Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mother 3

Note: While I try to be as vague as possible, spoilers can be easily gleaned throughout the review. Playing the game isn't required to enjoy the review, but reader discretion is advised.

When copywriter Shigesato Itoi developed the original Mother--EarthBound Beginnings--he wanted to make a title that would break the mold of RPGs. It wouldn't be a tale of swords and sorcery, but instead children in 80's America fighting aliens and collecting melodies of love. It was an ambitious deconstruction of gameplay, tropes and story all in one Famicom (NES) cartridge, but while it captivated a Japanese audience, it wasn't immune to criticism: maps were too broad, the random encounters were too difficult, and maybe it deconstructed things a little too much, what with its lack of bosses and awkward story beats.

In that sense, Mother 2--EarthBound--is what he set out to accomplish all along. Both games revolved around similar plots, starred a mute boy wearing a red cap, and deconstructed RPG tropes and American culture in a comedic context. The 16-bit console was the perfect template for the series' minimalist vision, but it was no easy task: EarthBound's labored development took five years, with it gradually climbing up the megabit ladder (8 to 24--a huge leap for those days), implementing the overworld's oblique projection was gruelingly difficult, and the game was on the verge of cancellation numerous times...until the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata--then a top programmer for HAL Laboratory--approached Itoi and offered two choices: he could fix the game as it was now, or reboot it and make it even better.

That Itoi chose the latter was undeniably a difficult decision, but thankfully, it was also the correct one: where Beginnings was something of an enchanting rough draft, EarthBound ended up being the Super Nintendo's masterpiece. One of many for that particular console, you understand, yet the game's nebulous quality spoke to fans in a way Yoshi's Island, Chrono Trigger or Super Metroid did not. Every other top-shelf work on the system excelled in their gameplay, yet EarthBound invited the player in and encouraged them to interpret its world as they saw fit. It was a video game that celebrated the player's interaction, with its themes of memories, nostalgia and even weirdness permeating themselves into what's probably gaming's most devoted, loudest fanbase.

But though he finally accomplished his vision on the Super Nintendo, Mr. Itoi wasn't done just yet. So excited was he on the concept of a third Mother game that he'd already begun brainstorming on Mother 3 before EarthBound was even finished (much to the chagrin of his co-workers, who blankly told him to focus on the game he was still working on). And yet, in the eleven-year span it took from its ill-fated inception on the Nintendo 64 to its 2006 release on Game Boy Advance, there was something clearly different about this final entry. Whereas the first two games focused on parodying America and embracing the nostalgia of youth, Mother 3 features cowboys, dinosaurs, an army of pig-garbed soldiers, and a nature vs. technology narrative.

This is not to say Mother 3 is for the worse for this sudden thematic shift; in fact, it's the only possible way it could compete with EarthBound. If the outsider's perfect vision had already been achieved, why iterate upon it again? The only way to match up people's expectations would be to go against conventions lest it be too familiar, and so what we have here is a finale that takes place in something entirely different: a backwater town on conjoined islands in the middle of nowhere (hence the name "Nowhere Islands").

Bear in mind that Mother 3 does not strip itself entirely of Mother conventions: the game is still framed within Itoi's trademark absurdist humor, JRPG deconstruction, minimalist character design/ battle encounters, and heartfelt messages. But that is where the similarities end. The game is not a grand, globetrotting narrative, but an episodic one divided into eight chapters, most of which center around the gradual transformation of an idealistic, yet naive village. There is no eye-catching oblique projection, but instead the standard top-down perspective commonly found in retro RPGs. There are no chosen children guided by fate, but people of all ages and even animals brought together by tragic circumstance.

And therein lies the biggest shift of all: if EarthBound was a game about crafting and cherishing memories, Mother 3 is a grounded reality. The tale of Lucas, the younger of twin brothers whose family is torn apart, is perhaps the most heartbreaking story ever told in the video game medium. It's not actively harrowing, and there's still plenty of supernatural elements to go around, but the game's themes of love, loss and change are so achingly genuine and sincere you cannot play through it with a dry eye.

There's so many reasons for why it tugs at our heartstrings, be it the evolution of the series' trademark minimalist aesthetic or Shogo Sakai's beautifully fluent score (which, as of ten years later, remains his masterpiece), but I personally cannot get enough of how Mother 3 is a deconstruction of Mother itself. We see this right from the excellent transition from the prologue to Chapter 1. There may not be any America-inspired towns around, but Lucas's last day of vacation at his grandfather's still feels like home. Just like in EarthBound, there's animals with quippy inner dialogue, a sudden encounter with a talking bug, and slice-of-life moments with his mother and sibling.

Cue Chapter 1: things are not so well back in the village of Tazmily, with the surrounding forest mysteriously erupting into flames, and the native animals emerging as freak hybrids and cyborgs. Lucas's father, Flint, takes it upon himself to solve the crisis, but a sudden rainfall arrives with the most chilling of news: his family never returned home.

We're approaching spoiler territory, but the following scene is infamous for hooking players into Mother 3's world. The first of many tragedies is revealed from the blacksmith Bronson, who drops the news in the most tactless way possible: "I've got good news and bad news."

If the Game Boy Advance was tethered to any limitations relative to the Super Nintendo, you wouldn't be able to tell from Mother 3's character animation. The minimalist Mother designs are now fluid in expression, with the campfire scene being the cream of the crop. Everyone suddenly reeling back in shock, Flint hopelessly pounding the ground in despair, and the act of rage you see above. I'm hard-pressed to think of any other example of sprite animation expressing such raw anger (and bear in mind, this is only the first half: how it ends depicts fear and violence just as intense).

I could go on peeling layers form this one scene. How Shogo Sakai's song of choice, a heartrending piano piece, is aptly named Confusion. What were the exact circumstances as to what made Bronson blurt out what he said (we see this later with Flint's in-law Alec, who despite sharing the same grief and is racing against the clock to help Flint save his grandson, decides now is the time to cheer up his son-in-law with wildly inappropriate fart jokes). How the repercussions of Flint's actions begin to unravel Tazmily at the seams, beginning with his prestigious honor of being the first person locked up in Tazmily Jail.

