Saturday, August 22, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part Nine: Name Origins for Earthbound/Mother

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather long “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)


In Nintendo’s Earthbound/Mother games, a gradually increasing amount of cleverness went into naming protagonists. In the first game — Mother in Japan, unreleased but unofficially called Earthbound Zero in the U.S. — the little boy who saves the world is named Ninten, which is about as obvious as a Sega hero being named Ages. The sequel features a new hero, named Ness, who despite only being a slightly altered version of Ninten is, as a result of his appearances in the Smash Bros. games, infinitely better known outside Japan. His name is either a reference to the American name for Nintendo’s first home console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), or its successor, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, (SNES). (If it’s the latter, it’s an anagram of an acronym — and that’s not something you see everyday.)

clay boys: ninten, ness, lucas and claus

The third game, Mother 3, stars another little boy, Lucas, whose name doesn’t allude to any Nintendo system, but another major character in the story is his twin brother, Claus, whose name happens to be an anagram for Lucas’s. Since this post went up, an anonymous commenter has pointed out that the series’s creator, Shigesato Itoi, has admitted to borrowing the notion of twins named Lucas and Claus from the twin narrators of Le grand cahier, also known as The Notebook, a 1986 novel by Hunagrian author Agota Kristof.

The extent of Earthbound’s references doesn’t end with Nintendo in-jokes and anagrams. In fact, it takes on pop culture more broadly than most games do. Included in its targets are a whole slew of references to The Beatles and their work. With respect to these, I have a few theories about where the minor character Tony might have gotten his name, but I’ll admit right now that they stretch plausibility. Plus, the explanations are long enough that I’d rather leave them all in their own post here.

The Earthbound creators did a neat little verbal trick with the heroines in the first and second games. Much in the way Ninten and Ness bear a more-than-passing resemblance, their respective love interests, Ana and Paula Polestar, are also essentially the same character, slightly reworked from one game to the next. Ana’s theme song from Mother is titled “Pollyana” in a way that would seem to foreshadow Paula in the sequel, which is a nice way of tying the characters together. Considering the character’s sunny dispositions, the song title also arguably makes a reference to the children’s literature character of the same name. (A slightly redone version of the song exists in Earthbound as the theme played in Ness’s home.) The line of pink-dressed, politely behaved Earthbound/Mother heroines ends with Earthbound; in Mother 3, the sole female character is a tomboyish character given the suitably fierce name Kumatora, which translates to “bear tiger.”

earthbound’s youthful pokey on right; mother 3’s pasty porky-of-the-future on left

While the heroes change from one game to the next, Earthbound and Mother 3 have a common villain in the form of a horrible, pudgy child. In the first game, he’s Pokey, Ness’s next-door neighbor, who eventually crosses over to the dark side. In Mother 3, he’s Porky — the same bad seed but having blossomed many years in the future into the leader of an army of humanoid pigs. This job title makes the second, retconned version of his name more appropriate, even if his Japanese name, Poki, would seem to allow for either Pokey or Porky, though some cite Pokey as a mistranslation. If Mother 3 ever gets an official Nintendo-sanctioned translation, perhaps we’ll know for sure what to call him. Commenter mkkmypet suggests that Porky may be the more appropriate name for the character, noting that his brother Picky, who appears in Earthbound, is much skinnier. Porky and Picky may refer to the brothers’ eating habits.

Early in Earthbound, the player can meet Pokey’s awful parents, Aloysius and Lardna Minch. It’s pointed out on this site that the name Aloyisus Minch sounds suspiciously like Atticus Finch, the father from To Kill a Mockingbird, though Mr. Minch is about as bad a father as Mr. Finch is a good one. I don’t know if I buy the connection, but I’ll put it here just so I can reference To Kill a Mockingbird twice in a series about video games. Never thought I’d be able to do that.

And then there’s the enigmatic entity big bad that presides over both Mother and Earthbound, a spaceman boogeyman called Giygas. Literally represented from the original Japanese as something like Gigu and referred in the unreleased text of the American translation of Mother as Giegue, the character would seem to take his name from a Greek word meaning “giant.” Thought the original name seems to hit more at the word geek, so little has been written about Giygas and his name that I can’t make heads or tails of where its creators wanted to go with it.

the most horrifying thing in video games — ever

As a side note that doesn’t seem totally out of place in a round-up post about words in games, the Earthbound incarnation of Giygas speaks in strange phrases that Itoi has described in interviews as coming from his memory of walking into a theater as a child and glimpsing a horrific rape scene. (During the climactic battle, it says horrific things like “I’m h... a... p... p... y...” and “...It hurts, hurts...” and “...go... b... a... c...k...” and “...I'm so sad....” Pretty damn horrifying.) Earthbound fans have since found the movie Itoi mentioned, The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty, and found that it actually contains no rape scene. This does nothing to make the villain any less scary, at least in my opinion. The fact that some have compared Giygas’s form to that of a human fetus viewed through an ultrasound and the layer leading to him to the female reproductive organs make the situation all the more uncomfortable. It puts the Japanese title to the series, Mother, in a strange new context.

Earthbound/Mother, previously:

The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:

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