MOTHER / EarthBound Zero
by Pitchfork

   


Greetings, fellow netizens, nerds, slackers, and shut-ins! It certainly has been a while since we last sat down and thought too hard about video games together, hasn't it?

I'm afraid I dropped the ball on those Legacy of Kain writeups after encountering a sequence of morale-shattering obstacles and epiphanies. Forty minutes into Soul Reaver 2, I hit a game-stopping glitch before creating a save file − which actually came as a relief, since I was already bored out of my mind. It then dawned on me that the game would be an absolute chore to write about, and furthermore, staying the course would mean not only forcing myself to keep slogging through this mediocre game for the sake of eventually cranking out a tedious writeup, but then having to repeat the process twice afterwards for Blood Omen 2 and Defiance. In the words of Hunter Thompson, it was time for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene.

Reviewing video game series that have undergone a process of incurable degeneration is a drag. I've come to feel like some retro/geek-culture mortician poking at the tumors in one bloated slob of a stiff after the next. I'm sick of writing about once-good game series that just get worse and worse with every unnecessary sequel − and for that matter, I'm sick of playing them. For once I'd like to cover a series that only gets better with each iteration; that's never passed from its original creators over to some company hacks or ruined by its authors' delusions of grandeur; that never lends its name to a lousy product in order to make a quick buck; that has the grace to bow out while the audience is still cheering for it.

Where does one find such games? Do they even exist?




Well then! Let's get right to it.

Preliminary notes for the newbie: MOTHER was released on the Famicom in 1989. It never made it overseas, though there was a mothballed North American localization. Before the project's cancellation, a prototype cartridge was produced, which was providentially acquired in 1998 by the fan translator webgroup Neo Demiforce, who hacked the title screen to read EarthBound Zero and dumped the game data into a ROM. In 2003, MOTHER and MOTHER 2 (EarthBound) were ported to the Gameboy Advance, but the release was once again limited to Japan. In 2011, Tomato (previously responsible for the widely-circulated English translation of MOTHER 3) completed a translation patch for the GBA version of the game. Except for the two images up top, all of the MOTHER screengrabs here are from the English-patched GBA port. Just in case this is not already confusing enough, the place names referred to in this article will be from the EarthBound Zero translation. "Podunk" and "Mt. Itoi" take less time to type than "Mother's Day" and "Holy-Loly Mountain," and frankly sound better. Get it? Got it? Good!

When Final Fantasy XIII-2 was announced however many months ago, I underwent an intense seventy-two hour hypnotherapy session that effectively buried all of my thoughts and knowledge of Japanese-style console RPGs at the bottom of my unconscious. (Surely you concede it was for the best.) As I type this, Polly has just this moment sent me the mnemonic retrieval trigger phrase ("it was you who broke my mason plate") via instant message, and the memories are repropagating. It will still be a few minutes until I'm back up to speed, so let's begin with a quick memory refresher.

   

I seem to remember that the very first Japanese-style RPG was 1986's Dragon Quest (called Dragon Warrior in North America). By any standard but an extremely biased one, Dragon Quest is a very boring, very bad game. It it, you run around fighting random, turn-based battles against lone monsters. During these battles, you tap the A button to make your enemy's numbers go down and "strategically" use healing items and magic to increase your own numbers as they begin to dwindle. The longer you keep doing this, the bigger all your important numbers get, which allows you to wander into different places and mash the A button against new enemies with bigger numbers. Eventually, you fight the enemy with the biggest numbers of all, and then the game ends.

Despite Dragon Quest's innocuous appearance, its has at its fundamental core a particular dynamic that cannot be called anything but sinister, and I'm not certain most people pick up on what it actually is. Obviously, it's a numbers game: when your numbers are big, your odds of winning increase. When your numbers are small, your odds of winning decrease. Your most immediately crucial number is your HP, but in the long run, the most important numbers are found in the status screen. These would be the values associated with your character's strength, agility, defense power, etc.

Classic tabletop RPGs use as these statistics as a governing mechanic. They're an impartial, probability-based way to determine the outcome of an event in the ongoing, unscripted "story" that is the game. In Dragon Quest, these numbers are the game. The experience is not so much about assuming the role of hero in an unfolding saga than making your numbers as big as possible in order to earn the privilege of seeing the next page in the picture-book.

But we're still only at the surface. Although you keep an eye on your HP and MP, buy equipment to raise your stats, and collect experience and spend gold, the real currency in Dragon Quest is TIME. Your time, your actual finite time as an individual homo sapiens experiencing consciousness on planet Earth.

   

There is no such thing as Game Over in Dragon Quest. When your HP hits zero, you simply warp back to Tantagel Castle's throne room, but with only half the gold you carried when your HP hit zero. Getting it back requires you to go out and hit the A button against more enemies in more battles, which usually costs you a substantial amount of time.

So when your HP begins to dwindle, do you continue to grind or do you flee back to town to recover your HP and MP at the inn? Ostensibly, the question is about risk management and cost efficiency. But at its core, it's a matter of weighing your actions' potential cost in time. Returning to town takes five minutes; earning back the money you spend at the inn takes five minutes. Is it more sensible for you, at this moment, to use another few minutes fighting another few battles, or would you stand to lose less time in the long run by sacrificing the five minutes' cost of returning to town and the five minutes' gold cost of recovering at the inn?

Does spending your gold (whose real value is determined by how much time it takes to harvest) on a weapon, a piece of armor, or healing item prevent you from losing the most time in the long run?

Do you spend twenty extra minutes grinding or do you attempt to tackle a dungeon instead, at the risk of getting killed and wasting all the time you'll have spent? If you die and lose half of your gold, does it save more time hitting reset and cutting your losses, or keeping your experience points and items and just putting in the time to farm your gold back?

How do I get the most enjoyment out of this game in the least amount of time?

Dragon Quest is like a vibrantly-colored, jingle-spewing pachinko machine in which you insert minutes and hours instead of coins. You can never beat the house; you can only hope that your gains offset your expenditures as much as possible, and the object of the game is to successfully employ tactics that help you achieve this aim.

   

Like any form of mechanized gambling, Dragon Quest can be powerfully addictive − and the relief and comfort of indulging in a habit is something very close to fun. [At this point while typing, the author stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. He had a pretty good time.] Dragon Quest's most visceral thrills are those of the big risk and the big payoff -- the adrenal rush of a success in the face of doubtful odds, the shock of a sudden failure when victory seemed assured. Meanwhile, the pleasant sensation of colorful lights hitting your optic nerves, the anesthetic 8-bit tunes, and the dull sense of fulfillment in performing a simple, repetitive task unite to lull you into a contented quiesence, and you barely even notice the hours flying by.

Even so, Dragon Quest does permit a loose, disconnected kind of role-playing as you project your own identity onto a 16x16px blue and white virtual pet. It is undeniably fun (or something like it) to watch your little doppelganger's numbers get bigger and seeing the enemies who once slapped him around with impunity flee in terror at his approach. It's satisfying to assume the role of a journeying Everyman who "grows" during his travels; to explore a remote fantasy world, wrest out its secrets, and discover the solutions to its challenges; to come across a new town and interact with its inhabitants; to take risks exploring dark and dangerous places − all of which are just the sort of thing Western dicechuckers have been enjoying since 1974. These are the very essence of the RPG experience. Despite its best efforts, Dragon Quest manages to retain some notes of the original RPG's flavor (which attain a heightened prominence on the player's palate by how fiercely they contrast with the mindess and dreary grinding that constitute the rest of the experience).

It was probably this aspect of the Dragon Quest experience that aroused the interest and imagination of Shigesato Itoi.

