(Author’s note: Fun fact: This video was originally supposed to be the first in a series of reviews of all three Mother games. Seeing as how that didn’t end up happening, the introduction to this video may seem a bit, uh, cinematic? I guess? This was because I originally wanted to frame the series as Itoi’s passion project, but since I only covered the first game, the opening few minutes of this video may seem a bit out of place. I wasn’t quite sure how to rework the video into a standalone project without having to make some drastic changes, so I made as many alterations as I could without taking away the video’s core meaning.)
In the early 1900’s, a dark shadow covered a small country town in rural America. At that time, a young married couple vanished mysteriously from their home. The man’s name was George. The woman’s name was Maria. Two years later, as suddenly as he left, George returned. He never told anyone where he had been or what he had done. But, he began an odd study, all by himself. As for Maria, his wife… she never returned. 80 years have passed since then.
That is the intro to Mother, a game that would set the foundation for one of the most influential and beloved video game series of all time. Created by Shigesato Itoi, Mother is a series that defied many conventions of the standard JRPG and brought its own twist to the genre. Whether it’s the contemporary setting, inanimate objects for enemies, or the surreal, bizarre atmosphere the games present, Mother took everything you know about JRPG’s and threw it out the window. And I think to a lot of people, that’s what makes it special. The game was made in an era where fantasy JRPG’s like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest reigned supreme. The game broke conventions, and people liked that. It showed that the main character of your game didn’t have to be a sword-wielding knight supported by a cast of mages and thieves. It brought something different different to the table, and as it turns out, that’s a key component to what defines Mother as a series. And in my Mother retrospective, we’re gonna be taking a look at all three games in the series and see how each of them tick. They’re all unique in their own ways, and I’m excited to share my findings with you all.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the original Mother’s development is that it was designed by a man who, at first, was not a game designer. Itoi was a bit of a celebrity in Japan. His main line of work was advertising. As such, when he proposed the idea of Mother to Shigeru Miyamoto, Miyamoto was a bit hesitant to work with him. Celebrity endorsed games were quite popular in the 80’s, with games such as Takeshi’s Challenge being the most well-known. They weren’t exactly the best, or even the most lucrative games. Additionally, Itoi was a busy man and was involved in many other projects. He was determined to make the game, though, and placed full priority on its development. It was full steam ahead for Itoi, and the game was released in Japan in the summer of 1989. The game was fully localized and was set to release in North America as Earth Bound, but marketing pushed its release into 1991, and it was eventually canceled outright. This was due to the fact that the NES was soon going to be made obsolete by the Super NES, and marketing a game for an outdated console wouldn’t really make much sense. Not all was lost though; a beta cartridge of Earth Bound was found on eBay in 1998. A group of fan translators known as Demiforce purchased it, dumped it into a ROM, and released it to the Internet. They renamed the game to EarthBound Zero, in order to distinguish it from its sequel, EarthBound. Since then, the game was re-released on the Wii U’s Virtual Console in 2015 as Earthbound Beginnings. Finally, after 26 years of waiting for an official localized version of Mother, we got it.
