The Literature of the Moment

2005/02/28 writing-not-by-me

Author: Tim Rogers.

Note: Original brings up this awful prostitute metaphor up over and over, so I whited it out. Check the source if you want it.


"the literature of the moment"
a critique of mother 2 (super famicom/super nintendo; ape/hal/nintendo)
and the second of eleven essays about the best games of all-time
by tim rogers

Shigesato Itoi, producer of Mother 2 and two other games, says in a recent interview that videogames are, at their best, like prostitutes. A prostitute, he is quick to distinguish, is a lot like a lover, only that it requires no emotional input from its momentary significant other. Ninety-nine times out a hundred, a prostitute knows exactly what its client wants, and relinquishes itself to its client's will. As the client does what it wants, the prostitute does not complain. A fee — usually money — was paid to the prostitute before the services are rendered. The prostitute has no right to complain. If the client chooses to kill the prostitute and leave her in the gutter somewhere, that's not to say that he got, exactly, a free ride. Strangling the prostitute required a degree of emotional involvement that was not part of the original contract. Not only that — the client had to at least show the prostitute the required sum of money in order to get her to take her clothes off.

Mother 2: Giigu Returns, which would be the greatest videogame of all-time if Super Mario Bros. 3 didn't exist[1], is most definitely a prostitute. I won't say that it's a prostitute with a heart of gold, or even a prostitute who transforms into a princess or a dragon. It's a prostitute that's missing one tooth somewhere you won't discover unless you look at her really hard, and she has this shitty grin on her face for some reason or another. She does nothing to provoke you to be cruel to her. And between the time she takes her stockings off and the time she puts them back on, she's going to tell you a story so creepy you will never be able to forget it. Your time with her will not be entirely comfortable, nor will it be entirely enjoyable.

There are plenty of other games that will fit Itoi's description of the perfect prostitute videogame.

Any member of the Dragon Quest canon, even II, which is hard as hell at some points, will hold your hand and massage your shoulders right up until their final battles against demonic evils. Dragon Quest, the brainchild of producer Yuji Horii, musician Koichi Sugiyama, and artist Akira Toriyama, is a story of a boy killing a dragon and saving a princess. In every one of those games, not a thing is impossible to a player who has spent time preparing. Preparing involves walking in circles in a world where castles and towns are represented by icons as large as the player-character himself. Every few steps, a battle pops up. The player fights the battle, in which he is hurt though not killed. When he wins, he is awarded with money and experience points. The experience points make his character stronger so that his next fight will end with him in better physical condition. The money allows him to buy better weapons or armor so he can deal more damage to the enemies. With each new region entered on his journey, the hero finds stronger enemies and more expensive equipment at town shops. Dragon Quest games are thin, in that the goal is always to vanquish the evil, and this is always done through simply fighting monster after monster until you're strong enough to kill stronger monsters. Producer Yuji Horii is a gambler, himself, and his games exude evidence of being made by a gambler who still affords himself time to daydream — no challenge is unwinnable to the player with the persistence and audacity to keep playing. The trick of a Dragon Quest game lies in that there is no "jackpot." Even a complete victory of the entire game doesn't feel like hitting a jackpot. Each battle won feels like another coin dropped in a slot machine, and though no battle results in the exact feeling of a "loss," the player never quite feels the satisfaction of a large victory. With a few gold pieces and experience points to spur him onward, the player keeps playing. Here's where the game's simple grace comes into play: battles go by so quickly, and so many numbers flash up in front of the player's eyes so quickly, that it always feels like something's being done. It's too intriguing not to keep playing.

Dragon Quests are very much videogames. Dating back as far as 1986, they're as much videogames as Balloon Fight or Ice Climber, where the goal in need of being accomplished is mostly understandable from the player's first glance at the screen. Dragon Quest's evolution of the form of the traditional videogame is that it requires a button-press for the player to understand what he's capable of doing. Press the A button, and a list of options pops up in the upper-left of the screen. The choices available are "Talk," "Look," "Tools," "Magic," "Stairs," "Door," "Equip," and "Status." These choices are not entirely self-explanatory. A little digging, however, and the player intrigued into playing will find the game simply playable. This formula has sustained the series through nearly twenty years of multi-million-selling success, and Dragon Quest is indisputably the one series of videogames that Japanese people, as a people, play. It never feels like something that belongs to anyone other than the player, which is why writers for Japanese magazines are able to write about the game so proudly. One magazine proudly reported that approximately two people in each car on each train on the Yamanote Line in central Tokyo, at that very moment, owned a copy of Dragon Quest VII for PlayStation. That game had just sold a record-breaking seven million and some copies in a furious display that had resulted in, among other things, a lucky little kid getting the back of his head clubbed by a guy on a scooter, who proceeded to snatch up his game and speed away, never to be found.

No one, on the record, got beaten up over the original Mother, based on a not-so-popular novel of the mid-1980s. Mother, released in 1989, was, according to producer Shigesato Itoi, "Like Dragon Quest — only with a different name." Unlike Dragon Quest, Mother's story took place in a modern setting, strangely enough America of what might have been the 1950s. The hero, Ness, uses a baseball bat as a weapon, and his great enemy is an alien intent on invading earth. The game tells its story with as few spectacular flourishes as possible, and coasts toward its conclusion as the most competent Dragon Quest rip-off ever constructed, even until today.[2] If one wanted to say that Mother goes wrong somewhere in its imitation of Dragon Quest, one could most easily point to the game's tenacious difficulty. It's almost as if, at parts, the game doesn't want you to win. Some players complained. Some players gave up. Dragon Quest IV then proceeded to sell ridiculous numbers. Mother was, in many ways, a flash in the pan, made at the height of the Famicom's popularity by a man who, among other things, hosted a popular television series, wrote the occasional novel, and is renowned even now as the greatest interviewer of Japanese celebrities.[3] Also in 1989, television celebrity and comedian-soon-to-turn-movie-director "Beat" Takeshi Kitano produced the legendary game Takeshi no chousenjou, which is legendary in that it opens with the disclaimer "This game is made by a man who hates videogames" and features a final boss that requires 20,000 hits to kill.

Something or other must have clicked in Itoi's brain between 1989 and 1991, when he began work on Mother 2. It was obvious from the start that Beat Takeshi, then just getting started on his movie-directing career, never intended to make another videogame. His first and last game was something of a big practical joke. Takeshi's only reason for making it was so that guys like me could sit here fifteen years later and write about how the game caused thousands upon thousands of little kids to call Nintendo's hint lines weeping. I take it that Itoi looked at that game and thought, simply, "So that's a what a videogame is."

