Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's Itoi's World, Charlie Brown

For a kid who can’t do anything right, Charlie Brown sure does know how to capture the hearts of a nation.

Oct. 2, 1950, the first Peanuts comic strip ran in seven newspapers. Since then, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang have become cultural icons, as synonymous with American culture as baseball, apple pie and the paintings of Norman Rockwell. Charlie Brown’s animated exploits are now an indelible part of our holidays, and rarely does a Christmas, Thanksgiving or Halloween go by without the likes of Linus, Snoopy and Peppermint Patty performing their yearly rituals on our television screens. Even before passing away from the complications of colon cancer in February of 2000, Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang, was an American legend.

However, it seems that the unlucky kid in the yellow shirt and his precocious beagle have been an inspiration to more than just the people of the United States.

Approximately 7000 miles away from the land of Rock n’ Roll, Superman and I Love Lucy lives Shigesato Itoi, one of the most talented writers Japan has ever produced. During the late 80s, Itoi found himself leading a new project for the Japanese electronics giant, Nintendo. In yet another new situation of his already eclectic career, Itoi’s first foray into the video game market was to use the formula of the massively popular Dragon Quest series of video games, but present a story and style completely counter to what Dragon Quest had been delivering to eager players for the past three years. Instead of a testosterone-laden title dealing with dragons and glory, Itoi named his game after the gentle woman who raised us all: Mother. Friendly neighbors and typical kids next door littered the urban landscape, and in place of swords, castles and brawny warriors from the “times of yore” were baseball bats, shopping malls, and four young American children who set out to save the world from an alien invasion – or have fun trying.

According to Phil Sandhop, head of the unreleased English translation of Mother, Itoi’s game was designed to have a Peanuts “feel” in both the graphics and gameplay. Apparently, it was the programmers’ intent to make Mother seem more authentically American by alluding to one of the United States most cherished creations. After all, what could be more American than good ol’ Charlie Brown?

“I don’t believe that [Mother] was meant to directly copy Peanuts,” Sandhop explained in an interview with the retro-gaming website The Lost Levels, “but that’s what the designers knew the typical Japanese game player would perceive to be a typical American boy growing up outside a small town.”

Although as Sandhop suggests, the game is far from a mere copy of Schulz’s comic strip, the Schulzian influence on Mother is undeniable. At first glace, Mother could easily be mistaken for a Charlie Brown game. Ninten, the game’s main character, doesn’t just look like Charlie Brown; he almost IS Charlie Brown. From his bulbous nose and boyish grin to his slightly chubby stomach and cartoony, oval feet, Ninten is the spitting image of everyone’s favorite blockhead. The only difference is Ninten’s trademark red hat and a blue – not yellow – t-shirt. Furthermore, many of the locales that he and his friends travel to in Mother, like small, rural homes and an unassuming elementary school, could have flowed directly from Schulz’s pen.

But the similarities aren’t limited to just Ninten and the game’s landscape: One look at some of the other inhabitants of the world of Mother conjures memories of Chuck and the gang as well. One female character Ninten encounters during his journey wears glasses and has short, black hair, just like Peppermint Patty’s yes-woman, Marcie. Another character is surrounded by a perpetual cloud of dust and has a mass of unkempt, “naturally curly” locks. He (or possibly she) is a cross between Fredia, a girl who appears briefly in A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Pigpen, a chronically filthy yet perpetually polite young man of the Peanuts universe.

In Earth Bound, the Marcie look-alike sports pigtails instead of her old, Schulz-inspired hairdo, and the Pigpen-like character has cleaned up his act, losing the dust cloud completely. As Sandhop said in his Lost Levels interview, the revisions were probably made during the translation process to “make the game Peanut-less,” for fear that a Schulz lawsuit might spring up otherwise. Yet, in a seemingly counterproductive move, Ninten was reworked to receive a very Charlie Brownesque stripe on his shirt. (Good grief, Nintendo! Make up your minds!)

