Quick Thoughts on “Mother to Earth” – An Earthbound Zero Documentary

Mother To Earth

It feels like there has been a downright flood of video game-related documentaries over the last ten to fifteen years, perhaps starting with the success of the surprisingly-compelling King of Kong in 2007. Since then, we’ve seen the likes of Chasing Ghosts, Get Lamp, Indie Game: The Movie, Console Wars, Atari: Game Over, High Score, and… well, the list goes on. You’d be excused for missing one or two along the way.

And miss one, I did. Mother to Earth was successfully Kickstarted back in 2016, with a release more than three years later in Fall 2019. That was then followed by a general streaming release late last year. Somehow, I only became aware of it recently, but once I did, I immediately sat down to watch it.

Make no mistake, Mother to Earth is about a niche as niche gets. Ostensibly, it’s a film that traces the origins of the original English-translated leak of the NES version of cult-classic Mother 1 (aka, Earthbound Zero/Earthbound Beginnings). I say ostensibly because, while that is a significant portion of the film, it’s actually at its best when it strays from that precise topic. The story of the original leak is about what you’d expect – a former employee has a leftover prototype after Nintendo canceled the game and lost interest in it, which eventually finding its way into the hands of a collector, then finally it’s purchased by an enthusiast in order to be dumped and shared. It’s a story the retro gaming community has witnessed many times before.

Instead, Mother to Earth really shines when it steps away from the story of the leak and into the details of the game’s creation, translation, and its cultural impact. By far, the most interesting testimonies come from the lead translator Phil Sandhop, Japanese superfan “Koala,” and especially game composer Keiichi Suzuki. There are tidbits of fun information (like some interesting clandestine behavior by series creator Shigesato Itoi) scattered amongst poignant moments like those from Keiichi Suzuki. The whole film is delivered with a sense of charm and a side of amateurish passion.

Despite the sheer number of game documentaries cropping up, I’m glad the industry’s history is being recorded and preserved. After all, how many other forms of media have been properly documented from their very first days? In the case of Mother to Earth, anyone with an interest in Earthbound or retro gaming in general should give this documentary a chance. All it will cost you is $2.99 and about 90 minutes of your time over at the Vimeo stream!

Game BASIC Update: More Homebrew Unearthed

For those of you interested in Game BASIC for Sega Saturn, I have a pretty cool update! I mentioned in the full article that the Internet Archive Wayback Machine did a nice job of archiving several Japanese Game BASIC-related sites from back in the day. In my exploration of those archives, I’ve managed to dig up several interesting programs that don’t seem to have filtered out to the English-language web. (Or, at least, they weren’t archived by Satakore.) One is a small but very well made game, while the other two are fairly robust demos. Here’s more info:

Naruto v1.0

So far as I can tell, this has absolutely nothing to do with the cartoon, so don’t get your hopes up if you’re a fan! Instead, the title refers to the spiral/whirlpool pattern that forms the basis of the game. This is an interesting one-button game, somewhat reminiscent of the old classic Snake. But instead of wandering freely around the screen eating food, you’re a constantly spiraling line. The basic goal is the same, though: last as long as you can without running into anything else, all while constantly growing. Holding a button changes the angle of travel. Last as long as you can to rack up high scores and earn big bonus points by skimming the edge of the line.

The unique gimmick of this game is that it saves a recording of your gameplay to the backup device of your choice. The author even held a high-score competition and asked that players send in their best replays! The downloadable archive includes several of these for you to watch and compete against.

This game was created by NAKATH, who produced several other Game BASIC games and demos. There are two version of this archive available, though both contain the same source code and documentation. The difference is that the November 1999 version includes gameplay recordings that were submitted to the author by other players.

Below are links to the original files. I’ve also provided alternate links in the Game BASIC forum thread, along with English translations of the Readme file.

To browse more of NAKATH’s work, here’s a full directory link to browse everything in the Wayback Machine’s archive of his site. You can find some other little demos and games, as well: https://web.archive.org/web/*/http:/www.dcn.ne.jp/~nakath/*

Operation Apollo 1

Another one by the prolific NAKATH, this one was apparently inspired when the author viewed the movie Apollo 13! This is a fairly robust gravity demo with a central object (apparently the moon) and an orbiting rocket. You can change the rocket’s angle with the D-Pad and engage its thrusters by holding the A button, thus changing its orbit speed and angle. Zoom in and out with the L and R buttons.

Again, I have provided an English translation and mirrored downloads of the files in the Game BASIC forum thread.

Do Dan Baku

Roughly translating to “Rage Bomb,” this demo is vaguely reminiscent of a Bomberman game, giving you control of a small character in a top-down arena. But instead of dropping your own bombs, you wander around, setting off the bombs that appear and grow automatically. Set off a chain reaction for big points! This seems incomplete, though, as there are no obstacles or enemies, just a very long timer. Still, it’s pretty satisfying to let the screen fill with bombs and then set them all off at once. (Note: this program requires a standard digital control pad to be inserted in port 1 to run.)