However, the most important takeaway from this scene is that these are real people. Whereas we were free to inject ourselves into the protagonists of the first two games, these are defined characters with active thoughts and development that reflect human nature in the real world. Hardly a first for video games, and it's not like there weren't already great characters in EarthBound's world, but Mother 3's wonderful balance in presenting this cast can't be stated enough. So much of this has to do with the denizens of Tazmily, who are introduced as a money-less, carefree society where no one knows the concept of sadness.

But when the likes of Yokuba and the Pig Mask Army instill the values of capitalism and vague conceptions of "happiness," we begin to wonder if their varied transformations would be right at home in EarthBound's modern-day world. Abbot and Abbey, once a sweet, young couple, selfishly believe the other villagers are jealous of their newfound happiness and fear what lies beyond the borders of their town. Jonel, a nature-loving man who worships in the nearby Sanctuary, comforts Flint with the reminder that he has friends...only to distance himself when he and Lucas refuse to adhere to the town's new regulations, informing the latter that his father is "awkward." (I imagine that his Tyrolean hat hides a pair of hair-formed devil horns is no coincidence) His wife, Brenda, descends into full-on nastiness towards the ostracized Lucas: "Your father is still looking for your brother in the mountains? You should tell him it's hopeless and give up."

Even before Tazmily's transformation, we begin to realize it's not the utopia it appears, as seen when the outsider Nana ponders about why hardly any of Tazmily's relatives resemble each other. Their naivete is just as tragic as their brainwashing, and the journey of Lucas and his band of outcasts becomes ever more poignant as you recognize you're not just taking on an invading dictatorship: you're against the only world you've ever known.

Needless to say, it's an emotionally heavy game, but never one that's overtly sappy or constantly fishing for your tear ducts. It's more somber than the other two Mother games, but what's amazing is like how EarthBound wasn't cynical in deconstructing the JRPG model, Mother 3 isn't necessarily cynical in the journey its characters embark. True to the game's tagline ("Funny, strange, heartrending"), there are just as many dark moments as there are lighthearted. It is every bit a sad story as it is an empowering tale about growing up. It may not be a globetrotting adventure, but it is one that changes the world itself.

As mentioned before, this is still a game framed within Mother's most valued conventions. If this is a world that must possesses nasty characters, then there must be characters that stay pleasant through it all. (Hey, isn't that like real life?) And if there is such pleasantness to parallel sad moments, then there must be moments that render you a convulsing, laughing mess on the floor. Itoi's writing is as wonderfully charismatic as ever, be it moments that ape series tropes (the animals' inner dialogue, including a pig who wants to see a pig seeing the ocean) or ripping on RPG conventions (there are two dungeons that consist of, respectively, a mole cricket society and a toilet/restroom maze. Do I dare spoil the enemy of choice for the latter?). 

However, Mother 3's emphasis on character animation brings a new sort of humor that Mother was largely unable to capitalize upon before. This is not to diminish the quality of the humourous writing (you don't see the best of the DCMC band outside of their dialogue, for example), but there's a far bigger emphasis of such writing working in tandem with aesthetics. Fans would be quick to point out the infamous dance sequence, but I'm particularly fond of the measures Lucas takes to sneak his dog Boney into Club Titiboo.

And yet despite being so vivid in animation, it's amazing how Mother 3 continues to channel the series' most compelling asset: letting the player fill in the blanks. The minimalist approach to sprite design and battle encounters are just as integral as they were before. For example, how exactly does Duster kick in battle despite his limping leg? You can tell right from his sprite model that he has a bad hip--quite inconvenient for an aspiring thief-who-doesn't-steal-anything--and yet he deals some mighty damage; in fact, he's built as a primarily offensive character. Itoi offers some suggestions in this Nintendo Dream interview, but since the game borrows EarthBound's minimalist battle system (more on that later), he leaves it up to the player's imagination.

Even the actual story works into this. We had this in the first two games, too, but the active symbolism and character motivations grip at us long after the game's completion. What makes Yokuba such a despicable, evil man despite his late-game revelation? What's the deal with the doorknob we hear whispers of? Is the Negative Man really just a joke enemy? Can we even begin to fathom the depths of the tragic villain, whose callous, childish disregard for all life gradually unveils itself throughout the story's progression? Their roles and more are so tantalizing, beating just underneath the surface, that we can't help but speculate. To cite Shigesatoi Itoi himself:

"My personal feelings steer me to want to affirm everything the player thinks about the game. I wanted to make Mother 3 like a mirror. One that reflects the heart of the player off of the screen...Mother 3 is a playground with plenty of room for your imagination to run free. The more you think about it, the greater Mother 3 will become. The more you feel it, the deeper it will become. The more fun you have, the more you'll grow."

Ah yes, that reminds me: this is also a game! Despite being more linear than the first two, there's quite a bit more "game" here. I could go upon about how are more sequences resembling sidequests--particularly with hidden enemies and bosses in places you wouldn't normally think to look--but remember how EarthBound was a game past its time with elements like onscreen enemies and a rolling HP meter. Mother 3 doesn't necessarily introduce ground-breaking in that regard, but chooses to instead build upon where its predecessor left off. Where previous protagonists may've moved a tad too slow, there's now a run button. Whereas inventory may've been a tad too confining and cumbersome to manage before, there's plenty of space now that there's a separate pocket for important items.

And then there's the rhythm combos. The sole strength of Mother's combat was that it let you be the star: how the parties of Ness and Ninten fought off Giygas's forces was entirely up to you. Well-suited for players seeking immersive gaming, mind, but not particularly compelling for those looking for deep battle systems. As mentioned previously, this immersion is alive and well in Mother 3, but it decides to include a combo system to make things more interesting. Tap the A button to the rhythm of the battle music, and you can perform up to a 16-hit attack. Considering how there's over fifty battle themes in the game courtesy of Shogo Sakai, it's a lot harder than it sounds. Some are repeats, but those throw in off-tempo beats calculated just perfectly to trip you up. Of course, you don't have to master it if you don't want to--you can win any and all fights just fine without them; after all, most of the additional hits largely deal minuscule damage. Those hits can rack up, however, and the feeling accomplished combo unleashes a deserved audience cheer can't be understated. Think of it as an "every little bit helps" sort of thing.

