This article is spoiler free.
7 years is probably not a traditional milestone to celebrate an anniversary, but then Mother 3 was never a traditional game, its tagline perfectly summed it up as “strange, funny and heartrendering” after all. Nevertheless, I felt that celebrating its anniversary this year, what with the announcement only a few days ago that it’s prequel, Mother 2, or Earthbound as it’s more commonly known, is finally getting a re-release (and acknowledgement from Nintendo at all) in America and a first time release in Europe this year means that this year is the last year the series can really exist in an environment where it’s only known to hardcore Nintendo fans and video game affecionados (although it’s unlikely to set the world on fire anyway).
Earthbound itself is merely a footnote when talking about its sequel, sure elements and a couple characters are repeated but Mother 2 and 3 are so far apart, some fan theories predict Mother 3 is actually a prequel! But it’s still an important footnote, being the only game in the series released outside of Japan. Earthbound was not a commercial success, but those who liked it, loved it and kept a part of it in them, and as the years past and the game became rarer, it had developed into a wonderful cult fanbase online, without which, the re-release this year wouldn’t have been possible. And neither would the translation of the game we’re talking about today.
Mother 3 never officially got a translation in English, if you play it on an emulator in English, see screenshots in English, it’s because of its dedicated fanbase, or more specifically Tom Ato of Starmen.net, who spent two year singlehandedly translating it so English fans could play the game, if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this article right now.
So clearly someone doesn’t spend two years coding and translating Japanese and a legion of people (over a million at this point) wouldn’t have found a way to play the game if it wasn’t something truly special, it would have to be something more than the sequel to “that quirky RPG where you fight a pile of puke” fortunately, it is, it is so much more. It’s almost an epic, tackling themes of loss, family, nature vs technology, the fall of utopia and so much more, seeing the change to the world through the eyes of an innocent child, with clear parallels to Nazism and this is no coincidence, Shigesato Itoi, more or less the series auteur, said he was heavily influenced by Agota Kristoff’s “The Notebook, and the game shares major themes and its lead characters names are the same as the books narrators. It’s interesting how he noted that the book read “like an RPG” whereas vice versa some have claimed Mother 3 as the closest video games have reached to literature.
On paper, it’s a crazy prospect, originally in development on the N64, the game was cancelled for many years before being revitalised for release on the Game Boy Advance, now sporting a look more reminiscent of Earthbound and truer to the series previous incantions. Whilst the early N64 footage looks interesting, and seems to contain elements of plot points that would be in the final game, it’s clear that game belongs on a 2D sprite plain, and if anything proves that the fanciest graphics and techniques aren’t the main ingredient to make a classic game, this is a 2D game that was on a system that was outdated, powered by clear nods to late 80’s RPG’s and a desire to tell a good story. If the story did more to address a commentary on the medium, it may have been regarded as a postmodern classic the way Bioshock, released a year later would, but sadly save for, one boss battle and the potential of the naming system, it sticks closely to traditional story structure and narrative.
But “traditional structure and narrative” are never a problem when they’re done well, through strong characterisation (again, props to Ato for really nailing this down in the translation) and decent pacing, as the game begins we are told “Welcome to Mother3 World” and by god Itoi went so far out of his way to create just that, every character has their own unique design and personality, creating that small town allowed him to really hone in on everyone involved. Minor characters have their own little arcs that you can completely miss as you progress through the storyline, and if you put in the effort to engage emotionally with these people, it makes the games ending all the more powerful.
Mother 3 takes place on the utopian Nowhere Islands, far away in both time and place from Earthbound’s pastiche of Americana, with clearly more of its homegrown Japanese influence on it, although the village in the early sections of the game isn’t dis-similar to that of a small town in say, a Western. The game mostly centres around Lucas and his family and how quickly it falls apart, within a short period of time into the game, things escalate and the family break in two, as strange creatures fusing of technology and nature begin to make the people of the idyllic Tazmily Village scared and sad for the first time, and then a bizarre army adorned with pig imagery begin to show up and slowly gain influence, introducing money and “happy boxes” that hypnotise the townsfolk (allegedly not a metaphor for television, but it makes you wonder…) the game takes a turn in its second half when the town is completely taken over by the Pigmask army, with Lucas essentially the leader of a 3 man (and dog) rebellion, uncovering the Pigmask’s dirty secrets and true plans and awakening ancient power to put things right on a roaring adventure through old castles, under the sea, a rock club, factories, mushroom tripping islands, and finally the “big” city.
Is it perfect? Of course not, the turn based battle system is horribly dated and incredibly slow (this is the same concern with a lot of Pokémon games), chapter 7 is far too long in comparison to the others and a big part of chapter 1 involves grinding for EXP, but really these minor things don’t dilute the experience, which I’m trying to really avoid spoiling for you because it’s something you have to see for yourself. It’s a world where mole crickets are sparring for a fight, where you can ride a table across a tunnel, and where tomboy princesses befriend monkeys and pigs sunbathe. And maybe one day soon you will get to visit that world as Nintendo intended, if Earthbound can be re-released, it opens that door for the rest of the series, I don’t think it is as big a crowd pleaser as Earthbound, but to me, it’s a richer experience, and you’ll never want to leave the world it creates.
The fan translation page
A really interesting (but spoiler heavy) interview with Itoi about the game
And here’s a couple bits I’ve written in the past about it.
Thoughts on the importance of the games character naming system
No #2 on my top ten games of all time list