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Throwback Review: Mother/EarthBound Beginnings- I Believe a Dream can Still Come True

Eighty years ago, George and Maria disappeared without a trace. George returned two years later, but died alone, his wife Maria never found. You play as his great-grandson Ninten, a seemingly ordinary all-American boy living a seemingly standard life until one morning, two lamps and a doll in his house come to life and attack him. A call from his father and a notebook of his great-grandfather’s reveals that he has psychic powers, and must set out on a journey across the country. This is the start of the much-beloved Mother trilogy, which boasts a massive cult following and has at least one game on the top 10 list of many a 90s kid.

The original Mother, however, is the least successful of the three, often hiding in the shadows of the much more popular EarthBound and Mother 3. Unfortunately… there’s a bit of a reason for that. This is going to be one of the harder throwback reviews I’ve had to do, just because it’s by far the oldest, close to ten years older than I am, and it’s hard to judge what was actually rough for the time and what hasn’t aged well. At least with other games, I could compare them to their contemporaries, but what other RPGs were popular around Mother‘s release? Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest come to mind, but Mother has its own style, and not much can come of comparing the two.

Before I actually get started, I do want to clear something up. I don’t think Mother is a bad game, or even a mediocre one. It’s incredibly creative, has a great story, and it’s enjoyable for the most part. However, there’s a few major issues that really get in the way of Mother residing on the same level as its sequels. I’ll do my best not to compare it against Earthbound, which came out five years later on a better console, but since it fixed a lot of the major issues, some of them are worth pointing out.

Your objective through the game is the same as EarthBound, to find the eight melodies throughout the overworld. Instead of being hidden at the end of sanctuaries, they come from a variety of locations, such as Ninten’s house, a desert, and the wreckage of a robot. While a scavenger hunt through a relatively open world could be pretty fun, there’s a couple things make it a bit less fun than it could be. Mother has a much more open world than the rest of the series, and while it’s not necessarily on as grand a scale as Final Fantasy, it’s still impressive. However, you get a lot less guidance in Mother, and there’s a lot of mandatory things you could easily miss.

Let’s take a look at the fifth melody. In order to get this one, you have to wander through the desert to find a cactus with a face on it. There’s a man nearby offering you flights around the overworld (which is actually pretty freaking cool), on one of which you can see the cactus, but it’s easy to miss, and even seeing it doesn’t give you any inclination that you have to go there and use telepathy on it. If you can’t figure it out from the flight, there’s a handful of NPCs who’ll point you in the right direction, but they’re completely optional, so you can end up missing the melody entirely until you absolutely need it, and have to go around looking. Yes, there were also skippable melodies in EarthBound, but the locations were all fairly obvious, and what you needed to do was always consistent. There wasn’t a random rock in a desert you’d need to use a specific item or ability on, the melodies were all in caves very close to story-important locations.

Oh, THIS cactus. Of course.

All images courtesy of Starman Forum

The pacing is a bit odd as well. With eight melodies, you’d expect each one to mark about 12% of story progress, but that’s far from the case. You can get three melodies before even encountering the second playable character, Lloyd (or Loid, whichever you prefer), and can go long stretches of time between melodies five and six, while six through eight can be found in less than an hour of each other. It’s a minor gripe, but it’s incredibly disorienting, I thought I was in for a long grind by the time I got to the final dungeon only to discover that melodies six and seven were both there.

Leeeeet’s talk about level/difficulty scaling. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy II, you might remember stepping off the game-mandated path and being met with monsters capable of one-shotting you. Well, forget that, Mother has a completely different issue. For the most part. Like I said, by the time Ninten meets Lloyd, he already has three melodies, so he’s quite a bit higher leveled. As a result, the monsters in the overworld are scaled for Ninten’s level, not level one Lloyd. Because you meet Lloyd before one of the hardest dungeons in the game, aside from the last areas, obviously you bring him to the earlier areas where he can level up without being utterly destroyed.

After said dungeon, Ninten and Lloyd are both decently leveled, so the game gets harder again… just in time to meet Ana, who’s level one. Grind time, part two. After playing EarthBound, I talked with a friend and we decided that Poo didn’t really fit in with the story, narrative or gameplay-wise… but after playing Mother, where you have three people at most, I definitely see why they added a fourth party member in Earthbound. See in EarthBound, we have Ness as the tanky-healer, Paula as the black mage, Jeff as the specialist and late-game damage dealer, and Poo as the red mage. Meanwhile in Mother, Ninten is the damage dealer and off-healer, as he gets healing abilities later than Ana, Ana is both the healer and glass cannon once she’s leveled up enough, and Lloyd is the specialist. Having the glass cannon as your main healer is an absolutely terrible idea, especially in the last dungeon where she’s both the only one who can revive people and the most likely to die first.