Chousenjou evokes, if nothing else, the very manifestation of that dark feeling you first felt when you played a game you didn't like. What is it about games we don't like? It's a very different feeling from not liking a movie. A movie continues on, believing in itself, even if we don't think its jokes are at all funny. A game lets us put down the controller and say we've had enough. When we do this, however, it's not done without a certain feeling of guilt. Games require an investment of self to even begin playing them. To put one down without completing it requires the player to first understand how much of his input is going to be necessary to see the game forward to its conclusion. This creates within the player a feeling of something that never will be because they lack the strength to continue. To give up a game requires us to first give up a part of ourselves. It's this feeling that Takeshi no chousenjou seeks to evoke in everyone. Beat Takeshi, a man capable of making films that evoke elements of the human experience people are capable of identifying with, is also capable of great mischief. His only gaming attempt was a successful one at accomplishing great mischief.[4]

Itoi was armed with a certain number of tools before he began conceptual work on Mother 2. He'd copy-edited a newspaper and had even tried his hand at writing manga. He'd hosted a television show where he took cameras around on investigative reports to subway tunnels, which gave birth to a genre of reality television that continues to clog airways in Japan today. He once did a not-entirely-successful investigation of some pretty ordinary tunnels in some pretty ordinary mountains, as well. When asked his occupation, he'd most likely reply that he was a journalist, which is probably why master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki cast him as the voice of the father character in the legendary film "My Neighbor Totoro." The choice baffled millions of Japanese at the time, though Miyazaki asserted he had chosen a journalist because journalists are honest tellers of the truth to honest people.

Perhaps the sharpest of Itoi's tools is his literary background. Not only is he a rather devoted fan of Japanese postmodern masterpiece novelist Kobo Abe, he's friends with Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Murakami's novels no doubt influenced some of the bold themes that Mother 2 tackles. Murakami and Itoi, in fact, had penned a short story collection in 1986, one called Yume de aimashou ("Let's meet in a dream"). That collection, claimed Murakami's introduction, had no idea what it was trying to accomplish. The pieces within are not short stories, nor are they essays. They are simply things that the authors wrote to amuse themselves. The collection ended up amusing a million or so Japanese people as well. In the author photo, Itoi is the bushy-haired guy on the bicycle.

The scattershot method that had produced Yume de aimashou was also used in Mother 2. Itoi says that Mother was more or less based verbatim on the story of the novel. The only challenge was twisting the novel's story so that it fit into the context of a videogame. Battles, for example, which had to exist for the game to be a worthwhile Dragon Quest clone, had to be explained in supplemental story material. Mother 2, says Itoi, was written much less like a novel or a videogame adaptation of a novel and more like a newspaper. The producer's job in the production of the game was akin to that of a copy-editor. Rather than write stories, the copy-editor has to look at all the stories that other editors have written, and face the most difficult decisions that come with putting together a newspaper: that is, the positioning of the stories on the page. In videogames and in newspapers, the positioning of the elements is far more key, says Itoi, than the quality of the elements themselves.

Hideo Kojima, something of a Mother 2 fan, disagrees with this, though only in practice. Kojima's recent masterwork Metal Gear Solid 2 was written entirely by Kojima. The story of that game involves a super-spy being killed on a tanker ship, and his successor attacking terrorists on board an offshore oil spill containment facility. In the end, the protagonist's struggle is revealed to be something of a living simulation of the battles fought by the protagonist of the previous game. Kojima, as big a fan of Kobo Abe as Itoi, says this was deliberate, in that he wanted to tell a story that could "only be told in a videogame, about a videogame, as a videogame." Kojima wrote every line of dialogue for every scene of that game that included dialogue.

Itoi wrote almost every text window in Mother 2. There's no existing tally of which lines he didn't write, and who wrote them, at any rate. It doesn't entirely matter. A second play-through of Mother 2 will reveal to the player that the positioning of the elements of the game is in far more delicate a balance than anything else. Mother 2 is a game fraught with long, bewildering spells of uneasiness. The whole beginning of the game, for one thing, where the player is alone in his hometown, reeks of loneliness. When the hero and his friend journey into the reverse side of the metropolis Fourside via a portal in the back wall of a jazz cafe, the fifteen-year-old me felt something like nausea. For an hour or more of the game, the player wanders through a town where the background is black, the buildings are upside-down, and the citizens are sometimes invisible. When the player enters Magicant, the world inside the hero's mind, the monsters may just be too strong to defeat. It might just be impossible to gain the right number of levels needed to successfully progress. Yet some set-pieces are bursting joys to play, like the traffic jam on the desert highway. What sounds like a mundane set-up actually turns out to love the player far more completely than segments involving magic, psychic powers, or dinosaurs. In this traffic-jam segment, the heroes depart a bus, enter a little roadside drugstore, and then, if they choose, wander the desert a bit. The only wandering that's necessary takes them to the far right side of the map, where a man has set up a small hut for the purpose of having a place to stay while he digs into the earth, confident he'll find something. Stay at his house, and when you wake up, you'll find the traffic jam has cleared up, and you are free to enter the tunnel and cross into the big city of Fourside for the first time. What, exactly, transpires over the course of the night, you don't know. It's not the point. Traffic jams, as traffic jams, clear up. It's what they do. They wouldn't be traffic jams unless they cleared up at some point. Even after the traffic jam clears up, however, the music will resemble a blend of three lazy Mexican radio stations, complete with static. Should the player wander the desert some more before or after staying at the roadside shack, he might find a black sesame seed, a single pixel in height and width, buried in the sand. The black sesame seed is lonesome without the white sesame seed. He says the white sesame seed is somewhere in the desert. If you could find it, and tell it the black sesame seed's story, the black sesame seed would appreciate it. You can find the white sesame seed if you want. Should you do this, you get no reward aside from heatstroke. Yes, the desert is the only place in the game you can get heatstroke. Heatstroke acts a lot like poison, draining hit points with each footstep. Sometimes, in battle — with UFOs, spontaneously combusting oak trees, and raging buffalo, as the desert would have it — your characters will pass out from the heat. The only cure for heatstroke is, of course, the wet towel, sold only at the roadside drugstore.

