This article is part three (of four) of the Shigesato article and will be covering the inception and cancellation of Earthbound 64, Mother 3’s release on the Game Boy Advance and its lack of localisation. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, which focuses on his career before working with video games, we’d recommend doing so by clicking here. Or if you’d like to skip that and read part 2, which focuses on Mother, Earthbound Shigesato Itoi No Bass Tsuri No.1, we’d recommend doing so by clicking here.
In 1992, Shigesato Itoi had begun coming up with ideas for Earthbound 64/Mother 3f, a full two years before the release of the Mother 2/Earthbound in Japan. It was during the middle of the night when the idea came to him, and he had rushed to phone in order to call his game designer to tell him about it. In an interview with The 64 Dream (A magazine that would later be known as Nindori), Itoi stated:
… the concept [of the game] came from MOTHER 2 and I wanted to hurry and start on 3. First I wanted to turn a hard-boiled detective novel into a video game. That led me to another idea, and putting the two together made MOTHER 3.
– Shigesato Itoi (The 64 Dream)
In an interview with Mycom Inc., Itoi explained that the plot for Earthbound 64 was inspired by Agota Kristof’s Le Frand Cahier (Known as The Notebook in the English translation). The novel is the first entry in a trilogy that follows two twin boys growing up during World War 2. Itoi noted that it has a powerful plot, much like an RPG game, and has some heart-wrenching moments that definitely has some strong influences on the game’s story.
The game was initially planned to release on the Super Famicom. It didn’t take long for development to be moved over to the Nintendo 64 and then over to the Nintendo 64DD, an ultimately unsuccessful add-on to the Nintendo 64 that never saw a retail release outside of Japan.
Itoi and his team had wanted to utilise some of the peripheral’s unique features, such as the internal clock that would allow for changes to occur throughout the game based on real time. By utilising the internal clock, Benimaru Itoh, art designer for Earthbound 64, further talked about the game’s potential. He gave the example that if the player dropped some food somewhere during the day, then that same food might attract some hungry monsters as time passed, making each player’s experience different. Itoh gave another example that if a player were to plant a seed in an early chapter, it would be fully grown in a different chapter. Lastly, the writeable nature of the Nintendo 64DD allowed for NPCs to keep track of conversations that they previously had with the player so they wouldn’t tend to repeat themselves.
In the November 1996 interview with The 64 Dream, Shigesato Itoi was questioned about how much of the game was finished. His response was:
The supporting scripts haven’t been written yet, but all the scenarios are done. The map is done; and all that’s left is bringing the characters to life in it. So here on out are just details. But – in games, details are everything. As long as those steps aren’t cleared, there’s no difference between a completion rate of 60% or 20%.
– Shigesato Itoi (The 64 Dream)
Even back in 1996 when Itoi was questioned about the release date for Earthbound 64, he said that if he was to give a date, he’d just be lying. He was, however, very optimistic about the game’s progress, and about making video games in general. He even had many other ideas coming to him, like a Satellaview fishing game (which we covered in Part 2) and an action puzzle game featuring Mr. Saturn.
In the December 1997 issue of The 64 Dream, Shigeru Miyamoto said that he wanted to utilise Mario Artist by allowing players to import their drawings into Earthbound 64. However, Itoi was hesitant about this idea as he didn’t want to add a feature into the game without it being necessary.
The Nintendo 64DD was a hot topic in the late 90s due to rival companies like Sony and Sega embracing CD technology. Owners of the Nintendo 64 were constantly being reminded to be excited about the peripheral, leaving them to believe that this was the inevitable future of the system. However, news was beginning to grow increasingly scarce, and so too was the news about its flagship title, Earthbound 64.
From August 27-29, 1999, Nintendo hosted their tenth annual 初心会 (Shōshinkai – Nintendo Space World) event – well, kind of annual as they had skipped the previous year due to a lack of 64DD titles to showcase. At the event, the first playable demo of Mother 64 was showcased, along with a full trailer…
Fans who played the demo were encouraged to wear headphones in order to highlight the musical aspect of the game. Reception was generally positive, and excitement for the project was once again in full swing. However, there still was no set release date. Another producer had been added to the team in the hopes that this would speed up the development process.
