Thursday 12 December 2013

Earthbound Zero (aka Mother) - NES - 1989

Until I started compiling the shortlist for this blog I had never heard of the Mother/EarthBound series of RPGs.  The first Western release in the series was EarthBound (Mother 2 in Japan) on the SNES which, although not commercially successful, has become somewhat of a cult classic. 

The original game in the series was known as Mother.  It was released in Japan in 1989 for the Famicom console.  Unusually (perhaps uniquely?) for the time, this was an RPG set in a contemporary United States rather than in some fantasy world.  Psychic powers replaced magic and everyday items replaced weapons.  The game was officially translated into English as Earth Bound but for whatever reason was never released.  The translated code subsequently found its way onto the internet and this is the version I am playing.  To prevent confusion it was renamed EarthBound Zero.  

Before you start playing you have to name the four protagonists of the game and enter your favourite food!.  You are then presented with the introduction...

Due to the lack of a manual I am going to try and work out what’s going on as I play.  My first combat was with a table lamp so this may be more difficult than it seems.

You are cast as a pre-teenage boy and the action starts in your bedroom where you are attacked by the afore mentioned lamp as you try to leave.  In one of your sister’s bedrooms you are accosted by another lamp followed by a doll in your second sister’s room.  When examined the doll plays a melody.  I guess one of the tasks is to collect these tunes as a musical note appears in your stats.  If you talk to your sisters they give you orange juice which replenishes your hit points.

Downstairs you find your mother.  Talk to her and she suggests calling your dad on the phone.  He said it sounds like the work of a poltergeist and that your great grandfather George's diary in the basement may tell your more.  The basement contains the diary, a plastic bat (your first weapon) and loaf of bread.

At the start I was using the house as a base and the designer implemented some great ideas here.  Speak to your mum and she gives you dinner and tells you to rest which fully replenishes your HP and PP (Psi Points).  You can leave items from your (rather limited) inventory with one of your sisters for safekeeping.  If you speak to your dad on the phone he deposits money into your bank account and tells you how many XP you require to level up.  He also gives you the opportunity to save the game.

Heading out of the house I could only go in one direction and was attacked by a hippie.  Combat is turn based and a simple process of mashing the Fight button or using magic psi-power when you gain some effects. Psi-powers seem to be gained through combat, not when levelling up.  I can’t mention the hippie fight without commenting on the combat music – it is fantastic and some of the best I have heard on the NES.  In fact music on the whole is great throughout the game.

Some opponents have special attacks that can render you helpless for a few rounds and not all of them fight on their respective turn…

If you are defeated in combat your character faints and can take no action until they are brought around.  If the whole party falls unconscious you are returned to the last location you saved with only your main character 'alive'.  Other party members need to be healed before they can be used again.  There are no deaths Earthbound Zero .

The first house I came across had a woman saying her daughter Pippi was missing and I should tell the mayor.  I eventually reached the town of Podunk.  Instead of having to enter towns, they are the same scale as the world map making it rather large.  The building interiors are, however, a different scale.  Buildings in Podunk include a burger joint, a hospital, the city hall, a hotel and a department store.  The department store has a cashpoint allowing access to your money and a payphone to call your dad.  It was in Podunk I got my first quest from the mayor.

The first quest involved rescuing Pippi from the zombie infested cemetery.  I found her in a coffin in the bottom of a crypt.  The mayor gave me a measly $100 reward and tasked me with investigating the zoo where the animals had gone mad.

The path through the zoo was pretty linear.  At the end there was a capsule containing Starman Jr.  He was a tough opponent and it took me two attempts to beat him.  Once he was defeated the animals calmed down.  That leads me to believe aliens are behind the goings on and  I’m not looking forward to facing Starman Sr.   I picked up my second melody from a singing monkey.

Back in town a couple of people mentioned a canary city to the northwest of Podunk.  I noticed earlier the pet section of the department store only had one animal left to sell – a canary.  I bought this and at canary city it was reunited with it's mother.  This gave me my third tune.

The only place to go next was Merrysville to the east.  The river bridge was blocked off by orders of the Mayor but the guards said I may be able to cross further north.  The guards there were more lax and let me through.  The path winded up at a cave which led me to Magicant.  Magicant is weird….

Magicant is an ideal place to grind at the beginning of the game.  Like your house, you can hand in items for safekeeping, save the game and get healed and resurrected for free.  For grinding you can recruit the Flying Men to help you out.  They can't be healed though, and when they die a grave stone appears next to their house.

In Magicant Castle my quest becomes clear as Queen Mary reveals she is trying to remember an 8 part melody and begs me learn it.  On the way out of Magicant I found a sleeping dragon which I couldn't wake.  I also discovered the Onyx Hook which can be used to return to Magicant from wherever you are.  I used this a lot when a party member went down for the free resurrections.

The exit from Magicant led to Merrysville where I recruited my first party member - Darren the bullied geek.  He can be found on the roof of the school in a dustbin.  He takes you to Duncan's Factory where he launches a rocket to clear a rock slide that has been blocking the railway line.  This opens up a lot more of the map. 

