N64 Month | Nintendo's Missing in Action - Part 3: Earthbound 64 (Mother 3)

By Martin Watts 28.03.2012 7

Image for N64 Month | Nintendo
The Mother series has had something of an awkward relationship with Western gamers. With only the second game in the series, Mother 2 (known to us more commonly as EarthBound), making its way to North America back in 1995, it’s not surprising that most of us have only ever experienced the bizarre franchise through the Super Smash Bros. series. However, while Mother’s existence was becoming apparent to the Western world upon unlocking Ness as a playable fighter back in 1999, a development team back in Japan was already hard at work on the game’s third instalment for Nintendo 64. Following on from Part 2 of the MiA feature’s look at Dinosaur Planet, Cubed3 takes a look at EarthBound 64, a game that did eventually see a Japan-only release, just not in the form anyone actually expected.


Where did it all begin?

Created by famous Japanese copywriter and television personality, Shigesato Itoi, the revered franchise (in Japan at least) made its first appearance on the Famicom system in 1989. Mother, a Japanese exclusive that never reached North American -- let alone European -- shores, was an RPG title with a modern, if peculiar, setting. Despite the fact that its 1995 sequel, Mother 2, was released in North America under the localised title of EarthBound, the series remains something of a curious enigma to the majority of Western gamers even to this day due to poor sales of the title (despite its considerable success back home) and Nintendo’s apparent fear of legal repercussions should it ever re-release it.

Despite the series never receiving the international attention it deserved, this didn’t stop Itoi-san and Nintendo from creating a third entry in the series. Originally planned for the SNES, Mother 3 (later Earthbound 64 to those in Western territories), eventually became a project that was due to debut on the Nintendo 64DD. However, when the add-on device didn’t work out for Nintendo, selling a woeful amount in the company’s homeland, the game was later transferred to the standard N64 system before finally being canned in 2000.

It is worth noting that EarthBound 64 did eventually see the light of day in Japan. Six years after its cancellation, Itoi-san brought the title to the Game Boy Advance, transferring most of the original ideas and story that were destined for its short-lived 64-bit predecessor. Mother 3 (the final Japanese title) was met with a positive reception from the critics and Japanese gamers alike. The quirky, very Eastern humour of the title practically rendered any hope of localisation useless (although a valiant fan effort proved otherwise) and the only way you will ever get to play this game is through less-than-legal means.


 

What was it all about?

Thankfully, not too much was changed with regards to the storyline during the transition from N64 to GBA. Mother 3 is a tragedy that predominantly follows the lives of two young boys known as Lucas and Claus. One day, their mother is killed by a usually-harmless creature, and this has a profound effect on both the boys and their father, Flint. The game centres on the hardships that these characters, as well as a few playable others, have to endure in the aftermath of this loss. However, the series is not as serious as some of its issues make it out to be; each instalment features overtly Japanese themes, subtle pop culture references and at times, utterly bizarre dialogue. It’s very much in the same category as Konami’s Goemon games in this regard.

The GBA version is known for its vibrant and colourful visuals, despite the serious undertones. However, early gameplay footage of the N64 version paints a very different picture, portraying a much darker ambience than what was finally realised back in 2006. Not only that, but the 3D gameplay was undeniably more advanced, presenting the opportunity for new features that could be implemented for the first time into the series.

What if EarthBound 64 had been released for the N64? Gameplay aside, would it have still possessed the same feel as its GBA counterpart? Itoi-san has stated in a past interview that certain aspects of the original N64 game were designed to be much darker -- in particular, the ending. Given the time lapse that occurred between the two versions, it’s fair to say that some aspects inevitably changed and Itoi-san has said that by the time he got around to making Mother 3 for GBA that he was “a good person” and, as a result of this change, faced much more opposition from colleagues with regards to the storyline decisions. His unusual response is very much indicative of how strange this series really is. How Itoi-san originally intended to deal with the surprisingly un-Nintendo topics like death in the N64 version is subject to much debate, although some clues have been given. As stated above, it was his initial plan to present the player with a much darker ending. Seeing as the GBA title ends with the suicide of a young boy, it’s interesting to consider to what extent he would have taken the story in the original game.