(Images provided by EXCELSIOR via Earthboundcentral.com)
For a few years, Itoi and the rest of the team continued to assure fans of its smooth development, despite being almost silent when it came to details. Development of Earthbound 64 was eventually shifted to the Nintendo 64 for a cartridge release, however the game suffered from multiple delays. The team originally wanted to have the game released by Winter 1999, and then later to Christmas 2000.
News outlets grew increasingly skeptical as the game’s release date kept repeatedly being pushed back…
Itoi stated that he was constantly being asked to what percentage was the project completed. In the post-cancellation discussion, he turned the question over to Iwata and Miyamoto, to which Iwata answered approximately 30% whilst Miyamoto estimated roughly 60%. When Itoi asked Iwata what else remained to be done, he responded:
Neatly packing the story, pictures, and script into a sort of container constructed through certain mechanisms—we still had to find the overall balance and finish the directing. If we didn’t bother polishing anything and simply tossed it all in, we’d have been able to finish it in a short time, but would it even be a legitimate product if we did that? We had to do it right.
– Satoru Iwata (Translated by Yomuka)
Nearly a whole year had passed since fans got a chance to play the demo for Earthbound 64 and fans were hungry for more information. Itoi and his team had barely said a word about its progress, and with the lackluster launch of the Nintendo 64DD, fans were eager to hear about how the game was progressing at the next Nintendo Space World Event. However on August 22, just two days before the event, Shigesato Itoi released a statement informing that the project had been cancelled. Itoi admitted that when the decision had been made internally, he was unable to publicly speak of it. So when fans asked him about when Earthbound 64’s release date, he felt great sadness and the true answer would feel like it was stuck in his throat. In order to give his fans, who were sure to be disappointed, any means of consolation, he released a discussion between himself, Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto on his own website, ほぼにっかん糸井新聞 (Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun – Almost Daily Itoi News), explaining what had gone wrong.
Earthbound 64 for the Nintendo 64 had been in development for six years when they finally decided that it was time to cancel the project. Shigesato Itoi, Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto held many meetings in order to determine whether it was wise to continue with the game’s production. However, the game’s development was beginning to come at the expense of Project Dolphin’s (Nintendo GameCube) software development and as a company, the decision to cancel Earthbound 64 made the most sense financially.
Iwata believed that the scope of the game just become too large and issues seemed to arise the more they progressed. He even admitted to have scale the project back in order to regain control of the project, but it was still too much to handle at the time. Itoi admitted that the game was too ambitious and that the team was inexperienced with 3D game development. Earthbound 64 was expected to have ten characters to choose from, with the game having between 40 to 60 hours of gameplay. Part way through, HAL Laboratory were assigned to assist in its development, as well as the team behind Pokémon Stadium. And yet despite the newly formed team having much more manpower, the new developers were unfamiliar with the series, which resulted in further confusion.
To make matters worse, Iwata was unable to be on-site for the project full-time, which ultimately slowed down production. Iwata had a wealth of programming knowledge and was a technical wizard. His role as president of HAL Laboratory had forced him to make frequent trips to the United States, as well as spending more time in Kyoto in order to keep the company from going bankrupt. This ultimately meant that he had much less hands on time with the project. Shigeru Miyamoto also admits that he wasn’t on-site as much as he would like to have been due to his wide-scoped role within the company. However Miyamoto also stresses that the development having been moved from the Super Famicom, to the Nintendo 64, to the Nintendo 64DD and then back to the Nintendo 64 opened up even more issues.