Like most JRPG’s of the era, Mother is a game that most people today would consider to be poorly aged. The graphics are lackluster, the plot makes little sense (more on that later), the menus are confusing and clunky, and worst of all, it requires incredible amounts of grinding. It’s an unfortunate truth about the games of yore; the simple fact is that many of them are simply outdated in terms of game design, and as such can be pretty difficult to get into. But even though I can say with certainty that most games from the 80’s have aged horribly, I still think that it’s legitimate to criticize and analyze them. This is for a couple reasons: first, and probably most importantly, it’s to determine whether or not the game is actually fun to play in the modern era. No matter how you look at it, if a game isn’t fun or interesting, it’s not worth playing, no matter what time period it’s from. Secondly, it gives a pretty good idea of how far games have come in the past 30 or so years. In that time we’ve gone from Mario looking like this, to this (Author’s note: This is one of those few times where this will make no sense if you’re not watching along with the video. It’s just comparing Mario from the original NES game to Mario Galaxy.), flying around in space in full 3D. It’d almost be a crime to not take a look back at gaming’s humble beginnings, pinpoint where things went wrong, and then discuss how those things have been improved since then. Under the lens of JRPG’s, the genre has progressed considerably since the late ‘80’s. They’ve gone from the endless grinding and simplistic combat of Final Fantasy 1 to real-time combat in games like Xenoblade Chronicles. Other games like Pokemon retained key elements of traditional JRPG’s but put a new spin on them. Even early MMORPG’s like EverQuest and World of Warcraft made leaps and bounds in the genre by streamlining elements such as quests, abilities, and skill trees. Of course, the simple turn-based fantasy settings of JRPG’s of the past have not been lost forever, as seen in games like Bravely Default, which do a good job of presenting the classic JRPG formula in a modern presentation. All of these things are integral to understanding Mother beyond its clunky and bizarre surface, because without knowing the JRPG’s origins or where it stands in the gaming world today, it becomes much harder to appreciate, and it also becomes a hell of a lot more difficult to justify disliking it if your only reasoning is that “there’s too much grinding.” And even though that is a prevalent issue in this game, which I’ll be getting into a bit later, there’s a heck of a lot more to it than that. The story is difficult to follow, you have no idea where you’re supposed to go most of the time, the list kind of goes on and on. So while yes, most of this review will be me panning this game, I’m going to be going into it with the mindset that this game is old and is going to have some frustrating elements you don’t see in more contemporary games. Hopefully you won’t hate me for that, but I think my criticism, regardless of Mother’s age, is valid, and you’ll have an easier time deciding for yourself if you think this game is worth playing. So here we go.
After the opening text of Mother, the game fades in to the room of the main protagonist, Ninten. After walking towards the door, you’re attacked by… a… lamp… and the house erupts into chaos. Upon defeating the lamp and Ninten’s sister’s possessed doll, the house returns to normal. You receive a call from your father, who must have been drunk off his ass when they were translating this game, because what the hell is he talking about? Let’s read what he says:
“This is your Dad. Well.. it seems like a poltergeist. I’m not exactly sure how to… But, your
great grandfather studied PSI. You might find something in the basement to help. But I left the basement key someplace… can’t remember exactly where… Anyhow, son, you are my only hope. It’s time for you to go on a little adventure, and explore the potential of your powers. Powers not to be taken lightly.”
So for those of you that didn’t understand a single word of that incoherent mess, let me read you the plot synopsis from Wikipedia: “A young American boy named Ninten is attacked at home in a paranormal event. His father explains that Ninten’s great grandfather studied psychic powers, and asks Ninten to investigate a crisis occurring across the world, the work of an invading alien race.” I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume that this particular interpretation of the plot was taken from the Japanese version of the game, because that seems to make a LOT more sense than that jumbled mess. In case you’re wondering, I’m playing the Earthbound Zero ROM, but there aren’t actually any differences in translation, to my understanding at least, so this is just as confusing as it is in the Virtual Console port of the game. And if you didn’t bother to look up the plot yourself, you’re left with several questions: why am I going on this adventure? I just left my house with no real explanation as to why and now I’m just wandering around aimlessly. Why did my grandfather study PSI? How would that help, and with what would that help? Oh well; stuff like this was pretty commonplace back then, so I guess I can let it slide.
Anyway, the first thing you’ll probably notice about this game is that why in the name of god are you fighting your lamp and a doll? Well, you see, that’s sort of a series staple of Mother, so it’s just kinda something you have to accept. Personally I think this is pretty cool because it opens up the doors for a lot of varied enemy designs, and you’ll see that as soon as you leave your house. On top of that the plot kinda justifies fighting inanimate objects and wild animals, but I’ll be getting more in detail with that later on. You’ll be fighting enemies like crows with shoes, hippies, and… this guy? Wally? Man, there must be a lot of farmers named Wally in this world because I’m just slaughtering them left and right. That’s something I’ve always really liked about the Mother series. It has some of the strangest, most peculiar enemies I’ve ever seen, and it makes it work somehow. The games just have this charm that make you not even question that you’re fighting a gigantic pile of vomit. You just go with it after a while. I think that’s pretty neat.