And you can certainly think of it as capitalizing upon some of the best battle themes in JRPG history. Above is one of my favorite boss themes, Unfounded Revenge. It's a fast-paced, trumpet-heavy frenzy that will test your button-tapping reflexes not just in memorizing the beat, but in that the related battles themselves are notoriously difficult (so don't neglect your HP meter in favor of keeping with the beat). Since it's reserved for repeat encounters, it doesn't just pave the road for off-tempo screw-ups: it serves as the game's theme for rivalry.

However, there will be times where rhythm combos will be the least of your concern, for the story's themes certainly work their way into certain battles. Fight Against Mecha Drago, which concludes the the first chapter, is the beginning of the end of the initial Mother deconstruction. Previous Mother games had never sounded this raw barring maybe their respective final battles, yet here early on we're treated to a track so dangerous it immediately removes any sense of security that things will turn okay. Without going into the details, they don't, and it's superseded by the heartbreaking Long Shadow closer only brings this point home.

But let us not forget how wonderful the music outside the battle system. It really is amazing how much Shogo Sakai gets the story's themes (and he should, considering he even contributed to how certain scenes unfolded), as seen for the shifting music themes of Tazmily. What's interesting is that while they're all based on the same song, we can never pinpoint which one is its "real" theme. The very first time we hear it, Sorrowful Tazmily, plays when the town is in mourning, and we know it can't define what was the town was before.  Happy Town?, the version above, is probably the closest to an actual main theme, but the title raises a good point: is this industrialized renovation of the town really the right direction?

I'm also a fan of how Sakai handles the supernatural. The Magypsies are some of the game's most flamboyant characters, but they're embedded deep into the game's mythology, and so their homes are granted the above theme of mystery and reflection. The like of aliens are nowhere to be found, but how Mother 3 instead focuses on the world's history makes it seem that much more real. Speaking of ancient history, perhaps their shell-shaped homes recall the series' one other instance of magic and mystery...

I mentioned the presence of a nature vs. technology/modernism narrative. This isn't to say the game full-out promotes tree-hugging or the like, but you can easily point to themes representing each. For the latter, the march of the Pig Masks you can hear above was actually the original main theme for Mother 3, and it seeps into numerous facets of the game. At times a comedic fanfare and others a majestic song of triumph, the way the ultimately childish His Highness's Theme bookends the game is nothing sort of genius.

Which renders the background behind the Mother 3 Love Theme all the more a miracle. It's a song that wasn't composed until the very final stretches of development, and despite being just as simple and short as both iterations of Eight Melodies, for it to turn out so poignant, so beautiful and full of hope in its accompanying themes of family, acceptance and moving on is just flawless. (It's highly implied in the aforementioned Itoi interview he already had the song thought up before he was even asked; perhaps it being the basis of the early Mom's Hometown theme was the inspiration...?) If neither of the two versions here can make you cry, the haunting chorus found in the final battle will.

I could cheap out and just say something cliche like how it's the greatest song Shogo Sakai ever composed (which is true!), but it's something that means so much to me on a personal level. The game's own tragedies very much mirror the ones I had to personally overcome, and while the song itself always has me on the verge of tears. the lessons I continue to derive from it give me the strength every day to pursue my dreams, live on for the memory of those who've departed from my life, and to continue loving and appreciating everyone I hold dear. For that alone, I'm eternally grateful for the series to have touched my life.

Despite what the provided screenshots have implied, Mother 3 is a Japan-only game. There's a variety of factors to why it never came out westward: it came out too late in the Game Boy Advance's life cycle to justify localization costs, the underwhelming sales for EarthBound, and the story themes were probably too problematic for a 2006 America. (The poor Magypsies!) We do, however, have access to a wonderful fan translation courtesy of Clyde Mandelin and several other Mother superfans. It reads with all the flow of a legitimate game localization (and it should, considering Mr. Mandelin has localized quite a number of games and anime himself), and has been celebrated as one of the most polished fan efforts in the game industry.

As a Mother superfan myself, I own the original Japanese cartridge. (And by the way, I'm not ashamed to admit I still pull it out just to listen to the Sound Player) What Reid Young pointed out in the Do-It-Yourself Devotion project announcement is true: you won't be able to perceive every story detail and character interaction if you're Japanese-illiterate, but most of what you really need to know is conveyed through the masterful context of sprite animation and the like. It's eerie just how far they went to do this: you almost always know where to go and every single item has a little graphic next to its description.

Will the game ever come out in America? If the recent deluge of inside rumors saying it finally will this year, it might. Us Mother fans are notorious for our resilient optimism, and if it took right up to the game's 10th anniversary for us to be right (and right off the heels of the original Mother's surprise launch last year, no less!), then that makes it all the more magical.

Maybe I could cite moments where Mother 3 falters in going through the motions, and maybe its advances in minimalist design just miss the heights of how EarthBound came full circle for me, but such trivialities mean little in the fact that it's one of gaming's greatest treasures. As a self-contained narrative, it's thought-provoking and powerful. As the finale to a beloved trilogy, it's cathartic and even hopeful. It's the Game Boy Advance's masterwork swan song, and ten years later, I'm still hearing it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 35 ~Midna's Theme~ (The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess)

Origin: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Plays in: Various cutscenes
Status: Original Composition
Composer: Toru Minegishi

They say that whenever Nintendo holds a stockholder's meeting or the like, you should always expect the worst and hope for the best. Predictably, the results have lately been falling upon the former, and today's bombs are no exception. The nebulous NX console won't be arriving this year as most expected, but instead March 2017 so as to ensure a strong launch line-up. The next Zelda title has once again been delayed, as it'll launch alongside the NX next March. What this means is that Nintendo will once again have to ride its current money-making waves from amiibo figures and their mobile ventures, as the Wii U's paltry lineup will hardly sustain another Christmas season.