The nearest town was called Reindeer where an old lady gave me hat to return to a girl in the town of Snowman.  The hat belonged to Annette who joined the party to seek her missing mother.  Like Wingnut, Annette has access to psi powers.  She gained the abilities faster and was the only character capable of using offensive psi skills.  Towards the end of the game she could cast PK Beam ƴ which instantly killed any target.  For opponents that were immune to the Beam spell, PK Freeze ƴ reduces their HP to critical levels where they could be killed with just one more hit.  Of course, some of the enemies have the same powers.

With a full party we continued on to Spookane.  A haunted house there contained a piano that gave us our fourth tune.

The fifth melody was to be found in a desert.  I totally missed this one and had to consult a walkthrough when I noticed a gap in my stats.  In the desert I came across an oasis where a man offers to give you flights in his plane.  Being unobservant I failed to notice we flew over a cactus with a face which is where the fifth tune came from.  After a few flights you can take a ride in the man's tank.  You can't leave the desert and can only exit the tank at the oasis so it is not very useful.

South of the desert was a railway track that led to Youngtown.  Near Merrysville the bridge had been destroyed preventing the train from running so we had to follow it on foot.  Youngtown was full of kids who said their parents had been abducted.  A baby with psi powers gave Wingnut and Annette the ability to Teleport to any town they had previously visited.  This came in very useful when having to go back to Magicant for resurrections.

At Ellay we were joined by the Colin, leader of the notorious Bla Bla Gang.  He replaced Darren which is no bad thing.  Like Darren he has no Psi skills but is a stronger fighter.  Our final destination is Mount Itoi (named after the game's designer) which has much tougher opponents and required lots of teleporting between Magicant and Ellay.  At least our our party was now powerful enough to take on the sleeping dragon on the way out of Magicant.  He gave us our sixth melody.

As I said Mount Itoi was very tough going with frequent deaths.  We did gain a lot of levels but eventually met an unbeatable giant robot which easily kicked our collective arse.  The gallant  Darren came to our rescue with the tank from the desert.

This battle put Colin out of action so Darren rejoined the party.  Further up the mountain there was a lake where a broken down speedboat was moored.  Once Darren had repaired the boat we sailed into a whirlpool which seemed like the obvious thing to do.

We were sucked into a secret underwater base where we discovered a giant robot.  It introduced itself as EVE and said it was built by my great grandfather George. It says George was taken to the ends of the universe and then brought back and that it's purpose was to protect me.  With EVE disposing of most enemies with a single hit our continued ascent of Mount Itoi went swimmingly until we encountered another giant robot which was a match for EVE.  Both robots were destroyed in the ensuing battle.  In the wreckage of EVE we found our penultimate melody.

Our party eventually reached the summit and came across what looked like a grave stone.  Checking it revealed our eighth and final part of the tune.  I used the onyx hook to return to Magicant and to Queen Mary.  When we sang the tune, Queen Mary said she loved Giegue (whoever that may be) as if he were her own child.  And that it would happily wag it's tail until she tried singing lullabies.  She also revealed she is Maria, my great grandmother, and that Magicant is an illusion created by her consciousness.  As she fades to join George, so does Magicant and our party is returned to the summit of Mount Itoi.  

There is now a cave we can enter were we find the adults from Youngtown.

We also come across Giegue who turns out to be an alien.  Giegue explains that he was raised by George and Maria, but George stole information from his planet that could have been used to betray his people.  He goes on to say that I am obstructing his plans and I should perish with the rest of 'the ugly Earth people' (he doesn't explain what his plans are).  After our final visit to Magicant we now have SING among our commands.  This is used to harm Giegue who escapes in a spaceship vowing to return. Wingnut heads off to bed for a well-earned kip and everyone lives happily ever after.  The ending video….


I really enjoyed Earthbound Zero.  Although the game is fairly linear it doesn’t really feel like it.  You have a clear path to follow from town to town, but do not know what to expect or what you have to do until you get there.  There are also quite a few optional side quests to take on – some I did, some I didn’t.  The game is not tile based so your party can easily move in eight directions – something you can’t do in Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star.  I think the graphics are well drawn and animated for the NES.  The sound is very good, especially the music (even my wife was humming along to some of it).  The game world is vast - one of the largest games I have played so far (with the possible exception of Ultima V).  I have to confess I used a map from the internet which saved me weeks, if not months, of tedious mapping.  There is an in-game map which shows the relative location of the towns but no detaiI. 

This is no criticism of the game but a lack of manual hindered me slightly as I couldn't work out what some objects did or were supposed to do.  I picked up a ‘Flea Bag’ early on but it didn’t have any effect when I tried to use it on an enemy so gave up.  I still have no idea what a PSI Stone or a Noble Seed does. Psi powers were easy to work out by watching what effect enemy attacks had on my party.

I'm in disbelief as to why this wasn't released after the translation had already been done.  It is an excellent, if quirky, game and I'm sure it would have been a success.  Towards the end of Phantasy Star and the Final Fantasy games I was willing for them to finish.  That did not happen with Earthbound Zero.

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