After skimming through multiple blogs on WordPress, I happened to stumble upon a tag for gaming enthusiasts, and the topics seemed interesting enough. I’m always looking for good subjects with which I could write a midweek post in between reviews, so I thought this could be an interesting change of pace. Now that the introduction is out of the way, let’s get started.
I have to admit that between the three colors I use, the green tiers are the ones for which my process of assigning grades is the least scientific. When I was developing my rating system, I wanted to make it clear to readers that a game really has to go the extra mile to earn an 8/10 or higher so as not to devalue the highest grades. Admittedly, it does come down to gut feelings to a greater extent than when I’m entertaining the idea of assigning a red or yellow score. For games I’ve awarded an 8/10, there might be a few minor issues present, but they’re easy to overlook in favor of appreciating what they do well. These are games you should give high priority should they end up on your backlog.
Funnily enough, the conclusion of this particular post will take us to the exact halfway point of my list. It’s fitting because a 5/10 signifies that I could go either way when asked if I recommend a game. In the end, I feel that whether or not the reader should check any of the following games is a decision they themselves must make. They have a lot of qualities worth praising, yet you have to wade through a lot of annoyance before their true value begins to shine.
The primary difference between a 3/10 and a 4/10 on my scale is that I couldn’t personally endorse playing any game from the former tier. With the latter tier, my stance when it comes to the question of recommending a game is less straightforward. Essentially, a 4/10 means that I would be more likely to dissuade people from playing the game in question, yet it does just enough right so as to not make the experience irredeemably bad. In practice, quite a lot of the entries on this tier are games that had historical significance, yet are decidedly inaccessible from a modern standpoint. Either way, now that we’re out of the red-score tiers, you can rest easy knowing that from here on out, I’ll be talking about games that are, for the most part, worth looking into.
In 1994, Mother 2: Gigyas Strikes Back, the follow-up to Shigesato Itoi’s beloved Famicom game was released. It accomplished the impossible by eclipsing the seemingly insurmountable popularity of its predecessor. Although it took some time, the sentiment was eventually shared with Western gaming fans who knew the game as a standalone title named Earthbound. With two smashing successes under their belt, it wasn’t long before fans clamored for a sequel. They weren’t alone either; so great was Mr. Itoi’s own enthusiasm that he called the lead designer, Akihiko Miura, in the dead of night to inform him of his new idea for the series’ concluding installment before promptly being informed that “it wasn’t time for that”. In fact, he had this idea so early, it was originally slated to be released on the ill-fated Super Famicom CD, a peripheral for their 16-bit console made to compete with the Sega CD, their rival’s equivalent. The team behind Earthbound regrouped for its sequel, and in a daring move, they forewent the prototyping phase, going straight into development under the belief that they would create something unprecedented. Mr. Itoi is on record stating that he wanted to make the game like a Hollywood film. He and his team began the project in 1994, expecting to complete it in 1996 whereupon it would see the light of day on Nintendo’s then up-and-coming 3D console: the Nintendo 64.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for their plans to go awry. While Earthbound ran into its own problems, the Super Famicom was an established system, and any technical issues were solved once a gifted programmer named Satoru Iwata dealt them. The Nintendo 64 was a horse of a different color – especially in the mid-nineties when 3D gaming was in its primordial phase. That the hardware was largely experimental coupled with the team’s understandable lack of experience with it caused development to stall. Not helping was that Mr. Iwata had been promoted to president of HAL Laboratory, meaning he had far less time to work on the game, and in 1995, Mr. Itoi’s company, Ape Inc., became Creatures with many of its members proceeding to assist an up-and-coming designer named Satoshi Tajiri with a project of his own: Pokémon.
Despite these setbacks, by 1996, the game was in an advanced state under the working title of Mother 3: Strange Creatures Forest. During this, Nintendo tried once again to capitalize on the increasingly popular CD-ROM format that paved a golden road for Sony’s PlayStation console with their proposed Nintendo 64DD (Dynamic Drive). It was touted as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console,” which included features such as a real-time clock for persistent game world design, and expanded, rewritable data storage. Shortly after the technology’s announcement, it was decided that Mother 3 would be one of the system’s launch titles. Nintendo originally intended for the 64DD to be released in 1996 – the same year as the Nintendo 64, but it ran into numerous delays until it was pushed back to 1999. By then, interest in the product had waned, and it only boasted nine games in its library by the end of its run.
The tumultuous handling of the 64DD prompted Mr. Itoi and his team to downgrade their project to a simple Nintendo 64 title once more. By 1999, they managed to complete a playable demo which was showcased at Spaceworld, an annual video game trade event hosted by Nintendo. This time, the game had a definitive title: Mother 3: The Fall of the Pig King, and it was even scheduled for a North American release under the name Earthbound 64. As Earthbound gained a significant following in the West and it was a beloved classic in its native homeland, fans waited with bated breath to see what Mr. Itoi had in store for them. Their hope began to fade once the game was delayed again to 2000, yet failed to make an appearance at the E3 convention of the same year. With nothing to show for all of their hard work, Mr. Itoi announced the project’s cancelation in August of 2000, and it seemed his story would remain untold.
