What Makes the Mother Series so Great?

They may not be chart-toppers - indeed, the third game has never even been officially released in the West - but the Mother/Earthbound series of role-playing games are some of the most revered and cherished of all Nintendo games (at least among certain cliques).

There's a very good reason why this is. And it has little to do with the actual games.

Of course, they're wonderful titles. Each manages something few games can: to evoke genuine emotion in players beyond the standard "excited" and "afraid". The Mother games can be funny. Charming. Touching. And, at their very best, genuinely tragic.

In accomplishing this, they're visibly unique amongst not just Nintendo games, but games in general. And that's all due, I think, to the men who made them.

Video games are generally made by men (and women) who do nothing but make video games. Seems obvious, but it also partly explains why so many games are similar/derivative of each other, and why so few are able to break free of established genres and video game tropes and really challenge us.

The Mother games, on the other hand, are a little different. Because some of its most important contributors have better things to do than just sit around making games all day.

We'll start with composer Keiichi Suzuki, who worked on the music for the first two games in the series. Suzuki is not a games composer. He's mildly famous for being the lead singer of successful Japanese rock band The Moonriders, has created his own music, scored films and even had a budding second career as an actor on Japanese TV.

Why is this important? Because, as we recently discussed, the music in Mother is bananas. You don't find any other games with a soundtrack like it, or which give such importance to its music (around 30% of Mother 2's total size on the SNES cartridge was taken up by its soundtrack). It's a synthesised tribute to 20th-century pop music, containing tips of the hat to artists like The Who, Chuck Berry and even The Beatles (there's a great Beatles v Mother comparison video here).

If you ever wondered why the music from the series (at least the first two games) was so distinct and memorable, that's why. That's not to say it's better than other games, which are usually scored by in-house composers or professional soundtrack types, but with such a big contribution coming from a drift-in rock star, it certainly accounts for why Mother's music is so different.

Even more important than Suzuki's background, though, is that of series creator Shigesato Itoi. Who is by no means a games developer. Throw his name up on a Western gaming forum and people will know him as the man behind Mother, but in his native Japan, Itoi is something of a renaissance man, being famous for all kinds of things, from a noted copywriter to a best-selling author to a songwriter. He's the voice of the girl's father in Ghibli's My Neighbour Totoro. And he's been a judge on Iron Chef.

In Japan, his contributions to Mother are almost a footnote to these other accomplishments!

So, like Suzuki, he comes at games from the perspective of an outsider. Someone whose creative energies aren't continually focused on the act of making games. Indeed, aside from the Mother games he's done little else in development aside from a...fishing game. Which means he's coming at games from the outside, as a man with a story he wants to tell through a game, not a man who is making a game with a story attached.

Again, this isn't to say Itoi's work is any better than someone who spends their entire career designing games and/or game stories. Indeed, going by the series' sales - which are low enough for Nintendo to swear on a Bible to never release Mother 3 in the West - there's an argument to the contrary.

Yet here we are, all these years later, still talking about Mother. And there will be plenty of you reading this who adore the games, who played Earthbound on the SNES and have played the official Mother 3 fan translation, who will always have a special place in their heart for the series which looked like a kid's RPG but could tell a more adult story than a thousand games with brown polygons put together.

So there's something to be said for the approach of getting dudes who don't normally make games to make a game. It may not set any sales charts on fire, but in an age where games are consumed and forgotten about in six-month cycles, to still cherish titles that are 21/16/5 years old respectively is an achievement few other franchises can boast.

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You can contact Luke Plunkett, the author of this post, at plunkett@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.