   

Unless you're already familiar with EarthBound, the name probably doesn't ring any bells. In Japan, Itoi is a literary celebrity, recognized primarily for his work as an essayist and copywriter. He is also the man who dubbed Nintendo's first handheld device "Gameboy;" he coauthored a collection of short stories with superstar novelist Haruki Murakami (Let's Meet in a Dream, 1981); he has done voice work for Studio Ghibli's My Neighbor Totoro.

That Itoi stumbled upon Dragon Quest is unsurprising. After all, the game was (and is!) something of a pop cultural phenomenon on the Japanese isles. Around the time Itoi is likely to have sat down with the game, the console RPG itself was a popular novelty, and he likely just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. (It has been said that he played it during a convalescent period at the hospital, but this is difficult to verify.)

Many creative personalities, when introduced to something they have never experienced, will feel an upwelling of inspiration. Even before the new ideas and forms have settled in them, a little voice somewhere in the back of their mind gets to muttering, "If given the chance, bet I could do this better, and here's how I might do it..."

Most of the time − especially when this new experience comes from a media production that took substantial capital and the coordinated efforts of many people to realize − the creative personality will be forced to settle for periodically stoking the idle, unformed visions of his grand "what if." But Itoi was much more fortunate. Thanks to his occupation, reputation, and a bit of luck, he landed himself an opportunity to add "game designer" to his list of professional accomplishments.

Tomato, the co-founder of Starmen.net, prime mover of the MOTHER and MOTHER 3 fan translations, and guru of the EarthBound web community, has outlined a brief timeline of Itoi's involvement with Nintendo (the full version of which can be read here):


History of the MOTHER series

March 1989 -- Nintendo invests money and founds APE. Shigesato Itoi is made CEO of the company.

APE was created because Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo, was concerned that ideas for games would eventually start to dry up if things continued as they were. He believed that exceptional talent would be what supports the industry into the future. Since Yamauchi was very fond of Shigesato Itoi's work, he approached him with the idea. APE was filled with tons of talent, including Tsunekazu Ishihara (now CEO of the Pokemon Company), Ashura Benimaru Ito (famous illustrator), Akihiko Miura (head planner at Genius Sonority), Masayuki Miura (also works at the Pokemon Company), and many others. Once everyone was gathered, they all worked together on MOTHER. Pokemon also began when Satoshi Tajiri of Creatures brought the game's idea to APE.

July 27, 1989 -- Shigesato Itoi's MOTHER game is released

The relationship between Shigesato Itoi and Nintendo actually first started because of the dating sim Nakayama Miho's Heartbeat High School. Nintendo had called Itoi, hoping he could assist with the game's publicity strategy. This led to his first meeting with important people at Nintendo. Itoi had been interested in games for some time, so he wrote a game proposal and showed it to Nintendo, but Shigeru Miyamoto's reaction wasn't particularly great at first. Miyamoto didn't know how serious Itoi really was about making the game, since a bunch of celebrities and semi-celebrities had tried to make games before and they were generally bad. Miyamoto was worried that Itoi's game might wind up as just another one of those. Supposedly, Miyamoto's response made Itoi sad enough to cry while riding the bullet train back to Tokyo.

However, the next day, Nintendo contacted Itoi and told him, "Well, if you're really serious about it..." and Itoi supposedly accepted the offer with, "I'll do it! I'll do it!" And that's how the MOTHER project began.

Pax Softnica handled MOTHER's development. Pax Softnica was in Ichikawa City in Chiba Prefecture, and Itoi traveled there almost daily from Tokyo to work on the game. It took about one year to develop MOTHER.



Tomato has also translated this commercial/announcment for MOTHER (presumably aired on television in 1989), in which Itoi personally introduces the upcoming game and explains what it's all about...


Hello. This is Shigesato Itoi. Nintendo will be releasing a new role-playing game called MOTHER, and I was its developer, director, writer, and other such exaggerated titles. Unlike previous role-playing games, this one takes place in the present....In the game, ordinary boys and girls much like yourselves use courage, wisdom, and friendship to battle enemies. There are lots of fun "extras" in the form of dialogue, objects, and places, and you'll miss them if you rush right through the game, so if possible − and I know it's strange to say this before it's in stores − try to play it at a leisurely pace and try not to ask for outside help. I think you'll enjoy it more if you figure things out on your own. I'm going to replay it that way myself, so if you can, don't "fast-forward" through it like a movie or TV show. The creator is already making requests this early on. It really draws you in, so please be sure it doesn't interfere with your studies. This has been Shigesato Itoi.


We'll not pick this apart now, but how many other video games can you think of that were advertised like this?

The (translated) promotional material for MOTHER that I've seen all pointedly identifies Itoi as the game's creator. Bear in mind that this was well before games were regularly marketed as the latest product of this superstar developer or that (and that Itoi never had his name attached to a game before this).

Name another game designer who was a famous writer prior to his breakout title; name another who is still primarily a writer instead of a game designer. With the single strange exception of Shigesato Itoi's No. 1 Bass Fishing on the Super Famicom and N64 (Japan-only, if you really had to ask), the only video games he has ever worked on are the MOTHER trilogy. Interviews tend to suggest that he has ever only occasionally played video games himself. As a non-gamer who designs Nintendo games from time to time, Itoi is a unique rarity − an outsider within the video game industry.

On the face of it, MOTHER is a very typical 8-bit RPG. Though the medieval fantasy setting has been supplanted by 1988 Rural America, the noble swordsman has been replaced by a kid with a baseball bat, and the Drakees and Skeletons have become crows and belligerent farmers, MOTHER is very recognizably a Dragon Quest clone − a Dragon Quest clone that happens to have been authored by an esteemed member of the Japanese literati.

MOTHER does not attempt to reinvent or subvert the 8-bit console RPG; it is perfectly content with adhering to the Dragon Quest mold. Both games' mechanics are essentially the same, and so are their stories. A chosen hero is elected by birthright to go on an adventure to save the kingdom from a distant threat. By fighting battle after grueling battle he becomes stronger, acquires new abilities, and arms himself with powerful new equipment. He descends into a dungeon to procure a document of his heritage; he crosses bridges into strange places filled with new enemies and unfamiliar towns; he collects special tokens that open the way for him. He conquers a giant, fights a dragon, and rescues a maiden from a dark prison. He traverses inaccessible and harsh terrain to confront an inhuman warlord at his inner sanctum. He refuses the warlord's offer of fellowship, defeats him, and restores peace to the land.

All that differentiates the two are the particulars. MOTHER is only Dragon Quest repeated by a different set of storytellers − but the details change in the retelling.

While playing through Tomato's translation, I found myself struck by this thought again and again, and felt compelled to revisit Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces − one of the few books on the planet that sci-fi/fantasy nerds, new-age hippie/burner types, and overliterate English majors/grad students can all agree on. (The first recognize and appreciate it for its famous connection to the Star Wars trilogy; the second for its focus on Eastern and tribal mysticism; the third because of the ease with which it provides the basis for an unwritten term paper due within the next two days.

We'll allow Campbell himself to introduce his own work:


Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.

The wonder is that the characteristic efficacy to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairy tale − as the flavor of the ocean is contained in a droplet or the whole mystery of life within the egg of a flea. For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of the source.



So. There are elements of the human experience that are universal − that remain absolutely constant in spite of time, place, culture, or any other variables. Human beings tell stories for a variety of reasons and purposes, and given all the immutable constants within the life experiences that form the foundations of these stories, it follows that there should be in all stories similar threads of consistency.