Miyamoto’s theory as to why Earthbound 64 was eventually cancelled was due to a lack of skeletal work. Shigesato Itoi has a brilliant mind and is very ambitious, but lacks knowledge when it comes to developing and programming. Miyamoto suggested that Itoi and his team needed to work on building the smaller details first (something that Itoi pointed out to be what takes up most of the memory) and let things like story and plot development flesh itself out. Itoi referred to this as, “like hiring nothing but construction workers who build exterior walls.” Itoi admitted that he didn’t consider the technical ramifications of his ambitions. The example that he gave was having twelve chapters, each one more convoluted than the last, with various gameplay elements, a huge emphasis on cutscenes and timelines that overlapped one another. Itoi’s inability to foresee the technical issues that would arise from this is his theory as to why the game was cancelled. He stated:
We were working with 3D polygons, so I was under the impression that as long as the main characters were finished, all we had to do was move our puppets around the stage. Let’s change it to twelve scenes, I thought. No problem. But in reality, if their movements change to match the scene, the programming changes entirely, too, for each event. I didn’t even consider that, and just plowed on, surprised at how much fun I was having. The thrill of feeling like I could do anything was incredible.
– Shigesato Itoi (Translated by Yomuka)
When discussing what form Earthbound 64 could take on instead, Shigeru Miyamoto said that the team considered the possibility of bringing it over to the Nintendo GameCube. However, this idea was quickly dismissed as more powerful hardware wasn’t the only answer to fixing the issues that Earthbound 64 had been plagued with. During the post-cancellation interview, Iwata, Miyamoto Itoi discussed the possibility of Earthbound 64 being adapted into a novel. Itoi also considered making the plot of the game into a 紙芝居 (kimishibai – paper play), a form of street theatre that involved swapping illustrated boards in and out of a diaragma in the form of a stage as the narrator would tell the story.
The team also considered replacing the last three chapters with this style of storytelling, but believed that it would have felt off and out of character. Iwata also cut the game from twelve chapters to just seven, but the issue was much more underlying than that.
Miyamoto then suggested making Earthbound 64 into a film, to which Itoi couldn’t see it as a movie but would be willing to try. Fans even requested for Nintendo to release Earthbound 64 as it was, despite its technical shortcomings. However, that idea was instantly shut down as Nintendo refused to release a knowingly unfinished product. Iwata and Miyamoto also argued that by the time the game would be released, a lot of its concepts would have been outdated. The ideas that the team were beginning to implement in 1994 were revolutionary, however they soon became standard practice and even obsolete by 2000. One could even argue that the fate of Earthbound 64 was similar to Star Fox 2, however that game was almost 100% complete at the time.
Lastly, Iwata and Itoi admitted that their fascination with brand new 3D technology tempted them into making Earthbound 64 in that way. It was a vastly different style than the series was accustomed to, and many issues continued to present themselves. After the cancellation of Earthbound 64 on the Nintendo 64, Miyamoto had suggested to Iwata about making the game for the Game Boy Advance. However, many producers believed that it would be just as much work to pull it off. Iwata then stated that it wouldn’t be a matter of difficulty, but that it would be about making a game for the right market.
In 2003, a compilation of Mother and Mother 2 was announced to release on the Game Boy Advance in Japan. The announcement was made by a series of four TV commercials, however the first of them had a brief snippet at the end which contained the iconic Mr. Saturn-style writing announcing that Mother 3 was back in development and was planning to be released on the Game Boy Advance.
The compilation released exclusively in Japan on June 20, 2003, but fans had to wait almost another three years before Mother 3 was finally released on April 20, 2006 – a full fourteen years after Itoi had first come up with the idea.
After the cancellation of Earthbound 64, Shigesato Itoi initially thought that the game could never be restarted. However when Nintendo had finally decided to restart the project on the Game Boy Advance, Itoi stated:
… the job felt like I was marching with the spirits of MOTHER 2 and 3 behind me. Like I was crossing the river Styx.
– Shigesato itoi (Translation by Mother3.fobby.net)
The development of the Game Boy Advance version of Mother 3 was handled by a different studio known as Brownie Brown (now known as 1-Up Studio) alongside HAL Laboratory. The studio is a subsidiary of Nintendo and was founded in 2000. The company consisted of numerous former Squaresoft 2D artists who had previously worked on the Mana series. Mother 3 was just their second accredited game as a company, with the first being an RPG known as Magical Vacation in 2001.
