Saturday, February 7, 2015

Review: MOTHER 1

I finished MOTHER for the first time last night. It's not a simple game, so reviewing it is going to take some time. I'll try to break it down into its component parts: exploration mechanics, battle mechanics, game flow, scenarios, story/writing, music, graphics, and how all of those elements fit together to make this game what it is.

As a courtesy to Jon Magram, though, first I'll attempt to sum the game up briefly:

MOTHER is a charming RPG despite frustrating mechanics. Patches mitigate some of those flaws. Starts slow, but ends beautifully. Awesome music. Recommended.

Having played EarthBound so much, it's hard not to compare it to MOTHER while playing it. There are many elements carried over from MOTHER to EarthBound that were greatly improved upon in the transition. Since EarthBund is definitely the more popular of the two, I think making these comparisons will help put the game in perspective.


The core mechanics of most RPGs are exploration and combat. To be honest, MOTHER does neither of these things terribly well. However, it's clearly trying some things to break the conventions of RPGs at the time, and for that alone the game deserves some credit. I don't know how many NES-era RPGs you've played, but none of them really shine in the mechanics department by today's standards, so I'm inclined to be somewhat forgiving. Somewhat.

First, exploration can get very confusing and tedious in MOTHER, but that's despite things it tried to do to improve exploration. For instance, walking around can feel very quick and fluid in open spaces, partially because the game was taking its first steps away from the grid-based system used in many RPGs even today. The fact that you can walk diagonally in MOTHER is pretty huge in that regard--a mechanic that the game encourages by having many of its paths and roads run diagonally to encourage players to discover this new form of movement. However, movement comes to a sudden, grinding halt any time the player hits an obstacle, which ruins the momentum. This can be especially tedious in tight places like caves or the many mazes on the game, where obstacles are all around you.

This break in the momentum is compounded by the game's incredibly high encounter rate in which you will regularly get into a battle, finish the battle, take a single step, then trigger another battle. As a result, exploration feels like a rapid series of starts and stops, like the film shorthand for showing that a character is just learning to drive--accelerate, brake, accelerate, brake, and so on.

This lack of momentum is tedious in and of itself, but the problem is compounded when you're attempting to navigate a maze. Because battles take you away from the map and into a battle screen, and because battles happen often, it's easy to forget where you are within a maze. And this problem is compounded by the fact that several of the mazes in the game are massive areas with few distinct features, making it easy to get disoriented. Duncan's Factory is the most guilty of this problem.

All of these things were improved in EarthBound, by the way. EarthBound broke the grid completely, and when your character runs into an obstacle the momentum isn't broken at all; instead the character just keeps on walking, maybe sliding along the wall if it's at an angle (as it usually is), waiting for the player to correct their direction. And of course, EarthBound doesn't have random encounters at all, instead opting for still one of the coolest battle initiation mechanics ever. The dungeons in EarthBound are pretty easy to navigate, too, and even when it's trying to be confusing there are usually elements around that will help you orient yourself. The most confusing mazes in EarthBound either have no enemies to distract you from navigating the maze, or they have enemies that don't respawn such as in Brick Road's maze in Winters or in Monotoli's office.

Exploring the world of MOTHER was a different experience than most other RPGs at the time, both because it took place in a modern setting and because the game eschewed the traditional world map/town map dynamic. The modern setting and intimate perspective made the game feel closer to you in many ways that a huge fantasy world can't. Instead of traveling through an overworld map to get from town to town, you walk on your own or, if you want to get there faster and safer, you take the train. The fact that you have to traverse the fields, forests, and hills on foot makes the travel itself feel like a part of the adventure instead of a thing you do in between adventures.

Unfortunately, the world map experiences the same problems as exploring dungeons due to the somewhat confusing layout and, again, the high encounter rate. The encounter rate problem can be mitigated a bit in early areas with weaker enemies once you get access to the Repel Ring item, but that doesn't change the fact that much of the terrain is vast, featureless, and uninteresting. It's simply not exciting to explore most of the time since there's often nothing to find that rewards your exploration. Compare that to, say, the expanse of the Dusty Dunes Desert in EarthBound, which is filled with personality, small secrets, and even treasures if you explore the place, even though the game never requires it.

