JRPG Journey 2022: Mother [EarthBound Beginnings] (Spring Bonus Game)
April’s game: Final Fantasy VII Remake
May’s game: Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
Heading into Mother, I expected short but sweet. It’s an early JRPG from the 80s, after all. A Famicom original, Mother fits neither of those descriptions. Remaining unreleased in English until 2015 when it finally got a downloadable version called EarthBound Beginnings, Mother is, of course, the first EarthBound game. But the series shares its name with this game in Japan, and I’ve always called it Mother, so I’m gonna stick with that.
I’ve heard Mother, and its successor EarthBound, described as a parody or send-up of American society, but I don’t see that. There’s not much commentary, cultural, political, or otherwise, and the humor comes from the game’s weirdness more than anything. I get the impression the devs just wanted to tell an Americana-inspired alien story, as were popular at the time. The game’s got plenty of the typical JRPG zaniness, though, only in a world that resembles our own rather than fantasy, so while I get how some consider it parody, not me. While there’s plenty of humor, that’s never the game’s focus or goal.
Mother instead wants to get you in touch with your feelings. (Just like your real mother — don’t forget to give her a call.) Encouraged by the sparse, haunting music and basic, childlike visuals, a wistful, almost creepy tone looms over your adventure, from the bizarre opening in the home of Ninten, a child with mysterious psychic powers, to befriending the weird kid at school, to exploring expansive farmlands and dangerous factories. You don’t encounter much happiness in Mother’s world — you might save someone, but now they’re back to unhappy life circumstances, or they choose to join you to complete some personal quest. Each party member gets their own motivation in this way, and all get more characterization than in other popular JRPGs of the time, though not by much. It’s still a NES game, so if you’re expecting to be blown away by the writing, look elsewhere, but Mother just might impress you with its mood. See, it’s up to you to fill in the gaps of the story as you go, and that mostly comes from NPCs. I’ve never had more fun talking to NPCs in a game from this era, despite some questionable translations. That said, Mother is odd enough that it wouldn’t shock me if every translation WERE spot-on accurate. A conversation might go in bizarre and unexpected directions, hinting at plot points even when it makes no sense for some random dude to know that kind of stuff. Major story events connect only loosely and feature equally strange people and situations reminiscent of a Murakami novel. The world and story together make for a surreal puzzle that happens to look and play like a JRPG. For a NES game, it’s very impressive, but I’m not so hot on the visuals.
I would not call Mother a stunner. It’s got a unique charm, where it looks like a child drew it, or as if the devs weren’t so familiar with the NES hardware. But I don’t it’s an intentional choice. They wanted to try something different, and I’d bet the large amounts of straight lines and basic fills were necessary to fit Mother’s huge world onto a Famicom cart. I ended up liking the art once I warmed up to it, especially the monster designs. It makes the most of the Famicom hardware in its own way, and it makes navigation easier, too. Simple, clean, distinct sprites are also memorable ones.
There’s more to Mother’s design and structure than it gets credit for, at least in the West. For one, pathing and discovery are sublime. Mother came out after Dragon Quests III and Final Fantasy II, its close contemporaries in terms of gameplay, and instead of FF telling you directly where to go or DQ making you find and figure out a specific NPC hint, Mother rewards exploration and ingenuity. You might find one clue, but if it’s not enough, there’s probably at least one or two others out there that can point you in the right direction. Solutions to puzzles aren’t obscure enough to limit experimentation, either. Sometimes, it’s enough to try everything in your inventory with the help of a little out-of-the-box logic.
Mother’s great at pushing you toward getting or doing something you probably already want. Here’s an example: you’re guaranteed to catch a cold if you talk to everyone in the town of Reindeer — annoying, since colds can’t be healed at hotels. Around this time, the game’s been nudging you to go to an old man’s house up in the mountains, and when you do, he gives you tons of Mouthwash, which heals your cold. I like when my intentions align with the game’s like this without it feeling forced. There’s a story reason to visit that old man, and if your characters aren’t sick, the Mouthwash feels like a random gift that might be useful later, but if you are sick, it’s a damn cool moment. It reminds me of the so-called “emergent gameplay” concept, except done in an 80s JRPG and without the randomness factor.