I've largely come down from the disappointment this morning, but there's no denying things are looking bleaker than ever for Nintendo. 2015 was already one of their roughest years despite their high-quality output, and the ways thing are going, 2016 looks to be even worse. We still have no idea what exactly the NX is, and outside of Pokemon Sun and Moon, who knows what else they'll have scheduled for this fall.

Monday, April 18, 2016


Note: Minor spoilers included. EarthBound Beginnings is referred to its original name, Mother, for context.

What is the video game, Earthbound?
Even today, it’s so hard to answer that question.

It was like a group of children taking dolls from a toy chest.
Old dishes no longer used in the kitchen.
Nuts and bolts found inside a toolbox.
Little flowers and leaves from the backyard.
And they were all laid down on the carpet with everybody singing made-up songs.
Ready to talk all day about that world they just made.
That, I think was how Earthbound was made.

Well, I’m a grown-up too,
so I didn’t hold back in adding things here and there,
like putting more angles here,
hiding a secret there,
and sometimes slipping in little mean things.

Then a whole lot of friends came over to play.
And they helped it grow as they were having fun as they pleased.
They gave it branches, leaves and flowers,
to what was once a simple story of just root and trunk.
For every person that played, there are that many iterations of Earthbound.

As I met different people on unrelated occasions,
they told me “I found out about you by playing Earthbound.”
This was not only right after the game was out.
People were telling me this after it’s been out for quite some time.

All sorts of people tell me about their memories,
about all the things I left in the playground called Earthbound.
From the tiny safety pins, broken pieces of colored glass to the withering leaves.
When I ask them, “how do you remember so much?”
With their eyes gleaming, they say,
“I love that world so much I remember everything about it.”
I reply right away saying “me too.”

Ah hah! That may be it.
Maybe I wanted to make a playground.
A playground filled with things no matter how small or unwanted,
they would all be kept dear in people’s hearts.
It looks like all my friends from around the world have discovered the theme to the game as they were playing – even though I didn’t think I gave it one.
That’s right, that’s something I also wanted to do all along.

I was already a grown-up at the time I was making Earthbound,
but now that thirty years have been added to my life, I’ve grown up even more.
I think about things that I didn’t back then.

Things like, “what kind of a person do I want to be when I die?”
I already know the answer to this one.
It’s “someone with a lively wake.”

The person who passed away has to be in all sorts of different people’s memories.
What they’ve done, how stupid they were, what kind of things they did for fun,
and how kind that person was sometimes.
All the people who are still alive are laughing,
wanting to be the first one to bring up those things to everyone around them.
The life I want to live is something that can be concluded with that kind of a party-like wake.
Fame and fortune, setting records and accomplishments are all meaningless.
That person is inside those stories that are told,
where people talk about their episodes, casually and sincerely.

Well, it’s not dead, and it’s not even human,
but to me Earthbound is a game that’s kind of like that guy.

Now that you’ll be able to play Earthbound to your heart’s content,
I hope you’ll play it with someone and create all kinds of great, happy memories.
I’m glad that this day has come.
And I think everyone who had a part in making this game is very excited too.

Thank you for everything. 

~EarthBound creator Shigesato Itoi, on the digital release of the game for Wii U.


When I first read Mr. Itoi's write-up, I was stunned at how much it mirrored my own feelings on EarthBound, which holds the distinction of being my favorite video game ever made. Only very recently had I realized my feelings on the game had come full circle, and the tears I shed upon its Virtual Console announcement just a few months before affirmed that EarthBound was as close to me as ever.

But despite my undying love for it, it's a title that's hardly penetrated public consciousness, so an introduction is necessary. Despite the singular name, EarthBound is actually the second of a JRPG trilogy known in Japan as Mother. Why did Mr. Itoi grant the series such an unusual name? There's his personal connection with the John Lennon song of the same name, for starters, but the name betrayed typical JRPG conventions of the time. There were no dragons or fantasies or legends implied, but a word associated with feelings of warmth and love.

That, and there are a whole lotta Motherships flying around. Choosing to instead take place in a tongue-in-cheek parody of America, protagonists in the form of children take on aliens, robots and brainwashed hippies as they gather melodies, battle with psychic powers and baseball bats and pop guns while learning the values of love. It wasn't uncommon for JRPGs to use avatars as proxies for the player, but Mother was unprecedented: for all the imagination it took to imagine yourself in Ye Olden times, here was an adventure you could forge in your very own backyard.

One that North America never gave a chance. While beloved cult classics in their native country of Japan, Mother had its own set of troubles settling into the very country that inspired it. The original Mother for the Famicom had been fully translated and localized for American NES release, but was quietly canceled in the face of the upcoming SNES. Mother 2, or what we know as EarthBound, was released in 1995, but what was perhaps the worst advertisement concept in video game history prevented any sort of mainstream success.

There were two factors that prevented EarthBound from falling into the ether. One was that the audience it did grab and speak to grew into some of the most passionate fans the industry has ever seen. Indeed, the folks at have created much noise for roughly two decades now, what with it hosting annual summer playthroughs for EarthBound, petitions begging for Mother 3's revival from cancellation and translation patches for titles that never made it over to America (Mother 3 and the GBA port Mother 1+2). Believe it or not, there's actually a Wikipedia article on how passionate we Mother fans are.

We'll get into the other one later, but what makes EarthBound so special? Honestly, I cannot bear to begin with any one detail without immediately seguing into another. There's the colorful, minimalist graphic style that leaves just enough detail for the players to fill in the gaps; the script, handwritten by Itoi himself and manages a wonderful balance of being rip-roaringly funny and achingly sincere; the music, an absurdly unique blend of genres, sampling and dissonance by Hirokazu Tanaka and Keiichi Suzuki; the New Age Retro Hippie, one of the brainwashed denizens you meet in Twoson who fights by brushing his teeth and whose theme music is obviously (amazingly?) inspired by Johnny B. Goode.