Moreover, and perhaps in keeping with the game’s bizarre nature, one of the original ideas was to “betray the player”, essentially disappointing them throughout. Those who have played EarthBound will, no doubt, recall some of its more bizarre moments, such as Poo’s trial, meaning that the creator most certainly did not feel limited by conventional approaches or storytelling norms. With this in mind, it isn’t unreasonable to think that EarthBound 64 could definitely have been avant-garde back in those days, had it been released.


 

Why did it disappear?

The team at Ape Studio was plagued by inexperience when it came to working with both 3D and the N64’s cumbersome hardware. Despite assistance from the development tools and a helping hand from the Pokémon Stadium development team, the game suffered numerous delays. The team became so demoralised by this that their glorious leader went as far as to state in an interview that, “at this point [in development] a Mother 4 is completely out of the question; the development team would hang themselves.” The game was shown in playable form at Nintendo’s Spaceworld show in 1999, though, with an intended release date of 22 March, 2000, but not only did the game not release that year, it didn’t even make an appearance at E3.

Eventually, Itoi-san made a statement on 22 August, 2000, announcing that the game had, after much speculation, been cancelled. At the time, he referred to Mother 64 as a “memory of the future,” which ironically ended up being the case when it was remade and then released in its Game Boy Advance form in 2006. Prior to this, however, the game director had said that if the game had been made for Super Nintendo, it would have released much sooner. The GBA, very much known for its high quality SNES ports, no doubt helped to influence Itoi-san’s decision (along with a GBA port of Mother 1 + 2) to take another stab at releasing the game.


 

It really is a terrible shame that Earthbound 64 was never finished and released. Had it not suffered all the setbacks that it did, this game could have served as a very big game-changer for Nintendo, which was feeling the nefarious effects of a very successful Sony system at the time. Taking the series’ popularity in Japan into account, it could have potentially saved the 64DD add-on and pushed it into enough hands to warrant an international release for both the game and the accompanying hardware. Even a standard cartridge release would have likely done the numbers and possibly brought the rest of us closer to legitimately experiencing this often misunderstood, yet in-depth and meaningful RPG franchise.
Box art for EarthBound 64 (Cancelled)
Also known as

Mother 3 (Cancelled)

Developer

Ape / Shigesato Itoi

Publisher

Nintendo

Genre

Turn Based RPG

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  n/a

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date None   North America release date None   Japan release date None   Australian release date None   

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Comments

Very insightful. Having played Mother 2 last year for the first time, which was sublime and not what I expected, I am quite eager to try out this fan translation of Mother 3 now. Would have been interesting to see the craziness of a 64 version in the end. I really hope they do a 3D Mother some day.

I need to revisit the Mother games, definitely. I *did* play Earthbound on the SNES years ago, but I was only a young'un back then, so couldn't fully appreciate its quirkiness. Mother 3 on GBA is amazing, though, but I stopped myself playing through too far because I really want to force myself to play the series in order, especially now the NES game's fan-translated as well.

Cheers for the guest article, Martin @ Bits 'N' Bytes Gaming Smilie

Adam Riley [ Operations Director :: Senior Editor :: Cubed3 Limited ]
Word of Adam | Voice123 Profile | AdamC3 on Twitter

I was going to ask about that: is the original Mother game translated, too? If it is, I'll have to put that on the never-ending list of must-plays in my life.

The first Mother on the NES isn't translated, but one half of Mother 1+2 on the GBA is, so if you fancy searching around for that, go crazy Smilie I'm not linking to it here, for obvious legal reasons!

I'm sure Itoi has said no more Mother...and it's not fully owned by Nintendo, so they can't just go ahead about make a new one, I believe.

Adam Riley [ Operations Director :: Senior Editor :: Cubed3 Limited ]
Word of Adam | Voice123 Profile | AdamC3 on Twitter

Ah, good, I'll have to check it out eventually.

Didn't know it wasn't fully owned by Nintendo, either. It really is a special case of a series.

I've completed Earthbound and the Mother 3 fan translation, both fantastic games!! Huge shame they were never localised.

There really needs to be a compilation of Mother 1-3 for 3DS. There were rumours it was meant to happen on DS, so hopefully something does indeed happen in the future!

Adam Riley [ Operations Director :: Senior Editor :: Cubed3 Limited ]
Word of Adam | Voice123 Profile | AdamC3 on Twitter

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