The game’s huge map impresses most of all; it’s really something comparing it to Final Fantasy II or III or even IV. Sure, you can explore Final Fantasy II’s map, but there’s nothing to find besides a Chocobo forest. In Mother, Ninten can walk for ages through a huge stretch of farmland, stumble across a small town, take on a quest that visits a huge graveyard with a dungeon in it, then make an even longer trek to a larger town, meet new characters, find new items and info, level up a bunch, and then repeat all this for a few more towns… and all that takes place in one small section of the map! Of course, most of the map’s fairly empty aside from scenery, but major locations are well spaced to give an appropriate feel of distance as you progress, and there’s dungeons even in places you think you can’t reach. Early on, you’ll come across train tracks that seem to stretch endlessly. Following them takes you to a tunnel through a mountain, where super powerful monsters lurk, happy to slaughter you immediately. Now, in other games, like Pokémon, this kind of tunnel would be inaccessible, but more impressive is that there’s no story reason to go here. The tunnel exists to make the world feel more real. There’s plenty of other discoveries like this, ones you’d only find if you’re looking for them.
I’ve mentioned this game’s weirdness a few times, and I mean it. Typical RPG enemies like rats and scorpions abound, but there’s also hippies, cyborgs, magic snails, and living, rampaging vehicles that are trying to kill you? Yeah, there’s an overt beatnick- or Kerouacian-mixed-with-hippy vibe to a lot of the game that distinguishes it even today. Random items like insecticide can be bought at any store but are rarely useful, you get money by calling your absentee father, you sing instead of fight to kill a certain boss — complete with some funny dialogue—you battle zombies and aliens with toy weapons… what is going on in this game? I like to look at it as a childhood fantasy, as a game Ninten and his friends play on the weekend, making up their own fantasy story while they roam around town. There’s plenty that happens plot-wise that makes this an unlikely, but it’s nonetheless fun to think about.
While party members don’t get much characterization in the story, the little they do get plays into combat in a satisfying way. Instead of traditional classes, characters’ personalities inform their stats, following the trend of the time. Teddy’s a brawling-, bruiser-type guy, so naturally he’s the best physical attacker, but he can’t use magic at all. Lloyd’s a twerpy little four-eyes nerd, so while he can’t take many hits, he’s a killer spellcaster and item user. Ninten’s a jack of all trades, Dragon Quest style, and the fun of combat comes from managing all this without, well, dying. Mother is difficult. There’s no way around it: getting through requires a lot of luck or a lot of grinding. Enemies tend to have an unbalanced arsenal of attacks, with an equal chance to use each, making battles feel like dice rolls. You might encounter one enemy, who sits there, using a bunch of weak nonsense, allowing an easy win, or you might get blasted by four of the strongest attacks in a row, leaving you no shot at victory. As usual for the era, fleeing has a high chance of failure, adding to the potential frustration.
That all sounds like not so much fun, but I wouldn’t quite call it unfair. The tacitly understood point of JRPGs at the time was to go slowly, fully understand the mechanics, and do everything you can to reduce your disadvantages. Mother does go too far in allowing brutal random encounters and constantly jacking up the difficulty, but at least its bosses are reasonable, often downright easy, and of course, we’ve got emulators now. Hell, the only official English version is emulated, and since I played on Switch, save states were all I needed to have a blast with the combat. I didn’t go overboard with them, either; being able to reverse some super bad luck or unfortunate deaths without losing hours of time turns Mother from a frustrating game you’ll want to put down to one you can’t stop playing. Its addictive formula in balancing grinding with progression shines when there’s no need to over-level to mitigate bad RNG. I finished in two sittings, and Mother is by no means short. It took me twelve hours, and if you consider how much time I saved with save states, that should be much longer. Man, Mother yet again impresses me compared to its peers.
Beyond what I’ve mentioned, there’s not much exceptional or exciting about the combat — it’s a standard JRPG. There is the PSI spell system, with its Greek letters. It’s cool seeing where that originated after having played EarthBound, and it’s got an impressive range of spells. However, as typical for the genre, most of the time you’ll want to be dealing damage, and many spells won’t see even a single use. Surprisingly, party AI tends to do what I want in most cases, making auto-battle a viable option for grinding, as long as enemy levels are low enough. It even solves one of the worst problems with early JRPGs: in Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, for example, if you target an enemy that gets killed during the round, your attack will whiff, wasting it. Auto-battle in Mother accounts for how much damage attacks will do and makes party members target enemies that will be alive, something you can’t do as a player since damage calculation involves dice rolls. This puts Mother on Breath of Fire’s level in terms of auto-battle bliss, and that’s a SNES game!
One inexperienced yet passionate man with a vision led Mother’s small development team. This will only surprise you if you haven’t played the game. Every facet feels designed to elicit certain emotions from the player, from minor NPC interactions, to discovering new locations, to the haunting soundtrack. When the final boss finally explains what’s been going on the whole time and the ending comes, it’s sad and beautiful because of these caringly crafted moments. This also makes me think the events ARE actually happening, they’re not just a fantasy in Ninten’s head. If you’ve played Mother, you’ll understand.
Join me next time as I continue my Dragon Quest journey with one of the series’s most well-regarded games, Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride. This oughta be a good one!