When people talk about Mother, they are very often talking about Mother 2. The latter is a game so well-known at this point, with a nostalgic gravity so attractive, that it demands to be the center of any discussion even tangentially related. Mother is merely the game that provides the 1 that we need because the other ends with 2. Mother is sometimes called “EarthBound Zero” by people who refuse to append “EarthBound” with any qualifying number. Indeed, to English-speaking audiences, the other Mother games still do not officially exist. A popular fan-translation of Mother 3 was released in 2008, but Mother only exists in English as a bootleg ROM—a leaked version of an unreleased localization that was, as if to make the point for us, canceled in order to shift resources to Mother 2.
The story of Mother goes something like this. Mother is a charming, if tediously difficult, NES-era RPG created by copywriter-turned-game designer Shigesato Itoi. A gentle sendup of the Dragon Quest games, Mother contrasts its small-town Americana setting with its RPG framework, establishing the series’ characteristically offbeat sense of humor. Bogged down by grinding battles and obtuse puzzles, Mother is an wearisome stepping stone on Itoi’s path to creating Mother 2, which, now that we’ve dispensed with the Mother backstory, I could tell you is great for the following one thousand reasons—but don’t worry, because this isn’t a piece about Mother 2.
The focus on Mother 2 does make sense. The game’s devotion is well-earned. In a medium distinguished by shameless clones and comfort-food remakes, Mother 2 stands peerless. Few games compare to its eccentric personality, and it remains a snappy, enjoyable RPG, unburdened by the tedious design that marks its predecessor, to say nothing of other RPGs. And English-speaking audiences can be forgiven for not hunting down an obscure ROM for a game which, they keep being told, isn’t very good to begin with. Mother is, in fact, a tough NES RPG, one that modern gamers are unlikely to have a taste for. But this is also a distinctly Western perspective, one that discounts that Mother is hardly unknown or unpopular in the country it comes from, and that Mother is still an important part of a trilogy which deserves to be considered as a whole.
You arrive at Magicant within a few hours of starting Mother, an area which epitomizes the series’ personality. The shift from small-town America to the magical, pink-green land ruled by Queen Mary would be a monumental second- or third-act development in any other video game, but in Mother it happens so suddenly and so early that it seems anticlimactic. Shopkeepers still charge for items even though they have no apparent use for money. Floating eyeballs, enigmatically called “Dadseyes” and “Momseyes,” attack you if you wander outside of town. One man mimics your father’s voice, allowing you to save your game. Bipedal bird men can be recruited to fight by your side. This is the sort of fantasy landscape you might expect in Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, but tweaked until it is unrecognizably bizarre. The tropes of the JRPG feel at once alien and familiar.
The Mother series, launched in 1989, defined “quirky” long before the word became shorthand for “obnoxious.” But quirkiness does not define Mother. This game is tightly wound—quirky, yes, but also maudlin and grim, challenging and surprising, with moments of naked emotion ranging from the sad to the soaring. No single adjective seems to suffice. Once you’ve finished in Magicant, you return to the real world, and your next objective is to recruit the young boy Lloyd. You find Lloyd, who you learn is shunned and bullied, hiding in a garbage can on the roof of his elementary school. On paper, it’s hard to imagine a starker contrast to Magicant.
But for all of its rough-hewn, NES-era edges, Mother threads these sorts of moments together with ease. It is perhaps because you are never allowed to take things too seriously. NPCs are just as likely to make a joke as offer advice. Enemies range from fearsome space aliens to runaway semi-trucks to someone called only “Wally.” The game’s come-what-may tone causes its loudest moments to feel only slightly removed from its quietest. At point you are given the keys to a tank—like, an actual tank—and at another you find a small girl whimpering in the corner of a church.
Or, it is perhaps because you always take things at least a little bit seriously. The game’s difficult reputation is well-deserved—it has been a long time since I’ve played an RPG where random battles pose such an existential threat. For all of the humor, the game winds its way around a central plot about small towns terrorized by space aliens. This is a game that sets a dire tone with its opening narration:
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.
Traditional JRPG design is undeniably passé among Western gamers. Random battles feel like interruptions, meandering exploration feels like a waste of time. Mother undoubtedly demonstrates some of the genre’s most questionable habits, with capricious difficulty and arbitrary puzzles. Several dungeons in the game are laid out like mazes, which requires little more than trial and error without the benefit of a guide.
But I can summon a Mother guide in about five seconds. Those rough-hewn edges, which some people quite genuinely enjoy, can be smoothed out for those who don’t. (Lest we forget, people had guides in the 1980s too.) I find myself less judgmental of what I consider the game’s shortcomings, and more appreciative of everything it does well. Mother 2 may do those things better, but we should not be surprised that the game stands so tall when it stands on shoulders like these.
Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.