In case you hadn't caught on, EarthBound is something of a part-comic, part-thought-provoking deconstruction of JRPGs. But it's never a cynical one; actually, it's a progressive one. Where Itoi stumbled in the very same traps he wanted to avoid for the original Mother, none of the large, confusing maps or frustrating random battles are present here. Take the latter: not only does everything from aliens to possessed road signs traverse on the very same maps you do, but enemies you've long since outstripped will flee at first sight. If you chase them down, you'll beat them in, literally, a flash. (So long, Worthless Protoplasms!) Yes, it may throw monkey wrenches like randomly blocking players with iron pencil statues, but it's largely all for the sake of comedy. (After all, why do you think they can only be dismantled through a device known as the "Pencil Eraser"?)

It's a game that invites you in not just because of how weird and funny it is, but because it makes you the star, and it's dead-set on making you feel like one. The naming screen asks what your favorite thing is, which subsequently becomes the name of Ness's personalized PSI attack. Your favorite food isn't just whipped up by your Mom, but is the topic of conversation among several NPCs ("Bread"? Please...we do not have such trash on our menu"). Kids who play it are often tempted to name Ness and the gang after themselves and their friends. The game actually speaks to you at certain points--no, not Ness, but you, the player holding the controller.

In a way, it becomes a game that transcends "play". You don't spend your time grinding for levels or meticulously planning battle strategies like other JRPGs, but instead are actually invested in what NPCs have to say and find yourself exploring every crook and nanny of every town just to make sure you've talked to everyone. After all, why wouldn't you want to talk to Ruffini, the drugstore dog who's possessed by Itoi? And you better make it a habit to pick up every phone you see, because if Ness hasn't called his mother for a while, he'll be stricken by homesickness and rendered useless in battle.

It's a living, breathing, organic world where you can call Mach Pizza and wait at the bus stop. Concerts are attended (actually, they're woven into the storyline!) and you can experiment with what condiments go on what foods. You can ride a bike and ring its bell if only for the shortest of times (or can you?). Is that a treehouse hidden in the forests of Onett? What are those two conspicuous dots lying in the Dusty Dunes Desert, and what happens if I interact with them? Who is Nico, the little girl who sings and dances in Magicant, Ness's realm of memories? What's the deal with that tiny, inaccessible house outside the stretches of Twoson?

Itoi's toy chest comparison hits the mark; indeed, EarthBound may very well be an electronic toy chest. Not in the "build-your-world" context of Minecraft and Little Big Planet, mind, but a metaphorical one; alongside its bright colors, the game's oblique projection tilts the perspective just enough to present it as a diorama, with the characters as dolls and figures you want to pick up and play with. EarthBound's character sprites are hardly as detailed as, say, Chrono Trigger, but as mentioned before, they stay just minimalized enough for players to come up with their own personalized details. (Think about it: how many different interpretations of Ness have you seen in the game's countless troves of fan art?)

One of my favorite examples involves the lone NPC you see above. You see that guy with the blond hair? Try reading his shirt. Okay, you can't, but note how it's just legible enough to make out the famous "I Heart" brand of shirts. What does he love? We don't know, but boy can we have fun filling in the blanks. (apparently Itoi loved the character as much as we did, as the NPC reappears in Mother 3) There are other favorite designs, namely how the members of Tessie Watching Club always have binoculars glued to their faces and conspicuous Mr. T lookalikes (the best possibly being a resident of Twoson, who, after a kidnapping incident is resolved, claims he'll be "careful" not to kidnap anyone. It's not nearly as suspect as it sounds, but that it's said so straight-laced always has me howling).

So while EarthBound's graphics are hardly a looker by SNES standards, they remain timeless via the player's own projection. Just take how it treats the game's sole visual stunner: the psychedelic battle backgrounds. Pulsing and fluttering around like a music visualizer, these fluctuating abstractions steal the show of the admittedly simple battle encounters. EarthBound's battle system isn't the deepest you'll come across, and you can't even see your party, but that's okay. After all, you're the star; how the kids fend off aliens with baseball bats and frying pans and bazookas and the hexagonal chaos that are PSI attacks is entirely up to your imagination.

Take an old perception of mine as some food for thought: are you fighting in the streets of Onett, or are you zapped into dimensions host to those zany 3D backgrounds? Back when I was a kid, I perceived it as the latter, and mentally framed all the battles as such. Was I taking the presentation literally as-is, or did I take inspiration from the whole "crime-fighting kids who keep their occupation secret" cartoon trope? Regardless, even now I occasionally get caught up in that little theory, and now maybe you can, too.

But if we must praise the battle system from a "game" perspective, there is no other nominee but the rolling HP meter. Whereas enemy damage is immediately applied to your characters' HP in other RPGs, any attacks here slowly dwindle down number-by-number as according to how much was inflicted. Even if you're dealt mortal damage, a serving of Hamburgers or casting a PSI LifeUp will save yourself before the ticker reaches zero. EarthBound keeps its battle just interesting enough to keep the player invested, but it doesn't go for flashiness lest it overrides its purpose of immersion.

Needless to say, EarthBound was far ahead of its time for a 1994 video game, and so much of this has to do with the excellent, excellent writing. That Mr. Itoi is, first and foremost, a copywriter/essayist should speak for itself on how different it's going to be, but consider how he's considered to be one of Japan's most eccentric. Hardcore Gaming 101's review elaborates on how the Japanese kana for the original Mother 2 projects what can be best described as a free-flowing script that, despite the childish inclinations from that sector of the Japanese language, never comes across as patronizing.

All woefully difficult to conserve in translation, you understand, and yet Mother 2's transition into EarthBound results in what's NOA's first legitimately great localization. I'm not exaggerating here: just read up on Clyde Mandelin's super comprehensive Mother 2 vs. EarthBound comparison, and you'll realize how any mistranslations that slipped by are a drop in the bucket to how perfectly it captures Itoi's tone. Bear in mind this is from the mid-90's; granted, we'd just started to figure out this "localization" business (no more "Dodongo dislike smoke!" for us Nintendo fans), but that the localizers felt the words "crap" and "sexy" were needed to flesh out Itoi's world just proves EarthBound's localization is a real gift. (Bear in mind not only had NOA been enforcing a strict "kid's only" set of depiction guidelines at the time, but the former word only just recently became standard for Fire Emblem games, while the latter remains exclusive to good ol' EB)

And what a gift the writing itself is. It's a masterful blend of wit, parody, casual speak, and occasional sincerity. Helpful one moment and sudden (but clever!) Beatles reference the next. It'll break the fourth wall, but only in ways that'll serve the game's world and the player's connection. There are two entire dungeons dedicated to gloriously parodying RPG tropes. It's not outright manic, but it's the logic behind an earlier point: you want to explore everything the game has to offer. For example, you discover early on that while not every building is accessible, you'll still receive an answer should you knock on the door. How many houses can I enter, you might wonder, and so you're encouraged to find out what lies in them. If you can't, you're at least rewarded with funny dialogue.

