The Birth of MOTHER – A Melody of Love


Amongst many other ventures, Itoi was foremost a copywriter, creating taglines and catch copies for companies and advertisements. His work in the marketing industry made him something of a celebrity, notably for the Seibu Department Store’s
“Delicious life” campaign, and for the taglines of many Studio Ghibli films. Some time in the mid 80’s, Itoi was bedridden with asthma, having to remain propped painfully upright to keep from coughing. Cooped up at home, he would play on his Famicom to pass the time, with games like Super Mario Bros. making his illness bearable. Video games had not yet achieved ubiquity in the public consciousness, and the burgeoning medium was under outside scrutiny. Itoi would appear on a talk show called ‘11PM’ to defend video games, speaking about his experiences playing Mario, and likening games to the eventual everyday acceptance of manga. While initially not a fan of RPGs, that all changed with the release of Dragon Quest II, a game with which Itoi developed a fascination. This fascination spread to game development itself, as he started picking apart design choices. Of particular note, Itoi wondered, why did all RPGs use the same fantasy setting, with magic and swords and castles? An RPG set in a familiar modern world is difficult; magic would seem out of place, and having children running around with firearms is obviously problematic. He asked himself; if Steven Spielberg were to make an RPG, what kind of game would it be? The seed of an idea was planted. He started keeping notes on his ideas; a modern-day world, an extra-terrestrial threat, an average kid to face it all. Despite his extensive CV, Itoi didn’t have any contacts in the games industry. He had a game to pitch, but no idea to whom he should pitch it. Hiroshi Yamauchi. Third President of Nintendo, and the man who transformed the company from a playing card manufacturer, into a video game giant. He had seen the talk show where Itoi had praised and defended games as a cultural touchstone. At Yamauchi’s request, Itoi was brought in to advise on the release of Nakayama Miho no Tokimeki High School, an upcoming dating sim. It was the chance Itoi had been hoping for. After the meeting, he was introduced Shigeru Miyamoto. Itoi had brought his notes, and launched into an exuberant pitch. This was what he was used to in advertising, starting with a proposal, and filling in the finer details later. Miyamoto’s response was quiet, neutral, like he wasn’t fully listening. He asked how Itoi planned to make it, how he would turn his concept into a game. Anyone can have an idea, but without the means to actually make it, an idea is all it is. Nintendo wasn’t exactly wanting for proposals, Itoi’s pitch was no different. Itoi left feeling crushed, believing the response was a rejection. He later recalled, “I was really convinced I had something incredible, “but once I realized it was going to require “an actual ability to bring it to fruition, “I felt as if I was turning back at the base “of this incredibly enormous mountain. “I cried in the bullet train on the way home. “I didn’t mean to, but it just came out. “And I realized what it felt like to be
completely helpless.” Quietly, he returned to his life as a copywriter. And then, months later, he got the call. Yamauchi wanted to bring in outside talent, and so Nintendo put together the group that would become APE, Inc. Itoi had his team, but he still had a mountain to climb. The second time he and Miyamoto met, Miyamoto slammed down a heavy stack of papers, development notes from a text adventure game, showing Itoi how much he would be expected to write for his own project. He believed in Itoi and the game concept, but he was concerned, as Itoi was still a full-time copywriter. Video games are only as good as the effort put in. The practice of using famous names to sell games was becoming more prevalent, and Miyamoto didn’t approve of the trend. If Itoi couldn’t give the project his full attention, it would be scrapped. The development team had similar misgivings. They initially believed Itoi would
attend a meeting or two, then leave them to come up with all the details. He was after all a big name, there was no way he’d be mucking in
with the rest of them, it was surely just another vanity project. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Itoi made himself an integral part of the team, and APE cultivated the close-knit atmosphere of an after-school club. Itoi wrote every line in the game, though as he was unfamiliar with computers, he spoke every word out loud to a transcriber, lending a natural cadence to his wordsmithing, and allowing him to judge the transcriber’s reaction. This would become his trademark
writing style for the Mother series Development lasted only a few months. Originally called ESP1, the title was eventually settled on Mother, named for a John Lennon song that had strongly resonated with Itoi, and for being more feminine
than other games of the time. The soundtrack, composed
by Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka, stands as an example of what the very limited Famicom hardware
was able to produce. Mother released for the Famicom on the 27th of July 1989, It was welcomed by critics, if not lauded, receiving a respectable 31 out of 40 by Famitsu. An English-language version was
more or less completed, under the name ‘Earth Bound’, when it was abruptly cancelled, due in part to its particularly long and arduous localisation process, and the impending release of the SNES. Mother didn’t see an official release outside of Japan until 2015, when the unreleased translation became available for the Wii U Virtual Console, but this very same version had found its way into the hands
of Mother fans back in 1998 by way of a auctioned prototype cartridge, allowing the English-speaking world, through unofficial means, to finally experience Itoi’s masterpiece. Except, Mother is not exactly a great game. In fact at times, it can even be a bad game. This is as much a subjective matter
as it is objective, but I’m going to try to explain. Mother is somewhat a parody of JRPGs, taking notable inspiration from Dragon Quest II, but in practice it doesn’t do all that much to set it apart from its contemporaries. Other than the setting and writing, it’s a game that just wants
to have a go at the genre, and as a result it plays very similarly, and presents similar shortcomings. Perhaps the most glaring issue is highlighted
very early on; Mother is difficult, in the worst possible way. The first enemies you encounter
