation. The tongue-in-cheek ads seemed to highlight the game's gross-out humor (including dumpster diving and Master Belch, a sentient pile of vomit) over the elements that keep gamers coming back to the series years after its last release: absurd characters, touching narratives, and thoughtful endgames.

One of the most immediately striking features of Mother (Earthbound 0) and Mother 2 (Earthbound) is that they take place in a stylized-yet-contemporary America. There are tour buses, skyscrapers, and mohawks, all captured in blocky pixels more typically at home in the realm of dragons and warriors. Cigar-smoking crows, mad taxis, and clocks straight out of Dali join the standard villainous crop of rats, snakes, and evil trees. It's a nostalgic, familiar place, even if the composite image is formed from old timey television and sci-fi movies. Mother 3 bucks the setting of the previous two games for a more fantastic world. Nevertheless, it keeps the familiar atmosphere by centering the action on the citizens of one village. Although the heroes travel the length and breadth of the world, they constantly run into old friends. Most of these pals are quirky enough that their reappearance is worth a smile.

Many mainstream titles since Earthbound have made humorous dialogue and wacky situations their bread and butter. Working Designs, Nippon Ichi, and Atlus have all had their shining moments since Earthbound's release. The concept of a funny console RPG isn't as unique as it once was; nevertheless, the Mother series remains a proud landmark in gaming for its willingness to jump between different styles of humor. To be sure, Earthbound makes its popular culture references. They tend toward older, more established properties such as the Beatles, rather than more transient Internet memes, however. It's the cheesy potatoes of familiar, shared comedy rather than chocolate bacon. This isn't to disparage chocolate bacon, merely to point out that it can easily overpower and define a dish. Cheesy potatoes go well with everything.

Where the Mother series stands out from other humorous RPGS is its earnestness. There's no sly wink at the audience, as if to say, "Get it?" If the player doesn't get it, that's fine. There are enough strange situations to stumble into that no single mood dominates. Puns exist side-by-side with loyalty and friendship. Brickroad, the man who wants to build dungeons, is pathetic, heroic, and silly all at once. There's no reason for the series' roly-poly mascot, Mr. Saturn, to look like he does. Magypsies strut in their skirts; PSI Magnet, how does it work?

Ahem. Were the series purely about laughs, Earthbound would have been a fitting conclusion. However, Mother 3 expands upon its predecessorís themes and proves that the series has legs beyond yellow submarines and hitting hippies with baseball bats. There's a hard chain underneath the laughter that winds throughout the games. They explore consumer culture, the importance of community, and reaction to personal tragedy without devolving into manifestos. "No crying until the end," warns one of Mother's taglines. "Strange, funny, heartrending," claims Mother 3.

With all this praise, how could the series have failed to garner unchallenged international acclaim? Gameplay is not the Mother series' strongpoint, for one. Furthermore, while the graphics fit the mood, they're never outright impressive. All of the ingredients for a generic RPG are present in each game: walking around overworlds, fighting monsters in turn-based battles, gaining new combat skills at fixed levels, etc. Mother 3's battle system mixes it up with rhythm-based damage bonuses, but the minor change isn't enough to make the gameplay revolutionary. Maybe that's one of the reasons that the games feel so comfortably homey. Try applying the same "classic gameplay" arguments that Dragon Quest apologists trot out after every iteration of the series, and it works well enough. Better, actually, as Mother balanced its formula in three games rather than nine.

It's not an enormous stretch to assume RPGamers would back a new game with retro-style mechanics if it delivered the right mood. The recent success of Zeboyd Games and Carpe Fulgur suggest that killer visuals and cutting-edge combat systems aren't mandatory to win fans. Unfortunately, no sequels are in the works. Series mastermind, Shigesato Itoi, denied the possibility of Mother 4 in 2008. "Well," he admits, "3 was hard enough to get through."

Worse yet, in spite of the dedicated efforts of the good people at Starmen.net, it doesn't seem like America will receive any of the Mother games that it's currently lacking. Not while Mother 1+2 for the Game Boy Advance languishes unported, Earthbound on the Wii Virtual Console has failed to materialize, and Mother 3 depends on a fan-translation to escape its native shores. As unlikely as further releases seem at the time being, it's worth remembering Mother. Zach Welhouse enjoys discussing the final scenes of Mother 3 and what they suggest about potential sequels.

Can a new game happen?

Series Highlights

No

Earthbound and Mother 3

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