The NPC dialogues are really the winner here. I could elaborate on any number of them, but I particularly enjoy the ones who betray conventions. The first woman you meet in Twoson who introduces the town, for one; I dare not spoil the punchline, but I can confirm the conversation will induce more philosophical ponderings on NPCs you never thought possible. Anyone invoking wordplay (namely the Happy-Happyist Cult, who desire to paint the world blue) is a riot, and I also appreciate the wordplay behind the towns ("Twoson--we got this name because we weren't first").

Of course, the best of the best are everyone's favorite part of the game: the Mr. Saturns, a race of tiny aliens fond of ribbons, help Ness engage in introspective coffee trips, and are, at one point, held captive by sentient piles of barf. Oh, and they speak in broken English, with their font as a mess of foreign-styled scribbles (apparently inspired by the handwriting of Itoi's daughter). This results in beautiful dialogue like in screenshot above. Basically, if they don't make you at least crack a grin, you don't have a soul.

Anyone could make a case for EarthBound's quirky, innovative writing being the best part of the game, but you could just as easily do the same for its quirky, innovative score. For the sake of context, I consider the Super Nintendo to be home to the greatest soundtracks in gaming history, be it the orchestral flair of Kirby Super Star and Chrono Trigger, the rock of Star Fox, the chill ambiance of the Donkey Kong Country games, and Super Mario RPG's repertoire of xylophones, pianos and whistles remaining the very best of Yoko Shimomura. As opposed to the limited channels of NES chiptunes and the N64's weak MIDI instrumentation, the balance of synth in SNES music is almost magic in how there's no compromises in producing truly rich scores. There's a homely, warming nostalgia to it all, and you could swear early examples like Super Mario World and SimCity were scored around this very purpose.

Maybe it's how the composers built upon Itoi's love of Lennon and based the soundtrack around how much he sang about love. Maybe it's Keiichi Suzuki's non-game music background or Hirokazu Tanaka's unique approach to producing music (perhaps he took inspiration from the "living creature" sound of Metroid?). Whatever it is, it expertly plays into the game's themes. Take the concept of Ness's home: no matter how far you've gone in your journey, no matter how many countries you've travelled, you're always welcomed home with a serving of your favorite homemade food, courtesy of Mom. Even with the fate of the world on his shoulders, Ness is still, after all, a young boy.

And all the while, a slow arrangement of the Pollyanna overworld theme from the first Mother plays. If I'm forced to choose a favorite song, it would be this. It is a Lazy Sunday and a tearful homecoming all in one, topped off with what can only be described as a heavenly choir. It always, without fail, makes me feel safe and loved, makes me reflect whether I'm playing the game or simply looking it up on YouTube.

We could spot similar themes in Eight Melodies, which plays throughout the game in various forms. It echoes in toy-box form whenever a new melody is gathered at a "Your Sanctuary", and again as a whole in the game's most heartwarming scene: Ness visiting his baby-self in monochrome. It's echoed again in the Sound Stone item; a deeper introspective that gradually morphs with the more melodies you gather. But up until all are collected, it stops after your last melody and thumps with perhaps the most unique sampling: an instrumental take on Lennon's Give Peace a Chance.

Of course, EarthBound doesn't always get all mushy. Let's not forget it is a weird, weird beast, and we learn that the moment we reach the naming screen. We're greeted with the game's first instance of ear-catching dissonance, consisting of a Monty Python's Flying Circus sampling before diving into a pop beat. It's a beat so infectious that I tend to stick around far longer than I should, staring at each character's animations as I file through their lists of default names.

Actually, EarthBound doesn't just stick to samplings; at times, it pays full-blown tributes, including one of my favorite pieces above. The theme of the Sky Runner machine is undoubtedly derived from The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again, (or, at the very least, its intro) and fans had long since speculated EarthBound took so long to reach the Virtual Console due to music licensing/infringement issues, with this song at the top of the list. If that's the case, then I dub it a necessary evil that we had to wait so long, because I cannot imagine anything more perfect than the technopop launch buildup and the steady, pronounced percussion of the actual flight.

Obviously, EarthBound's music has its roots (and rightfully so!) in the Western sphere. Its parody of American culture comes alive best in Twoson, a laid-back tune I actually once wrote about. All the numbered-town tunes with their own brand of American nostalgia, but I particularly enjoy this one in how it's the sort of the tune that'd accompany a country drive. I'm also fond of the theme for the town's Chaos Theater, undoubtedly one of the game's top atmospheric tracks (just listen to all the little clinks!).

There are so, so many more I could elaborate upon---the snowy nostalgia of Winters and the Snow Wood Boarding School, the latter of which is another atmospheric winner through its borrowing of of Mother's Snowman theme. The tribal, jubilant walk of The Lost Underworld. My favorite of the psychedelic battle themes, which is reserved for mini-boss fights. The climatic fusion of 8-bit marches, rock guitars and haunting ambience for the masterpiece that is the final boss battle. The heartwrenching duo of Because I Love You and Smiles And Tears for their respective ending setpieces. There are many others.

But I fear I've shared too much already, and I haven't even discussed what I love most about the game.

The reason why EarthBound resonated so much with its fans is because while it's a fantastical sci-fi experience following the tale of four children, it's all framed within very human circumstances.Just ask the guy who grew up without a father and was comforted by how Ness communicated with his absent father through telephone (which is the game's method of saving). *Or the gay man who had anti-gay rallies take place on his street, and could only find solace in Jeff's friend: Tony, a homosexual child who dreams of taking walks with his bespectacled roommate.