after leaving your house are able to soundly beat you. The philosophy of game design back in the 80’s was significantly at variance with that of today; games were harder back then. Difficult games made more money in the arcades, and home console libraries weren’t quite so bountiful as they are today. When Little Johnny No-Thumbs only gets
a few new games a year, they’ve got to last. Mother doesn’t hold your hand
through navigation or combat, you’re supposed to figure it all out for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with
a hands-off design in theory, but games of that generation would take it
to the extreme. The collection of the Eight Melodies is one of the primary goals of the game, but many of them are easily missable, relying on the player’s patience and curiosity
to find them. A bard in Magicant shares hints, but he’s no harder to miss. It’s not exactly the same as bombing every wall and burning every tree, just poking every cactus. While skill-based difficulty is one thing, this doesn’t apply quite as much to RPGs, where you’ll lose simply because
the numbers said so. The only way to get better at Mother
is The Grind, something the game outright expects of you. The difficulty curve is less a curve, more of a rollercoaster, as areas in the game weren’t balanced appropriately due to lack of time, notably the infamous Mt. Itoi. Of course, a player can simply grind levels to prepare for the next area, but due to a series of mechanics, this can become a very vicious cycle. The problem is that everything costs money. You get money from defeating enemies, or rather, your dad deposits money into your bank account upon every win, which you can withdraw from an ATM. It’s a neat mechanic that better explains finding gold from Slimes, but in practice it gets pretty annoying. No, you can’t just press A on an ATM to access it, no, you can’t use Check in your menu, you have to go to your Goods, select your Cash Card and Use it. You always have to keep your card in your
very limited inventory just to access the money you earn, meaning you can’t carry around as many hamburgers
as perhaps you would like. And obviously, as battles are turn-based, you’re going to accrue damage during more or less every encounter. You can heal for free at home and in Magicant, but you still have to mince your way all the way back to where you were, you’re not able to warp freely until near
the end of the game, so generally you have to pay to heal, by buying food, or staying at hotels, costing you a decent chunk of the money you earn, just to recover health. You do learn LifeUp early on, but PSI, or PK moves require Psychic Points to use, and if Ninten faints, his Psychic Points drop to 0, meaning you to pay to restore it. On top of that, if the whole party faints, you lose half the money you have on hand. This creates a barely-manageable system whereby the process of earning money costs
a huge amount of money. You’re normally able to scrape by, but when you begin earning more than you spend, and splash out on better weapons and armour, which is a necessity, the edge that you gain in battle is weighed against a sharp decrease
in financial stability, meaning if you faint again, no more PK moves for you. I know the game is set in America, but I get the feeling this isn’t a narrative the mechanics were meant to present. All I can say is thank goodness
Pokémon Centers are free. Even putting aside random encounters, navigation in this game is a pain. The overworld can be samey and confusing, especially on your first run, but it’s still navigable, you generally have a decent idea of which
direction to head. The factories and dungeons, on the other hand, are a nondescript, labyrinthine mess, and exploration is discouraged further by, of all things, the controls themselves. Mother might be the clunkiest tile-based game
I’ve ever played. Even setting aside the strange diagonal movement and the difficulty judging which tiles are impassable, flowers are solid objects by the way, it seems that rather than acting on the press of a button when it’s pressed, the game has a set schedule at which
it polls the controller, once every half second or so. This means that if you’re not holding the button on that particular frame, the input will be ignored, no matter whether the button was pressed or not. All NPCs are also updated on this frame, making the simple process of walking up to something and pressing A, a very frustrating procedure
that permeates the entire game. The thing is, Mother is a product of its time. Game design was more standoffish, expecting players to really work towards mastery. So, while Mother has its flaws, the extent to which these flaws
will impact one’s enjoyment will depend in part on how comfortable one is with the design philosophy of the 80s. It doesn’t help that this relic didn’t see an official western release until 2015, after a full generation of Nintendo’s
Blue Ocean strategy. To take a similar example, Pokémon Red and Blue will seem alien and unforgiving to someone who grew up with Pokémon X and Y. Perhaps it is unreasonable to judge old titles
by the standards of today? Mother is remembered as a flawed game. It may have a better reputation amongst those who grew up with it in Japan, but by the time the English localisation
had leaked online, EarthBound had long since come and gone, a game that, as we’ll see, improved on its predecessor in every way, leaving Mother a curio of a bygone age. But it wasn’t for want of trying. Compared to other RPGs of the time, it’s undeniable that there was a real effort to make a world that felt lived-in. It was the first time a game’s script had been written by an actual writer. Itoi’s core involvement in the development of Mother is what made it such an important game, because despite gameplay shortcomings, Mother was something special. It tried something different, playing a part in the JRPG boom with its trademark ‘strange,
funny and heartrending’ style. Exploring the world, talking to the people, encountering the enemies, visiting Magicant; the game has a bizarre dreamlike quality to it, as if it exists in a child’s imagination. Back when most games put the barest effort into a story to excuse the gameplay, Itoi set out not to create a game, but an experience. It was hampered by a short development time and limited hardware, but nevertheless achieved a cult following. Perhaps it’d be remembered more fondly, were it not for its more-successful children, but had the series ended here, would it have ever left Japan? EarthBound and Mother 3 are genuine gaming classics, the effects of their impact are still
being felt to this day. And behind it all; Mother. My name is Stefan,
thank you so much for watching.