The provenance of this game is a little less clear to me than the ones above from NAKATH. I found the program in an archive of SegaNet.com. The source file credits the programmer as “Bois,” but I’ve been unable to find anything else by this person. There is no readme to translate, but I’ve provided a mirror of the archive and translation of the program headers in the Game BASIC forum thread:

Hopefully you have the chance to explore and enjoy these pieces of Sega Saturn history! If setting up a whole Game BASIC environment to play old games and demos seems intimidating or like a hassle, I’m working on instructions for how to create bootable ISOs to run Game BASIC programs in emulators or on original hardware. Stay tuned! In the meantime, if you find any other interesting programs that deserve to be shared, please leave a comment here or in the forum thread.

How the Saturn Floppy Disk Drive breathed new life into Sega Rally

The Sega Saturn Floppy Disk Drive… Useless, or Totally Useless? (Or Totally Cool?)

Let’s face it, Sega did not make a lot of good decisions in the 90s when it came to hardware add-ons and peripherals. The 32X was a straight up debacle. The Sega CD was criminally underutilized. Both are a big part of how Sega lost the trust of consumers, likely contributing to the poor sales of the Saturn and ultimately the company’s demise as a hardware manufacturer. Oh, and let’s not forget about the crazy crap like the Activator. And even an official Sega Power Strip? What the hell was going on over there?

Well, if you’re not already familiar with it, add another one to the list of poorly supported 90s Sega hardware: the Sega Saturn Floppy Disk Drive. The Saturn FDD is, quite possibly, the most superfluous gaming accessory I’ve ever purchased. I recently bought an “untested/junk” drive purely as a project and to have as a curiosity (because I’m a sucker for hardware oddities). After a bit of tinkering. I actually managed to get it working, and you know what? I kinda love it.

Yeah, part of that is the sheer novelty of digging out 25 year old floppy disks from my closet and actually finding a use for them. But part of it is that it’s, well, legitimately useful. But only if you’re trying to do some very specific things.

The folks over at Sega Saturn Shiro have done a fine job of cataloging just how poorly supported this device was. Though the drive was never released in the US, code for it snuck into a handful of games. And by “handful,” I mean nine actually work. So yeah, if you’re looking at this as an alternative to the internal save RAM or a memory cartridge for typical saved games, forget it. Get yourself another backup RAM cart and sleep better at night, with an extra $200 in your pocket.

That said, there is a value proposition here. A single floppy disk, which should cost you no more than $1 if you don’t already have a few laying around, holds over 22,000 blocks of Saturn data. Compare that to the roughly 8000 blocks in an official Backup Memory cart (about $50 these days for a US version), or the 400+ blocks in the internal memory. Given the sheer amount of space you get, the FDD might be worth considering if you’re looking to use it in a few very specific scenarios. Here, in my opinion, are all of those scenarios. All four of them.

  1. You want to do homebrew with Game BASIC and are looking for a fast and easy way to access lots of raw image, texture, and sound data. Streaming the data from your PC each time you load your game is a painfully slow process. The Saturn’s internal memory isn’t nearly enough for even a couple of image files, and backup memory carts will fill up fast. In my opinion, this is actually a great use for it.
  2. You want to get deep into building or playing homebrew shooting games with Dezaemon 2. This is a fascinating world that I’m only starting to scratch the surface of. Long story short, larger storage is a must when you’re building a whole shoot-em-up of your own.
  3. You really, really want to play the Saturn version of Hexen without passwords and don’t want to waste half a memory cart on it. A non-password save in Hexen requires a backup memory cartridge with 3801 free blocks. Absurd. How did this get through QA? Unfortunately, the game doesn’t support direct save and load with the FDD, but you can always copy it to floppy manually to free up space. This is, in my opinion, a legitimate use. Though the broader question of whether you should really be playing Hexen on the Saturn in the 21st century is a whole other can of worms…

And, finally, the reason that is really motivating this post:

4. Multiple Sega Rally ghost files. If you’ve played Sega Rally, I assume you know that there are ghost cars in the game. Set a fast time on a course, and the next time you race it, there will be a “ghost” of your run for you to race against. But did you know that it’s actually possible to save those and race them again any time you want? Well, for the last 25 years, I had no idea! That’s because I never owned an official Sega memory cartridge that supports direct in-game save. I’ve just had a Pro Action Replay since the 90s, and was content with it. But if you plug in an official cart, the game will automatically save your ghosts for next time! If you have almost 2000 free blocks of space, that is.

Okay, but if it’s possible to save ghosts with just the memory cart, where does the FDD come in? Simple – it’s the easiest way to have multiple ghost files. Normally, the game saves all your best ghosts in one save file, which is why it’s so large (and the fact that Sega didn’t bother to implement any compression, but I digress). This is a problem in Sega Rally for one simple reason:

Lancia Stratos.

The Lancia Stratos is, far and away, the fastest car in the game (yes, there are only three, but my point stands). This is annoying because even a mediocre run in the Stratos will typically blow away an excellent run in the Celica or Delta by several seconds. As a result, all your ghosts will pretty much automatically be Stratos ghosts. And that completely sucks the fun out of trying to improve your times with the Celica and Delta. My solution for this conundrum has been to copy separate saves onto floppy for Stratos ghosts and non-Stratos ghosts, then restore whichever I want to practice with to my official memory cart. And I’m loving it! This has completely rejuvenated my interest in Time Attack mode with the Celica and Delta, sparking a whole new interest in the game that had been missing for years.