One of the hallmarks of Schultz’s comic is the fact that the youngsters often act like the adults, revealing deep thoughts and saying poignant words, yet they still display the qualities inherent in all children. While kids in the Peanuts world drag around security blankets, play football, and worry about homework, they also ponder the true meaning of life in very mature ways.

Once again, Itoi takes a page out of Charlie Brown’s book with the children of Mother. While they are saddled with the gargantuan task of defeating an evil alien presence, just like the Peanuts gang, Ninten and his friends still find time to interact with other kids their own age, enjoy a home cooked meal, go to school and develop their first crushes.

Part II: “I don’t believe in pain.”

It all begs a very simple question: Why? Aside from the American flavor Itoi was searching for, why was Peanuts such an influence on Mother? Itoi isn’t one to haphazardly throw elements into his games, as evidenced by the harrowingly long development cycles they often go through. With this in mind, we are left with several unanswered questions: Did Itoi have other motives in adding many Schulzian elements to Mother? And if so, what were they?

In an interview with journalist Charles T. Whipple entitled “Words of Wisdom,” Itoi remarked, “I don't believe in pain. I don't believe things should be difficult. I don't believe perseverance conquers all.” Although Itoi was talking about his own philosophy, it’s interesting to note that this is basically the underlying ideology of the Peanuts comics in a nutshell. Every year, Lucy sets up the football, telling Charlie Brown that she’ll actually allow him to kick it this time – and every year, poor Charlie Brown winds up flat on his back, wondering why he always falls for the same trick. Linus forgoes Trick-or-Treating each Halloween to wait in the pumpkin patch for a visit from the Great Pumpkin, but all he ever gets is a cold and a broken heart. And Snoopy is constantly trying his hand at being an author, yet everything he writes is barely fit to line Woodstock’s birdcage.

There are many more examples, but Schulz’s lesson is clear: There is such a thing as too much perseverance. Many Peanuts strips and television specials illustrate the consequences of this – namely, unnecessary pain and unhappiness. Charles Shultz wasn’t telling the people of America to never try to reach a goal nor attempt to better themselves; he was simply saying that after trying our best again and again, there eventually comes a time to move on. Like Linus tells Charlie Brown when he blows the spelling bee in the film Snoopy Come Home, “And the world didn’t come to an end, did it, Charlie Brown?”

Itoi has definitely applied this philosophy to his own life. Through much of the 90s, Itoi put his heart and soul into crafting Mother 3, even moving it to the lesser Nintendo 64 platform when the company abandoned the N64 Disk Drive. But as the end of the N64’s life span drew near, however, the humble Itoi knew it was time to put his baby on ice. The cancellation came as a huge shock to Mother fans, but the project was becoming increasingly unfeasible and was causing Itoi much hardship and pain. It hurt him greatly that he was disappointing his fans, but it would have hurt much more to rush the project thought to completion and deliver a substandard product.

Knowing this, it’s not a stretch to infer that even during his work on the original Mother, Itoi lived by his “too much perseverance causes harm” philosophy. There’s probably no better representation of this ideology in the U.S. than Schulz’s comic characters, and Itoi knew Japanese players already associated Peanuts with the small town America setting of Mother. It only made sense then, for both Itoi and the players, for Itoi to reference his kindred spirit, Charles Schulz, on the video screen.

Part III: Itoi’s Charlie Brown Nation?

Does this mean Itoi views America as a carefree world akin to Charlie Brown’s? Put simply, no. However lightheartedly they do so, Mother games often delve into human nature – and the results are less than flattering to mankind. The series is rife with humanity acting badly, from miserly band managers and power mad policemen to self-serving politicians and gangs of wayward teens. Itoi may be a dreamer, but he’s far too intelligent to think that the innocence of a Charlie Brown lifestyle could exist fulltime on a planet full of hate, war and money.

More likely, the Peanuts-like world of Mother is the way Itoi wishes America – and for that matter, life itself – were. How wonderful it would be if the only woes we ever faced were simplistic, childlike difficulties, and the answers to our problems always lied within ourselves!