Exploring the world map might have been easier if I had realized there was an in-game map I could open, though. It never occurred to me to use it until the end the of the game, when I couldn't use it. So I actually have no idea what the map even looks like.

Finally, interacting with things on the map adds yet another momentum-killer. Talking, investigating things, most everything you need to do to interact with things requires you to open a menu. This problem was solved in EarthBound with the L-Button, and most other RPGs simply made most common interactions a single button. In MOTHER, though, you not only talk to people and investigate things, you also use telepathy and use items on things, which sometimes makes interaction a puzzle in and of itself. This is cool in theory, but in practice 95% of the people and things you interact with simply involves talking or "checking", meaning that 95% of the interactions are slowed down unnecessarily.

This is particularly frustrating for two reasons: first, talking to people is one of the primary pleasures in the game, as the various, interesting characters are at the heart of what makes this game so appealing. Second, even though the game's buttons are limited by the NES controller's button selection, the game actually gives you to option to assign roles to every button but the A-Button, giving the START-, SELECT-, and B-Buttons the ability to access specific parts of the menu or perform other tasks, like making your character run. However, none of the buttons can be hot-keyed to simply use TALK or CHECK. You know what would have been awesome? Simply having the buttons do the following: SELECT-Button - Map, START-Button - Menu, B-Button - Run, A-Button - Talk/Check. Alas.

The battle system of the game is a completely different animal, with its own set of cool features and problems. You spend an awful lot of time in the battle system due to our old friend the encounter rate, so it's definitely an important aspect of the game. In brief, though, the battle system is tedious and frustrating, yet occasionally fun.

The worst part of the battle system is its speed, which further compounds the game's general momentum problem. Even at the highest "battle message" speed, the text of the battle chugs along in fits and starts. Even a quick, easy battle with a single enemy that you can kill in one hit will probably take a full 20 seconds or so from start to finish. With the high encounter rate, it's not an exaggeration to say that in 5 minutes of exploring a dungeon you'll probably spend 30 seconds actually exploring, and the rest of that time getting into and out of battles.

The battle system itself has a number of frustrating flaws. For instance, say you get into a fight with two enemies: Enemy A and Enemy B. You're not sure how tough they are, so you have all three characters focus their attacks on Enemy A. Ninten goes first and clobbers Enemy A, defeating him in one hit. Yay! But wait! Loid and Ana are still targeting Enemy A, even though it's defeated! So, they basically waste their turns attacking a non-existent foe. They won't automatically target Enemy B just because their original target is gone. This is a common problem in NES-era RPGs, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

The battle menus are also sorely lacking in information, such as the PP cost of PSI powers. In fact, information about PSI powers is just practically non-existent in the game. In EarthBound you can at least get a clue as to what your various psychic powers can do through the Status menu, but in MOTHER it's pretty much all trial and error, unless you keep a browser open. Items are slightly better, since outside of battle you can at least use the LOOK option to get a hint at what they do.

That said, once you understand what your abilities actually do fighting isn't all that bad. The frequency of battles makes it hard to rely on Ana, whose strength primarily resides in her PSI powers. Early on, she lacks endurance since PSI powers will rapidly deplete her PP. By the end of the game, though, most any really tough enemy could be knocked out quickly with higher-level Freeze and Beam attacks, and more often than not Ninten found himself relegated to healing duties while Ana went on the offensive. Even the famously difficult enemies of Mt. Itoi weren't all that tough once you got the hang of them, though the fact that some enemies had 1-hit KO moves was occasionally problematic.

The final grief about the battles was that the EXP and money rewards were slow in coming. So, if you wanted to be strong enough to survive, you needed to grind through countless slow, tedious battles to make any headway.

