In the eighties, a man named Shigesato Itoi rose to prominence as a prolific copywriter, a profession which encompasses a wide range of activities from coming up with catchphrases to conceiving marketing campaigns. He became known for his strange, yet concise writing style. One of his most notable successes was his 1983 slogan for a Seibu department store advertisement, “Tasteful Life.” It broke new ground and featured Woody Allen, who was unknown to the Japanese at the time. His fame was such that he was even solicited by the famous studio, Ghibli, whereupon he helped promote the works of Hayao Miyazaki, considered by many to be one of the greatest animators in history.
Mr. Itoi wasn’t content to limit himself to a single profession, however, and often dabbled in various fields. He held a satirical column, and wrote songs for other artists, and co-authored a collection of short stories with Haruki Marukami, who would later pen Kafka on the Shore. During all of this, he noticed a trend that was becoming increasingly popular by the day: video games. In 1987, he had an idea for a video game, believing that the medium’s unique qualities could be used to explore new avenues of storytelling. There was just one problem: he had no idea to whom he could propose his idea. One day, he received a phone call from Nintendo about the ad campaign for Square’s 1987 dating simulator, Miho Nakayama’s Heartbeat High School. Mr. Itoi took this opportunity to mention his project, and to his amazement, the correspondent of this rapidly growing company seemed interested. Shortly after this call, Mr. Itoi was interviewed by none other than Shigeru Miyamoto, the creative mind behind Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Mr. Itoi realized this would be his only chance to convince Nintendo to help him make his game. Unfortunately, Mr. Miyamoto remained skeptical, thinking that it was a case of a celebrity making a game for its own sake and rejected the idea. It seemed as though all hope was lost.
However, Nintendo’s CEO, Hiroshi Yamauchi, felt games lacked innovation in recent years, and that someone with such an impressive repertoire would provide a perfect solution to the problem. This resulted in another phone call from Mr. Miyamoto himself to notify Mr. Itoi that the project had been greenlit. Thus Ape Inc. was founded, and Mr. Itoi spared no expense to make sure that his game would match his vision. He employed a skilled visual artist and two composers, one of whom was Keiichi Suzuki, a personal friend and the leader an alternative rock band called Moonriders. When asked for a title, Mr. Itoi chose “Mother.” There was a twofold reason behind this decision. The first was to pay tribute to John Lennon’s song of the same name, saying that it made him cry the first time he listened to it while the second was to grant his game an atypical title to differentiate it from the numerous “quests,” “legends,” and “stories” floating around. Aside from a few balancing issues, development of Mother went smoothly, and the game was released in 1989 to a warm reception with reviewers unanimously praising its unique qualities. It wasn’t just kids who had good things to say about Mother either; it had a cross-generational appeal which helped it become a hit with adults as well. To this day, Mother remains a beloved classic and regularly places in polls regarding the best games ever made.
Shortly after the success Mother found in Japan, Nintendo made efforts to localize it overseas despite Mr. Itoi being entirely unknown in the United States. The English translation was completed in 1990, and it looked as though Mother would see a North American release under the name Earth Bound, but it was not to be, for the impending release of the Super NES dissuaded the executives from taking a risk with it until it was canceled outright. Eventually, a prototype cartridge of this localization surfaced in online auctions in 1998 where it was bought by of a group of hackers named Demiforce. The cartridge’s ROM was subsequently dumped onto the internet. It wouldn’t be until the year 2015 that Mother would officially see the light of day outside of its native land on the Nintendo Wii U’s Virtual Console digital distribution service. As Western gaming fans already had exposure to Mother 2, which inherited its predecessor’s tentative North American title and was released as a standalone game rather than a sequel, the original Mother was dubbed Earthbound Beginnings.
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers. Skip to the conclusion if you wish to experience it blind.
Earthbound Beginnings is a JRPG, yet it becomes apparent before the player is given control that it’s far from a typical example of the genre. While role-playing games made in or around 1989 were invariably set in medieval worlds with little to no technology, Earthbound Beginnings takes place in a fictional community of America in the eighties. In the early 1900s, a married couple named George and Maria mysteriously vanished without a trace. Two years later, George returned and subsequently began to research many strange topics while refusing to tell anyone where he had been or what he had done during his absence. His wife, Maria, was never heard from again. You play the role of George’s great-grandson, Ninten, as he ventures forth to unravel the mystery behind his ancestors’ disappearance.
The gameplay of Earthbound Beginnings takes many cues from Dragon Quest. When exploring the world, you can bring up a menu with six contextual options such as “Talk,” “Goods,” and “Check.” It theoretically allows for more complex interactions with the environment than a single button press, as it’s demonstrated shortly after the game begins that you can examine characters to receive an important clue the “talk” option wouldn’t have revealed.
