It’s tough to be a fan of Earthbound. The series has been almost aggressively neglected by Nintendo, despite having an incredibly dedicated fanbase. Ask any fan how long they’ve been waiting for an official Mother 3 localization, and with eyes that still twinkle with hope, they’ll probably tell you some multitude of years. It’s been, over a decade since Mother 3 saw its release in Japan. It’s been over two since it was first revealed as Earthbound 64.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, though. Earthbound for the SNES is, for a number of reasons, my favourite game of forever. It’s actually the second game in what Japan calls the Mother series. The original was a Famicom game, and it came so gosh darned close to being released in North America, that a near-complete prototype was discovered years later. Nintendo had their reasons for cancelling it at the last minute when they already had a finished product, reasons that I begrudgingly admit are valid, but regardless, it never landed on our shores.
It was the first game I ever imported; that bright red Famicom cartridge.
Here we are, though, years later, and Nintendo is finally throwing the Earthbound community a bone. The first came in the virtual console release of Earthbound, something that some fandom members speculated wouldn’t happen without a lot of editing. Then, even more surprisingly, they finally released their translation of Mother, now dubbed Earthbound: Beginnings. Thanks Nintendo, now when the heck do we get Mother 3?
NO CRYING UNTIL THE END
Earthbound: Beginnings is a bit of a misnomer. While it and Earthbound on the SNES are ever-so technically linked in plot, it’s incredibly loose to the point of being non-existent. The North American release of Mother was actually going to be called Earth Bound, but with its cancellation, the name went to its successor. The fan community named the prototype version, Earthbound Zero, but I guess Nintendo didn’t want to be so obvious.
Beginnings focuses on a plot about alien abductions. You play as Ninten (or whatever you name him), the great grandson of one such abductee who disappeared with his wife, only to return on his own. In the present day, things are going crazy, and it’s up to you and your psychic powers to save the world.
It’s a loose plot, but it’s there, and it even manages to beat the odds and get some huge emotional payoff in the end, a rarity for 8-bit era games in general. For the bulk of the game, you’re traveling from area to area in a huge, maze-like world, righting the wrongs you come across. Whether that’s unblocking train tracks or trying to calm the animals in a zoo.
The main goal of the game is to collect 8 melodies forgotten by the Queen of a mysterious, magical land called Magicant. However, the game’s structure is so loose, and the importance of this task so understated, that you may overlook this objective for the bulk of the game.
YOU CAN CALL ME POLLYANNA
I don’t know how the heck I managed to find my way through the game, but I did so without much difficulty, so maybe I’m not giving the designer enough credit. Typically, in any given location, someone will mention something, or directly ask you to do something in the area, and you won’t be able to proceed until it’s done. Or the game will let you proceed right past your goal, it’s kind of easygoing about it. But make no mistake, there’s a path you’re supposed to follow, and skipping something will mean having to backtrack. Except the optional areas, you can skip those.
The game itself is an RPG of the classic style. Think Dragon Quest, then put it in the modern day, then ratchet up the random encounters, then, again, rip out its structure. Beginnings has a weird flow, never settling into a gameplay loop. There aren’t really many dungeons, and they aren’t provided at a steady rate. Likewise, there’s no clear path to buying equipment. Stores later in the game will, for example, start selling aluminum bats, but boxes found within dungeons in the same area will contain plastic bats. There’s also only, like, one place to buy armor and you can max yourself out pretty early if you save your dollars.
Party members are added at a strange pace as well. You spend a large portion of the game alone (aside from one temporary friend), and then suddenly, a second party member is added, then another a short while after that. Then, to top it off, a fourth is found later in the game who replaces the second for a while. For lack of a better word, it’s unconventional.
Unconventional describes a lot about the game. From the way you use a cash card to extract your allowance from ATM’s, to the way new PSI powers are not linked to character level, to the armor system that doesn’t make it clear what you can equip. Heck, the game’s graphics are horribly askew and look terrible, but they also have a certain charm to them.
Really, I could probably dig deep and pull out a lot of complaints about the game (how new party members start at level 1 and divide up your XP), but the gameplay almost feels like a small part of the package. Like in Earthbound, the rudimentary gameplay is offset by overwhelming personality and charm. It’s not quite as overt in this entry, but it’s undeniably there.
It exudes a certain positivity to it. All the characters talk in a variety of odd ways, often sounding like children, frequently providing charmingly useless or completely incorrect information. Even in a group of otherwise distraught individuals, you’re likely to find a few that make light of the situation. The humour doesn’t land as effectively as it does in Earthbound, but it’s there, it’s amusing, and it adds to the game’s overall tone.
Even better is the music, which stands as some of the best on the console. A lot of the tracks have endured to this day, making appearances in later entries in the series, as well as the Super Smash Bros. games. They cover a diverse number of genres and manage to pull together some of the best hallmarks of each. Humoresque of a Little Dog, the theme that plays in stores, remains one of my favourite video game tunes. It’s just a shame that the tracks continually get interrupted by the random encounters.
MAYBE YOU SHOULD REST NOW
Earthbound: Beginnings feels like the work of someone who had absolutely no idea what they were doing, and it sort of comes out better because of it. Maybe better isn’t the word, it might be more appropriate to say, “more interesting.”
However, as much as I have a soft spot for Earthbound: Beginnings, it’s hard to get past that it hasn’t aged that well. It’s both heartwarming and hostile. The random encounters pop up with an intense frequency, and the game’s difficulty often necessitates a lot of grinding for XP. Its world design is confusing, and its gameplay flows like an amusement park’s white water rapids ride.
If you can get by that and, better yet, absolutely love the Mother/Earthbound series, then there’s potential that you’ll find a worthwhile experience here. It’s still a unique game, but it’s unique in ways that Earthbound was able to replicate while providing more variety and without needing to bog it down. So, I guess what I’m saying is: you probably already know if you want to play Earthbound: Beginning. If you’re not sure, then the answer is probably no, take a pass.
Also, thank you, Nintendo. Can we have Mother 3 now?
This review was conducted on a Wii U using a Virtual Console copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.