Which brings us to the game's flow. For the most part, the pattern in MOTHER flows like this: reach a new area, grind until you're comfortable, find your goal, reach a new area, grind, find your goal, repeat. Grinding is the most tedious part of most RPGs, but it's particularly tedious in this one, which already has enough momentum-breaking problem as it is. Sometimes, though, that grinding can be mixed in with exploration rather than simply walking back and forth just outside of town. With the game's cool breadcrumbs/onyx hook mechanics, you're never really that far from safety.

The traditional RPG step of shopping for new equipment in each new town isn't a major part of MOTHER, since by the time you reach the second town you have access to most of the equipment that will take you through most of the rest of the game: you can buy Boomerangs in Merrysville, and the Magic Coin and Gold Ring can be bought in Magicant. The Boomerangs are Ninten, Loid, and Ana's second-best weapons, and you don't get anything better for Ninten and Ana until the final dungeon. The Magic Coin and Gold Ring are the game's best defensive equipment, so once you buy those for each character they're set for good. So, the only thing standing between you and the best equipment in the game is your money, which just means more grinding.

There are still interesting things to buy, such as Loid's special items, Repel Rings, Bread, and some special quest items, but for the most part you don't get significantly more powerful from town to town. This isn't really a bad thing, since grinding for money is so tedious. So, once you've got your best equipment, you don't really have to bother grinding for money again!

Unfortunately, though, that doesn't change the fact that the game is spent mostly battling, battling, battling for hours on end, pretty much no matter what else you're trying to do. I can't blame anyone else for getting frustrated with the game for this, especially since I couldn't actually handle it myself. Instead, I used patches to make the game more bearable: first, of course, is the Easy Patch, which I think doubles the experience and money you get from battles while also ensuring you've got a stable copy of the game (more on that in a minute). I mostly used Q's Game Balancing patch, though, since not only does it quadruple your EXP and money from battles, it also reduces the encounter rate. I didn't bother to use Q's other patches, though, and I ended up meeting the game's copy protection (twice!), so I ended up reverting to the Easy Patch to bypass those spots.


RPGs are generally constructed as a series of scenarios strung together by an overarching story. If you're not interested in having the story of MOTHER spoiled for you, you might want to skip this section since I'll be touching on every aspect of the it and basically spoiling the whole dang thing. Fair warning.

The overarching story of MOTHER is one of interstellar travel, the powers of love and friendship, and an alien invasion of Earth. Each of the scenarios of the game link back to that story and the events of 80 years prior, when two people, George and Maria, disappeared.

The scenarios are the zombie invasion, the zoo, strange and wonderful Magicant, a new friend who enjoys explosives, traveling through towns by train, the haunted town, the vast desert, the town with no adults, the dangerous city, and the scary mountain.

The zombie invasion of Podunk is the first real quest after Ninten wakes up and realizes Something Is Wrong. The scenario is a kind of cross between EarthBound's Onett and Threed, as Ninten deals with crummy politicians and gets his first real taste of heroism. Ninten saving the town from zombies certainly seems like a step above Ness beating down the local gang, but Ninten doesn't really save the town from the zombies. Rather, he just saves one person from the zombies, and presumably, the zombies are still a problem once Ninten is gone, heh. The main bulk of this scenario is the path to and through the graveyard, which feels appropriately intimidating for a first quest.

Next, Ninten is tasked with investigating the zoo, where the animals are going nuts. The zoo itself is mostly barren, though between the fences, a few unique animal sprites, and the enemies you fight (tigers, elephants, etc) the area gives a decent impression of a zoo. The quest ends with the first evidence that aliens are behind the mysterious things happening around here.