Moving on though, the second thing you’ll probably notice about this game is — I said, the second thing you’ll — (Author’s note: …and another. I died a couple times here.). Oh boy. Okay, so like, this game is REALLY hard. So hard in fact, that you’ll probably end up dying on the second or third enemy you fight. This is sort of how the entire game goes. You will have to grind, and die, and grind, and die until you want to die in real life. Mother is SO unforgiving right from the get-go, and that’s pretty much the main theme of this game: slogging through fight after fight, and death after death, until you finally reach a level where you can maybe compete with enemies for a while, until you reach a new area, that is. I put up with this for about 20 minutes before I put my controller down and decided I didn’t want to do this series anymore. I was so frustrated and annoyed. I’m a really impatient person, and this game was definitely not agreeing with that at all. Then I remembered there was an unofficial “easy” patch for the game that doubles the experience points you earn after every battle, significantly reducing the amount of grinding you’ll have to go through. Except there’s a problem with that: once you toil through the first few levels or so, the game becomes laughably easy. So much so, in fact, that by the time I was level 17 I was dealing 50 damage per attack and taking only 1 damage per attack from enemies. I was winning fights in two turns maximum. Combine this with the absurd, and I mean ABSURD rate at which you randomly encounter enemies, and you will be spending the majority of your time playing this game stuck on a black, boring combat screen fighting the same enemies over and over and over again. At least once you become stupidly overpowered from fighting so many enemies the fights won’t take nearly as long to finish, but you’re still fighting SO MUCH. Combat should never feel like a chore, ESPECIALLY in JRPG’s, where combat is a central pillar of the genre. It’s baaad. It sucks that I even HAD to get to such a high level to compete with enemies in the first place. Why am I, a player with 21 health who deals 4 damage per attack, fighting enemies with roughly the same stats? Why am I not fighting enemies like the lamp and the doll who went down in a couple turns? The difficulty curve makes absolutely no sense at all. I should not be struggling this much at the very beginning of the game. If I was playing this game just for fun, I would have never touched it again after those first 20 minutes I spent dying over and over. It’s just… not enjoyable. I would not have gone into such a lengthy tangent about this if it wasn’t such a pervading element of the game, but it is, and for a lot of people, that’s a dealbreaker.
So after you’ve finally suffered your way through the first few minutes of the game, you arrive in the city of Podunk, and this is where things begin to get interesting. So like… what do I do? Where do I go? After looking around for a bit, I found out that there’s this little girl that’s lost in the cemetery, so I guess I’ll go look for her? Except… where even is that? See, a pattern I’m beginning to notice in this game is that you have to talk to pretty much every NPC there is if you want any semblance of guidance in this game. Except, uh… there’s a lot of characters that just say… stuff? So that makes that task pretty arduous. If you never went to the town hall to talk to the mayor, you probably would never figure out what you’re actually supposed to do. And even then so much of what the NPC’s say is so cryptic that half the time you don’t even know if what they’re telling you is useful or it’s just flavor text. The act of even talking to NPC’s at all is a bit of a chore considering how clunky the menus are in this game. In order to talk to an NPC, you have to walk up to them, bring up the menu, and select “Talk.” It’s a little thing, but that honestly becomes so annoying after a while. Since there’s only four buttons on the NES controller, I guess that’s really the only logical thing the developers could have done, but it’s still a pain. Even aside from talking to NPC’s, doing anything in the menus is not enjoyable in the least. There’s two different commands for talking, and for checking objects. From a logical standpoint this makes sense, but in terms of gameplay it’s just a nuisance. Now let’s talk about the goods menu for a moment. First off, you can only carry eight items at a time. Not really sure why there would be such an arbitrary limitation in a JRPG of all games, but whatever. Also, this part may seem a little nitpicky, but why do I have to go into the goods menu and select “Use” on the cash card in order to use the ATM? You can hardly see anything under the menus when you do this, which I think is kind of amusing more than anything. The rest of the menus are okay I guess, but it’s still a chore to navigate through them most of the time.