Any "story" is a human creation. A human is a bipedal mammal; a primate possessing forty-six chromosomes, a four-chambered heart, and a three-tiered brain. Looking broadly, the only way in which one human being might differ from any other is in the details of his circumstances. Where human beings differ, the stories they create differ. As there is an inalterable human core, there is a fixed human story.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces argues that at the heart of the human story is the journey of the hero. Campbell has famously dubbed this the "monomyth," and reduces it to a checklist of bare essentials, divided into three phases: Separation, Initiation, and Return. Letting the author speak for himself once more, the basic outline of the monomyth goes like:


A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.


Gilgamesh, Dante, Hercules, Moses, Gordon Freeman, Batman, Luke Skywalker, Pierre Bezukhov, Robin Hood, Gene Starwind, Twilight Sparkle, Siddhartha Gautama, Troy McGreggor, Aladdin, Jesus Christ, Kevin McAllister...according to Campbell, all of their stories are permutations of a single core tale. The monomyth reigns as the most widely conceived and disseminated human story because it would seem to be − or seems to touch − an essential part of the human consciousness. We have carried it us with us from prehistory, for as long as human beings could conceive the concept of a "story" and possessed the means to communicate it to others.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces focuses primarily on fairy tales, epic verse, and the mythologies of various world religions. There isn't nearly much as folklore circulating today as there once was − but in our late-capitalist, post-industrial time and place, the old heroes and stories have found an analogue (or replacement) in the commodified entertainments offered by movies, comic books, television, and video games. The prominence of the monomyth in these media might suggest the veracity of Campbell's argument.

Just for fun (and isn't that what games are all about?) we're going to scrutinize MOTHER through the lens of Campbell's monomyth. We know how the story goes: the hero leaves home, earns a victory after a struggle, and then returns − but who is the hero? Where is he from? What does he do? What does it mean? And what do we learn? Just as we can discern a person's character by how he differs from those around him, we can understand the character of a story by its variations on the universal theme.


I. DEPARTURE

1. The Call to Adventure

   

"A blunder − apparently the merest chance − reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood....[T]he herald or announcer of the adventure...is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by he world....or the herald is a beast (as in the fairy tale), representative of the repressed instinctual fecundity within ourselves, or again a veiled mysterious figure − the unknown.

"The first stage of the mythological journey − which we have designated the 'call to adventure' − signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to the unknown."



Dragon Quest's hero (hereafter called "The Hero") is chosen because of his ancestral link to Erdrick, a great hero of a former age. MOTHER's hero, Ninten, is chosen because of his family tie to George, an alien abductee-turned interstellar traveler.

Dragon Quest begins with The Hero standing before King Lorik, who tasks him with going out into the world to defeat the Dragonlord and retrieve the Ball of Light. In MOTHER, the call to adventure is just that − a telephone call from Ninten's absent father. The house has come under attack by a "poltergeist," and somebody must get to the bottom of it. With Dad out of town (presumably on a business trip?), this responsibility falls to Ninten (whose status as the interim Man of the House is underscored by the fact that the other three people under the roof are his mother and two little sisters).

What is a king, symbolically, if not a father? Dad is King Lorik translated into the MOTHER world, and serves the exact same functions: dispatching the hero on his quest, reminding him how many experience points he needs in order to reach the next level, and acting as a talking save point.

Because of this last item in King Lorik's job description, The Hero has to spend a lot of time standing in front of him: it's the only place in the game where a save file can be written. Perhaps Itoi, while playing Dragon Quest, got to thinking about what a pain it was having to schlep across two continents in order to get some face time with Lorik. Wouldn't it be much easier if The Hero could just call him instead? And maybe then this rolled out into another idea: what if MOTHER's king of the castle were somebody whom the player frequently spoke to, but never saw in person? (Perhaps a similar vein of thought inspired MOTHER's ATM machines: if the hero's greatest worry is losing half the money in his pockets whenever a skirmish doesn't go his way, wouldn't the sensible hero keep his surplus funds in safe place?)

(This spin on the Dragon Quest trope continues playing out as Ninten meets Podunk's mayor − the "king" of town − who turns out to be a lazy, self-absorbed twit. Though he dispatches Ninten on a couple of quests, these are only preliminary tasks he must perform before he can properly embark on the destiny-charged mission assigned him by Dad, the real King Lorik of the game. Guess the title doesn't necessarily make the man.)

And so Ninten hangs up the phone and sets off from home, carrying a bundle of "treasure" he finds in the basement: a loaf of bread (cf. Ariadne's thread), a cracked old baseball bat (the modest "sword" of our inexperienced hero) and the diary of his great-grandfather George (the symbol of Ninten's heritage and his key into the mysteries to which it is tied).


2. Refusing the Call

   

"Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered....[R]efusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative."


Since this is a video game, Ninten − or, more accurately, the player whose presence he represents in the exotic world of Rural America − is perfectly free to ignore Dad's summons. In this case, the player can just wander aimlessly around Podunk, sit in Ninten's house, or otherwise just turn the game off and leave Ninten to stew by himself in Game World for all eternity − "a dull and unrewarding finish," to use Mr. Campbell's phrase. It's your call − but the modern player's reluctance to stick with MOTHER might be understandable.

There's really no way around it. 8-bit RPGs have not aged well, and neither has MOTHER. It's not nearly as excruciating as Dragon Quest, but it's still a clunker (albeit a charming one). You can expect a huge deal of EXP grinding, more enemy encounters than you'd like, unclear objectives, combat in which you can often just mash the "A" button to victory, only four boss battles (not counting the dummy fights against Teddy and the R-730n robots), and (if you're playing the Famicom/NES original) an agonizingly slow walking speed. In a word, MOTHER is a very slow game, and it wants a lot of your time. (Itoi's request that the player proceed through the game at a leisurely pace is actually pretty redundant. MOTHER doesn't give you much of a choice.)

Slow and unweildy are not without their upsides, though: MOTHER is a game that demands its players' attention. Rushing forward without caution and preparation will usually lead to your team getting stranded and slaughtered. Your next goal is never shown as a blinking red dot on your map; it's impossible to just coast from one place to the next without paying attention to your surroundings, thoroughly exploring new areas, and taking careful note of what people have to say to you. There are several items and tricks that can make things a lot easier (the Super Spray, the Flamethrower, the extra Franklin Badge, certain stackable PSI buffs, etc.), but you are unlikely to discover them unless you take time to experiment and explore. Getting anywhere in MOTHER takes some doing, and a game that demands a lot from you is almost always going to be more interesting than one that does not. (Tomato speculates: [c]ompleting a section of the game or discovering a new area in the game is supposed to feel like a big accomplishment. I can just see Japanese kids running to tell their friends whenever they finished a new part of the game. It's harder to feel that way now if you're an older gamer, but if you at least keep that in mind it should help.)

And we have said nothing about the peculiar je nais se quois of the 8-bit RPG. They're ugly, they're sluggish, and they're obtuse, but you certainly can't claim their creators didn't pour their love into making them, or that their simplistic and playful charm didn't get harder to find, historically, as video games became a bigger business with bigger budgets and bigger stakes. (But I feel we've had this conversation before.)

Still − like Final Fantasy, MOTHER is probably best approached as a historical curiosity: a snapshot of what Japanese RPGs were like in the 1980s, back when Dragon Quest reigned supreme, Ultima III's influence could still be felt, and before Square came to dominate the scene. Players new to the MOTHER series might be better off skipping right to EarthBound, leaving MOTHER for the completionists and connoisseurs.

(Postscript: regarding the next destination never being marked as a blinking dot, Tomato writes, it actually kind of is -- all the black dots on the map are key locations you need to visit. For the most part, to get through the game, just visit ones nearest to you and the game will play out the way it was intended. This isn't obvious to most players though (I didn't notice it until working on the M1+2 translation) and is the reason why people always feel "lost.")


