MOTHER 1 Review by Pokemon creator Satoshi Tajiri
In the late 1980’s, before founding Game Freak and hitting the jackpot with his sensational product of grueling labor, Satoshi Tajiri was a freelance writer for gaming magazine Famicom Hisshou Hon. He ran a column in the magazine and covered the newly-released MOTHER in its October 20, 1989 issue. His review offers some interesting criticisms of the game.
I went to the movies recently for the first time in forever. Lately the only movie-watching I do is through rental videos, but this time around I just knew I had to see it on the big screen: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
It was a genuinely cinematic movie that thoroughly entertained me and lived up to everything I hoped it would be. Sometimes I’ll be watching a video on my 14-inch TV set at home and catch a scene that makes me really disappointed for not having seen it on the jumbo theater screen. But Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was made for watching in a movie theater; seeing it on a TV screen isn’t going to get across the full impact of the action-packed adventure.
You can’t properly experience the fun and enjoyment of a movie on a TV. Within it are dreams and lies that can only form within the special confines of movie. The same goes for video games. Shigesato Itoi’s MOTHER is an RPG with storytelling reminiscent of Spielberg. Of course there’s a handful of cinematic methods scattered throughout the game, but I’d rather avoid explaining them in detail—it’d be rude of me to spoil the game for those who haven’t played yet.
The draw of MOTHER is in its sense of cinematic camerawork, its music, and the scenarios Itoi put so much thought into. However, the game itself—the game design, I mean—presents several flimsy areas.
Take, for example, the oversized map. The map is realistically proportionate with the size of the main characters, and it apparently dazzled a lot of people. In my opinion, a video game is not something that should make its player uncomfortable. There’s no doubt that Itoi intended to portray the towns and forests realistically, but it was so spread out that people found it hard to navigate. If there’s a chance it places a meaningless burden on the player, realism needs to be toned down into a caricature. That’s one lie that’s forgiven in video games.
Another problem is the balance of enemy range. There’s a hierarchy to the ecosystem of animals, and the law of nature states that, in general, small creatures are weak and large creatures are strong. We instinctively understand things in this manner, so when a little pile of slime shows up on the screen, we assume it’s weak. When an enormous demon shows up, we stagger back at how strong it looks. In MOTHER, it might be due to the game’s setting in modern America, but the hierarchy of enemies isn’t that clear. The smaller-sized rope enemy is stronger than the Mad Car or Psycho Car, and the Mad Truck and Psycho Truck aren’t as strong as the smaller-sized bear, etc. That makes the map feel as if it has a relatively disorganized distribution.
Then there’s the inadequacy of the information the game provides to the player. Dialogue in an RPG consists of two things: Hints to aid progress in the game, or entertaining lines that add to the game’s color. I hear that the developers ran out of memory halfway through production, so lots of the colorful lines were spared while they chipped despairingly at the hinting ones. Throwing away the hints and keeping the entertainment was Itoi’s clear decision—it makes the game stand out, but without them we’re left with a game that is, in reality, simply not very kind.
These are the kinds of things that bothered me. The scenario is obviously the work of a professional writer, but I feel MOTHER might be better suited for a novel or a movie. When it comes to these difficult issues in game design, though, Itoi doesn’t seem to regard them as critical. He stated it himself: “I dared to break the ten commandments of video game design.”
It’s not very believable, though, that modern video games contain whatever ten commandments Itoi was referring to. If you look at all the games on the market today, there’s a huge disparity between good games and bad games. Even with the unique production know-how of each maker, there are no apparent common traits across the spectrum.
Before makers were understanding and following the ten commandments of game design, there were no ten commandments. Not even ten years have passed since video game culture brought up the new concept, so that’s basically a given. The ten commandments have yet to be created. You cannot break something that does not yet exist; it’s something we’ll make from here on out.
But the fact that games don’t have ten commandments might actually be a wonderful thing. We’re still in a happenstance of witnessing the genesis of chaotic video game culture. Isn’t it exciting to think about the future of video games and all the limitless opportunities they hold with each new development?