As we hurtle toward a new Nintendo Direct in which many people expect the publisher to finally fulfill those very substantial rumors of a long-awaited American release for Game Boy Advance RPG Mother 3 (the logic being that today's 3/3 on the calendar, and Mother 3 celebrates its 10th anniversary in a couple of month), I can think of no more fitting way to begin my morning than with Ship to Shore's new vinyl release of the soundtrack for the previous game in the series, Mother 2.
Of course, in America we know Mother 2 better as EarthBound: That long-suffering weirdo Super NES adventure, widely ignored at retail until early Internet gaming fandom exploded it into a highly prized classic. Nintendo of America seemed to regard the EarthBound phenomenon with bemusement trending on bafflement until finally accepting the inevitable and embracing it. Over the past few years, EarthBound has finally made its way to Virtual Console, followed soon after by its predecessor (EarthBound Beginnings), which previously had circulated the Internet as a fully localized but unreleased NES ROM. Today, you can actually buy EarthBound games and merchandise in America, something long assumed a fantasy by most fans.
Ship to Shore's soundtrack adds one more piece of collectible ephemera to the EarthBound pile... though, curiously enough, the label has issued it under its Japanese title (Mother 2) rather than as EarthBound. I don't know if this has to do with trademark issues — the copyright indicia on the record jacket lists Sony Records, but not Nintendo — but it does seem a slightly odd choice. And I suspect the target audience is tuned-in enough to know exactly what Mother 2 is and why they should care, so it probably doesn't make any difference.
The other likelihood here is that Ship to Shore is simply treating both this and the Mother soundtrack that preceded it as faithful remasters of the original Japanese soundtracks. Both the packaging and the track list on this record appear to be direct recreations of the Mother 2 soundtrack that Sony Records published back at the time of the game's Japanese release (back in 1994). Aside from some updated credits to reflect Ship to Shore's role in the new record, the album is a blown-up rendition of the original audio CD, all the way down to the paper obi strip along the side. It's a reproduction, and notably it's the first time the album has appeared on vinyl.
Unlike Ship to Shore's Axiom Verge vinyl release, Mother 2 comes packaged in somewhat deluxe style. Having originally appeared on compact disc only, the track list had to be split across two 12" records, and the dual 180-gram discs alone give this soundtrack quite a bit of physical heft. They're matched, however, by a gatefold jacket on heavy cardboard stock, which combined with their low-gloss luster creates a pleasant premium feel. Perhaps in keeping with the original CD release, the record is light on supplemental materials; the gatefold reveals a track listing spread across a collage of screen shots, and the inner sleeves are simple anti-static paper with a clear center window.
As often happens with CD-only albums reissued on vinyl, Mother 2 tends to be a bit shorter than most records; a bit more than an hour of music spread across two records results in sides that run about 13-15 minutes rather than stretching the full 18-20 minutes that most recordings mastered primarily for vinyl did (and do). It's no big deal, but be aware that you'll be flipping sides a little more frequently than with a standard record.
In terms of mastering, Ship to Shore has done a nice job with Mother 2... certainly as well as can be expected. This is, after all, a collection of Super NES music, so the music here involves a lot of scratchy sampled sounds. Though, the overall audio quality lacks the muffled, gauzy sensation typical to Super NES recordings, including direct feed music from EarthBound carts, so I assume the original album was based not on direct feeds of the game music but rather from the composers' source files. In any case, it sounds better and less video game-like than contemporary game soundtrack releases, e.g. Final Fantasy VI.
Of course, that could be seen as a testament to the nature of EarthBound's music in itself. Just as EarthBound borrowed the format of Japanese console RPGs to create a unique work — offbeat, vaguely satirical, yet simultaneously earnest as well — so too did Hirokazu Tanaka, Keiichi Suzuki, and Hiroshi Kanazu create a body of music that's one part game soundtrack and one part aural tapestry. The record's very first track, "Prologue," is less a composition than a collage of effects and eerie noises that accompany protagonist Ness' late-night journey to the site of a fallen meteor which begins the game.
The album covers a broad array of themes and styles, from soundscapes to upbeat jazz to gentle acoustic melodies. "Eclectic" would probably be the most accurate description. EarthBound's OST earned a place in game history as a landmark work of game music — it made use of ambient sound, sampling, and many other innovations. Admittedly, though, that does somewhat hamper this release's utility as something you'd just drop onto the record play to chill out to. It's a towering achievement in game music, but it's not entirely listenable. The first record in particular jumps all over the place, with each brief side consisting of half a dozen short tracks that seem to end just as they're warming up, with the subsequent track often bringing an abrupt shift in tone and mood.
The second record fares better. Each side contains only half as many tracks as those of the first record — three apiece — and this gives those compositions more room to breathe. Side C includes the unsettling final battle with Giygas, as well as the tracks that accompany both the playable denouement and the credit roll. And then there's Side D, which abandons the single-song-per-track structure of the first three record sides and instead offers three medley-style remixes that touch on a great many of the game's themes, some of which aren't represented elsewhere on the album. The album's track listing emphasizes town themes and dungeon melodies, and the battle music — the single track players hear most in the game — doesn't appear until the very final track, "Another 2 (PSI Mix)." The D-side mixes work better as compositions outside the game than the individual tracks heard on the rest of the album do, bringing together a variety of tunes and effects in a concise, inventive fashion... including, surprisingly enough, snippets of sound from other sources. Listen carefully and you'll hear a bit of Xevious....
I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend Ship to Shore's Mother 2 to anyone but dedicated EarthBound fans. The music sounds great on vinyl, but the truncated melodies and erratic pacing of the original album don't really suit the format; I can see myself spinning the second disk for a listen from time to time, but I suspect the first record won't see a lot of play. Fans of the game, however, will definitely want to grab a copy. The prestige packaging and faithful reproduction of this 22-year-old import album makes for a genuine collector's piece — not in the sense of collectors as hoarders or cynical speculators hoping to get rich on a soon-to-be-rare purchase, but rather as genuine collectors who want to celebrate their fandom with meaningful mementos. Ship to Shore has done a fantastic job of bringing a vintage Japan-only CD release to life for American fans, with gorgeous packaging that will satisfy fans who don't care about vinyl and crisp sound quality that will please those who do. It's taken a while for anyone to cater to EarthBound fans in an official capacity, but releases like this help take the sting out of the wait.
Disclosure: I will be writing liner notes for an upcoming Ship to Shore soundtrack release. However, I paid for this record out of pocket, and made the purchase before being approached about that contribution.