On his way to the next town, Ninten finds his way to a strange magical place quite unlike his own world. The ground is like clouds, cats are swimming here and there, and everyone is wearing pointed wizard hats. The people are all very friendly, and it's like they all know you and want to be your friend. It's almost creepy how friendly they are, yet despite the dangerous enemies outside the town's walls it feels comforting and safe in Magicant. You almost can't bear to leave. Yet the ruler of the land, Queen Mary, seems sad that she's lost the tune of a melody she used to sing. Nothing seems as important as finding that melody for her and making her happy again. Yet the way out of Magicant is a bit intimidating, and there's a dragon sleeping down there...

Back in the real world, Ninten encounters a much more mundane problem: a weak, friendless kid named Loid getting bullied. Ninten proceeds to make friends with Loid, enabling the kid's obsession with explosives. The scenario involves a couple of factories in which we're distracted from the alien invasion problem by dealing with humanity's own problems: a combination of technology and neglect.

When Ninten and Loid get access to the trains, the world seems to really open up, with several towns now just a few dollars away. At the end of the line is a snowy town, where a young girl's mother has gone missing. She speaks of destiny and bravery, then joins the party.

In the town of Spookane, the town itself is mostly devoid of people, and even in the residential area the town's citizens have elected to live outside their homes after ghosts have moved in. An alien in town subtly reminds you that most of these problems are probably part of an alien plot. The party gets to explore a classic haunted mansion, complete with disembodied voices, winding staircases, furniture covered in cloth, and a piano that plays by itself... Yet in the end, there's not much the party can do about the ghosts that have taken over the town. The townspeople appreciate your effort, though.

Also, one of the towns has a doctor that's taking advantage of a cold that going around by price-gouging medical care, and there's an old man on a hill who will fill your pockets with mouthwash. These aren't part of a scenario, per se, except insofar as you just meet weird, interesting people when you travel.

The party makes its way to the vast Yucca Desert, which contains a singing cactus, an old war vet who will take you for a ride on his plane and lend you his tank, and a cave full of a bunch of desert monkeys. The party gets to fight a monstrous robot, and the only way they can beat it is by using the tank, which unfortunately doesn't survive the battle. The desert is altogether a fairly exciting experience.

South of the desert is a "swamp", which really just seems more like a lot of rivers intersecting with each other. In fact, the only indications that this is meant to be a swamp at all are the signs that say so and the occasional fight with crocodiles (most of the fights are with robots and such). Near the swamp is a town of children whose parents have all been abducted, which adds a sense of urgency to the quest to stop the invasion.

The big, dangerous town of Ellay has some interesting sights as well as a bit of a gang problem, similar to the Sharks in Onett, right down to the knife-fighting gang boss. The boss of the BlahBlah Gang, Teddy, proceeds to kick Loid out of the party for being a weakling and ask Ninten to help him avenge his parents' deaths on the nearby mountain. I'm not sure why Ninten and Ana accept Teddy just kicking out their old friend like that, unless they agree with Teddy that perhaps it's for Loid's own protection.

The mountain is intimidating and difficult, but Teddy is strong and helpful for the most part. There's only so much they can do up there, though. In a cabin on the mountain, Ninten and Ana profess their love for each other, or not if you so choose. As the player, you have to decide whether Ana's love for Ninten is reciprocated, and given that they're, like, 12 years old, it's kind of an awkward decision to make. In the end, though, I decided that, yeah, these two pre-teens might as well enjoy themselves and fall in love if they have a chance, and I was rewarded by getting to watch them dance. Two kids in love, together, surrounded by danger on top of a mountain, yet ignoring it all and celebrating their love with a dance. It was sweet.

The occasion is interrupted by Teddy and an incredibly powerful robot that knocks the party out. They're saved by Loid, who proves that brains are better than brawn. With Teddy injured, Loid joins the group again as they attempt to conquer the mountain. They find a secret base in the mountain lake, hidden even from the alien forces as the base has no enemies to speak of. There they meet a powerful robot of their own, apparently built by Ninten's great-grandpa George several decades ago, and its sole purpose is to protect Ninten. With the robot EVE in tow, the dangerous creatures on the mountain are powerless until once again that big, dangerous robot shows its face, and the two robots proceed to destroy each other. Eve emits a final tune, then ceases to move.