3. Supernatural Aid

   

"For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or an old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass....[N]ot infrequently, the supernatural helper is masculine in form. In fairy lore it may be some little fellow of the wood, some wizard, hermit, shepherd, or smith, who appears to supply the amulets and advice that the hero will require....[W]hat such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny."


Ninten sets off with a "gift" from his deceased great-grandfather George: a diary containing the password that allows him to use the "god's tail" artifact to cross over into the realm of Magicant.

Throughout MOTHER, George occasionally helps and communicates with his great-grandson from beyond the grave. On the last legs of Ninten's journey, he furnishes him with a mighty protector in the form of EVE (without whom Ninten would perish at the mighty hands of the R-7038xx), and passes on to him the last of the Eight Melodies.

George's presence in MOTHER is that of a phantom. As Ninten's entire adventure is undertaken in order to mitigate the unraveling consequences of his great-grandfather's legacy, the whole proceedings are haunted by George.

We really don't know a lot about George. What was his relationship with Giygas and his captors? How did he escape them? Why did he leave Maria behind? What secrets did he steal from the aliens? Is he Ninten's maternal or paternal great-grandfather? Is Ninten's PSI power a consequence of his research? Why is he buried at the top of Mt. Itoi? Why is the "XX" mark on his tombstone? What is the significance of the "XX" mark throughout MOTHER, anyhow?!

The MOTHER series is known for its preponderance of unsolved mysteries − just browse Starmen.net's message boards if you need an example or fifty. One of the reasons for EarthBound's lingering so long in the minds of the faithful is its story's stolid resilience to being fully mapped out and totally understood. MOTHER might be even more mysterious than its sequels, due in large part to its sparseness: 8-bit RPGs tend not to contain very many expository stretches of dialogue, lengthy conversations, or extended cutscenes. (Fans of the series often cite MOTHER's succinct script as the main factor differentiating it from its chattier and more animated sequels.) But unlike most 8-bit RPGs, MOTHER has the advantage of having a professional copywriter at its helm − someone whose very career consists of conveying much by saying little.

Where there are blank spots, there is an invitation for a contribution from the reader/player's imagination. Remember that a gap is not necessarily a plot hole, especially not in the MOTHER series. For all intents and purposes, Ninten's tale is complete, even if we don't understand all of it. Sometimes unanswered questions are just part of the story.


4. Crossing the First Threshold

   

"With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the "threshold guardian" at the entrance to the zone of magnified power....[B]eyond [it] is darkness, the unknown, and danger."


Ninten's destiny lies beyond the confines of his home in Podunk, but he isn't allowed to leave its borders until he can get himself past the police barricades blocking the roads out of town. In order to earn his way through, he must undero a few trials, overcoming dangers located just on the fringes of the familiar. The first test involves traveling to the graveyard and rescuing a local girl who has been kidnapped by the local zombies. The second requires Ninten to fight his way past a stampede of crazed zoo animals and confront a harbinger of the alien nemesis awaiting him at his quest's end. Only then will the local authorities stand aside, allowing Ninten to cross the bridge into a place where there are no roads.

As long as we're here, I'd like to point out a couple of items from this early part of the game that demonstrate Itoi's eerily intuitive understanding of the "language" of RPGs and 8-bit games.

1.) Music is extremely important to a video game − especially one like MOTHER, which wants especially to convey a story, and is very limited as far as what it can convey with it is visuals. In such a case, the audio has to do even more work than usual.

When Ninten rescues Pippi from the graveyard, she tags along with him as a temporary party member. There are two "overworld" themes in MOTHER: "Pollyanna," which plays when Ninten travels alone, and "Bein' Friends," which plays when he's in a group. When Ninten leaves the graveyard with Pippi, "Bein' Friends" plays for the first time. Once he drops her off and steps out into the street by himself, the tune reverts to the slower, somewhat less cheerful "Pollyanna," contributing an added weight of significance to Ninten's resumed solitude − a weight that would have been absent without this relatively minor detail. At this point, the player's mind will jump back to the very beginning of the game, when he assigned names to Ninten and his companions. Where are those other three people, anyway? Who are they? When can I expect to meet them? Although Ninten is destined to travel with a group of special companions, he'll not be finding any of them within the confines of Podunk.

(Side note: speaking of the soundtrack, it should be remembered that the GBA's audio hardware leaves a lot to be desired, and a loss of sound quality frequently accompanies a console-to-GBA transition. Compare the ported versions of "Pollyanna" and "Bein' Friends" to the originals and hear the difference for yourself.)

2.) After rescuing Pippi, Ninten is given the key to the Podunk Zoo and told to figure out what has the animals so spooked. When he arrives at the entrance, he confronts a monkey who steals the key and runs off. But it doesn't make any difference: the door was already unlocked. You do need the Zoo Key to enter the gate, since the monkey will not move out of the way until you show up with it in your inventory − but it's a clever joke on the arbitrary nature of the item-based "event trigger" in adventure games, and exemplary of how much Itoi loves messing with players' expectations.

3.) Notice how the mayor's two jobs are pretty much the standard quests of the early RPG: rescue the kidnapped maiden (save Pippi) and stop the inhuman warlord and his rampaging forces (defeat Starman Jr. and calm down the zoo animals). With these out of the way, Ninten can depart from the realm of the familiar (Podunk) and enter something new (Magicant and beyond).


5. Belly of the Whale

   

"The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown..."


You can't play MOTHER for more than five minutes without noticing what an odd (the most frequently-used descriptor is "quirky") little game it is. But it doesn't start getting really weird until a some ways in.

The quest begins: Ninten's home is attacked by a "poltergeist," and the first battles are against aggressive lamps and an animated doll. Okay − that's something, and it's nothing if not quirky.

Next, Ninten rescues a lost girl kidnapped by zombies. Everybody in town talks about the zombies so matter-of-factly; their presence in this world doesn't seem at all unnatural or startling. They also represent a very familiar kind of antagonist, and therefore a tame one.

Afterwards, Ninten goes to the zoo, where he discovers an alien invader using a bizarre high-pitched sound to drive all the animals berserk. Now we're dealing with aliens, which are more interesting than zombies (by their very nature, they embody the unknown) but they're still something you can put a name to and find in a thousand other places.

And then, Ninten gets teleported to Magicant. It is here that the player first wonders what the fuck is going on in MOTHER.

(Did you notice? When you enter the "XX Cave," a distant, melancholy piping begins to play. Eight notes, played in an interminable loop: the few are similar to Queen Mary's song, but then the tune wanders astray and pauses briefly after the punctuated eighth note. After a moment, it starts over again from the beginning − then stops, pauses, and starts from the beginning, over and over again. What you're hearing is Queen Mary trying and failing to remember her song. What a lovely touch.)

Magicant is to MOTHER what Zeal is to Chrono Trigger: it's the most important place in the game and the heart of the story. This is the point where the hero/player tumbles into the rabbit hole, where Ninten catches a glimpse of the true nature of his quest. Magicant is not located on any map and can only be accessed through the XX stones in certain remote caves or by using the Onyx Hook. It's a seriously bizarre place − and its introduction comes as an especial shock, as it introduces inexplicable magical forces into what has thus far been a game that purposefully removes the fantastic from a genre dominated by fantasy worlds.

It also serves, very practically, as the gate through which Ninten must pass in order to continue on his journey. He cannot reach Merrysville and the railroad, meet his destined companions, or find the remaining melodies without first passing through Magicant.

