Mother to Earth: When an NES prototype lands on eBay and inspires a documentary

The trailer for Mother to Earth

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 how a specific English-language Mother prototype cartridge. It leaked out of Nintendo headquarters in the early 1990s before landing 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.

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