We’re in an age of nostalgia over-saturation. There’s the new It, the Jumanji reboot, the mere existence of Ready Player One—the books and movies we grew up with are finding new life. As reboots, these texts—so to speak—fall into a kind of metatextual category in that they’re not just reflections of our experiences growing up, but they also feature characters who are growing up, too. More notably, despite being taken from properties that are meant for, and also starring, children, they are aimed more at the adults who grew up with the shows and movies that they’re based on. And as studios continue to look for properties to revive, it’s high time to take a look at the video game Mother.
Most of the characters in Super Smash Bros. are instantly recognizable. There’s Mario, there’s Donkey Kong, there’s Link—they’re all characters that are universally familiar. And then there’s Ness. Ness, from the Mother series, doesn’t quite occupy the same space in the pop culture hierarchy as his fellows. He’s more commonly associated with his role as a Super Smash Bros. mainstay than he is with his own franchise, and chances are that if you showed his picture to some passerby on the street, they wouldn’t know who he was. But Ness’ constant inclusion in the Nintendo canon—not to mention the cult status that Mother has achieved—gets at a game that’s worth more attention than it’s given.
Where Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda have spawned sequel after sequel, Mother is limited to just three titles: Mother, released in 1989 for the Famicom; Mother 2, released in 1994 for the Super NES (and known as Earthbound outside of Japan); and Mother 3, released on 2006 for the Game Boy Advance. Created by Shigesato Itoi, the games took place in late 20th-century America, and were chock-full of the adolescent anxieties and mysteries that characterized the movies of patron saint Steven Spielberg around the same era.
For instance, despite the role that aliens and psychic powers played in the games, the games only truly tipped into science fiction and fantasy in their respective final acts—Itoi was more interested in human, everyday lives, and used sci-fi as a way of bringing that to the forefront. Otherwise, the maps the characters traversed were resolutely normal, and their weapons ranged from baseball bats to frying pans instead of swords and magical tomes. The status ailments that befell them were also mundane—asthma affected the main character of Mother—and some pushed that note far enough to become emotionally resonant. For instance, if Ness went too long without calling his mother, he’d accrue a status ailment called “homesickness,” missing turns as he spent them thinking of home instead.
They’re the kinds of details that run parallel to our current obsession with reliving our adolescence, and they’re even built into the games themselves. Though technological advances allowed for more realistic graphics, the visual aesthetic of Mother remained relatively simple in order to lean more fully into this sense of nostalgia, and the main playable characters of each game were always children. It and Stranger Things both bank on our willingness to succumb to stories of growing up that mirror our own; Mother already has that all on lock.
But more than plumbing the depths of childhood, Mother also explores the kinds of adult themes that are the bread and butter of movies and shows attempting to draw in the crowds that consumed these stories as children. The catalyzing events of Mother included the disappearance—and deaths—of the protagonists’ parents, Earthbound’s primary antagonizing force was simply hate, and the ending of Mother 3 made tragedy inextricable from triumph. The villain, Porky, was revealed to be one of the children from Earthbound. In that game, he had been a lonely, petty boy desperate to be Ness’ friend. However, he’d succumbed to the evil forces taking over the earth, and in Mother 3, ultimately sealed himself into a capsule to avoid defeat, dooming himself to live alone in that little shell forever. To wit, Mother 3’s slogan was “Strange, Funny and Heartrending,” and it distinguished itself within the Mother trilogy as the darkest installment, a progression that supplies yet another layer of growth within the series.
On almost every level, Mother seems primed for a filmic adaptation. It’s essentially an Amblin movie already, with bright visuals and monsters galore, and it’s built to sidestep the usual pitfalls that cripple reboots. Reboots fail when there’s nothing new brought to the table—The Dark Tower, for instance—but the Mother games were made with new-ness in mind. Itoi consistently encouraged his staff to come up with new ways of portraying old video game scenarios (with the games earning recognition for their innovation as such), and took care to feature characters from all walks of life, as he explicitly wanted the game to appeal to non-gamers, and to girls in particular. He also wanted these games to evoke emotions such as “distraught,” emphasizing human emotions rather than a win-or-lose gaming system.
That kind of trueness to life is what sets Mother apart from the crowd. Despite the series’ grounding in old Americana and nostalgia, its themes of the importance of kindness and the triumph of love over hate are evergreen. And if nothing else, the role that homesickness plays throughout the franchise makes it clear just how suited it is to make a comeback now. Nostalgia goes hand in hand with the desire to go home again.