To return to Mr. Campbell and his symbology, Magicant is the archetypical Mother represented as a physical location. Everyone in Magicant loves Ninten and wants to help him; the only people who ask for anything in return are the shopkeepers, who always state up front that they aren't Magicant natives (how does that even work?!). There are four separate locations where Ninten and his friends can get healed at absolutely no cost, suggesting that Itoi probably did have a "mother as a place" idea in mind when building Magicant. It's such an odd and otherwise unnecessary feature that it cannot have been added indeliberately. (Consider: the set number of inns in pretty much any other console RPG town, Magicant's being the only other place in the game where Ninten can eat [Your Favorite Food], etc.)

Ninten can flee to Magicant whenever he's lost, low on HP, or in over his head. Once the Onyx Hook is in his possession, Magicant is only just a couple of button presses away. You can come and go as often as you like, and stay for as long as you please. (Of course, as long as you linger there, you're not getting any farther in your quest. Consider what one of Magicant's "philosophers" has to say about happiness. For those of you who remember MOTHER 3, also consider the character of the main antagonist.)

Retreating to Magicant has a very practical drawback: it comes at a considerable cost in time. Although you can enter Magicant from almost any location at almost any moment, there is only one way out (until Ninten and Ana learn how to teleport), and it always drops you out in Rural America at the same spot. The trip from Magicant is always tougher and much longer than the trip to Magicant − especially when you have to hike three towns over to get back to where you were.

The process of leaving Magicant (especially for the first time) is painful and difficult. The moment Ninten steps beyond the walls of the village and castle, he exposes himself to attack from a horde of illusory monsters. (What would Campbell/Freud/Jung make of the fact that some of the most recurring of these foes are the disembodied eyes of the father and mother?) Finding the door back to Rural America involves solving guessing games, navigating a dark maze, fighting a boss for the Onyx Hook, sneaking past a sleeping dragon, and outwitting a gatekeeper who appears as a dolorous image of adulthood's loneliness.

The monomyth, in most of its incarnations, is essentially a coming of age tale. Magicant's location at the heart of MOTHER also places it at the center of its implicit bildungsroman. Frequently in myths and tales, the hero arrives at a point in his crisis where he is impelled to shed the safety, stability, and fantasies of youth for the hardness and responsibility of adulthood, which come with new powers and knowledge. (In psychoanalytical symbolspeak: abandoning the comfort of the mother's womb/breast/arms and coming to identify with the father.)

This process is made explicit during Ninten's final moments in Magicant. Once Queen Mary hears the Eight Melodies and sings the full song to Ninten, she reveals to him the name of his nemesis, divulges Giygas's link to the family line, and then vanishes into nothing along with Magicant. The Onyx Hook no longer functions. The dream is over. Ninten can no longer retreat to the safety of Queen Mary's world. But now the entrance to Giygas's inner sanctum lies exposed before him. Although Ninten has lost Magicant, he has cleared the final barrier to his destiny and goes equipped with everything he needs to face it.


II. INITIATION

1. Road of Trials

   

"Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals."


This would be the part of the hero's journey between the figurative Level 1-1 and the figurative Level 8-4. This is the part of MOTHER in which Ninten explores Rural America and its cities (the boomtown of Merrysville; the peaceful Reindeer; the frigid mountain village of Snowman; Spookane, haunted by ghosts and aliens; Youngtown, where all the adults have been abducted; and crime-infested Ellay, in the shadow of Mt. Itoi), meets his companions (the timid but resourceful stripling Lloyd; Ana, the daughter of a priest, whose PSI powers excel Ninten's; and punkabilly bruiser Teddy), battles gangsters, ghosts, and beasts, and collects the remaining five of Queen Mary's Eight Melodies.

Ninten's road is a long one: despite taking place in a little corner of Rural America rather than the whole expanse of a fantasy world, MOTHER's playing field absolutely dwarfs those of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest in terms of dimensions and scale. Almost every console RPG made during the 1980s uses the familiar zoomed-out world map; the decision to exclude it from MOTHER must have been made very deliberately. Rural America is not a flat, colored carpet that Ninten and his friends march across − it is something that looms over and envelopes them.

The wanderings of a young Shigeru Miyamoto through the hills of rural Japan supposedly inspired Legend of Zelda; Pokemon draws from Satoshi Tajiri's childhood hobby of insect collecting. We can't be sure of any specifics, but it might not be unreasonable to guess that Itoi intended for his game about a quiet boy's adventures on the dirt roads between backwater towns to evoke a similar sense of the wonder he felt in his own youth.

(For further reading/consideration − Campbell quotes Geza Roheim: "in every primitive tribe...we find the medicine man [the sign-reader, the storyteller, the arbiter of myth] in the center of society and it is easy to show that he is either a neurotic or a psychotic or at least that his art is based on the same mechanisms as a neurosis or psychosis. Human groups are actuated by their group ideals, and these are always based on the infantile situation." The medicine men, therefore, are simply making both visible and public the systems of symbolic fantasy that are present in the psyche of every adult member of their society.)

Itoi presents us with a mundane world rendered massive and mysterious by Ninten's vantage point. He recalls our mutually-shared (but none precisely the same) memories of a world that was too new to us to be known, and too large to comprehend − the world which we saw at the age when we had stopped believing in monsters but still remembered our fears keenly enough to wonder what might lay just out of our sight.

Differentiating MOTHER's dungeons from those of the early Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games are their sizes and isometric perspectives. Rather than boxing the player in, their vast open spaces are designed to overwhelm and disorient him (the Podunk Zoo, Duncan's factory, etc.). After reaching a point where he starts missing the narrow and defined corridors of more familiar RPGs, MOTHER leads him through a series of nasty labyrinths (the perpetually forking paths of Rosemary Manor, the twisting and turning maze through the eastern swamp, the blind run through the brutal Mt. Itoi caves, etc.) that may require the help of a hand-drawn map (or a strategy guide, you cheater) in order to be conquered with any semblance of ease.

Ninten's got quite a walk ahead of him. Luckily for him, Rural America not only has serviceable telecommunications and banking systems, but a functional railroad as well. Provided he can pay for a ticket, he can often ride the Paradise Line from one town to the next rather than hoof it through dangerous territory. Interestingly, the trip is not instantaneous.

In Final Fantasy, there is a section where you must ride a submarine in order to reach the underwater Sea Shrine. You simply move your character onto the sub (which, like your character, only occupies one square on the map), and in the blink of an eye, your man is standing at the entrance to the Sea Shrine with the sub parked behind him.

There was no reason why MOTHER could have not done the same thing with its train. Ninten would stroll into Union Station, talk to the attendant, and after a black screen transition (and maybe a chuggachuggachugga−screech! sound effect), he magically appears inside the next station on the line. But instead, the player has to sit, watch, and wait as the train rolls from Point A to Point B on Mother's enormous map. By my count, it takes one minute and ten seconds for the train to get from Union Station to Snowman. By the standards of 8-bit games, that's an awfully long time to make the player sit there and do nothing. (At least he's got some decent tunes to listen to in the meantime.)

What an unusual design choice − especially when it would have been much quicker and easier (for the developers and players both) to just use a fade-in, fade-out segue. Maybe it has to do with the extent to which the train ride is ingrained in the Japanese experience − perhaps Itoi wished to make MOTHER's players engage in a virtual version of an everyday act with which they would be very familiar and probably somewhat fond. This is definitely something of an "art imitating life" moment, which is a rarity in Nintendo games from the 1980s.

But we've probably gone far enough on this tangent, so let's move along. We're arriving, by the way, at the point in The Hero With a Thousand Faces where Campbell pops another cap and starts getting really rambly and abstract. (Remember that this is less of a literary/anthropological tract than a vehicle for its author's neo-transcendentalist philosophy.)