What is this desert event, in the context of the game? Just prior to entering the desert, the players triumph over a great evil blob in an underground factory near the town of Threed. The blob, Master Belch, had been, up until the heroes arrive, terrorizing the commune of Mister Saturn. Mister Saturn are little big-nosed, mustached, bowtie-headed, beady-eyed creatures that all refer to themselves as "Mister Saturn." Speaking in a dialect that overuses the word "Boing" and tactfully uses a font designed by Itoi himself.[5] They help our heroes because our heroes need to earn access to the sacred sanctuary behind their city, and in order to do that, they need to first kill Master Belch. How do our heroes stumble upon the Mister Saturn commune in the first place? Well, the village is accessible only by a ladder in the woods north of the town of Threed. Threed, prior to our two heroes' arrival, had been plunged into an eternal nightfall, and also under siege of zombies. Our two heroes, Paula and Ness, investigate the zombie problem a little bit, only to be kidnapped by a woman at the inn, who assaults them with a crash of music we'll only hear once in the game. They wake up in a cave, lost. Paula uses her psychic powers to call to their friend Jeff, a student at a boarding school in the city of Winters. We then awaken, as Jeff, and break out of the boarding school. We enter a small dungeon constructed by a man called "Brickroad." It's not too complicated, as dungeons run. It has some nice music, though. We cross a lake called Loch Tess on the back of the Loch Tess Monster, attracted with the help of a gum-chewing monkey. It's then on to Stonehenge and the laboratory of Dr. Andonuts, Jeff's uncle, a brilliant scientist, and a man who seems to not remember being Jeff's uncle. The music in his laboratory, heard only once in the game, is a forty-second hum of bass with a spare electone melody. After forty seconds, there's a two-second skip, and then the melody plays again in reverse. We need to spend a lot more time in Dr. Andonuts' laboratory than is necessary to finally realize the secret of this piece of music. When all is said and done, we board Dr. Andonuts' spaceship, and fly it to where Ness and Paula are holed up. We break out, use an invention called Zombie Paper to attract all of the zombies in Threed to the circus tent in the middle of town, and then descend that ladder that a gaggle of zombies were previously guarding. This takes us down the lush, green path toward Saturn Valley and Master Belch. When we finish our quest at Mister Saturn's request, we have a cup of coffee, and the screen fades out, trippy new-age music plays, and text tells us that we've now completed about a quarter of the game, and gone some pretty crazy places in the course of it. It then promises plenty more to come. It might be cautioning us to quit if we don't think we'll be able to handle it.

Back in town, the buses are running, and one of them takes us through the tunnel to Fourside. Only it gets stopped in the middle of the desert, and we're told we have to walk. Our previous bus trip wasn't much of a success, either — we hitched a ride in the tour bus of The Runaway Five, a blues band whose live shows set the stage for many later pieces of the game. Using money earned from gangsters, we pay the band's debt to the local club owner, and they're so happy they drive us through the tunnel to Threed, playing their music loudly enough to scare away the ghosts. The ghosts were why we couldn't get through before, see. They then drop us off in Threed, where destiny beckons, so they can be on their way to Fourside. We eventually meet up with them in Fourside, where they're again in need of money.

The desert between Threed and Fourside is an ambiguous event. It comes so soon after the game's imposed "coffee break," and the majority of the walking around in the sun and getting heatstroke can be avoided if you know that all you have to do is stay at the guy's house and move on. Certainly, other role-playing games before 1994 had featured events that left the player feeling as though wandering aimlessly. Many RPGs even now force players to scream, at times, about not knowing what they're supposed to do. Most of these games do so in events where the solution is so stupidly obvious that many players might give up immediately upon discovering it. Mother 2's desert is one such event. Only evidence points to its being constructed that way on purpose.

Later in the game, of course, the player is going to come back to the desert, to enter the cave that the man was digging. You're also going to come back to explore the monkey cave, a fun yet horribly taxing little item-trading side quest with some worthwhile rewards. The desert, then, in addition to foreshadowing future events, is a collection of ideas. The ideas are numerous: a stage that centers on a traffic jam, a stage that features a status ailment that can't be obtained anywhere else, and a side quest (the sesame seeds) that offers no reward, to name a few. The latter of these ideas, most specifically, indicates that Mother 2 is, as Hideo Kojima puts it, aware of its status as a videogame.


Mother was a videogame. Dragon Quest continues to be a videogame even today. It wasn't until Metal Gear Solid 2 that a videogame stood up and said, "Hey, this is a videogame"[6], and when it did that, a hell of a lot of people were annoyed. Mother 2 lets you know that it knows you're playing it as a videogame. The more engrossed player will detect the game's nods and feel appropriately creeped-out by them from the desert scene on. However, no player who reaches the end of the game will do so without feeling a deep, sickening, sinking lump of dread for the story's power, and it's for that one moment right at the end that the game becomes literature. By "literature," I don't mean literature in the War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, or Bridget Jones' Diary sense. I don't mean it's literature because it's a book, in bound form, which tells a story in the way books tell stories. I mean it is a work of deep, invested storyline significance which, in a climax, evokes a powerful catharsis that calls to mind all events that preceded the climactic one.

Hideo Kojima disagrees with me halfway on this assessment. He says that the game cannot be considered literature because it cannot, in the future, be picked up by just anyone and be appreciated as Kojima or myself might appreciate it even today. In a way, he's right. However, as I pointed out, a novel in English won't be much immediate use to an alien six billion years from now, one with no knowledge of the English language. He'd need to invest a lot of time in deciphering it, or at least find enough other materials in English to teach himself English. Kojima sees the point. However, he says, the medium of the videogame is far more exclusive than the medium of the printed novel. My hypothetical alien from six billion years in the future, were he to find a Mother 2 cartridge, would have a hell of a time finding a Super Famicom, a television with at least two AV input jacks, an AV cable, an AC adaptor, and a working controller. Even then, he'd have to understand Japanese (or English, if we're talking about Earthbound and a Super Nintendo) in order to get the slightest idea what the game was talking about. Even then, I asked, would the game's significance strike as what Kojima and I had coined "The literature of the moment"?

"Well, probably," was Kojima's answer.

Ah-HA!

Though, Kojima asked, what, really, is the point of Mother 2? It's trying to make a point about videogames, and that they're played by the player, and moved forward only by the whims of the player? That, in the end, kids should get outside and interact in a real-world environment?[7] What would this teach to a hypothetical future-alien who knew nothing of these transitory medium we call "videogames"?

"That human beings, as a race — and more specifically human beings that spoke a language called Japanese — liked to create wells of storytelling that constantly made reference to the way the story was being told?"

"Well . . . yeah."

"So the point is that we humans like to make stories that are artistic because they let people know the stories are merely stories?"

"I suppose so."

"That's postmodernism."

"I suppose so."

Kojima sneered at this. Keep in mind that he was pretending he didn't believe his game was any kind of artistic statement. "It was just something intended to entertain the people who played it, while they played it."

"And it couldn't entertain anyone else, after the fact?"

"It might entertain someone somehow. I'm just not sure it would entertain them the way it entertained the first people who played it."

