One of Nintendo’s greatest storytelling achievements
Mother 3 is, at the same time, decidedly similar and completely different from Earthbound, its predecessor and a game whose catastrophic commercial run back in 1994 on the Super Nintendo did not stop a cult of unparalleled devotion and enthusiasm to develop around it. The shared quirks start and go through the setting, which is the one element that set Earthbound apart from pretty much every other RPG ever released, turning it into a curious and brightly shinning gem that succeeds mightily despite its technical simplicity.
Where most role-playing journeys are inspired by medieval motifs, building worlds out of swords, bows, armored heroes, wizards, monarchies, and towns stripped of commonplace technology, the Mother franchise subverts those concepts. Taking place in locations that are clearly rooted in modern-day America, it tasks average-looking folks – mostly children – with taking down some unbelievably powerful evil while going through situations and scenarios that are often highly satirical expositions on the absurdity of our contemporary times.
Health-regenerating potions are replaced by burgers. Normal melee weapons take a back seat to yo-yos and baseball bats. Castles and dungeons lose their place to skyscrapers and factories. Menacing evil soldiers become clumsy and clueless minions whose wickedness is so extreme it soars to humorously extravagant. Convoluted situations are resolved through weird and unexplainable turns of events instead of fully-formed twists. Gentle and friendly NPCs are frequently exchanged for sour, selfish, silly, and mocking characters. And tasks of daunting complexity sometimes turn into general futility.
Mother 3 takes that set of rules finely tuned by its prequels and implements it on new levels of weirdness, but under all outrageous insanity, it holds what is – by far – the most emotionally powerful plot ever unraveled during a Nintendo game. Tazmily Village is a town of such untouched naiveté that its inhabitants are unfamiliar with the concept of money, sharing services and products with one another in sheer good-will, and its tiny jail has yet to hold a prisoner.
That virginal peace, however, is placed in peril when their once quiet land suddenly becomes the target of a mysterious group with an equally enigmatic leader and inscrutable goals. Docile animals begin to transform into ferocious cyborgs due to cruel experiments; strange ships start to fly overhead; sudden natural disasters are triggered; and notions that were once alien to the people, such as commerce, and TVs – ironically labeled “Happy Boxes” – that are always turned on to broadcast propaganda are introduced.
Lives are obviously deeply changed, but one family in particular is brutally torn apart. Hinawa, the caring mother; Flint, the quiet father; and the twins Lucas – shy and unadventurous, and Claus – outgoing and brave, are the unit around which the core of the wonderful but heart-breaking script moves.
Instead of coming off as two pieces that do not fit together, the powerful emotional plot and the over-the-top quality that infiltrates all of the game’s corners counterbalance one another perfectly. Somehow, Mother 3 is able to craft a cloth where painful distress can coexist with a tribe of mystical transgenders that live to protect the world from doom, mazes of bathroom stalls, enemies that – instead of attacking – tell horrifying stories, and ailments like uncontrollable crying, nausea, and “strange feelings”.
Aside from overall quirkiness, the second bond Mother 3 shares with its predecessors is the battle system. Much like Ness in Earthbound, Lucas eventually heads out into the world with a set of three allies, and they will encounter hordes of enemies – in a non-random fashion, thankfully – against which they must fight in order to save the land from utter destruction.
Those confrontations are positively deep, and much of that depth comes from the unique abilities each member of the four-piece party carries. Both Lucas and Princess Kumatora are users of PSI, the series version of magical attacks, which come in the shape of psychic powers. However, while the former works as an assist character – as his capacity to heal others from negative stats, inflict ailments on enemies, and recover energy is far greater, Kumatora serves as an offensive ally due to her very wide range of elemental attacks.
Meanwhile, Duster – the thief – features numerous tricks that have a great range of effects on foes, and Boney – the dog – offers a standard physical attack and the sniffing ability, which gives players extra valuable information on the adversary.
In spite of the twelve-year gap that separates Earthbound from Mother 3, the Game Boy Advance game retains the same minimalistic battle presentation of Ness’ great adventure. Enemy sprites are shown in static form on the screen, the heroes are represented by boxes displaying both HP and PP, attacks are seen and heard through crude visual effects and sounds, and the events are narrated via sentences that sometimes take a turn towards the hilarious and unexpected. It is a setup that is undeniably archaic, but battles are very fun and engaging to play through regardless of that visual simplicity.