2. The Meeting with the Goddess

   

"The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have bee overcome, is commonly represented by the mystical marriage...of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis at the nadir, the zenith, or at the uttermost edge of the Earth, at the central point of the cosmos, in the tabernacle of the temple, or within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart."


One of the most dramatic and important moments in MOTHER occurs during Ninten's final visit to Magicant, when he sings Queen Mary her own forgotten lullaby. As Magicant disappears around her, the queen reveals her true identity, utters to Ninten the name of his ultimate foe, and gives him the means to overcome his final test.

This doesn't happen until Ninten learns the Eight Melodies that constitute the whole song, which have all been scattered throughout the world of Rural America. These are MOTHER's versions of those ubiquitous trinkets of fantasy fiction and adventure games called plot tokens. Link must find the eight Triforce pieces, The Hero must find Erdrick's three treasures, Simon has to collect Dracula's remains, Micheal must find the ten pieces of Dr. Chaos's laser, the little fucker from Hydlide has to track down the three fairies − you can think of a hundred other examples off the top of your own head. Often it is the case that when all the tokens are collected, they combine to form some object of incredible power in addition to permitting the hero to enter the endgame.

I would relish the chance to learn the sequence of Itoi's thought process as he brainstormed ideas and eventually settled on the identity of the special "collect all eight!" items necessary to MOTHER. (And they were necessary; you can't spoof a specific type of game without adhering to its conventions, however clumsy they might be.) In most video games, the plot tokens' forms are arbitrary − they amount to items on a scavenger hunt list that must be checked off before the entrance to Death Mountain (or wherever) can be opened. In their games, these are represented as some kind of item or other that the hero is presumably lugging on his back along with all his arrows, shields, ladders, ice sleds, etc. In MOTHER's world, the tokens Ninten collects are insubstantial: musical notes aren't something a kid can carry around in his pocket and use. But in the reality of the player, a melody translates into something much more substantial than a color change in the "Triforce" section of the status screen.

Each of the Eight Melodies has its own tune, possesses a different aural texture, and has a different story behind it:

 
 
 
 

The MOTHER series has established itself as the bubblegum in the Screwball of video game geekdom as a result of its creators' assiduous attention to detail. Especial attention has always been paid to its soundtracks. MOTHER's tunes were composed by Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka − but it's difficult (at least from where I'm sitting) to learn anything much more specific about the development of the soundtrack than the names of the people who wrote it. Around the time of MOTHER 1+2's GBA release, the topic of MOTHER's music came up in an interview:

ITOI: [W]e weren't confident with the music...so we worked as hard as we could on it. If the music had been done halfheartedly, it would've sounded like a regular game.

INTERVIEWER: It would've been more beep-boop?

ITOI: Yes.


In an excerpt from interview posted on 1up.com, Tanaka goes into a little more detail:

"You mentioned the atmosphere of my music," he said. "I wanted to create something different from Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, to properly reflect the nature of EarthBound. So that's where that comes from."

Unfortunately, that's the most substantial information we can get without doing a lot of digging and being fluent in Japanese, so I would recommend letting the soundtrack (of the Famicom/NES version, not the watered-down GBA port) speak for itself. It is on par with the best music on the NES, brimming with tunes you don't mind listening to in a near-perpetual loop and humming to yourself throughout the day.

But this is only the minimum requirement for a great video game soundtrack. It is with Queen Mary's song that MOTHER's score is buoyed up from "great" to "sublime."

Nowhere in MOTHER are the words to the Eight Melodies transcribed (and all lullabies have words), but the choral version of the song recorded for the MOTHER Soundtrack puts lyrics to the tune. I'm not sure if Itoi wrote them or not, and I don't care − as far as I'm concerned, Queen Mary's song is a lot more interesting when its words might be anything.


3. Woman as the Temptress

   

"The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world represents the hero's total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master. And the testings of the hero, which were preliminary to his ultimate experience and deed, were symbolical of those crises of realization by means of which his consciousness came to be amplified and made capable of enduring the full possession of the mother-destroyer, his inevitable bride. With that he knows that he and the father are one: he is in the father's place.

"Thus phrased, in extremest terms, the problem may sound remote from the affairs of normal human creatures. Nevertheless, every failure to cope with a life situation must be laid, in the end, to a restriction of consciousness. Wars and temper tantrums are the makeshifts of ignorance; regrets are illuminations come too late. The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero's passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale. Therefore it is formulated in the broadest terms. The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula, and let it then assist him past his restricting walls. Who and where are his ogres? Those are the reflections of the unsolved enigmas of his own humanity. What are his ideals? Those are the symptoms of his grasp of life.

"In the office of the modern psychoanalyst, the stages of the hero-adventure come to light again in the dreams and hallucinations of the patient. Depth beyond depth of self-ignorance is fathomed, with the analyst in the role of the helper, the initiatory priest. And always, after the first thrills of getting under way, the adventure develops into a journey of darkness, horror, disgust, and phantasmagoric fears.

"The crux of the curious difficulty lies in the fact that our conscious views of what life ought to be seldom correspond to what life really is. Generally we refuse to admit within ourselves, or within our friends, the fullness of that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell. Rather, we tend to perfume, whitewash, and reinterpret; meanwhile imagining that all the flies in the ointment, all the hairs in the soup, are the faults of some unpleasant...........



Alright, Mr. Campbell. We're gonna have to stop you there. Thank you.

The point he's trying to get at (though he sure could have fooled me) in this chapter is that the hero on a mystical journey is often dogged and willingly stymied by some agent representing worldy impurity − often (though not always) in the form of a seductive female. As long as the hero associates with this figure or these forces, he cannot properly complete his journey. (Examples: Circe in the Odyssey, Honest John in Pinocchio, Slugworth in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Linda in The Wedding Singer, etc.)

If you couldn't tell, this is where Campbell's model becomes a little hazy, so we're going to have to look at MOTHER through a correspondingly muddled lens in order to find what he's trying to describe.

Temptresses, huh? Well, let's look at the obvious candidates. There's Pippi, but she appears as more of a "damsel in distress" type, and her crush on Ninten is practically inconsequential (though he does get a Franklin Badge out of it). Then we have Ana, Ninten's faithful PSI-wielding ally, who is just as vestal and bland as any other "blonde priestess" JRPG heroine. A temptress is supposed to be an agent of misdirection and corruption, and Ana is too much of a choir girl to fit that part.

Doesn't seem as though we're going to find any temptresses in MOTHER. Guess we'll just have to settle for a bad influence instead.

   

Toward the end of Ninten's journey, he meets and befriends a knife-brandishing gang leader named Teddy. Ninten stands back and allows Teddy to boot Lloyd (the first of his destined allies) off the team, then lets him set the course of their journey towards Mt. Itoi, where Teddy intends to get his revenge on the alien invaders who killed his parents.

But in the MOTHER universe, violence is ineffective against the devil waiting for the pilgrim at the end of the road. Having made his way through a long, difficult game that gets progressively harder, the player arriving at the extremely unforgiving Mt. Itoi probably won't even mind replacing Loid with the hard-hitting Teddy. Unfortunately, Ninten is too close to the end of the road for Teddy's talents to serve a purpose for very long, but still not quite experienced enough to know it yet. When the R-7308 attacks the team, Teddy's great strength is totally ineffective against it. Ninten and co. are saved by the loyalty and resourcefulness of the weakling Lloyd, who rejoins the team in place of the gravely injured Teddy. (Immediately afterward, Lloyd opens the way for Ninten to find EVE. Had Teddy remained on the team, Ninten would be unable to get past the R-7308xx or acquire the seventh melody.)


