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Game Design Essentials: 20 RPGs

July 2, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 16 of 22 Next
 

15. Mother, a.k.a. Earthbound

Designed by: Shigesato Itoi (director)

Influenced by: Dragon Quest, popular culture

Series: Three games, but they're incredibly fondly-remembered.

Legacy: Hard to say. As is sometimes the case with works of utter genius, they prove difficult to draw from. The early DS game Contact seems to draw inspiration from it in both art style and humor.

The game system of the Mother series is lifted, almost entirely, from Dragon Quest. Even in the days when the series began back on Nintendo's 8-bit Famicom, this was something of a throwback. While the story of the first game is good, it's not until the second game where the play of the game began to branch out.

Unique among JRPGs, and superior to most CRPGs, the Mother games are well-written and engaging far beyond the call of duty. Where many JRPGs are content to throw together a bunch of musical terms, a war between "light" and "darkness," elves and catgirls for party members and a whole lotta grinding for experience, the Mother games provide instead an astonishingly witty and erudite set of references, and yet the game doesn't throw them around haphazardly (as does, say, Xenogears).

Many articles on the series make it a point to mention that they are games that take place "in the present day" instead of in a fantasy or sci-fi setting. This quality isn't as unique as it used to be, but the game still succeeds because of its near total lack of JRPG "quirks."

What do I mean by that? Okay. The series doesn't have any of these things: anime character art, spiky-haired protagonists, emo drama binges or moony amnesiaics. Instead of trying to impress players with "dark fantasy" that reads like a teenager's poetry journal, the mood of the Mother games is generally light and silly.

Yet, it can turn on a dime to cosmic horror (end of Mother 2) or genuine anguish (an important event early in Mother 3, and its final scenes). Done falsely, the games could have turned out as tone-deaf as JRPGs often are, but instead the juxtaposition of the humor and the grief makes each somehow more effective.


Mother 3 (Screenshot courtesy http://mother3.fobby.net/)

To move to discussion of the game's play mechanics, one of the things that the game does fairly well is in its handling of status conditions. Most games are content to offer poisoning and leave it at that, but Mother 2 offers such bizarre ailments as mushroomizing (messes up controls & produces confusion in battle), possession by spirits (an invisible ghost opponent is added to fights who attacks random party members -- but can be harmed and even killed by enemy area attacks, curing the condition) and the dreaded diamondizing (sort of like a super-death; many means of character revival won't work on a character who's been diamondized).

One of the more gimmicky aspects of Mother 2 and 3's battle system is the "rolling HP counter." The party's HP totals are represented on-screen as numbers on an odometer-like readout. Losing hit points from attacks results in the wheels spinning and counting down to the new value.

However, a character doesn't feel the effect of running out of hit points until the number reaches its destination. So, a character who has "taken mortal damage," sending his dials on a trip to zero, can be saved by hitting him with a healing spell before the numbers get there.

The important element here is that the numbers count down in real time, regardless of message speed or paging frequency. It's a gimmick, but it does help to bring an aspect of panicky urgency to fights with strong opponents, which the Mother games have plenty of.

Mother 3 contains a new combat gimmick of its own, its much-discussed "sound battles." The previous games in the series would use different background music for different types of enemies. Mother 2 had rather a large number of these battle themes, and Mother 3 has even more, which is all the more impressive because the music affects battle.

Each background track has an unplayed "beat" track. If, after an attack, the player hits a button just in time with that beat, he does additional damage, and if he keeps it going he can do damage much in excess of the original hit.

This is innocent enough, except that the battle music in the Mother series is sometimes a bizarre and stuttering thing that sometimes doesn't agree with your petty hu-man conceptions of music. The website Cruise Elroy did a detailed examination of some of Mother 3's battle themes and found them to be almost hilariously tricky.


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