How wonderful indeed – especially for a man like Shigesato Itoi, who has plenty of problems and questions he can’t answer on his own. When Itoi was young, his parents were divorced. Later, Itoi rallied against Japanese tradition and left his school, Hosei University, in his late teens. Branded an outcast by society, Itoi was left with nowhere to go but the streets. Most people would have turned to their family for help – but, with the divorce, Itoi's family had been shattered; besides, he had quit University. How could he ever go home now?

It was kind of like Trick-or-Treating all night and coming home with a bag full of rocks.

"I got a rock."
In the end, the world of Mother has little to do with America or even Charlie Brown, although it does resemble it. No, Mother isn’t about Charles Schulz or Peanuts, it’s the video representation of what Itoi wishes his childhood had been. With a broken-up family, an unwillingness to attend University like everyone else, and no place to call his own, Itoi was forced to grow up fast.

Through playing his games and examining his other works, it’s easy to see what an introspective man Itoi is. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mother is just another part of Itoi’s endless search for answers; or at the very least, comfort. His hunt for fulfillment and his desire for the “normal” family he missed out on in his younger years led Itoi to create an alternate childhood, a better one, for himself – and anyone else who was looking for one as well. Ninten's got everything one could ask for – a sister, a loving mother, and a father who works hard to support his family – and now, so could Itoi.

A person’s mother is supposed to be the one who will always love them no matter what. Fittingly, Mother was Itoi’s labor of love; unlike most other video games of the time (and current games, for that matter), Mother wasn’t a generic piece of crap slammed together in six months for the sole purpose of generating profits. Itoi's opus was a gift to anyone who never had someone to call mom or dad, or those who came from a broken family. In fact, it was surrogate mother for everyone who needed one, regardless of why. Like the exploits of Charlie Brown, Mother presented players with a kinder view of life they could escape into whenever they choose.

Part IV: A Boy Named Shigesato Itoi

The first animated Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, originally aired on CBS in the winter of 1965, when Itoi was about 17 years old. Near the end of this now-classic holiday tale, Charlie Brown is asked to bring back “a great big shiny aluminum Christmas tree” to be placed on stage during the children’s Christmas play. But good ol’ Charlie Brown goes with his heart, and instead of purchasing a more commercial product, he returns with a sickly, yet natural Christmas tree. At first, everyone is appalled with his choice. “I told you he’d goof it up. He’s not the kind you can depend on to do anything right,” says one little girl. “You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown,” adds another.

However, the Peanuts gang soon gives the little tree a second chance. “It’s not bad at all, really. It just needs a little love,” says Linus. They gather around and decorate it, and the once pathetic little tree stands beautiful and mighty.

In 1965, Itoi was a lot like that sad little tree. He was drifting through life aimlessly, with little hope. But, like that Charlie Brown tree, all he needed was “a little love” to blossom into something beautiful. By quitting University, Itoi had failed as far as conventional wisdom went; but after attending night school, putting in a lot of hard work, and a little help from his friends, he blossomed into one of the most sought-after copywriters in Japan. Soon, the kid who had dropped out of school was on televisions across Japan, reporting, hosting game shows, and more. And eventually, he would take the helm of the Mother series, a set of games that would inspire not only the people of Japan, but also fans in America. Against all odds, Itoi had become a Japanese cultural icon.

You know something? For a kid who couldn't do anything right, Shigesato Itoi sure knows how to capture the hearts of a nation.


Charlie Brown Christmas, A. 1965. Paramount.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. 1966. Paramount.
Offical Peanuts Website, The. (2005) Retrieved 12 Apr 2006.
Starmen.net. Retrieved 12 Apr 2006.
Whipple, Charles T. “Words of Wisdom.” Retrieved 12 Apr 2006.
Wirth, Jonathan. “Spotlight Earthbound.” (2003) Retrieved 12 Apr 2006.

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