4. Atonement with the Father

   

"In most mythologies, the images of mercy and grace are rendered as vividly as those of justice and wrath, so that a balance is maintained, and the heart is buoyed rather than scourged along its way. "Fear not!" says the hand gesture of the god Shiva, as he dances before his devotee the dance of universal destruction. Fear not, for all rests well in God....The magic of the sacraments...the protective power of primitive amulets and charms, and the supernatural helpers of the myths and fairy tales of the world, are mankind's assurances that the arrow, the flames, and the flood are not as brutal as they seem.

"For the ogre aspect of the father is a reflex of the victim's own ego − derived from the sensational nursery scene that has been left behind, but projected before; and the fixating idolatry of that pedagogical nonthing is itself the fault that keeps one steeped in a sense of sin, sealing the potentially adult spirit from a better balanced, more realistic view of the father, and therewith of the world. Atonement (at-one-ment) consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster − the dragon thought to be God...and the dragon thought to be Sin....

"It is in this ordeal that the hero may derive hope and assurance from the helpful female figure, by whose magic...he is protected through all the frightening experiences of the father's ego-shattering initiation."



Mr. Campbell waxes esoteric in his guidebook to the hero's journey. We'll have to step up our game a little bit if we want to keep pace with the magnificent old bastard.

The "father" to which he refers is of the symbolic kind − this phase is a confrontation with the strongest, most dominant figure (or figures) in the hero's world. Campbell identifies (in a circuitous sort of way) the symbolic "father" as possessing a dual nature: he can be both an ogre and a protector, though usually he's either one or the other in a given tale. But why don't we consider both of MOTHER's father faces anyway? Both were beloved of Maria/Queen Mary (the central mother of MOTHER), both came to Earth from outer space, and both await Ninten at the summit of Mt. Itoi, one after the other.

The first father visits Ninten in the guise of a lofty, supernatural guide: his great-grandfather George, who set MOTHER's events in motion after returning to Earth from the ends of the universe. After scaling the dangerous and desolate Mt. Itoi, enduring the loss of two teammates, nearly drowning, and surviving attacks by a pair of mechanical giants, Ninten arrives at George's tombstone, where a device left behind his great-grandfather gives Ninten the last of the Eight Melodies and offers a clue as to the nature of the song's power.

The second, monstrous aspect of the father is Giygas (or Gyiyg, or Giegue, depending on which version of the game you're playing), the leader of the invaders and MOTHER's endboss. Having been raised by Ninten's great-grandmother (and having stole her away from George, in a manner of speaking), Giygas appears before Ninten as something very much like the figure of a sinister, estranged great-uncle − a pseudo-father whose dominance and power are a hateful anomaly in the world. He is the wraith who chases George back to Earth and haunts his descendants; the cause of of the violence and chaos plaguing Rural America.

Ever since Nintendo games ceased being home versions of looping, score-focused arcade games, it became common practice to place a showdown with a mighty final antagonist at the end. In the earliest days of the console RPG, the endboss was usually nothing more than an enemy with a bigger sprite, more HP, and stronger spells than anything the player had yet encountered. It's been over twenty-five years now, and not that much has changed since then.

The final showdowns gotten flashier, true; the bosses have gotten bigger and meaner looking, and they'll frequently morph through a succession of increasingly horrible and more powerful forms. A booming orchestral score may accompany their appearance; they might use attacks that show the whole galaxy exploding in a thirty-second animation sequence. But when we ignore all the dramatic flair, the fight with the final boss is usually just like any other battle in the game. If you're sufficiently prepared and can anticipate and adapt to the endboss's special attacks, it will be a breeze − and there is nothing less anticlimactic than a limp final boss battle. (Conversely, there is nothing more aggravating than a final boss that requires you to spend an extra two hours leveling up on his doorstep.)

In Japanese RPGs, we also see a peculiar and contradictory motif where the story's message and the final showdown collide. The overwhelming number of these games (at least the ones I've played) preach pacifism. The world is threatened by an evil aggressor who uses brutality and iniquity to get what he wants. The heroes, in suffering from the effects of the villain's actions, discover how good and decent people practice peace, love, tolerance, etc.; some old sage lectures them about the insurmountable power of the fellowship between human hearts. Approaching the final confrontation, the heroes will reaffirm their commitment to love, friendship, and justice, and then immediately draw their swords and hack the villain into bloody pieces without a shred of hesitation or remorse. If it weren't so frequently the case that the endboss disintigrates or explodes when his HP hits zero, one gets the impression the heroes would just leave his unburied body outside to be devoured by vultures, or put his head up on a stake to remind any would-be tyrants what happens when they fuck with Love and Friendship.

From the beginning, MOTHER has rejected both of these common "endboss" tropes.

At the game's climactic moment, Ninten enters a cavern at Mt. Itoi's peak and comes in direct contact with the aliens' mothership. By today's standards, it's still a pretty impressive scene; by 8-bit standards, it's positively bladder-loosening. Ever since Ninten's arrival at Mt. Itoi, MOTHER's tone has been predominately desolate and foreboding. Now it gets a little scary.

As the mothership rises, we meet Giygas himself. Instead of with some frenzied special boss music, the alien's apperance is accompanied by an incessant, high pitched ring. Periodically, it will be momentarily drowned out by Gigyas's incomprehensible psychic attack, which occurs as a penetrating drone that sometimes carries an arhythmical cadence (as though it were a sort of anti-song).

A stirring and epic endboss tune is fun to listen to, sure. But MOTHER creates a far more menacing atmosphere for its final battle by opting for noise instead of music, underscoring the inimical alien presence of Giygas and indicating his mental powers' irresistible potency.

Giyas cannot be defeated by conventional means. Regular attacks seem to harm him, but his HP is effectively bottomless. He psionically lashes out at your entire team every time, and will continue to do so until you're completely out of recovery items, psychic points, and health. If you launch into an offensive (or do anything but defend, heal, or set up PSI shields) from the get-go, your team might not even last long enough to act once the opportunity arrives.

After seven turns and seven attacks, Gigyas stops talking, and "Sing" appears as a choice in each character's command screen. When it is used, Ninten, Ana, or Lloyd will belt out the Eight Melodies − or as much of it as they can before Giygas viciously silences them. With each successive attempt, the children manage to get out more of the song, and Giygas (who continues his attacks) stops screaming at them and begins to plead. After the Sing command is used eleven times and the children get through the whole song, Giygas surrenders. The battle ends. There is no victory jingle − only a very relieving silence.

There is a kind of atonement in the manner in which Ninten overcomes his final test against the invulnerable invader. By eschewing a violent (and futile) last stand and instead appealing to the obscure gem of humanity inculcated in Giygas's heart by Maria's upbringing, Ninten forces a vehement and reluctant Giygas to call off the invasion and retreat back to outer space (for the time being).

With George's legacy unraveled at last, and with the withdrawal of Giygas and his forces, Ninten becomes the most powerful kid in Rural America − he is the man now, dog.


5. Apotheosis

   

"Like the Buddha himself, this godlike being is a pattern of the divine state to which the human hero attains who has gone beyond the last terrors of ignorance....And he is filled with compassion for the self-terrorized beings who live in fright of their own nightmare. He rises, returns to them, and dwells with them as an egoless center, through whom the principle of emptiness is made manifest in its own simplicity. And this is his great "compassionate act"; for by it the truth is revealed that in the understanding of one in whom the Threefold Fire of Desire, Hostility, and Delusion is dead, this world is Nirvana. "Gift waves" go out from such a one for the liberation of us all."