At the top of the mountain is what resembles a grave stone. A voice there speaks to Ninten, the voice of George, congratulating Ninten on making it so far. The voice gives Ninten the final notes to the song, and finally Ninten can return to Queen Mary.

Queen Mary hears the song and reveals that she's actually Ninten's great-grandmother, Maria. She and George had gone to a far away planet where they raised an alien child named Geigue as one of their own, and nothing could tame him except for that melody. Having woken and transferred her knowledge to Ninten, Maria finally passed, and the illusory world of Magicant ceased to be.

At the top of the mountain, the alien mothership awaits. The abducted humans sit in tubes in a cave for some unknown purpose, and it seems that the whole invasion is headed by the alien Geigue. Geigue is massively powerful, and he explains that he needs to wipe out humanity because George had left his planet with information that could be used against his people. He offers to spare Ninten and only Ninten, all while battering the party with incomprehensible attacks. Ninten, Ana, and Loid begin to sing Maria's Lullaby to Geigue, which terrifies him. Finally, unable to comprehend what was happening to him, Geigue retreats with the mothership, vowing to return.

Taken on its own, the story of MOTHER is lovely, and the characters are interesting, silly, and memorable. Much like EarthBound, and much unlike many other RPGs, the final battle is won not with brute force but with some other method, where violence is not the solution. How many games do that? How many games for which, up until the end, violence was in fact the solution, decide in the end that, no, there has to be another way?

As a final note for the mechanics of the game, I should say that my final battle with Geigue was rough. I knew the solution had to involve the new SING option on the menu, but Geigue's attacks were wearing me down, and I was rapidly running out of PP to heal myself. The battle ended with Ana and Loid unconscious while Ninten spent his turns alternating between healing himself and singing, finally winning with basically no PP and only a couple of Life Up Creams left. It was intense.


The basic audio/visual components of the game were limited by the NES, but many other games managed to do an awful lot with those same tools. Much like EarthBound, MOTHER manages to have some great, grooving tunes and a simplistic approach to the visuals.

Anybody who's played EarthBound before playing MOTHER will instantly recognize that at least two-thirds of the melodies in MOTHER were re-arranged and reused for the sequel. Iconic music like the Snowman theme, the Hippie battle theme, and the music from the desert monkey cave became some of the most iconic tunes in EarthBound, and though I think the EB versions sound better, it's really awesome to hear their roots. It also makes me wonder what they would have done with the other songs that didn't end up in EB. Luckily, I suppose, many of the songs were officially released in an album, featuring non-chiptune versions of the songs, several of which are complete with lyrics.

In any case, Keiichi Suzuki and Hirozaku Tanaka did a wonderful job with the music, creating something that sounds far different from anything else at the time or since.

The graphics aren't as wonderful as the music, unfortunately. They're not bad, but I don't think they're used very well. The battle sprites all look great, and character sprites all look good considering that they're on the NES (though some characters look huge compared to others, and Ninten in particular looks massive for a pre-teen boy). The main problem is how empty the world looks, as well as the strange, inconsistent perspective. Still, there are some very nice scenes, such as the views from the top of the school and the lookout tower, as well as the strange and interesting design of Magicant.


The game's best parts are great, and the game's worst parts can be mitigated by patches somewhat. It's not a long game, really, and though I had my doubts for the first few hours, I think it's worth getting through the rough parts of the game to see its most powerful moments.

It's not the best RPG of all time, but much like its successor it introduced elements that the best RPGs could still learn from.

That said, I think it would be incredible to see an "HD" remake of this game some day. A game that kept the story and characters intact, yet changed the battle and enemy encounter to something closer to EarthBound. The dungeons and world map could be redesigned to something more interesting, to accomplish the same intentions without making them frustrating. I think that would be an awesome project.

In fact, why hasn't somebody done that? Couldn't someone basically do this with an EB hack?

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