(Author’s note: The following paragraph is not found in the actual video. I didn’t think it was worth leaving in, but I guess as a fun Easter egg I’ll leave it here.)
So once you rescue the little girl from the cemetery (her name is Pippi by the way), she’ll join your party. This is when combat actually gets kind of interesting. Because you finally have more than one character in your party you can start managing who does what and to what enemy, which spices things up a bit. Unfortunately, though, she only stays with you temporarily, and once you return her you’re all by yourself again. Not a huge deal considering you’ll have 3 other permanent party members by the end of the game, but it kind of feels like a slap in the face to go through all of that effort to rescue Pippi only to be rewarded with a hundred bucks. Oh, and apparently she was supposed to give you the Franklin Badge when you first met her, but for whatever reason, she didn’t do that, so I had to run all the way back to her house to get it from her. Whatever, I guess.
After you rescue Pippi, the mayor of Podunk gives you the key to the local zoo. When you arrive you find out that all the animals are going crazy, and you have to figure out why. After slaughtering every kind of zoo animal you can think of, you arrive at the source of the chaos: a Starman. These guys are an iconic enemy of the Mother series, and I’ve always thought they were cool enemies. But here I’m going to talk about the nuances of combat in Mother. There’s 2 main options for dealing damage: fight and PSI. Fight is simply just dealing damage and nothing more, but things get a bit more interesting with PSI. Ninten learns quite a few PSI spells throughout the game, and they all have their own properties. The problem, though, is that because I’m playing with the “easy” patch, PSI is pretty much useless. I’m sure it’s a lot more helpful when you’re on the same level as the enemies you have to fight, but it becomes obsolete when you’re so much stronger than everything else.
I should touch on something real quick: the whole objective of this adventure is to collect the eight melodies. This isn’t actually made clear to you until you reach Magicant, which is a good two or three hours into the game. So if you didn’t check the music box in your sister’s room, return the canary to the canary village, or any other things up until that point, you might not even realize that you missed the first few melodies because the game made no effort of telling you that. You had no way of knowing that you had to go to the top floor of the department store to get the canary, and then bring it back to its village, or that you had to visit the singing monkey’s pen at the zoo once you clear things up there. This is such a weird design choice, and I’m scratching my head wondering why this was done this way. A pretty common theme I’ve noticed throughout my playthrough of Mother is that I’ve been able to avoid all the weird stuff it throws at you with the use of a walkthrough, and that’s really disappointing. It’s okay to not be direct about telling the player what to do, but dropping them in this weird world with no sense of objective is so bad. I can’t even imagine what children of the 80’s were going through when they first got this game. I’m an adult in 2017 and I’m still having a bastard of a time playing this game.
I also need to make something else clear: I really try to find things in games to like, no matter how much I dislike them. I know I’ve been bashing this game pretty much this entire time, but I feel like there’s just so much wrong with it that it’s really, really hard to enjoy. The random encounters are frequent to an extreme degree, the story is poorly conveyed and difficult to follow, and there’s no real middle ground for difficulty. All of these things combined are serious detriments to my enjoyment of this game, and the more I play it the more I have to push myself to not quit after getting 10 random encounters in the span of 3 minutes. It also gets more difficult to find things to like about Mother when it’s clouded by all the negative baggage it carries. I like the music, the sprites are well drawn, and I appreciate the modern setting. I’ve always found traditional JRPG’s to be really bland and uninspired, and I’m glad that this game went in another direction. But all those positives fall short to the overwhelming problems this game has. To me, it aged horribly. I don’t think that necessarily makes it a bad game per se, but it certainly makes it way harder to enjoy today. And there are definitely people out there that enjoy grinding and can look past the issues I personally have with the game, and if you can, then great — ! but I’m not one of those people. I have no patience for this kind of stuff.
In the end, Mother is an outdated relic of the past that’s weighed down too much by its issues. But it laid the foundation for the next two games in the series. I think I’ve said all I can say about this game. What do you think about it? Do you still enjoy it, even today? Leave a comment down below. Let’s have a conversation! I may not like this game now, but maybe someone can convince me otherwise!
Originally published at densgamecorner.blogspot.com.