With each step your character takes in a hostile region, there’s a chance you’ll trigger a random encounter. Such was the case with Dragon Quest II and its immediate sequel, combat takes place from a first-person perspective with a plain, black background. It is turn-based and functions round-by-round. In other words, you input an action for each character and a round of combat is played out. Speed determines which participant moves first and once everyone has carried out an action, the turn ends and you are to select a new set of actions. This process repeats until everyone on one side is either defeated or has left the field.
Naturally, it would be jarringly out-of-place to have our brave heroes fight random fantasy creatures in what is supposed to be the modern world; Earthbound Beginnings has far more sinister threats awaiting them such as rednecks, hippies, and insane truck drivers. To combat them, Ninten and his friends wield powerful weapons such as baseball bats, frying pans, and boomerangs, most of which are purchased from the sporting goods section of a department store. Magic doesn’t quite feature in this game. Instead, two playable characters have psychic powers that function as magic would in a standard fantasy setting. Keeping in line with these cosmetic differences, you don’t find valuable items in inexplicably placed treasure chests, but in inexplicably placed present boxes – wrapped up nicely with a bow on top just for you. Furthermore, if one of your characters runs out of health, they are taken to the hospital where you can pay for their medical expenses.
Ninten’s father provides his son with money throughout the game for each enemy vanquished in combat. How much he gives his son varies with each enemy defeated – stronger ones typically result in larger payoffs. As the finances are deposited in Ninten’s bank account rather than being awarded upon a battle’s conclusion, you can find out how much money you have by calling his father, which is also how you find out how many EXP each character requires to reach the next level. You can access the account with an ATM machine. From here, you can withdraw or deposit money as you see fit. If you’re defeated, you lose half of the money Ninten had on his person, so it’s best to store it away when traveling through dangerous areas.
By 1989, the JRPG was a concept that had been fully codified thanks to the overwhelming popularity of Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest and its two sequels. This in turn inspired other development teams to follow in his footsteps and provide their own take on the subgenre. One such company was Square whose Final Fantasy series saw its first installment debut in 1987. Another from the same year was Atlus’s Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, which would later go on to spawn one of Japan’s most prolific metaseries. In the wake of these success stories and budding legacies, one might wonder how Earthbound Beginnings compares to its contemporaries. To be honest, it doesn’t fare much better in hindsight than most JRPGs from Nintendo’s 8-bit era.
There are many reasons why this is the case, but one of the most glaring flaws is that the random encounters are far too frequent. This wouldn’t be so bad except it’s also incredibly easy to get lost. Earthbound Beginnings differs from its peers in that there is no overworld map; every place in the game outside of dungeons is to scale. While I can appreciate this from an aesthetic standpoint, as it’s an effective method to make the world appear gigantic, it turns the entire game into a convoluted maze. Given that most of the world is composed of sprawling fields with few identifiable landmarks, much of the uninformed players’ initial forays will likely consist of aimless wandering periodically halted by the occasional fight.
Moreover, the characters aren’t balanced well. When you start a new game, you are asked to name the four protagonists; their default names are: Ninten, Ana, Lloyd, and Teddy. Ninten is a well-balanced character who is physically strong and has decent healing techniques. Ana is a far more adept psychic than the hero, but is very frail. Next, there’s Lloyd, a character who has no psychic powers at all and is a worse fighter than Ninten, but in exchange, his technological savviness allows him to use items that the other characters can’t such as bottle rockets, laser guns, and flamethrowers. Finally, there’s Teddy, who is the strongest and fastest character in the game.
Although it may sound like a good spread on paper, there are a few things wrong with this. The main character, Ninten, only learns healing and other non-offensive techniques and at a slow rate. The only character who gains combat psychic techniques is Ana, and she is also the better healer until Ninten catches up. This means that the game often forces you to choose between healing or using a powerful psychic ability rather than being able to use both in the same turn. What’s worse is that because Ana is the most fragile character in the game, even with the best equipment, she is likely going to be healing herself nearly every round in tougher fights.
Another problem is that completing most dungeons is solely a matter finding an important item required to advance the plot. That is to say, they aren’t guarded by a boss; you make it to the end and leave immediately afterwards. This wouldn’t have been so bad had Earthbound Beginnings been released a few years earlier, but that design decision blatantly ignores the direction in which JRPGs were heading. To name a specific example, Final Fantasy, demonstrated that placing a difficult monster at the end of a dungeon gives players a sense of gratification the process would otherwise lack.
There’s a great disparity in what few boss encounters are present as well. Two of them are fought with only one character, thus making them a simplistic matter of trading shots every round. Meanwhile, three of them pit you against giant robots that cannot be harmed by conventional means. One can only be defeated with a tank, the second you actually have to lose against, and the third requires you to have a powerful temporary character in your party. Unwinnable boss fights are not uncommon in JRPGs, but can only occur so many times before you begin to question what the point is in grinding for levels. This dissonance extends to the rest of the experience as well. At the beginning of the game, even the simplest of enemies can defeat you with little effort, requiring you to grind several levels until you can defeat them consistently. You’re then forced to repeat this process every time you enter a new region just to stand a reasonable chance.