By "entertained," Kojima means "infuriated." The first people to play Metal Gear Solid 2 had no idea that the series' beloved manly hero, Solid Snake, wasn't even the main character of the game. He disappears a fifth of the way through, only to appear again as an aide of sorts to the real hero, a blond-haired girly man codenamed Raiden. Kojima knew that the gamers of the world wanted Solid Snake as their hero, and he met their desire the way Andy Kaufman once treated a crowd of college students thirsty for his trademark impressions with a full-length reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby: by giving them the girliest-looking, flakiest hero he could, one whose girlfriend won't stop calling him on a military radio frequency during the top-secret mission to rescue the president.

"Most people who wanted Solid Snake were just fans of Metal Gear Solid," Kojima says. "They didn't know the old Metal Gear games. So I thought it was a worthwhile joke to make the game about the previous game in a way that kind of neglected the earliest games." Kojima expresses a little bitterness for the game's title being Metal Gear Solid 2 — "Metal Gear Solid was actually just Metal Gear 3. I wanted to add a different suffix for the next sequel, though apparently 'Solid' had become irremovable from the title for American audiences. So I made the game Metal Gear Solid 2 in as many more ways than one as I possibly could."

Hideo Kojima, for the record, is very, very tired of Metal Gear Solid games. He is also the vice-president of his company.

Shigesato Itoi was a celebrity outside the company of Nintendo when he made Mother 2. It was Shigeru Miyamoto, legendary creator of Mario and Zelda, that believed in Itoi enough to allow him to make Mother in the first place. Where Kojima's postmodern practical joke of a game was made out of wry, clever bitterness, Itoi's was made out of what I surmise is genuine hope for the future of the medium.

This all comes back around to disappointment. The easiest way for a game producer to make a player feel a strong feeling during the course of a videogame is to evoke disappointment. Beat Takeshi, with his first and last videogame, created a videogame that riffs on human disappointment for as many hours as the player is willing to search for redemption. Metal Gear Solid 2 confuses the disappointed player by allowing him to figure out that the character of Raiden operates with the same efficiency and ease of movement — hell, he's a little more graceful — as Solid Snake, all the while in view of the Solid Snake character as he leads us around. Mother 2 disappoints us in videogamey moments that are more or less sad. Each one is polished to a point where it's almost like a real-life lesson.

Take, for example, the bicycle. The player, alone as Ness, journeys out of his hometown following a meteorite crash. To do this, he has to first convince the police to remove a roadblock. The only way to do this, of course, is to amass enough popularity and local fame to attract the police force's attention. When summoned to speak with the police, of course, they all gang up on and attack you. Defeat them, and they'll remove the roadblock. You're free to travel to Twoson, a town slightly more autumn-like than your homeland of Onett, and with much more autumn-like music, and even an open-air market. The man who owns the bicycle shop, explaining that you look like "a guy who gets around," gives you one of his bicycles for free, thinking it'll be a good advertisement for his shop. You're free to ride that bike all throughout town until you enter the wilderness leading to the small shack where Paula, your second party member, is being held. Rescue her — from your odd next-door neighbor Pokey, no less — and you have a traveling companion at last. However, you can no longer ride the bicycle ever again. You've been able to ride it for only an hour or so of the game, and now you can't ride it again. The game tells you, of course, that it's because it's rude to ride a bicycle while you have three friends traveling with you. Why can't you buy three more bicycles, then? No — the game doesn't work that way.

When the final boss is defeated, Mother 2 riffs on the original Dragon Quest one last, long time. In that game, when you defeated the Dragon Lord, you had to walk all the way back to the first castle. Normally, walking any distance in a Dragon Quest game is a kind of chore. You're going to get into battles, and that's going to deplete your hit points, no matter how strong you are. If you're strong enough, of course, you'll be able to conquer your main goal with no trouble. So the battles on the way to a goal take on a feeling much unlike the battles you fight in order to gain levels. However, at the end of the game, none of this is relevant. On your final walk to the first castle, all of the poison marshes have been replaced with flowers, and all of the enemies are gone. Mother 2 repeats this kind of device in its ending, only it lets you walk literally anywhere in the game world in your journey back to your mother's house, where the credit sequence begins; all of the places you visit provide interesting experiences, and every townsperson says something new. Should you so choose, you can walk all the way from the town of Scaraba and into the Deep Darkness Jungle. Around this time, you might remember that you have a bicycle somewhere. And you might also, finally, realize that your three partners have gone back to their respective homes. You're free to ride the bike. You might have put it away, into storage, so you'll have to call your sister from a payphone. You probably don't have any money, so you have to use your cash card to withdraw some from an ATM before you can call your sister. She'll send the bicycle via the curious courier service she runs out of her bedroom, and you can then ride your bike through the desert and into the waters of the rainforest. The sound of the bike pedaling through the water is eerie. It's something you've never heard in the game before. Not only that, it's something you could have very well played the whole game without ever having heard.

There are a few other things like this in the ending. I won't bother listing them all. That ending is like a giant puzzle, with no real reward for solving it. I love it.

Okay, well, here's one more thing from the ending: there's a doctor in the rainforest. On your first trip through, when the enemies are relentless, you'll no doubt be pretty beat-up. The doctor there will treat you; however, he won't do it for free. At this point, you're pretty far from civilization, and an attempted walk back isn't possible due to your physical condition. Here's where the man snorkeling in the river comes into play. He'll loan you some money, acting as an ATM. He'll also charge you a five-hundred-dollar fee for each transaction. Somehow, you end up owing this guy money. You have to pay him back at some point in the future, or he assures you he'll track you down.

Well, most people forget to pay him back. This results in your father calling your house after the credits to tell you that some man from the rainforest called him about some money owed. He informs you that he paid him back, and then hangs up, and that's how the game ends.

Yeah, these are quirky little postmodernisms that, at the least, will make any gamer smile while feeling weird about that smile. They are merely evidence of the game's wacky attention to videogames as a form of expression. They are not, however, the game's chief offering toward the cause of games as expression. In order to get into that, I need to start by talking about a house. The spoilers that will issue forth from here are more-spoiling spoilers than all the previous spoilers, so if you're thinking of playing this game and don't want to be forced to email me about how the game didn't amaze you at all, I suggest you don't read until my next multi-asterisk dividing line. Now I begin:

There's this house in the town of Onett. You see signs all around town, sometimes near signs like the one that says "Use the library more." The signs tell you there's a house for sale on the southwest side of Onett. It has a beautiful view of the lake, it says. Just inquire with the local real-estate agent, and he'll sell you the house. If you go down southwest and find the house, you'll see the blue-suited real-estate agent standing in the doorway. Talk to him, and he'll offer to sell you the place for just $10,000. At this early stage of the game, that's a hell of a lot of money. It's earnable, of course. It's just going to take some time. You earn money by fighting monsters. Kind of. Whenever you kill a monster, your dad deposits money into your bank account for a completely unrelated reason. Your neighbor Pokey claims this is possible because your dad borrowed a lot of money from his parents, "Maybe like a hundred thousand dollars, or maybe more!" You never find out how much it was your dad borrowed. However, the monsters in Onett aren't strong enough for you to earn $10,000 without losing half your mind. Even so, what do you need the house for? You have a house — your mother's house — up on the north side of town. The player who thinks within the game's world will never have to buy the house.