This is the part of the heavier myth cycles (i.e. world religions) where the hero realizes his divinity. Campbell spends most of this particular chapter on an extended verbal jaunt about Buddhism, so he's basically useless to us here.

If this were EarthBound, we might say that the moment of apotheosis occurs when Ness defeats the Nightmare and absorbs the power of Magicant (and the Earth) into himself, giving him a stat boost that indeed does make him pretty godlike. But that's a different hero, a different story, and a different Magicant.

In MOTHER, the illusory nature of Magicant is revealed to Ninten, and he steps forth from the mirage with Queen Mary's ultimate gift: her lullaby, a song that can arouse compassion in the heart of a genocidal alien menace.

In Ninten's world, the ultimate power is love − the universal, unconditional love that can overpower hatred and belligerence without violence; the kind of love Maria feels for Giygas in spite of what he has become, and the love she gives to Ninten through her scattered melodies, despite never having met him.

The transformation of the apotheosis phase often takes the form of a hero's renunciation of his flawed former ways. MOTHER is about a hero who takes up a baseball bat and runs out into the world, swinging it at everything that comes at him. He and his buddies traverse the violent world of Rural America, beating things up for money, nuking wildlife with psychokinesis, and aiming flamethrowers at hippies, farmers, and middle-aged women. In the end, they battle their way to an alien tyrant, who brutally attacks them. The children put down their weapons and sing to the invader, who packs up and leaves without any further violence.

Again, it is not unlikely that we'll be groping at a message that isn't actually here, but consider which culture is producing the story, and consider its past:

A BRIEF AND TOALLY UNAUTHORATATIVE JAPANESE HISTORY LESSON

The Bakumatsu (1853 - 1867): Japan ends its isolationist foreign policy. The period is marked by tumult, political struggles, meddling by alien powers, and the move toward modernization.

Imperial Japan (1868 - 1947): Nationalism, industrialization, militarisation, expansionism, war, brutality, slavery. Comes to an end after World War II.

Modern Japan (1947 - now): Following World War II, Japan rebuilds and adopts a pacifist constitution. (ARTICLE 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.)

What Ninten does as the monomythical hero is bring peace to a violent world, and his final victory is attained through markedly different (pacifist) means than his previous successes (achieved by beating the hell out of things). Giygas appears before him as a violent ghost of the past that that must be put down by a child of the pacifistic modern age.

"But that's not at all what Itoi had in mind!" you protest, and you're almost definitely correct. But that's just the thing about "reading" stories: they can contain messages and symbols that find their way in on their own. The symbols' forms, connotations, and functions vary. Sometimes the author is aware of them and inserts them intentionally; other times he is not. Do bear in mind that any author's psyche is sculpted primarily by his culture, and his culture is sculpted primarily its by history. (And also remember that any story is a collaborative creation between the teller and the told.)

In any case, it is beyond the scope of any reader to trace the threads from the artist's work to the artist's mind to the events and forces (and all their causes, significations, etc.) that shaped the artist's mind. All we can do is guess − and have fun doing so. After all, MOTHER is a game, and we might as well have as much fun with it as we can.


6. The Ultimate Boon

   

"blah blah blah buddha blah blah blah blah blah blah shiva blah blah blah milarepa blah blah blah."


In the myths and movies, this is the part where the hero finds the Holy Grail, lands a plasma shot in an exhaust port only two meters wide, reclaims his throne from his usurping, effeminate uncle, becomes the Star-Child, achieves Buddhahood, destroys the One Ring, etc. In video games, this is almost always where the hero defeats the final boss, and MOTHER follows the playbook to the letter.

Ninten drives Giygas and his forces from the Earth, releases all of the abductees, and restores peace to Rural America. Easy, peasy, Japanesey!


III. THE RETURN


1. Refusal of the Return * 2. The Magic Flight * 3. Rescue from Without
4. Crossing of the Return Threshold * 5. Master of the Two Worlds
6. Freedom to Live


Campbell lays out the final phase of the hero's journey like so: after doing what he set out to do, the hero must return from the final threshold. Sometimes he doesn't want to leave and must be forcefully expelled or dragged out. Other times he is prevented from leaving and must escape or be rescued. In any case, he returns to the world of the ordinary with gifts, power, and/or special knowledge. he must reconcile his transformative experience in the other/outer world with his return to normalcy; he must figure out what to do next.

We can't cover this part of the cycle step by step like the other two sections − there's just not enough here.

After the mothership rises and disappears in the Famicom (original) version of MOTHER, the heroes simply turn to face the player, the end theme plays, and the credits roll.

EarthBound Zero and the GBA MOTHER 1 expand on this some: after saving the world from an alien apocalypse and rescuing the abductees, Ninten descends from the cloud-obscured heights of Mt. Itoi. He sees Ana and Lloyd back to their homes in Snowman and Merrysville, then returns to Podunk, where he looks forward to getting a little rest now that everything is back to normal.

But the other world beckons. As Ninten naps, he doesn't notice the phone ringing. Dad is on the line, anxious to talk with him about a new matter requiring the hero's attention...

With the participatory modality of a game like this, it's hard to resist Going Meta with regard to the hero's return. With a story, a book, a film, etc., you are told or shown the hero's journey; you observe his final victory and its aftermath as a spectator. In a game, you are guiding him; you are there with him; as long as that controller is in your hand, you are him. When you shut the game off after the credits finish rolling, your other self in Rural America blinks out of existence, leaving you to stand up, walk away from the television, and return to your own life.

The return phase is up to you.

It is often the case that the mythological hero's worth is determined by what he brings back with him from his adventure into the unknown. Many tales have a basis in reality: the names of the warrior who never won a daring victory and the chief with an undistinguished reign are unlikely to be repeated a century or two later in stories about giants among men who fought ogres in the wilderness and brought back treasures for the tribe's prosperity.

This is the essential difference between a quest and a detour. What happens on the detour is its own reward, but the success of a quest is determined by what you take back with you.

With books, the same: the best books are the ones in which the reader experiences a transformation somewhere between "once upon a time" and "the end." In any other case, you're just taking a pleasure cruise through somebody else's imagination.

Most video games are detours. And most of the time, that's just fine. I play Einhander and Metal Slug purely for kicks. I don't expect anything else from them, and I'm never disappointed.

But a game like MOTHER is a different sort of creature, and I would hope that a writer like Itoi would not be content with handing kids a twenty to forty-hour game and expect them to walk away from it with nothing but a few weeks or months of afternoons and Saturdays spent sitting by themselves and soaking up radiation instead of going outside, being with friends, learning something, or making something.

I think the power of a game like this is determined by what you carry with you as you walk away from it. This would be why my opinion of Disgaea and the other Nippon Ichi SRPGs went so sour: after the third or fourth time asking myself holy shit, what did I just do for eighty hours, it seemed sensible to not repeat the experience.

So what do we walk away with after finishing MOTHER?

Good question. It's probably different for every player.

A memory gap? Sore thumbs? Missed calls on your phone? Post-RPG depression? New ideas? Nightmares of endless ladders in a giant factory? A lingering distrust of women offering to buy you drinks? Something you can brag about to your friends?

Or maybe it's something as simple as a song you can't get out of your head?




If you listen to this without having played MOTHER, it will likely mean very little to you. But if you've played the game to the end, scoured Rural America from one end to the other to find the melodies, and used it to put down one of the most menacing 8-bit villains, it will carry a powerful significance. You will be unable to listen to it without smiling. It becomes something you can carry with you and use − whether simply to fill the dull silence at a bus stop or light a little candle in the gloom of a dark mood.

It is a very small thing, but a meaningful one. And it's sure a hell of a lot more than what you can expect to walk away with from any of the 8-bit Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy games.

And it only gets better from here.








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