Not nearly reaching the treasure trove of role playing games that would flood its successor, the Nintendo Entertainment System still had its fair share of RPGs and more importantly played an integral part in wetting the West’s taste buds for the coming onslaught of 16-bit role playing adventures.
Alas, as was standard practice of the period there were a few worth while titles that never made it out of Japan. A combination of market uncertainty and waining support for an aging console all but sealed the fate of an interesting Nintendo published RPG called Mother. After the disappointing sales of Dragon Quest, copies of which Nintendo could barely give away, and the satisfactory yet underwhelming sales of Final Fantasy, Nintendo simply lost its nerve. Indeed Mother was already localized, translated, and was to include world maps and a guidebook (as was the RPG standard of the time), but by 1991 the NES was on the way out and Nintendo’s primary focus was about to be shifted to the Super Nintendo.
Backing up, Mother was released in Japan in 1989 for Nintendo’s Famicom. Designed and directed by famed Japanese essayist and humorist Shigesato Itoi, Mother was, at the time, a radical departure from the typical Japanese Role Playing game.
Eschewing the short tradition of setting role playing games in medieval fantasy worlds, Itoi instead set Mother in an idealized version of modern day America. Mother begins in the town of Mother’s Day, a quaint microcosm of the USA circa 1988, complete with malls, drug stores, and hospitals. Needless to say Mother ended up being a video game experience unlike any other.
The game itself does little to expand upon typical JRPG conventions and is essentially a Dragon Quest clone; static screen turn-based encounters, experience points, level grinding, high difficulty curve. Rather then swords and dragons, you equip baseball bats and frying pans, heal your party with hamburgers and pizza, and you rush your fallen friends to the closest hospital for revival.
What truly separates Mother from the most other 8-bit JRPGs is that the game was written with a combination of humour and self awareness. Not a funny or goofy game out-right, Mother instead carries a distinct light-hearted tone, that above else never takes itself too seriously. Shigesato Itoi was not trying to break new technical ground when designing Mother, and to deride the game for its lack of evolution within the genre is to miss the point completely.
In 1989 the console RPG genre was still in its infancy, but regardless of its age the release of the the first Dragon Quest game proved to be a cultural watershed in Japan- with each subsequent release sales exploded in pace with the audiences expectations. Mother was more about testing the limits of the JRPG formula and teasing the preconceptions of gamers. By encapsulating a Japanese-tinted version of modern day Americana, Itoi succeeded in giving game players something fresh and different. Altering the setting to modern day and having children as main characters was enough of a spin on the conventional JRPG archetype to stand out. Remember, this in long before Final Fantasy started almost exclusively using tween antagonists.
The fact the Mother was a different type of RPG was further exemplified in the games marketing. Mother’s designer, Shigesato Itoi’s was heavily used to market the game. While not unusual by todays standards, Mother was released in 1989; a time before celebrity game developers; a time when video game players barely differentiated between video game companies, let alone the designers behind the titles themselves.
Being an RPG born of the Dragon Quest era, Mother is not without its failings. The games difficulty is at the least punishing, and at times totally brutal. Spoils, such as experience points and monitory rewards are cheaply doled out. Despite Mother’s high rate of enemy encounters, serous grinding is required to get strong enough to venture into new areas. The experience overall is rewarding, but the journey is seldom easy and many parts of the game are frustrating and needlessly difficult.
Mother is more remembered today (and rightly so, perhaps) as the predecessor to the Super Famicom classic Mother 2, which was localized on the Super NES as Earthbound. Earthbound has been firmly entrenched in video game history as a bonafide masterpiece and is the video game definition of a cult classic. Regardless of the shadow cast by Earthbound, the original Mother and its unreleased official English translation stand as true originals, and are certainly unique amongst RPGs of the era.