It's the breed of player most commonly referred to as a "gamer" that will need to buy the house. This gamer will come all the way back to Onett once he has enough money to buy the house. You can't buy the house during the game's ending, when you'll no doubt have more than $10,000 in the bank, because the real-estate agent is gone and the door is locked. You can't buy it past a certain point in the game, either, because once the endgame begins, Onett is invaded by aliens and plunged into eternal darkness until you kill the alien. If you want to buy the house, you have to come back at some reasonably early point in the game. When you buy the house, the real-estate agent takes your money and leaves the doorway. He runs all the way off-screen. You are then free to enter the house. When you go inside, you find that it's a run-down shack with wooden floors and walls. A few boards are missing. With the power of its pixels, the game shows you that the mattress in the middle of the floor has a few springs popping up out of its fabric. The back wall of the house — the third wall, as it were — is missing, and we can see the lake in the distance. The fourth wall is already gone — that's the wall through which we, the player, see our heroes standing in this dilapidated shack. We're looking at, essentially, a house with two walls. This can be construed as what Itoi thinks of the videogame as a medium — it is a house with two walls.

I can guarantee you that no fourteen-year-old gamer in 1994 was thinking about game-design-philosophy when he first entered that house. He was probably angry as hell. He'd just spent a few hours of his life — hours he can never get back — fighting monsters to earn money to buy a house that's missing a goddamned wall.

Then you open the dresser.

Dragon Quest games always let you open dressers. Nine times out of ten, there's nothing inside. Still, there are a lot of dressers, which amounts to a lot of things in dressers. Mother 2 doesn't let you look in dressers. However, in this purchased house, you can look in the dresser. Should you look, you are rewarded with . . . a magazine. You can't even carry this magazine with you. After reading it, Ness throws it back in the dresser. The story Ness reads, which comes from the Let's Meet in a Dream collection Shigesato Itoi wrote with Haruki Murakami, is basically this: a man and his wife go out to dinner and have an argument. On the drive back, the man is driving at dangerous speeds because of his anger. His wife isn't talking to him. He drives so fast that he gets pulled over by a police officer. The cop asks him if he has any idea how fast he was going. The man breaks out into a sweat. He then screams at the cop, "You don't understand — my wife is . . . pregnant!" The cop believes this. "She's . . . going into labor!" The cop asks if there's anything he can do. The man screams, "No! Stay back! This is a . . . demon child!"

That's where the story ends. The moral? Don't buy a house without inspecting the interior first.

There's one more thing that happens in the house, though. When you turn away from the dresser, a wandering photographer, one who's been photographing you at the oddest points in the game, spirals down out of the sky and offers to take your picture. He takes your picture, and then spirals back up. At the end of game, during the credits, when we see all these pictures that the photographer took, if we were compelled enough to buy the house, we'll see that one picture of our party in the house, and that's when it will finally hit us how damned funny it was.

In a piece of fiction, it's customary to bring back something that had been mostly forgotten. This gives the illusion of roundness in a story. In a newspaper, elements don't need to be repeated so much as they need to be placed. The initial placement of a story — the size of its headline, the accompanying photograph — is all that matters. Sometimes a story is too long to run on the front page without muscling some other, lesser story around, so it has to get cut off and allowed to continue somewhere else. In Itoi's newspaper called Mother 2, no stories are cut off. The stories are merely called finished at the places where a copy-editor might otherwise think they'd be best cut-off. When they're brought back up again, it's at moments opportune to the storytelling.

And what is this story that Mother 2 tells, and that I've been harping on for quite some time now? In all honesty, it's not much of a story. The first game was about an alien that traveled from the future to take over the earth. You played the part of a psychic young boy with a baseball bat who had to kill the alien. The sequel's premise is merely that the alien has come back, so you have to round up your friends and journey to the heart of the alien invasion. As in the first game, the hero has a mother who is always at home, who will always cook him his favorite meal if he comes back to his home town. His father is always at the office, and calling him from a payphone functions as the game's save system.

Because of the alien influence, animals and previously inanimate objects are acting strangely, which accounts for all of the monsters you're going to have to kill on your way to the end. On the way to the final confrontation, you'll sometimes enter parallel worlds, travel through an underground country where dinosaurs and humans coexist, and eventually come to grips with your role as the savior of the human race. In the end, you must time-travel back to when the alien first arrived on earth, which was at a time when the earth was not quite finished. To get there, you need to have your human souls removed from your human bodies and transplanted into robots, for some kind-of good reason. The act of being turned into a robot and killing an alien with a baseball bat, itself, doesn't indicate literary storytelling, however. No, if Mother 2 is literature, it is literature because of its literary moments. The above description of the house, itself, cannot convey the true literature of the moment. In order to understand the literature of that moment, you need to play it, unspoiled, and then proceed to finish the game, whereupon you will be reminded of the moment in the house. The rest of the literary moments of the game are, more or less, also married to the game's status as a game.

As a game, Mother 2 isn't much of a game. It's a Dragon Quest clone with a few sharp ideas that were never pursued further in other games, perhaps because there haven't been any other Mother games. For example, you can see your enemies on the world map as you walk around. If the enemies are on a higher level than you, they'll most likely try to attack you. You fight them, and you'll probably win. If you get to be a higher level than your enemies, they'll start to run away from you on the world map. If you chase them down from behind, you might be able to defeat them without a battle even taking place. That's not a bad deal. If an enemy approaches you from behind, the battle will begin with a swirl of red, with the enemies getting the first hit. During battle, due to the "Rolling Hit Point System," it's possible to take mortal damage and not die. Though the battle system is a simple first-person turn-based clicking-through-menus affair a la Dragon Quest, the "Rolling Hit Point System" adds a thin layer of real-time-y action: take a hit that causes "mortal damage" equal to or greater than your current hit point total, and the hit points will start counting down. This is when you start furiously tapping the A-button to speed through battle narration, trying to get back around to your turn, so you can quickly appropriate a healing on the person whose HP are ticking down. Sometimes you're successful, sometimes you're not. Usually you're not.