Now, you might be thinking “why buy an FDD if I could just have two memory carts for way cheaper and do the same thing?” Again, simple. If a memory cart is present, the game will automatically use that for both your ghosts save AND your records save. In fact, if you have a records save in your internal memory, the game will completely ignore it when a memory cart is present. That means, if you want to maintain a single leader board with all your best times, but keep separate ghost files for the different cars, you’re going to be doing a LOT of tedious cart swapping and copying files back and forth between your separate memory carts, using the Saturn’s internal memory as a go-between. Yeah, you could do it, but it’s a dangerous proposition. The Saturn’s cartridge slot is notoriously delicate and that much swapping will most likely destroy it.

“The floppy drive won’t destroy your Saturn because of cartridge swapping” is a pretty strong endorsement, in my opinion.

It Ain’t Pretty But It Works – Connecting the GameShark Pro N64 to a PC

Here’s a little sneak peek into a project I’m currently working on (pardon the mess)… Ever since I managed to get a serial connection working from a modern PC to my Sega Saturn for the Game BASIC project, I’ve been interested in what else I can do by connecting old game consoles to a PC. That led me to the GameShark Pro for N64, which has a parallel port for communicating with a computer.

Unfortunately, the GameShark is an incredibly flaky piece of hardware that gets bricked constantly. I bought three different ones off of eBay and every single one was broken in some way. I returned the first one, but like a true tinkerer, I decided “that’s it, I’m fixing these” for the other two. One was an easy enough fix – all I had to do was boot it with the right game. By sheer chance, after being completely unable to get it to boot with Mario 64, it worked perfectly on the first try with the second game I picked: Jet Force Gemini. That unlocked it and got it working with everything. The remaining GameShark had bigger problems: a corrupted codelist that allowed it to boot, but was completely unusable. However, I had learned that it’s possible to revive bad GameSharks via the parallel connection, so easy enough, right?

Well let me tell you, getting a parallel connection working with any remotely modern PC is an absolute pain in the butt. Unlike USB->Serial adapters, USB->Parallel ones don’t support the full range of the port’s functionality. Basically, they work for printers and not much else. So here’s all I tried:

  • A special USB-to-Parallel adapter… It’s actually possible to load homebrew on an N64 via the GameShark, if you have the right adapter. Specifically, one based on a MosChip MCS7705 bridge. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to tell if an adapter uses this chip and most sellers don’t list that kind of technical information. So I had to do some sleuthing and found that the USB-1475 from Cables Unlimited contains this chip. Problem is, I don’t think it’s made anymore and is hard to track down. I took a gamble on the one seller I could find that had it in stock for a reasonable price. It was a questionable site I’d never heard of before, but you know what? It showed up quickly and was exactly what I’d ordered, all for about $7.50. The cable itself worked in the sense that my PC recognized it, but it didn’t work for talking to the GameShark. Oh well, that was a longshot, anyway. I will save it for homebrew experiments. (And for the record, the site I ordered it from is now out of stock, so I may have gotten the last one. If you know of a good way to identify other cables that will work, let me know.)
  • A mini-PCIe-to-PCIe adapter with a combo Serial/Parallel port adapter… I thought for sure this one would work. I pulled out an older laptop than the one I currently use. It was made for Windows 7 and is currently running Windows 10. I removed the WiFi adapter and replaced it with this mini-PCIe-to-PCIe adapter/extension. Then, I popped a PCIe serial/parallel combo card into the new PCIe port it provides. You can see this whole setup in the pictures, and it actually worked brilliantly… for serial connections. For the life of me, I just couldn’t get it to talk to the GameShark via parallel, either natively in Windows 10 or in Windows 98/XP VMs. I still don’t know what went wrong here, whether it was the adapters not supporting the kind of communication I needed or the VMs or what. So I punted on that approach, which led me to the one that actually worked:
  • A Wyse thin-client with native serial and parallel ports, hacked to run Windows 98 and XP… That’s what you see above. And of course the shipment for the parallel cable I ordered was delayed, so I had to precariously plug the computer itself into a disassembled GameShark. It ain’t pretty, but it works! I have the thin-client running Windows XP Pro headlessly with a USB WiFi adapter so that I can Remote Desktop into it. With that setup, I was able to run the old GameShark PC software, connect to the GameShark, and fix the codelist. I did this by saving the codes from the working GameShark and loading them into the broken one. After tinkering with it a bit, I was even able to upgrade the system software from v3.2 to v3.3!

So there we have it – I now own two working GameSharks and a whole bunch of other hardware and adapters that most people would probably think I’m kinda nuts for having. But the experimenting is half the fun, right? Now to get to hacking! But wait… it turns out I need an N64 Expansion Pak to do all the really cool GameShark<>PC communication. I suppose it’s finally time I got one, huh?