*This story was shared on a forum post nearly a decade ago. I've since been unable to find it, but the tale's stuck with me as a prime example of EarthBound's immersion.

And take me. The other factor that prevented EarthBound from falling into the American abyss--the one hooked me into the game--was that Ness was included in the roster for the Nintendo 64's crossover fighter Super Smash Bros. The character fascinated me all the way up through the GameCube's Melee: here was a young boy who sauntered into a Nintendo all-star fray as if he was on the same level as Mario or Donkey Kong, and all he had to show for it was his brand of psionic powers. That was rad.

What was even radder was how his source game ticked off every box that 4th Grade me identified with. It was weird not just for the sake of being weird, but was entirely self-aware (NPCs commonly mention the game's title) and ripped on RPG tropes (the aforementioned Pencil Statue). I was out-of-touch and awkward and the game's "neglected" status became an identifiable symbol, a treasure hidden within the flood of "I rented Enter the Matrix over the weekend" during Circle Time.

Oh, and I also liked random humor. The likes of Invader Zim and Ed, Edd n' Eddy warped my young mind with their mall security zombies and buttered toast, and soon a new outlet of humor was born and eventually expressed through the likes of Games in the Basement and writings/drawings revolving around Kung Fu Animal Forces and Zombie Men. And now for the first in my favorite medium, I had a refuge in a game that hosted Mr. Saturns, peanut-cheese bars, and trout-flavored yogurt. Even if others didn't accept me, I was vindicated through this one game alone.

Of course, I've grown to further appreciate the game's satire as I've gotten older, but the way it's transformed the mundane into the hysterical is just phenomenal. Here's an example I've grown to recognize as one of my favorites: after collecting the first of the Eight Melodies, Ness is accosted by Onett's police (who, just so you know, are going for the world record in road-blocking) for trespassing in a restricted area, and is told to report the station. There, the chief explains that while he's aware Ness wishes to travel to Twoson, the roads shall remain blocked unless he completes a certain test. Leading him down to an isolated room, he turns to Ness and asks if he can "get past five of my best men..."

At the time, I took this at face-value. So Ness had to take on some policemen now, okay. I'd already put a stop to the biggest, baddest gang in town and took down a giant ant, and it's not like I wasn't already running over police in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. How was fighting cops any different than stomping on Goombas? It wasn't until I was replaying it in college when I realized this guy legitimately pitted a little boy against trained policemen. Cops that chose to battle with karate chops rather than firearms, mind, but it was enough to send me into hysterics (that it was already home to some of the game's best quotes was icing on the cake).

And even still, the best examples of EarthBound's humor are those rare moments when it blends weird with the genuinely heartfelt; case in point, the Camera Man. Every so often, stepping on an unassuming spot will trigger a trumpeting fanfare as a bearded man spirals down the sky and, after announcing his profession, will snap a picture of Ness's party. He'll claim the picture will bring back the greatest of memories and, just as quickly as he came, spins back into the heavens.

That this seemingly pointless event occurs again and again throughout the game tricks you into thinking it's just one of EarthBound's gleeful methods of screwing with the player. And maybe it kind of is; I'll admit I actually hated him as a kid for interrupting my game. But right after the character roll call at the end, you realize his purpose when he pulls up a camera stand: as the credits roll, those very same photographs scroll by as Smiles and Tears instills the warmest of smiles or renders you a sobbing mess.

The very fondest of my video game memories lie within EarthBound. I was only ten and was just discovering internet forums and sprite comics and the history of a company I'd been busy worshiping for the past four years. The passion surrounding EarthBound struck me the hardest, what with the achievements of and their forums of teens and young adults endlessly discussing their love for the game. Naturally, a ten year old can't quite mingle with a size gap that big; my topics were frequently locked and my entries for the Apple of Enlightenment contests were nothing sort of embarrassing (I'll leave to you to guess which one is mine). But it was how I was part of a beloved secret--a masterpiece forgotten by society--that mattered most.

That, and how I learned the word "nostalgia". Imagine it: a ten year old knowing the word nostalgia! It's true. The hippies I idolized used the word to describe their memories of EarthBound and how Super Smash Bros. Melee glorified Nintendo history and I wanted in on whatever they were talking about. Was it the way the towns of Onett and Twoson recalled memories of a youth I didn't have, or how I imagined kids back in 1995 waking up in the languid hours of the morning and rushing downstairs to play EarthBound, or how I felt when I listened to Melee's arrangement of Pollyanna?

Whatever it was, it was the greatest feeling in the world; my most cherished secret of all. And now it's fourteen years later and I'm still playing EarthBound. It's a game that has grown up with me, gradually building upon what I adored about it as a child alongside all the trials and tribulations of being a young adult. It's a game all about nostalgia and making memories, and now I can mine that very same nostalgia I once sought to discover. The irony continues to blow my mind; I can't think of anything else like it.

EarthBound is not a game of excitement or thrills, the most common reasons people play games. In that sense, I often don't recommend as a game game. But for games that require any sort of investment, or introduce any sort of theme or message, or push the boundaries of what exactly is defined as a video game, it is, with the very possible exception of its own sequel, the very best video game not just under Nintendo's banner, but the best video game you can play, on any console. EarthBound is a game that will grow the more you play it, and I eagerly anticipate to see what I'll discover next time I visit its world: where I can be a kid and an adult all in one. Say fuzzy pickles!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Biweekly Music Wednesday! No. 34 ~Tallon Overworld~ (Metroid Prime)

Origin: Metroid Prime
Plays In: Tallon Overworld for the game's first half.
Status: Arrangement
Arranged by: Kenji Yamamoto

I don't think anyone can disagree that Metroid Prime has one of the greatest opening sequences in gaming history, no? Samus's infiltration of the Frigate Orpheon is heart-pounding, thrilling, and haunting all-in-one, concluding with a true-to-Metroid-form escape from the exploding facility as she chases down her (now mechanized!) archenemy, Ridley. Cue her landing on the mysterious planet Tallon IV, where you soak in the view of the raining jungle as the above song plays.

