The usual summer games drought continues unabated, as developers and publishers gear up for the Christmas-era bonanza. But 25 years ago this month, a bizarre RPG materialised on the Famicom. Its name was Mother.
While the Mother series is much more famous for the latter two installments, Earthbound and Mother 3, the first one laid the groundwork for much of what would come later. The propensity for the heroes to use bats, several iconic tunes including Eight Melodies and Pollyanna, and the quirky enemies and world with much darker underlying themes all came from Mother, and it only seems proper to look back on it fondly.
Of course, the game was by no means perfect. It was released at a time when the rules and guidelines for RPGs were still to be completely worked out, and consequently suffers from such flaws as an unfairly high and inconsistent difficulty and a difficulty in knowing where to go next.
Despite these flaws, the game spawned two sequels and is still beloved of so many a quarter of a century later. So what did it do so right?
For one thing, Mother introduced the notion that an RPG could tell an emotional story and still have fun gameplay. While adventure games had a rich heritage at that point, they were primitive and unforgiving, and their stories were generally fantastic or comic. Mother though, was marketed under the tagline “No Crying Until the End” and it delivers on that promise.
Mother tells the tale of Ninten, a psychic boy living in the town of Podunk. Travelling across the world – and a dreamlike, mysterious kingdom – with his friends Lloyd, Anna and Terry, he uncovers the sad back story to the alien terrorising the planet. In the end, the big reveal is something other games wouldn’t pick up the art of doing for some time.
The story’s sad reveal was given extra weight by the juxtaposition it provided between the game’s light tone and its darker aspects. Not only was the story sad, it hit harder because it had pulled back into comedy first. And Mother did have comedy to it. The smoking crows, the giant robot fights, the battles encountered throughout the zoo were all weird and quite quintessentially Japanese. But sprinkled throughout was bleakness in the forms of a sparse, nearly uninhabited world, a town full of children where all the adults had disappeared, and the final difficult slog up Mt. Itoi.
The graphics are surprisingly good by NES standards, and despite a washed out colour scheme it’s got a very recognisable cartoon feel to it. Music comes courtesy of distinguished Japanese composers Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka, and delights the ears with a huge range of tunes to suit all sorts of tones. There are fast-paced pop songs, jaunty tunes and epic themes as required, all of them endlessly hummable and wonderfully fitting for each scene.
Mother is a difficult game to assess by modern standards – so much has changed about the games industry and our expectations since its release. But although it’s dated, doesn’t have the overt colour and humour of Earthbound or the heartstring-tugging tale that Mother 3 tells, it’s still a solid adventure which introduces you well to the weird world of Shigesato Itoi.
[This article owes a lot to Clyde Mandelin for his excellent translation work on Mother which can be found here. Please consider buying a copy of Mother if you want to play it!]