This is part 4 of Wild MOTHER Party – a round table discussion on the MOTHER/EarthBound series of video games with series creator Shigesato Itoi, musician Maximum the Ryokun (of Maximum the Hormone) and Kenny Omega.
You’ll probably want to start with Part 1 if you’re just joining in.
This installment brings the focus towards the series’ distinctive soundtrack.
An Ear for Music
Itoi: No matter what specific role they play, when you’re working on a game, everyone on the team is focused on figuring out ways to make the game fun. But it’s important to give consideration to how you’re going to make the parts that aren’t fun, too.
Ryokun: Now that you mention it…
Itoi: Thinking through how to make the parts of a game that aren’t fun is like laying down a base coat of primer before you start painting a picture.
When I was making MOTHER, since the game is set in America, I decided to make Ana [the primary female character]’s house a church. And when we were working on the Eight Melodies, I told our composer I wanted hymns.
Now, hymns aren’t the most exciting form of music. They’re not supposed to get you fired up; they’re supposed to soothe your heart and calm you down. So with “unfun” details like this, we put a layer of primer on the series to paint our wilder creations on top of – characters like Belch, Mr. Saturn and so on.
That’s one important aspect of MOTHER’s development process that I remembered while we’ve been talking today.
Omega: Speaking of music, I remember how shocked I was when I first heard Giygas’ theme. It’s extremely strange.
Itoi: I had the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” in mind while we worked on Giygas’ music. I wanted it to have a very odd, alien feel, like you’re being taken away somewhere and don’t know where.
Ryokun: What’s your favorite piece of music from MOTHER, Mr. Itoi?
Itoi: This goes back to the idea I mentioned before, about the coat of primer, but I’m very fond of the Snowman music. It’s a cold, white base that invites you to build all sorts of things on top of it. It always relaxes me when I hear it, in some way.
Ryokun: I remember, back in the day, buying the MOTHER soundtrack and being real surprised to hear real instruments and voices singing – not the 8-bit music I expected!
Itoi: We recorded new versions of everything at a studio in England for that soundtrack.
Ryokun: I love the vocal versions, but there’s something great about those 8-bit sounds, too. Then you hear the bleep-bleep-bleep as you move around the menus, and it’s like that’s another part of the soundtrack, too.
Itoi: I started thinking about background music for MOTHER at the very beginning of the project, if that tells you how important I think game music is. On the Famicom [NES abroad], you’ve got very little memory to fit the whole entire game into, and we set aside an irresponsibly large amount of that memory for music.
Omega: My favorite MOTHER music is “Pollyanna.”
Itoi: “Pollyanna,” that’s a good one. Very cheerful.
Omega: it’s one of my go-to karaoke songs. [Everyone laughs.]
Ryokun: Now that we’re talking about music, I just thought of a time when MOTHER gave me a boost I really needed.
Ryokun: This is kind of a spoiler, so if you haven’t played it yet, cover your ears or something…
Anyway, part of MOTHER is basically about the power of music saving the world, yeah?
Itoi: Yeah, that’s fair.
Ryokun: Okay, so, this is back when I was in junior high, when I was at the age where you’re super convinced every choice you make is the right one. I was the kind of kid who’d overcommit himself to anything, as sort of self-affirmation.
So I’m in junior high, and I get a message saying this gang of kids from school are gonna kick my ass.
Omega: Wow, just like that, huh.
Ryokun: I was captain of the school rugby team, and I told them, “Just don’t bother us while we’re playing rugby!” I wanted to fight them off, like some heroic captain from a kids’ sports comic. Of course, in the end all I did was leave school early that day.
Ryokun: Which even I thought was pathetic. I felt like a failure as a rugby player. I’d never be that super-cool captain from the comics. “I guess that’s it,” I thought. “Rock music’s all I’ve got now.” Which became my mindset from then on.
And that’s about when I played MOTHER. When I was nice and impressionable. So when I beat it, it was like, “See? Music is it! MOTHER’s telling me to SING!” [Everyone laughs.]
Omega: There’s no arguing with destiny.
Itoi: When I say there’s power in music, I mean it, I really thought so. But it’s not a, “Music is magic, so let’s all rise up!” kind of power, though. It’s more, “You can hear a song, and it can make you mad in ways you don’t understand.”
Itoi: As a game, MOTHER isn’t just about how many hits you get in, or how many points you score; it’s not a normal battle. I wanted to tell a story in a world like that. That was set in stone from the very, very beginning.