Mother to Earth: When an NES prototype lands on eBay and inspires a documentary
At this point, a dozen years into the platform’s existence, Kickstarter documentaries are by no means a new thing. Projects originating on it have gone on to earn virtually every big film accolade, from debuts at major festivals to Oscars. But for every Elstree 1976 or I Am Big Bird, it feels like Kickstarter offers at least 50 projects that seem a bit too niche, a bit too low-budget, or a bit too amateurish. At the beginning of this very month, you could back a film about the life of a UK-based skateboarding Staffordshire Bull Terrier or about what common weeds you can eat, for instance. (Disclosure: I once backed a Kickstarter documentary about a group of friends traveling to see LCD Soundsystem play “All My Friends,” because… I was a foolish college kid?)
On paper, Mother to Earth sounds like it belongs among the ’50s, not the ones. It’s a video game documentary not about Earthbound, not about the franchise that game belongs to (the Mother trilogy), and not even about the original release in the trilogy that inspires the documentary name. Instead, directors Joshua Bone-Christian and Evan Butler had a hyperfocus in mind within this (admittedly already niche) realm: they wanted to track down the story of a specific English-language Mother prototype cartridge. They wanted to learn every detail about how it leaked out of Nintendo headquarters in the early 1990s, landed online in a ROM dump around the turn of the century, then ultimately encouraged Nintendo to release the game on the WiiU virtual console as Earthbound Beginnings in 2015. (Phew.)
To put it bluntly, Mother to Earth is the kind of documentary you almost can’t believe exists. It’s a niche project about a niche project, the kind of thing the production team probably wouldn’t have been able to make in an era before crowdfunding. But if you have even a moderate interest in online fandom, Earthbound, or video game-history preservation, you’ll be glad they succeeded. Mother to Earth turns out to be a surprising reminder that nowadays even the oddest of topics has the potential to find an audience, grow with the encouragement of that small but dedicated support system, and ultimately deliver something fascinating.
All over the Earth
It’s impossible not to admire the exhaustive research behind Mother to Earth. Ostensibly, this film centers on a small moment (one prototype cartridge being listed on eBay) for a small project (an NES JRPG that was never released in the US). But this never feels like a glorified YouTube explainer because of all the legwork, thought, and care transparently put into the film. The team members had already put two years of work, research, and investigation into connecting all the disparate bits of known info behind the eBay Mother prototype when they launched and funded the Kickstarter in 2016…. and the finished film didn’t debut until late 2019. This is a documentary that isn’t afraid to show its work, and it feels like Bone-Christian and Butler earned that right. The topic may be narrow, but Mother to Earth explores every facet of it in just over 90 minutes.
Without giving away all the juicy, nerdy details uncovered through this research, just consider the scale of it. The Mother to Earth team goes to Japan just to interview an obsessed merch collector and a first-time video game-score composer. The filmmakers track down the real people behind the comments or online handles that claimed “first!” on message board threads about this prototype’s existence. And on top of all that, they also make the effort to snag all the established voices you’d want chiming in on this moment—the Nintendo employees who translated the game or tested it, legal experts who can comment on the shades of gray involved with ROM dumping an old, unreleased game, and the DIY hackers who initially did the thing that inspired this whole project.
The most impressive feat, however, might be that Mother to Earth doesn’t get lost in these details. Instead, the film constantly frames each granular research adventure within the context of Bone-Christian and Butler’s central quest. A lot of this happens through the filmmakers appearing on camera in quick interstitials to contextualize what we just saw and how it fits within the larger picture. Well, Bone-Christian and Butler “appear”—some of Mother to Earth’s crowdfunding likely went to the charming stage production touches on display. For instance, the directors often appear as cutouts against a Twin Peak-y curtain to provide narration or illustrate important moments interviewees reference (but that happened years ago, meaning there’s no footage to offer).
If you’re the type who relishes exhaustive homework and tiny details, Mother to Earth will hit a sweet spot. As the filmmakers sum it up toward the end of their work, “We traced a random file we downloaded over two decades ago on some random website from where it came to where it is today, within two decades.” But another one of the Mother/Earthbound obsessives interviewed for Mother to Earth may have an even better encapsulation of what awaits viewers. “In any culture,” begins Koala, a pseudonymous Earthbound merch collector/archivist based in Japan, “if there aren’t crazy people, culture won’t be preserved, right?”
Mother to Earth is available to rent or buy on Vimeo. The film has also been doing select regional screenings in places where theaters are open, like Texas. Watch the film’s Facebook page for updates.
Listing image by Mother to Earth
By Nathan Mattise