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I’ve always been a fan of Mother 2(EarthBound is such a worse name, curse you western localization), but I had never played the original Mother and Mother 3. Thus, I decided to go ahead and play each game in the series back-to-back-to-back, and provide my thoughts. As such, I recently downloaded a totally legal copy of the original Mother on my Macb- err, Wii U. This is but the first part of my three-step journey into video game-fueled emotional anguish, and I have to say that I’m already feeling pretty teary-eyed for a variety of reasons.
I realize that with reviews you’re supposed to save your general opinion on a game for the end, but there’s really no tip-toeing around it with Mother; this game is bad. Quite bad. As in, I had little fun and was mostly forcing myself to slog through this thing. I was playing movies such as Pleasantville in the background so that I could maintain some degree of sanity and consciousness.
The game’s biggest problems revolve around the battle system: it’s horrendously broken. This game has, without a doubt, the MOST EGREGIOUS random encounters of any RPG I’ve played, and I’ve played many; it’s my favorite genre. Once you walk outside of the safe zones, you’re bombarded with incessant random encounters. After finishing one battle, you may well be hit with another after taking just ONE STEP. And you may be hit with another in a single step JUST AFTER THAT. I’ve been in situations where I’ve gotten in four battles in a row, with only 1-3 steps taken between them. This makes traversing the game’s considerably large world an absolute chore, which ultimately makes this game an absolute chore to play. Sure, occasionally you’ll get some relief and make it a good distance before getting thrown into another battle, but the fact that I’m given a feeling of pure elation over simply not having the screen go black after a few steps speaks to how damning the problem is. While you might be able to forgive random encounters as a result of NES limitations, the absurdly high rate at which they occur can only amount to bad game design. Maybe if the game’s world weren’t so bloated this would be less of a problem, but thanks to how much monster-infested empty space there is when traversing from one area to another, the issue is made even more glaring. The game probably only took me a dozen hours to complete, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t feel like dozens. I can’t emphasize enough just how repulsive the game’s random encounter rate is, and it alone is enough to land this game squarely in the “bad” category. Sadly, however, there’s more to Mother’s problems than that.
This game will require you to grind. A lot. This isn’t the kind of game where those who are skilled at RPGs will be able to circumvent tedious grind sessions. You won’t be able to use strategy to skirt around it: a large amount of grinding is a mandatory part of the game. They couldn’t even be bothered to scale up the main party members; they both join at level 1, which is infuriating. One might try and defend the game by pointing out that it gives you temporary overpowered party members that can be used to help with grinding. I would counter by saying that if the game feels the need to give you the likes of Pippi, Teddy, and EVE because you can’t be expected to grind properly with your ineffectual party members, then that’s just a testament to how woefully unbalanced this game is.
Speaking of ineffectual party members, let’s talk about the main trio:
Ninten is the lone party member that could be described as halfway decent. He’s the only one worth using the “Fight” command with; in fact, that’s all you’ll ever want to have him do if you plan on dealing damage to enemies; it’s the only effective way of hurting them for most of the game! He has some decent PSI in healing and 4th-D-Slip(which guarantees you escape from battle). The rest is either useless or locked behind high levels so that you can’t use them until the end of the game, if at all.
Lloid is Jeff if Jeff were godawful. His stats are terrible, so you’ll have to constantly babysit him to make sure he doesn’t kick the bucket. He has Jeff’s gimmick of being able to use special items, though most aren’t worth using and those that are will break and require grinding to restock them; the most useful item of his, the flamethrower, ultimately only amounts to a multi-enemy PSI attack with extra steps required in order to use it. When you have to go out of your way just to get Lloid on the same level as Ana, who isn’t even good to begin with, then you know there’s a problem.
Ana’s only use in battle is to use PSI, and PSI largely sucks in this game. Most of her good PSI powers, like Ninten, are locked behind high levels so that you won’t get them until the end of the game, if at all. Throughout most of the game you’ll find that the only PSI worth using is healing and 4th-D-Slip, and seeing as how Ana doesn’t even have the latter, she’ll mainly just serve to heal your party(and heal your party you must, as anyone not named Ninten is a fragile little thing), as her offensive capabilities are negligible.
As for their actual quality as characters… well, they’re about as flat as can be. Ninten is the blank slate to end all blank slates, Lloid is just your typical nerdy kid that suffers from bullying, and Ana’s defining characteristic seems to be doting on Ninten; they don’t have any compelling reason for joining Ninten’s quest to save the world, they just sort of do, and remain moot for the remainder of the game, except for when Lloid returns to replace Teddy and Ana randomly declares her feelings for Ninten. Great. What truly well-developed creations. Granted, this is an NES RPG, so I can’t expect too much, but surely they could have done a bit more with them; it’s not like this game is lacking in dialogue!