The eventual logo for the Game Boy Advance version of Mother 3 was one that Itoi had in mind from the very beginning. Mother 3 initially contained the subtitle “Forest of the Chimeras” as many of the enemies within its world were a combination of two separate beings. However, Nintendo had to change the subtitle due to copyright issues. Itoi stated that he was excited when he saw this idea used in the Pixar film Toy Story when the movies antagonist, Sid, rips apart his and his sister’s toys and sows different parts back together. The logo consists of trees and metal in order to reflect this idea of two separate unlikely entities coming together to form one.
In a 2006 interview (just after the official release of Mother 3) with the Nintendo Dream magazine, Itoi discussed the dramatic shift in art style. To many lifelong fans of the series, Mother 3 feels right at home as a pixelated 2D top-down game and Itoi happens to agree:
Flashy CG just isn’t an option for me. I often find myself thinking how ordinary CG is. It’s all you see when you watch movies and TV. CG isn’t something to associate with the words “pretty” and “luxurious” as much as people should be saying, “Well, it’s just your average CG.” I figured because we’re drawing a picture, it’s better to just draw something suitable and disconnect it from the trends around us.
– Shigesato Itoi (Translation by Mother3.fobby.net)
The Mother series is renowned for its soundtracks. From the original Mother game, the song ‘Eight Melodies’ was put into children’s school music textbooks. Itoi also wanted the Love Theme from Mother 3 to do the same as he wanted Mother 3’s main theme to be playable on the piano with a single finger. He stated:
I imagined, this time, a child who can’t really play the piano, sitting in the school music room playing the piece with a single finger.
– Shigesato Itoi (Translation by Mother3.fobby.net)
The Love Theme was composed late in the game’s development as the Pigmask Theme was initially planned to be the game’s main song. However, Itoi wanted something that depicted more emotion. As the song played through an important scene towards the end, Itoi wanted it to pull on some heart strings.
Just like in Mother 2/Earthbound with the addition of a homosexual character (more about this in Part 2), Itoi wanted to continue the theme of inclusion in the third instalment. The character Duster has a limp when he walks and when asked about it, Itoi said:
I figure that because there are handicapped people in our world, it would also be part of the world of MOTHER 3. After all, there’s no way that any two people have the same physique or even the same personality. Just like with the Magypsies, I included Duster so we could have someone with bad breath, a disabled leg, and living as a thief. The MOTHER 3 world is all about having friends like them. Perhaps you could call them symbols of not rejecting such people.
– Shigesato Itoi (Translation by Mother3.fobby.net)
“Come on Reggie, Give us Mother 3!”
Despite Mother 3’s success in Japan, as well as fans of the series eagerly awaiting its localisation to the west, the game has never seen an official release outside of its native country. Reggie Fils-Aime, President at Nintendo of America, has been asked on many separate occasions about bringing the game over to the west and despite him agreeing that he would like to see it localised, he has repeatedly said that there are no plans for it. Reggie was even asked just six days after its initial release (one month before he was promoted to President of Nintendo of America) about whether Mother 3 was going to be localised for the west, to which he responded, “not yet”. Reggie later stated in a 2009 interview with Wired that:
I have seen all the hate mail and all of the stories that say that Reggie is deliberately holding back Mother 3. Nothing is further from the truth. I would love to see Mother 3 here in the U.S. market. But it’s not a title that we’re working on, not a title that we’ve announced. Personally, that disappoints me, but as we look at what’s important for DS or for Wii, we’ve got other priorities right now.