22 Replies to “The Birth of MOTHER – A Melody of Love”

  1. Thank you Stefan for this. Your content is sporadic but I love the care and craft behind it. Much love, keep being awesome .

  2. Really well put together video. The pacing was really nice, and nothing felt out of place or overly dramatic. The only thing that might have been a nice touch would be to have done an extra minute during the wrap up, on how mother and earth bound affected games. Rather than just saying that they did. Over all I really enjoyed it. Keep it up.

  3. Fantastic video! I love experiences like EarthBound and Undertale, but I never played Mother. I heard there is a 25th anniversary version which improves greatly on the game for out modern standards. What are your thoughts about it? Worth playing?

  4. Thank you for putting so much time and effort in those videos, Stefan. Your Videos seem to be the best of its kind. I cant think of any flaw in them its incredible work.

  5. as for NES RPGs in general (for me), they are only playable if I am doing something else while playing. Megami Tensei 1 and 2 are good for that. You can, 75% of the time, just turn on the autobattle and sit back. And do something more productive. Lol. And MOTHER 1 is no different in that respect. These games are almost equivalent to "idle games" that come out on Steam. It would actually be kinda interesting to make an NES RPG-playing bot because it totally would be possible.

    Also I believe that this game inspired Yume Nikki much more than the rest of the MOTHER series. They are bizarre and dreamlike (and repetitive) in similar ways and you even visit an area in YN that looks almost exactly like MOTHER 1.

  6. I have yet to indulge in the Mother series given that I often a lot on my plate, but hear nothing of great things about it. I think I'll change that today. Great video by the way, I love the editting style with how everything flows so smoothly.

  7. People often talk about the SNES earthbound and forget about the first one, nice to see someone talk about it for once, great video, waiting for the next one

  8. Was expecting a heartfelt recollection of the mother series
    Got mostly complaints about game mechanics that are older than the person playing the game

  9. Great video, it's rare you hear anyone talking about this game, hearing the history of the game development was super interesting.

  10. WELCOME BACK!! It's good to see a new content from you again 🙂 🙂

    P.S: this might be controversial, but I would love to see your take on reviewing Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight :p :p

  11. I gotta say, I love how you used Mother's OST by splitting the channels up. Gives it a unique sound to it. Anyway, thank you for making this video. Mother doesn't get enough attention. I love Mother/EB: Beginnings to death despite its flaws that we're mentioned. It's just a shame many didn't get to experience this game before playing Earthbound as it creates a bias mentality that it's a worse game in comparison. It is, but that's unfair when it's the first game of the series and definitely a product of its time. You really have to be willing to endure its shortcomings in order to enjoy what it has to offer. The characters, music and the very much the story is why I put up with the clunkiness and the harsh battle system. If this game can get a proper remake with QoL changes (like a proper run button), I think more would enjoy Mother.

  12. This is a seriously underrated video. Well done, and thank you for telling the story so beautifully!

  13. I just got done watching a string of your videos and they are so well edited and scripted. You deserve more views and subs than you have been getting. You rock keep it up.

  14. I knew you were something special after seeing your F-Zero video! This was great and I really liked how you used Itoi's beginnings as a lead in to talking about Mother. The comics were amazing as was the use of music throughout. I can't wait for the next part! (It also helps that F-Zero and Mother are two of my favourite gaming series!)

  15. Where are all the suscribers?, rly man, i was suprised when seing the count low. Great videos!

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