All this talk about battles; in truth, Mother 2 isn't a battling game. You do fight a lot of enemies, of course. However, it isn't the game's intention to have you fight constantly. This is evidenced in the amount of necessary fighting the game makes you do. Nine out of ten trips through the game, you're going to arrive at the final corridor to the final boss with an average character level of at least ninety. Sometimes, you'll even be on level ninety-nine. Even then, the enemies will still be able to kill you. Mother 2 offers no illusions that you'll be able to surmount any challenge merely by preparing yourself with copious practice. Each battle will remain, until the end, a little challenge of wits and luck. Sometimes it feels like it's mostly luck.


American gaming journalists who hyped Earthbound's release in the West, when trying to explain the game's "wacky wackiness," were forced to pretend they actually played the game. Rather than simply explain "It was a hit in Japan so it must be good," they went on and on about the "trippy battle backgrounds!" My god, they wouldn't shut up about those backgrounds. Yeah, sure, the battles all have swirling backgrounds. Hell, though, talking about those backgrounds is missing a hell of a lot of other points. For example, the music during those battles — there are nine whole different battle themes, including one that starts as a flute and bongos and later changes into some good drum-and-double-bass. The title screen sounds ripped from Metroid. Events of sometimes actual storyline significance involve piloting a Yellow Submarine and/or answering Beatles trivia questions. Rockabilly plays in department stores, blues plays on slow bus rides through the country, jazzed-up Beethoven plays in the big city, and when you fight the final boss, it's to eight-bit Famicom-quality music that suddenly explodes into death-metal of Contra instrumentation.

The music holds back nothing. It might be the most effective videogame soundtrack ever. Itoi says he wanted the game's soundtrack to contain all the kinds of music he listened to as a kid. He wanted the music to reflect a kind of dream-like America that he'll probably never see, where all the kids wear baseball caps and go to their mothers' houses for dinner and listen to the radios in their rooms when they're supposed to be sleeping. It's written on the back of the box that one should play the game with stereo and high volume. The first pages of the manual reiterate this, in a disclaimer paired with lyrics to a song called "Smiles and Tears," written by Shigesato Itoi. This is a song, the disclaimer tells you, that will play several times in the game. You'd best remember these lyrics, turn up your stereo volume, and sing along when the song comes up, if you hope to enjoy the game properly.

Itoi's method of enjoying a game properly, of course, lies in enjoying it the way he would enjoy it if he were playing. In an interview, he claims that his favorite memory of gaming would have to be the first time he played Dragon Quest, naturally. The circumstances under which he played Dragon Quest were kind of unique. He was bedridden with some illness that pained his breathing. Under a doctor's orders, he had to lie on his back all day for a week. During this week, he played Dragon Quest. This was 1986, of course, and back then, videogames couldn't display Japanese kanji characters. The games were written entirely in hiragana and katakana, the Japanese syllabic alphabets. Foreigners trying to learn Japanese will insist that kanji are a pain to learn, and maybe they are. However, the simple fact is that written Japanese is a true reader's language. Kanji, to someone fluent in the language, actually aid in reading more quickly. What this means is that many of the people who first played Dragon Quest ended up reading the game aloud, or else mumbling the text as it scrolled by. Itoi turned the game's text-scroll speed down so that he could keep up with the scroll during battles. When he fought battles, he'd deliver lines like "Billy deals seven damage to the Slime! The Slime is defeated!! Billy received two experience points and two gold!! What's this? The Slime left a treasure chest?" in a sports announcer kind of voice. When the king talked to the hero, he sounded noble. The princess sounded like a princess. Itoi claims his enjoyment of the game was increased exponentially by his relentless desire to read all its dialogue out loud.

By the time Mother 2 was released, Super Famicom games had been able to display kanji for nearly three years. Yet Itoi still chose to leave his game entirely in hiragana and katakana. He wanted players to, as he did with Dragon Quest, be encouraged to read his game aloud as they played.

This is to say, in the end, that Itoi is a brilliant game designer because he understands how people play games. Mother 2 is a glorious experience to read aloud, especially in its native Japanese. It's full of so many odd little wordplays and alliterative intricacies that it just screams to be read aloud. Nearly every line, even those that accentuate battle maneuvers, rolls off the tongue. That the lines so often include names that the player chose on his own only increases the player's enjoyment.

By 1994, a lot of RPGs had passed through the Japanese mainstream. The most popular of them had Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy in the title. In those games, you can name the heroes what you choose. In Final Fantasy, you can name pretty much anyone any name you choose, as long as it's fewer than six characters. In Dragon Quest, you get four letters, and you only get to name the hero. In Mother 2, you can name the hero, the girl, the friend, and the foreign stranger who make up the party. You can also name the hero's dog, favorite food, and favorite hobby. The favorite food is what your mother makes you whenever you stay at home for dinner. The favorite hobby (default: "Rock and roll") is the name of your strongest psychic attack power. All of these entry fields have defaults, of course. The hero's default name is "Ness." The girl is "Paula," the friend is "Jeff," and the foreign stranger is "Poo." Each of these default names can be changed to whatever the player may like. Or, you'll find if you click the "default" button again, there are three other choices for default names. Ness can become "John." Paula can be "Yoko." Jeff is "Paul," and Poo is "George." The dog, of course, is "Ringo."

Another of Ness's alternate names, in the Japanese version, is "Chinchin." This means "Penis."

This is evidence, then, that Itoi understood the trend of Japanese kids taking advantage of English characters to name their Final Fantasy IV hero "FUCK." On the one hand, it's smile-worthy that Itoi would think of something like this before making a game. It's a sign of his raw talent for making games. It makes me think, all the more, that he's probably a hell of a guy to talk to.

A little more investigation, however, reveals the true motive.

The ending of Mother 2 relies on a great coming-together of the game's content, execution, and many razor-sharp concepts. Paula, the psychic-girl character, has a battle command called "Pray," which, for the longest stretch of the game, does very close to absolutely nothing. Sometimes it heals your characters by a few tens of hit points. Sometimes it confuses everyone on the battlefield. In the final two stages of the final battle, after you've exhausted just about all of your consumable weapons, all you have left is that "Pray" command. Pray enough times, without skipping a turn, and eventually you'll start to see the people of the world, praying along with you. The game's journey, for the most part, focuses on a pilgrimage between eight sanctuaries, to collect the "eight melodies," which form the melody of the song "Smiles and Tears," which Itoi has insisted, in the instruction manual, you sing along with. So of course you have to pray eight times, and of course each of the people you see praying along with you belong in some way or another to those eight sanctuaries. Each prayer hurts the boss for huge damage. Once you pray eight times — and this is done while the boss is wailing on you and your three characters aside from Paula are hurrying to heal — the boss's form changes.

