November 8, 2008
There are some moderate Mother 3 spoilers in this post.
While most of the gaming world was hotly anticipating blockbuster games like Fable II, Fallout 3, and LittleBigPlanet, I was obsessing over a fan translation of a two-year-old Game Boy Advance title.
Mother 3 is the sequel to the cult classic SNES RPG EarthBound (Mother 2 in Japan), a personal favorite. Since EarthBound sold poorly during its initial release, though, Nintendo made no plans to bring it to the West. In late 2006, members of the long-suffering EarthBound fan community announced that they were taking matters into their own hands and creating an English translation. The community stirred with excitement; news of the project even reached Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime (who thankfully let it proceed unmolested).
In late 2007 the team began blogging about their progress, which only intensified the community’s anticipation. Each update garnered hundreds of comments, and the website logged several hundred thousand unique visitors. I was one of those visitors, and I read the blog with rabid enthusiasm for almost a year — unquestionably the longest sustained period of excitement I’ve ever had for any video game.
Last month, Mother 3 was released in English.
Full credit to the translation team: they did a fantastic job. The writing is of universally professional quality — Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin, one of the project leads, is a Japanese translator by trade — and there are virtually no bugs to be found, despite the complex hacks and steep challenges described in the blog. There are even, incredibly, some added features. The attention to detail is such that I occasionally forgot that I wasn’t playing an official Nintendo release.
That said, at other times I was forcibly reminded of that fact, though it was through no fault of the translators. In many ways Mother 3 is culturally incompatible with what would have been its target audience in the US, and it comes as no surprise to me that Nintendo of America didn’t touch this game with a ten-foot pole.
Some examples: In one scene, the young protagonist Lucas and his companions encounter nightmarish versions of their friends and family while tripping out on psychoactive mushrooms. In another, Lucas’ father Flint loses his mind upon learning of his wife Hinawa’s death, attacking his neighbors while a terrified onlooker hides his children’s eyes. In another, Lucas happens upon a naked NPC in a hot spring who suggestively encourages him to submerge himself while the screen fades to black. (The character he meets, incidentally, is a “Magypsy” — a race of mystical creatures who are genderless in the game’s canon but who look, dress, talk, and even walk like stereotypical drag queens.)
I doubt any of this would fly with the ESRB if Nintendo wanted to obtain an E or E10+ rating. Stripping material out during localization isn’t uncommon, of course — the Japanese version of Chrono Trigger had a running joke about Lucca’s suspected bisexuality, according to fan-translated scripts — but Mother 3 would have required significant rejiggering to keep the ESRB happy. (The Magypsys, for example, might have needed a new set of sprites.) Between the game’s off-color humor and surprisingly dark tone, I imagine that Nintendo decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Fortunately the dedicated team of EarthBound fans thought otherwise, because the game itself is brilliant.
Much more on that in the coming days.