PK GTFO

Image both namesake of and courtesy of Starman Forum.

Speaking of the last dungeon, Itoi is on record saying they didn’t have time to balance it properly, and dear god, it shows. Some enemies can be felled almost too easily, but most of them will absolutely kick your ass to hell and back. It got to the point where I was running from most fights and just making a mad dash from the area entry to a safe point because more than one or two fights would spell certain death. If it weren’t for save states, I’d certainly still be throwing myself at the dungeon over and over instead of writing this review.

Now, after spending maybe a bit too long griping, let’s talk about how actually awesome this game is most of the time. Aside from dungeons and Magicant, the entire overworld is on a single screen, and it’s a massive overworld at that. It feels big, too, due to the expansive deserts and swamps, as well as cities that can consist of dozens of houses, setting it apart from the RPG standard of maybe five houses and a few shops. It’s incredibly open, as well, and while that is the cause of a few above issues, it creates a sense of adventure. The world really opens up when you unlock the train, allowing you access to several major cities (as well as a sweet cutscene and sick music to accompany the journey), even ones that other RPGs would restrict until later in the game. Getting PSI Teleport is outright momentous, allowing you access to any city you’ve been to already.

Mother also introduces Magicant, and while I won’t explain what it actually is for spoiler purposes, it’s incredibly creative, taking place seemingly outside reality on a land of pink clouds, with seashell-shaped houses and a magic castle, a dungeon with a dragon, and flying men to accompany you through the realm. It sounds exactly like a place in a children’s fairytale, and to see something this magical in a Famicom game is incredible. The enemies aren’t quite as whimsical as they are in EarthBound, but they’re certainly a cut above the standard Dungeons and Dragons fare, with animated armor, cars and trucks, bigfoot, bionic arachnids, several different pairs of eyes, a variety of zombies, robots, and bears, and so many more. This is undeniably one of the most creative games of the generation, and setting it in a world that seems outright mundane on the surface creates the surrealism that the Mother series is known for.

I believe

Stiiiiill Starman.

Despite my complaints about the party’s ability distribution, the abilties they get are great. There’s a huge variety of PSI abilities: several tiers of fire, thunder, freeze, and “beam”; Ninten has a massive array of shields and barriers; there’s an “exit any battle” option for only 16 PP; teleport is a godsend; and both Ninten and Ana become outright powerhouses between his defensive and her offensive capabilities, it’s fun to develop the right strategy for taking out certain configurations of enemies.

Since this is an RPG, and an RPG in the Mother series no less, naturally there should be a pretty compelling story… and there is! The world of Mother has an incredibly backstory that’s explored in great detail… in the player’s guide! Which is in Japanese! So unfortunately for us Americans, the entire story of the world is— nah, I’m just messing with you, of course there’s a fan translation. There are spoilers abound, however, so be warned if you’ve been considering playing this game, don’t go too far in. I won’t discuss too much here as well, either. I know it’s silly to avoid spoilers for a game that’s going on thirty years old, but I only just played it this past week, and I know I wouldn’t have wanted it spoiled either, so I’ll offer all of you the same courtesy. I will say that the story involves both the coming of age and maturity of Ninten and his friends, as well as what happened with George and Maria, and why the world is filled with hostiles and psychic energy.

Lastly, you cannot mention a Mother game and not talk about the soundtrack. Yeah, everything to say about it has pretty much been said, so there’s only so much unadulterated praise I can add to the pile, but that’s what it deserves: pure, unending praise. The overworld theme “Pollyanna” is best known for it’s lyrical adaptation, but even the happy little 8-bit version is magical. The airplane theme is incredible, and worth every in-game dollar I spent riding the plane over and over (which is mandatory) to hear it. Of course the eight melodies form a beautiful song, and even though it’s simple and the lyrics to accompany it are basic and arguably lack depth, it’s a lullaby, making it too complex would just be wrong.

Yep, he's the boy of her dreams.

Take a guess. It’s from Starman.

All in all, would I recommend it? Maybe. It’s unlikely I’ll play it again, but I certainly don’t regret playing it the first time, parts of it were a lot of fun. If you’re going in, I’d say use a guide and an emulator with save states and a speed-up button, unless you’re fully committed to the genuine experience. In that case, be prepared for a long, occasionally rough climb. Mother is certainly a unique and enjoyable game, and it deserves plenty of praise, but I can definitely see why it’s not regarded as fondly as EarthBound or Mother 3. It sets the stage for what’s to come, and what comes is a lot more polished.

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