However, Shigeru Miyamoto was still interested in bringing the work to fruition. In 2003, the fans’ faith in the series was restored thanks to the release of Mother 1 + 2, a Game Boy Advance compilation port of Mr. Itoi’s first two games. A small message at the end of a TV advertisement stated, “We’re working on Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance…” Various people had approached Mr. Itoi for the proposal of film or novel adaptations of his canceled project, but he declined, believing it could only be a game and nothing else. Mr. Iwata speculated in hindsight that the game didn’t really need to be in 3D when his colleague’s talents lied in the written word, and Nintendo’s newest handheld console seemed to provide the perfect solution for their troubles. The machine would provide them with specifications similar to the tried-and-true Super Famicom, eliminating any uncertainties the team might have had. With an entirely different team formed by employees from two companies, HAL Laboratory and Brownie Brown, Mr. Itoi set forth to at last create the third and final installment of his series. The latter company was composed of former Squaresoft 2D artists, and one of its members, Nobuyuki Inoue, served as the director for Mother 3, having achieved success as the scenario writer and battle designer for Live A Live. This time, development progressed with little incident, and the game, now simply titled Mother 3, was finally released in 2006 – twelve years after its direct predecessor.
As the compilation Mother 1 + 2 was not released in the West, North American hobbyists attempted to persuade Nintendo to localize Mother 3. To ensure their pleas would not fall on deaf ears, they sent a petition that received over 30,000 signatures along with a book containing Earthbound art, stories, comics, and even music all made by fans. Sadly, these impressive efforts were for naught, as Nintendo announced that they were not interested in exporting Mother 3 overseas. Unwilling to let this deter them, the fans took it upon themselves to provide their own translation. The project was led by Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin, a professional translator who previously worked on anime such as Dragon Ball and Lupin the 3rd as well as other video games including Kingdom Hearts II. The process proved arduous, and Mr. Mandelin said that “no text display routine wound up untouched.” Even those with lesser roles were estimated to have spent anywhere from fifty to one-hundred hours while the leaders contributed one-thousand. Still, the team soldiered forward, and the patch was completed in 2008. Within its first week, it received over 100,000 downloads, and Mother 3 enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reception. Fans have been quick to point it out as one of the decade’s finest works – a sentiment echoed in several gaming publications – with some going as far as declaring it Mr. Itoi’s magnum opus.
In 1989, Nintendo released an RPG known as Mother. It differed from its contemporaries in that its scenario was conceived by a professional writer who saw a great storytelling potential in this budding medium: Shigesato Itoi. His celebrity status, which he achieved long before he had an idea for a video game, played a big role in Mother selling over 400,000 copies in Japan. It wasn’t just a big name being attached to the project that moved so many units, however; kids and adults alike enjoyed the game for its compelling, emotionally driven narrative, and its appeal transcends generations.
Naturally, because Nintendo realized they had a hit on their hands, it wasn’t long before they asked Mr. Itoi to create a sequel to continue this newfound success. He happily accepted, as the Super Famicom was released in Japan a year after the debut of Mother. This new machine provided more than a mere graphical upgrade; it allowed for creative possibilities inconceivable on the original Famicom. HAL Laboratory, the company that would eventually create the Kirby franchise, joined Mr. Itoi and the rest of Ape Inc. to aid them on this new project. With this new talent and the prospect of ascending his canon to a higher level on a new and improved system, the possibilities were endless or so it would appear on the surface. Shortly after development began, the team began running into a multitude of problems. The isometric perspective that gave Mother its identity was difficult to render, new mechanics failed to work properly, the two studios were in entirely different regions of Japan, and eight megabytes of storage proved insufficient to hold the soundtrack let alone an actual game. The project began to stall, and all hope seemed lost.
This all changed when HAL Laboratory sent one of their most skilled programmers to save the day. Once appointed lead programmer, this man was able to systematically manage all of the technical issues plaguing the development process. His name was Satoru Iwata, the very person who would become Nintendo’s president a decade later. Due to his efforts, the project became even larger in scale, and took nearly four years to complete – something that was practically unheard of at the time. The game was finished in 1994 under the name Mother 2: Giygas Strikes Back. Like its predecessor, Mother 2 received a warm reception to the point where hundreds of thousands of copies were sold within the first few weeks. Mr. Itoi’s success was at an all-time high, and Nintendo decided to take a chance by pouring resources into getting the game localized for a Western audience. In North America, Mother 2 inherited the working title of its predecessor before the plans for localization fell through at the last minute: Earthbound, and Nintendo marketed the game heavily in the hopes that it would catch on overseas. Sadly, this effort ultimately fell short, and the game barely sold 150,000 copies – dismal sales compared to other Nintendo titles. What few critics did play Earthbound dismissed it for its seemingly childish presentation and not looking enough like Final Fantasy VI. Exactly what did they choose to pass up?
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.
Regardless of the medium, a bad ending is one of the worst flaws a work can have. It’s one of the few mistakes that the author cannot recover from without resorting to sequels and extensive retconning. I am, and always have been, a stickler for endings. Indeed, I’ve made it a rule when critiquing that any work with a lackluster ending is not worthy of being deemed a classic and the highest score it could ever hope to get is a 6/10, which roughly translates to a B- in my book. While discussing the nature of story progression with my fellow games enthusiast, Aether, he perfectly illustrated why I insist on holding this belief.
“A weak ending is one of the few things that can retroactively lower the quality of a story, turning sour all the good memories of what you’ve been reading, watching, or playing.”
This is especially crucial for video games; you want to reward your audience for overcoming a challenge and having the tenacity to see your work through to the end. Depriving them of a good ending is one of the worst insults any development team can dish out. In all of the games I’ve played over the years, three stand out as having endings so bad, the good memories I had of them were almost completely erased. They should be studied by writers as what to avoid when crafting and structuring their stories. In order to demonstrate my points, I will have to resort to spoilers, so if you are at all interested in playing the following games, feel free to skip those sections. Don’t worry though, should I mention other games in the following sections, I will be sure to include spoiler tags if needed.