Like it happens on Earthbound, the battle system of Mother 3 holds the interesting twist that whatever damage is taken by player-controller characters is not counted immediately. Instead, as soon as an attack lands, the HP counter begins rolling down in order to account for the blow that has been received. Such pleasant oddity means that even if Lucas and his peers have taken mortal damage, it is still possible for them to act until the counter reaches 0.
By far, the greatest implication of that feature is that some battles – especially those against tough bosses – will gain a lot of excitement since players will have to be quick in their reasoning and in the selection of their moves so that they are either able to kill the foe before their party’s health is gone or heal a certain character before he faints. It is an amazing rush of adrenaline that easily overcomes the visual shortcomings of the battle system.
It is not all about recycling, though, as Mother 3 adds its own spice to the skirmishes through musical combos. The soundtrack to the skirmishes changes depending on the character that leads the opposing party, and if players are able to press the attack button in perfect synchrony with the song’s beat, they will be able to chain combos of up to 16 physical hits. Given the great variety of the tunes, not to mention their often irregular rhythm, activating and keeping those combos can be quite a challenge.
Fortunately, however, not only does putting enemies to sleep alter the background tune so that it exclusively features the beats, the game also gives players the opportunity to, at will, tackle practice battles against enemies they have already encountered so that the songs and beats can be mastered to their fullest.
The mastery of the songs is by no means required to clear the game, but it works as a fun mini-game of sorts to anyone who cares to try it. Landing those combos, though, can be quite important because Mother 3 packs a great deal of challenge, especially on its enemy-ridden dungeon-like segments. Fortunately, although the game utilizes a check point save system that sends players back to the last save point they have used whenever the whole party faints, those save points (that come in the shape of funny and thematically adherent frogs) are numerous and well-placed.
Where Mother 3 truly sets itself apart from Earthbound is in its structure. Earthbound’s great plot served as the support on which its two greatest starts, its gameplay and its setting, stood. Mother 3, meanwhile, completely inverts that configuration. Aware of the overwhelming power of its excellent story, the game opts to build itself around it.
That decision has two direct effects of opposite results. First of all, for the good, the game’s division in eight chapters allows the exploration of different characters and perspectives that, combined, highlight the complexity of its script by showcasing the same events through different eyes. During the first four chapters, players will switch between characters whose independent (and sometimes simultaneous) investigations and discoveries feed the greatness of its plot, hence creating a structure and progression that is very unique.
Unfortunately, those constant changes somehow hold the game back on the gameplay front. As a testament to the big scope of the storyline, and the length of the game – which clocks in at about thirty hours, the first three chapters work as a mere introduction to the real meat of the adventure, which comes in on chapter four when players finally take control of the party of heroes with whom they will rescue the world.
As a consequence, although the introductory three segments are fun and entertaining, they mostly achieve that through story, turning the gameplay into something minor and delaying the point when Mother 3 truly takes off and achieves cruise altitude. On the bright side, though, when compared to chapters four through eight, the game’s beginning (chapters one through three) is much briefer, meaning that a very considerable part of the title’s adventure takes place when all cylinders are going at their fastest speed.
The game’s general emphasis on story, however, hurts it quite a bit when it comes to its replay value, for much of its emotional weight is lost on repeated playthroughs, and the introductory plot-focused chapters – especially – can become a drag on replays.
On the technical front, Mother 3 is almost flawless. Its graphics are made of the same isometric sprite-based simplicity that was stamped right across Earthbound, but what truly elevates its visuals to remarkable heights is the incredible sensitivity in the use of its color palette. Without being colorful in an exaggerated way, the game comes alive in its contrast between dark and serious tones with bright shades that borrow a very light and cartoonish vibe to some enemies and scenario details. With those colors as its greatest ally, accompanied by its amazing soundtrack, the game creates an atmosphere that is as unforgettable as its astounding script and humor.
Mother 3 stands tall as one of Nintendo’s greatest achievements on the storytelling front. Through pixels and colors, the game tells a touching tale of great complexity that touches on family values, friendship, and offers some poignant undertones filled with political commentary. It pits good versus evil, nature versus industry, and money versus cordiality with great style, and tops it all off with gameplay, sarcasm, and pop-culture references inherited straight from its historic predecessor. The result could be no other than a game that, more than entertain, has the potential to generate both laughter and tears, and leave a strong mark on anyone that plays it.