The weak character cast also goes hand in hand with the weak plot; for an RPG this game is pretty sparse on the story. You mainly spend the game running around the overworld and performing random isolated tasks in order to acquire the eight melodies. There isn’t a sense of overarching narrative. The game just doesn’t have plot progression. At least not until the very end, when you’re suddenly dumped with a bunch of information regarding Maria, George, and Giegue, the latter of which you finally manage to get a glimpse of in the game’s finale. Now, I really did feel that the relationship between Maria and Giegue was simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, and I want to give the game’s story some credit for managing to elicit some emotion. But it’s too little, too late: the game’s overall plot is, sadly, lackluster, and can’t be seen as anything more than a glaring weakness.
Also, another issue I have with the game: what’s with the pitiful selection of boss battles?! You can view the alleged “bosses” here. Some of these aren’t any stronger than a standard enemy(it shocks me that the Lamp, Doll, and Fish are listed as bosses) and others don’t even involve real fights, but rather some sort of gimmick that ends up making the battle more of a cutscene than anything. Boss battles are an important element in the RPG genre, and having such lackluster ones available in this game is a notable flaw.
There are some minor problems with the game as well. The painfully slow inventory system comes to mind, though I’m willing to let that one slide on account of technical limitations. But then there are other tedious little things that could easily have been left out. Why do I have to go through the process of opening my goods and using my cash card just to use the ATM? Why does teleportation require that I be in a wide-open area that I can run around in? Why didn’t the Onyx Hook teleport me to the top of Mt. Itoi after Magicant disappeared, saving me the trip(s) back up? Individually these aren’t that big a deal, but as a whole these all led to a large amount of tedium. It shows that there were some seriously poor design choices made.
You’re also more or less going to have to use some sort of guide if you expect to beat the game without wasting time talking to every NPC and inspecting every Nook and Cranny, but that’s par for the course for these sorts of NES games, so I won’t hold that against it TOO much.
Now that we have the negatives laid on the table, we can get to the things Mother does right:
Mother displays the sort of quirky charm that got so many to fall in love with the series with Earthbound. A lot of this is derived from the fact that unlike every other JRPG under the sun, it actually decided to take place in (relatively) modern times, featuring baseball bats and hippies rather than swords and goblins. Hell, the game’s first battle is against a bedroom lamp, which is followed by a fight against a doll. Even if the game IS bad, it does at least manage to establish a unique identity for itself.
Another point of praise: the game’s soundtrack is PHENOMENAL!! Despite having to work within the limitations of the NES, Mother manages to have a soundtrack stronger than that of Earthbound, and that’s really saying something. Pollyanna, Eight Melodies, and Bein’ Friends are probably the franchise’s greatest and most iconic pieces, and they all originated from this game. The soundtrack is so good, in fact, that it manages to squeeze itself into the gameplay, becoming an important mechanic for the final battle, which leads me to another positive point for the game.
The final battle sequence is honestly one of the more memorable ones I’ve experienced in a video game. After spending the game collecting the Eight Melodies – these form a lullaby Maria sang to Giegue from his infancy – you acquire the ability to sing the song in battle. After Giegue delivers an exposition dump regarding his adoptive parents and his invasion of Earth, you must sing the Eight Melodies; Giegue will continually try to stop you from finishing the song, and the battle becomes a matter of having to struggle to stay alive long enough to see the song through to its completion. Once you do this, Giegue suffers an emotional breakdown, unable to see the invasion through while plagued with thoughts of his adoptive mother, and flees the Earth. While I’m generally not a fan of these sorts of final “battles”(which play out more as a glorified cutscene than a satisfying fight), this one really struck an emotional chord with me. I couldn’t help but get a bit misty-eyed over it; perhaps due to my own homesickness due to recently moving out. It’s a surprisingly powerful finale that stands out as the story’s only high point.
In the end, was it worth playing the original Mother? Probably not. It was a pain most of the way through, though as a fan who wanted to play it just to experience the origin of the series, I suppose I got what I came for. The fantastic final battle leaves the game on a positive note… but when that’s preceded by a constant procession of negative notes, that isn’t going to help much. If you’re a fan of the Mother franchise who wants to see how it all began, then sure, go ahead and power through it(while having a show or podcast on in the background, of course; it is in no way worth your full attention), if only for the music and quirky charm. But if you’re looking for a game that’s actually fun to play, stay the hell away from this game; it’s not worth your time.
Play it if you’re a devoted Mother fan who can appreciate it despite its numerous damning flaws. Otherwise you’ll find it to be a textbook example of RPG gameplay done wrong, even when giving it some leeway for hardware limitations.
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