Interviews with Mr. Itoi about the making of Earthbound Beginnings reveal that the development team rushed throughout a significant chunk of the process, and it shows in the final product. The endgame areas feature enemies that deal huge amounts of damage while giving little experience in return. At this point, you’re just better off running away from every fight, which renders the aforementioned level grinding pointless. After all, why build your characters up if the difficulty curve is so steep, they can’t possibly keep up?
Now, this doesn’t mean that Earthbound Beginnings is completely horrible – far from it in fact. The biggest draw this game has would be its uniquely crafted scenario. The storytelling is admittedly rather minimalistic; after all, this was an era of gaming in which it simply wasn’t feasible to include novels of text without running into memory problems. PC developers found a way around this by printing a book that players were meant to refer to whenever prompted by the game.
It becomes clear when playing this game that a majority of the effort went into its scenario, and I have to applaud Mr. Itoi for putting his writing ability to good use. His work is an ahead-of-its-time parody of basic JRPG conventions. For example, there are two instances that make fun of the yes/no prompts which feature in innumerable games. One NPC concludes that Ninten doesn’t talk much while another answers exactly the same regardless of your choice, thus giving the same line a completely different meaning. Mr. Itoi’s work has the same appeal as old-school adventure games in that often I felt compelled to uncover nearly every piece of funny dialogue. What helps is that this game received a decent localization for a 1989 title. It may be jarring seeing the phrase, “Ninten suffered damage of…” pop up every time he takes a hit among other spelling and grammatical mistakes, but the text succeeds in preserving the original version’s quirky sense of humor.
The plot itself starts off fairly dry, and it isn’t until the halfway point that you even have an overarching goal. Ninten eventually finds himself in a realm known as Magicant, which is ruled by the enigmatic Queen Mary. She wishes to sing her favorite lullaby, but can’t remember how it goes, so she asks Ninten to travel the land to find the eight melodies that make it up. Once Ninten and his new friends find them all, they sing the song. It’s then revealed that Queen Mary is actually Maria, Ninten’s great-grandmother. She and George were abducted by aliens. While in this strange, new world, they raised an infant alien named Giygas as their own son. Magicant was, in reality, the last lingering threads of Maria’s consciousness, and with her identity restored, she is able to move on to the afterlife, causing the world to fade away.
Almost immediately after this revelation, Ninten and his friends are confronted by Giygas himself. He tells Ninten that George betrayed the alien race by stealing their technology when he returned to Earth. Giygas’s people have now entrusted him to head an interplanetary invasion before the human race and their newfound powers can become a threat to their existence. He acts as the game’s final boss, yet you cannot defeat him through sheer brute force because he has infinite health. “How does one defeat such a foe?” you may ask. The answer is simple: you sing Maria’s lullaby to him. When Giygas hears the song, he commands, then eventually pleads, you to stop. Once you’re able to sing the whole song, his memories of Maria resurface, causing him to abort the invasion and retreat. This is where the beauty of Earthbound Beginnings truly shines; this battle perfectly ties plot elements into the gameplay that was unprecedented at the time. The effect is that both entities enhance each other; the final encounter still requires strategy to complete without getting defeated and the way it plays out adds a lot of depth to the main antagonist. Considering that video game villains in the eighties were almost always one-dimensional megalomaniacs, this was a laudable accomplishment. Mr. Itoi was one of the first designers to showcase the incredible potential the medium has for storytelling, and this philosophy would go on to inspire countless other artists in the coming years.
Drawing a Conclusion
With his debut effort, Mr. Itoi may not have pushed any envelopes as far as gameplay is concerned, but he made a profound artistic statement that left an indelible impact on the medium which, in turn, caused many would-be developers to change the way they approach their craft. Before Earthbound Beginnings, it was exceedingly rare for console games, even other JRPGs, to have plots any more complicated than “kill the bad guy because he’s evil.” Even with that in mind, the level of maturity and introspection this game displays would be remarkable from a 2010s title let alone a 1989 Famicom game.
Having said that, exactly how much enjoyment you personally will get out of playing Earthbound Beginnings depends on how you answer the following question: are you willing to slog through a dated JRPG for the sake of experiencing the ten minutes at the end when it suddenly becomes amazing? If you can confidently answer “yes,” then you’ll love Earthbound Beginnings, and you might even find yourself saving a place for it on your list of personal favorites. On the other hand, if you have any reservations at all, you’re probably better off skipping this one. In the event you are unable to conjure up the patience needed to complete it, I recommend at least watching somebody else’s playthrough instead because it provides an intriguing amount of context for a major character who features in this game’s direct sequel, Earthbound. Whether you’re at the helm or not, Earthbound Beginnings is worth looking into – especially for those interested in studying video game history.
Final Score: 5/10