This time, the boss's attacks are ridiculous. You're getting your asses pummeled. You can't take much more of it. Most likely, you're running low on magic points. Paula prays one more time, only to be told "The prayer was absorbed into the darkness." Pray again and again, and each time, it will be "absorbed into the darkness."

So here's the situation: the people of the earth prayed to kill the alien. Their prayers hurt the alien a hell of a lot. However, the alien is still alive. The prayers, to clarify, were prayers of people in a videogame world, solicited by the girl-friend-of-the-hero character in a role-playing game about a hero killing an alien and saving the world. In this game, when one person in the party of four is dead, all of the menu borders are stained a kind of bloody-cheese-orange. In the final phase, your windows are most likely stained that kind of orange. When you issue the command to pray, though it's Paula who the game says prays, it's really the player who's pressing the buttons, probably angrily. The only thing that one might say is encouraging the player to press the button to make Paula pray is that the result from praying — "The prayer was absorbed into the darkness" — is consistently different from the result for the rest of the game leading up to that point. Eventually, after enough prayers, the result starts to change.

"___ ______ prayed."



"Giygas took 9999999 damage!"

The next turn, it's different.

"___ ___e__ prayed."



"_i_ ___e__ prayed."



"_i_ __ge__ prayed."



"_im __ge_s . . ."



"_im __gers . . ."



"_im _ogers . . ."



"_im Rogers . . ."



"Tim Rogers prayed . . ."



". . . Giygas was defeated!!"

I look at the screen, and think — wait a minute. How does the game know my name?

Then I think back to when I was wandering the desert. All throughout this game, there have been step-counter-based events. Like a good Dragon Quest game, Mother 2 hides certain pieces of information from you, like how many times you've fought Red Slimes since leaving your hometown. When you order a pizza, it is delivered to you after a certain number of steps. The game doesn't even feature an in-game timer.

At some point, when your concealed number of steps reaches half of the minimum number of steps required to arrive at the end of the game (or so I've heard it explained from a not-entirely-reliable source), a phone call comes on Ness's receiver telephone. Sometimes you get phone calls from your dad on that phone. He usually tells you that it's been too long (too many steps, that is) since the last time you called your mother, or saved the game. He tells you you should be resting by now. Then he hangs up. Well, this phone call is different. We don't know who it is. The guy doesn't identify himself, and we can only imagine that it's a guy.[8] He asks, "Hey, you."

"Yeah, you."

"No, not you — you, the guy playing the game."

"Yeah, what's your name? You better not lie to me."

He then offers you a sixteen-letter blank to fill in your name, spaces and all. Most players, at this point in the game, are softened up by the story's quirkiness. The beginning of the playing experience makes a ceremony out of naming your characters, and it even encourages you to name them stupid, silly things, all so that it can trick you into putting your genuine, real name into the blanks when prompted out of the blue, while walking between sesame seeds in the desert.

And then, when the final boss is killed, he's not killed because of the psychic powers of the hero and heroine. He's not killed because of the prayers of the people who need saving. He's killed because you want him to die. He's killed because you know, as a matter of course, that this is the end of the game, and you want the game to end. When he dies, he turns to television static and shrinks to a dot. The game then enters its ending.

The player is most likely wetting the controller in cold sweat at this point. At that point in your life, playing that game, you learn something about yourself that you can't fully explain. The final boss, whose face is, in the final phase, a reflection of the hero's face, becomes almost an object of pity.

I planned, when I started writing this, to tell a story here, about how Mother 2 made me a vegetarian. I'd talk about the comic artist I met and came to work for a few years back, and how she explained that upon finishing Mother 2, she too was a vegetarian. The gist of that story was going to be a confused wonderment over why the game made us stop eating meat, or even if it made us stop eating meat at all. Maybe it was something within ourselves that had changed, right at the end of the game? I have an old copy of Mother 2 on my futon here, bought from my favorite retro game store in Akihabara just last week. The player of all three previous quests, who named his hero "Tenchi" and Paula "Ryoko," committed the infernal sin of saving the game right before the walk down the final boss's corridor. The problem with saving the game down there is that there's no turning back. You can't walk through the towns of the game without killing the final boss first, and lord knows I love wandering the towns — random enemies and all — when there's a world to be saved. I got all the way to the final boss with his all-level-99 party. I still had some trouble in the fight. I got to the final prayer phases. The player's name was, I could tell before the final blank was filled, "Tanaka Shin'ichi." I felt horribly sad and alone looking at that ordinary Japanese name in the middle of this battle with an alien beast. It was an absolute piece of truth. There was no doubt in my mind — the man who had played this game before me had been named Shin'ichi Tanaka. It's almost as though, in letting go of the game, he's dead now. I feel a great mourning, and a great desire to wish mercy on his soul.

Or something like that.

No, really, it makes me feel something. It really does. I'm hamming it up a little here, though I honestly, really do feel something.

That's more than I can say about almost any other videogame. Sure, Final Fantasy VI, also a product of the great year of 1994, deals with themes of "teenage pregnancy" and features an "opera house sequence." While we may feel sad when Celes' grandfather-character Cid dies, at our fault, toward what do we direct that sadness?

That's right: the darkness. It's absorbed into the darkness.

Mother 2's voodoo curse is that it reflects something back at you if you put enough into it. It's the only videogame I've ever known to change people. And I'm not counting Ninja Gaiden, the sick hunting birds of which pushed my older brother to be short-tempered enough to break controllers with his clenching fists.


A lot of Japanese role-playing games since Mother 2 have ended with and/or centered around battles with God. On another day, we'll explore the Japanese cultural impetuses behind killing god in games about swords and fairies. Today, however, we'll only talk about being God in a videogame. The world bows to our button-presses. These games about killing God — Breath of Fire, Xenogears — never seem to make any bold points about anything outside the Bible or middle-school-level philosophy. In the end, the player's in-game avatars are strong enough to, quite literally, kill God. These games act, then, as though unaware of the power of their medium. Dragon Quest's virtue is that it understands its obligation to entertain. In entertaining, it allows the player to become as strong as he likes through much grueling preparation. By the end of Dragon Quest VII, for example, should you choose to unlock all of the bonuses and spend far too much time in the casino town (of which, of course, you are the master), you can enter a hidden dungeon that is untouchable unless you are on level 90-something. (You beat the game on around level forty, after more than a hundred hours of play.) The final boss of this final hidden dungeon is, of course, God. In Dragon Quest, then, you can defeat God only if you choose to. If you choose to play the game enough to become stronger than God, then so be it. It is never, however, the path the game pushes you to walk.