– Reggie Fils-Aime
Fans have never been provided with an official concrete reason as to why Mother 3 hasn’t been localised, however there are many theories. The first is that the original Game Boy Advance version of Mother 3 was released in June 2006, one and a half years after the launch of the Nintendo DS in North America. Whilst the DS can play Game Boy Advance games natively through backwards compatibility, it came at a time when Nintendo wanted to put their focus into creating games that would show off the dual screen device’s unique features. Translation and localisation can also be a massive undertaking so unless Itoi had planned its translation during its development (which he didn’t), it would take a long time to do so. Secondly, Mother 2/Earthbound didn’t initially sell well in North America (as was touched upon in Part 2). However, Earthbound has seen a big boost in sales since its Virtual Console release on the Wii U and New Nintendo 3DS. Yet despite their being an incredibly vocal minority, it didn’t make sense from a business perspective at the time.
As a retail Game Boy Advance release didn’t seem likely to happen, fans questioned why it couldn’t be released on Virtual Console. However, Mother 3 contains some controversial topics that Nintendo of America may not seem willing to bring over. These topics include: Animal cruelty, violence, drug use and crossdressing. The crossdressing refers to the Magypsies, as they have masculine features but dress in feminine clothing.
However, Itoi stresses that these characters are neither male nor female, which makes them unique. In an interview with Nindori, Itoi stated, “… they’re like mixes-up chimeras. A fusion of man and woman.” If the game was to be brought over to the west, one could imagine that Nintendo of America would want to censor this, however Itoi would most likely be opposed to this decision, as would fans of the game and members of the LGBT community. When asked why the Magypsies take on this form, Itoi answered:
It’s because the world in the game is so macho. The good guys in the game are strong and they fight. The same goes for the bad guys. So in other words, it’s set up so that might equals right. “Power is Beautiful.” And amid all of that, there are these non-men yet non-women people who have already gone so far as to accept their fate of death. If these characters really existed… I would want people who play MOTHER 3 not to act hostile towards them. I would want them to have fun together in a world they both share.
– Shigesato Itoi (Translation by Mother3.fobby.net)
For those who didn’t know of the Mother/Earthbound series, Lucas’ introduction in Super Smash Bros. Brawl came at a bit of a surprise. This was a similar case to the Fire Emblem characters that were originally introduced in Super Smash Bros. Melee, however their games eventually came to the west. To this day, Lucas is the only character in the Super Smash Bros. roster that hasn’t had their game of origin localised outside of Japan.
When it was announced that no plans were in place to localise Mother 3 to the western market, a dedicated fanbase took to making their own translation of the game. This project was led by Clyde ‘Tomato’ Mandelin, and undertaken by dozens of other dedicated fans. Reid Young, PR Manager of the project, admitted that hacking the game in order for the patch to work was a much difficult task than actually translating the game itself. However, the group managed to complete the task in 2008 and is of very high quality. They also released an 80 page strategy guide that is akin to official Nintendo guides.
When asked by Ars Technica why the group translated the game, Young stated:
At the risk of sounding like a wild-eyed otaku, the series is brilliant. The care and thought that Shigesato Itoi (the creator) puts into his work is stunning, and it would be a genuine nerd-tragedy if one of his greatest accomplishments was forever stuck in Japan.
– Reid Young
Young also stated that Nintendo of America were well aware of the fan project and that the translation team has stated from the beginning that they would immediately cease working on it if Nintendo disapproved or showed their own interest in releasing Mother 3 for the west. Surprisingly, Nintendo never intervened and the project was downloaded over 100,000 times within its first week. The team then offered for Nintendo to use their translation for commercial release but once again, Nintendo declined.
As of today, the project is still up and running. The latest update (v1.2) was released on July 9, 2014. The team has since completed fan translations of both Mother and Mother 2, keeping in all of the original content that was altered in the North American release of Earthbound.
So for now, fans of the series can always play the fan translation copy. However, it’s just not the same as playing it officially on a Nintendo system. So until that day comes, us fans in the west are going to keep on saying:
Be sure to like us on Facebook in order to get updated on every article we post, along with more Nintendo content. And hey if you enjoyed this article, why not read about Shigesato Itoi’s career before video games (if you haven’t already) in Part 1?