I can only imagine the euphoria long-time Metroid fans found themselves in, as a masterful combination of synth, choir, percussion and a lone trumpet conjured up an atmosphere so powerful that I suspect many just stood there taking everything in. I know I have, but how many stood knowing this adventure would live up to every expectation they'd been building for eight years?

That it works so beautifully is no coincidence. Kenji Yamamoto may not have composed the original Brinstar theme (that would be Hirokazu Tanaka) but his experience with Super Metroid bears fruit. With how Frigate Orpheon came out guns blazing, Yamamoto takes the opportunity to provide a nostalgic cooldown for the player as they slowly absorb their surroundings. It segues perfectly into the ambience that paves the way to the Chozo Ruins, and continues to do so until it's replaced by the equally amazing Tallon Overworld 2.

Together with Metroid Fusion, this GameCube masterpiece kicked off an era of Metroid that lasted well throughout the 00's. None managed to top Retro Studios' part revival, part 3D transition, but that Metroid was once again a starring member of the Nintendo family was enough fans to ask for...that is, until the disastrous reception of 2010's Metroid: Other M brought the series to a screeching halt.

The protracted silence on Metroid since then drove fans to unease, and last year's equally-disastrous reveal of Metroid Prime: Federation Forces has, once again, made those very fans to label the series as "dead". Bear in mind said game hasn't even come out. Ouch.

Putting aside the possibility that Federation Forces could end up a quality title (it's by Next Level Games, after all), where does Metroid go from here? Yoshio Sakamoto, undoubtedly burnt by Other M's reception, already expressed he's moved on to less-ambitious projects like Tomodachi Life. Do we hope that Miyamoto's interest in a Wii U Metroid title has somehow manifested into a NX project? And what if Federation Forces ends up bombing and Nintendo takes that a sign the series is no longer profitable? It's a scary time.

The wait from Super Metroid to Metroid Prime was a masterpiece being topped by another masterpiece, but here we have a dud transitioning to an unknown quantity fans won't even give the time of day. You have those wishing for Metroid Prime 4, and while Retro Studios has expressed interest in taking on the series again, you have an equal number of fans begging for them to take on something new. There's just no easy answer.

Even what I personally wish is certainly no easy feat. Metroid may not rank in my Top 5 Nintendo franchises, but what I desire is a game that has an opening reflecting that Tallon Overworld moment. It doesn't have to be as good as Metroid Prime or Super Metroid, but something that tells fans "you're home" and guarantees another sci-fi spelunking epic would be enough.

Samus Aran has been through a lifetime of horrors. I'm sure she can survive a character assassination and a spin-off misfire. Maybe she can pull it off.

Final Thoughts: Man, now I want to play Metroid Prime again. So good.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Evaluating Localization: In Defense of NOA Treehouse (Nintendojo)

This is, by far and away, my biggest article for Nintendojo. This has become a real hot topic over the past year and after a certain dust-up on my Twitter not too long ago, I knew I had to write about it. I think what amazes me the most about this whole controversy is that for years and years you had gamers praising NOA Treehouse as one of the best game localization groups in the business, and all it took for them to get vilified was for them to take out some butts. I imagine the presence of a certain hate group (which I won't dignify by name) made it far louder than it should be, but I digress.

Regardless, I'm incredibly proud of what I pulled off here, especially with how I managed to get an actual game translator to pitch in some comments! My friend Masked Man from NeoGAF works in Japan, and although he still won't tell me what he works on (pesky NDAs and all), he's absolutely the real deal. If you're reading this, just know you are the man.

This is a special article, so I'd like it to hog the spotlight instead of being bumped off by a Biweekly Music Wednesday! installment. I have a real penchant for delaying that column, I know, but I already have the next song planned and it'll actually tie into a subject I also recently discussed on Nintendojo! My only hint will be that the column written hasn't included the related series in some time. Definitely look forward to it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Checking in for April

Hey, all! Sorry for the dry spell last month; not only was my computer under siege from the Locky virus (yikes!), but there were some work-related issues I had to make priority. Regardless, I'm hoping I made it up with the Kirby's Epic Yarn rereview! I don't think we'll be seeing much of those, but I do have four other games in mind for that, so keep a look out for those.

At any rate, I wanted check in to say April's going to be quite the busy month. As we're (finally!) approaching the end of Ten Years of Kirby, some exciting Nintendo-related events are coming our way. First off, Star Fox Zero is releasing in mid-April! Needless to say, I'm super pumped for it, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate its launch than reviewing one of my favorite games: the N64 masterpiece Star Fox 64! I'm hoping to align the review somewhere around Zero's launch date (April 22nd), so please stay tuned!

And that's not all for non-Kirby reviews, as just two days before Zero's release is the 10th anniversary of another favorite title of mine: Mother 3! Of all of Nintendo's wonderful franchises, Mother is the one dearest to my heart and I've wanted to discuss both EarthBound and Mother 3 since forever. As I've recently played through both games, I feel the time is ripe to discuss my two favorite video games ever made. You can certainly expect both games to be covered before the 20th, and I aim to make them the best they can be. EarthBound Beginnings, the original Mother, is also scheduled to be reviewed but I feel the game requires another playthrough on my part before I can grant it the review it deserves, so expect it later this year (in the meantime, don't forget I wrote a Retro Scope on it for Nintendojo!)

Finally, as for Ten Years of Kirby, I'm aiming for a monthly review for the remaining games, so you can expect Kirby Mass Attack later this month. The bonus anime review as well as Triple Deluxe and Rainbow Curse will also follow this template. After three years, we've finally reached the end, so look forward to them!
April's set to introduce the content output I've been meaning to maintain for quite some time, so I hope you're as excited as I am. I know I can't wait to finally talk EarthBound!

Ah, yes, and one more thing...that big news I've been talking about? Progress is being made on it, and I can definitely confirm it WILL arrive this month. I can't wait to share it!

Edit (4/4): This is probably something I should've elaborated on earlier, but while progress is being made on the "big news", I cannot 100% guarantee it will become a reality. Various parties are working for it to be so, but if it doesn't happen, well, it doesn't happen. Whether or not it does, you WILL know by the end of the month. That I can assure you. Let's hope for the best!