We're not God in Mother 2. We're not even a warrior strong enough to kill God. We're merely a psychic kid with a baseball bat, who manages to beat an alien pretty badly with his psychic powers and that baseball bat. He can't kill the alien, because he's a character who is a product of the world that also produced that alien. The only person who can will that alien dead is the player who is pressing the buttons. Should the player possess extra ingenuity and a knack for exploring, he'll be rewarded only with things such as hearing his bicycle breaks squeal beneath the waters of a rainforest. It's a statement that the game makes, and makes boldly, yet without rubbing your nose in it. The game exists only because you are here. Treat it nicely. There's nothing to gain from strangling it. Maybe there's nothing to gain from strangling anything?

What does the hero of Mother 2 aspire to be? A la Dragon Quest, he's a hero of the silent variety. He doesn't speak a line throughout the game. Shigesato Itoi of 1994 would most likely tell us that the hero aspires to be "The son of a good mother." He would tell us that videogames should be like mothers who cook us things we like, and who always know what's right for us. His idea, circa 1994, would be wholesome, and just as welcoming as Shigeru Miyamoto's assertion that videogames should be like playgrounds. Yet it is also disturbingly different — Miyamoto's ideal games are places. Itoi's ideal games are people. One of the two men has made a whole lot more games than the other. One is a confessed fan of the other. One doesn't play videogames at all, even his own, though he does lie about loving Pac-Man a lot more than he possibly can.

Itoi's Mother 3: The Last Days of the Pig Emperor has been in production for just short of nine years. Somewhere during those nine years, he developed his theory that games are like prostitutes, and started speaking outspokenly about it. At first he said that a game should be like a woman who waits for you at your home to rub your shoulders and your feet after a long day of work. Eventually, as he worked on Mother 3, he started to replace the term "woman" with "prostitute." Mother 3's story centers around a father, his two sons, and their dog, who are all separated in the beginning of the game. Eventually, they'll group together, I imagine. For the beginning, it seems, they are to split up and have their own adventures. The setting is a futuristic world wherein a pig-man has assumed command of the human population with his army of pig-robots. The story is said to deal with father-son themes, though there will no doubt be a mother character in there somewhere. Itoi has written the entire story from scratch, though it is rumored Pokey, the pesky neighbor from Mother 2, will return to wreak havoc. Fans have guessed that Pokey himself is the Pig Emperor (he does look kind of piggy in the nose, a little bit), and maybe they're right.

Mother 3 was first in production for the Nintendo 64 DD disk system, though since that system has long been stillborn and buried in a shoebox-sized coffin, the game was moved to the Gameboy Advance. This is kind of curious, because such a move requires the game to be what we'll call down-ported. Development house Brownie Brown, made up of ex-Squaresoft employees, ironically, has been left in charge of porting the game's characters and maps into Mother 2's graphical style. Itoi has joked on his blog, which covers numerous lovely topics, and very rarely mentions videogames, that he'd like to see the game receive a limited release on Super Famicom as well. Though it's most likely an idle joke, it's a perversely interesting idea. To release a high-profile videogame for a dead system so many years after the systems death is unheard of. It'd be bigger than releasing an album on vinyl, that's for sure. Lots of people release albums on vinyl. No one makes games for Super Famicom anymore. People still play them, though — once, in a job at an English school, I taught a lesson to a thirteen-year-old girl who told me her father was making her play "old videogames," and that the one at the top of the list was Mother 2.

If Mother 3 is released on Super Famicom, what will happen? I'd like to think it will sell well, at least in Japan. I'd love to think that it'll open, the first time, with a black screen that says "Sorry, all of your save files have been erased." That'd be amazing. At any rate, the Gameboy version might have some selling power in America, if things go right. I look forward to playing the game for many reasons, one of them being that I'd understand why Itoi now calls videogames prostitutes when he didn't call them prostitutes before. To me, the experience of replaying Mother 2 enough to write this article has been more like sitting in a chair while a woman rubs my shoulders and I stare across the room at a mirror, looking at my own face, with slight shame, while the woman rubs my shoulders.

If I had to put it into words, those are about the only ones I'd have.


In closing, Mother 2's graphics, at first jeered by critics worldwide as anti-progressive (at the same time, Final Fantasy VI was making strides toward photo-realistic backgrounds, for example), have at last begun to endear. Everything looks exactly as Itoi intended it. Itoi's lack of satisfaction with Mother 3 stems from the fact that the Nintendo 64 was strong enough for him to make the game look fancy, and that he wasn't sure he was making it look fancy enough. Mother 2, as a product of someone aware of the medium's limitations, looks perfect. As someone remarked to me quite recently, perhaps the pinnacle of the game's graphical perfection lies in that no character has more than one frame of animation. In Dragon Quest, the hero carries a sword in his right hand, so when his feet move in a walking animation, that sword has to move up and down as well. Ness, Mother 2's protagonist, wears a baseball cap tilted to one side. One of his hands is up. One of his feet is not touching the ground. When he walks, or even walks in place, all his sprite is doing is flipping back and forth. My friend and I thought about this for a couple of minutes. Was this a subtle parody of the Dragon Quest mystery ailment that forces all characters to walk in place constantly? Or was it something else?

Shigesato Itoi's other game, by the way, is Shigesato Itoi's Number-one Bass Fishing, for Super Famicom, Nintendo 64, and Gameboy Color. The game, a bass-fishing game, stars Shigesato Itoi as a photorealistic bass-fisherman who fishes for bass. I know a place where you can buy it for 36 yen for each system.


[1] Or, perhaps, if Super Mario World didn't exist, and everyone went about thinking that a better game than Super Mario Bros. 3 was yet to come.
[2] It's worth noting that, while so many critics (many of them Western) say Dragon Quest is a simple game that "anyone could have made," no one ever really tried to copy its formula verbatim outside of Itoi.
[3] His book-length interview of baseball player Ichiro Suzuki, released in 2003, is absolutely amazing even to non-fans of baseball. The first question Itoi asks is "Boxers or briefs?" Ichiro replies that he doesn't know what boxers are. What pursues is bizarrely enlightening.
[4] Who'd pay to see me play this game for twelve straight hours, all alone, trying not to cry?
[5] Itoi designed both the hiragana font, now famous among certain odd Japanese personal computer users, and the English font, slightly less popular among strange Western users.
[6] Though I do believe the game worded it best with "TURN THE GAME CONSOLE OFF NOW"
[7] Kojima's Bokura no Taiyou, which is equipped with a sun sensor that powers the hero's gun, forces players to defeat its most difficult enemies while standing outside.
[8] Some say that it's Shigesato Itoi himself, which doesn't sound too far-fetched.