In 1994, Mother 2: Gigyas Strikes Back, the follow-up to Shigesato Itoi’s beloved Famicom game was released. It accomplished the impossible by eclipsing the seemingly insurmountable popularity of its predecessor. Although it took some time, the sentiment was eventually shared with Western gaming fans who knew the game as a standalone title named Earthbound. With two smashing successes under their belt, it wasn’t long before fans clamored for a sequel. They weren’t alone either; so great was Mr. Itoi’s own enthusiasm that he called the lead designer, Akihiko Miura, in the dead of night to inform him of his new idea for the series’ concluding installment before promptly being informed that “it wasn’t time for that”. In fact, he had this idea so early, it was originally slated to be released on the ill-fated Super Famicom CD, a peripheral for their 16-bit console made to compete with the Sega CD, their rival’s equivalent. The team behind Earthbound regrouped for its sequel, and in a daring move, they forewent the prototyping phase, going straight into development under the belief that they would create something unprecedented. Mr. Itoi is on record stating that he wanted to make the game like a Hollywood film. He and his team began the project in 1994, expecting to complete it in 1996 whereupon it would see the light of day on Nintendo’s then up-and-coming 3D console: the Nintendo 64.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for their plans to go awry. While Earthbound ran into its own problems, the Super Famicom was an established system, and any technical issues were solved once a gifted programmer named Satoru Iwata dealt them. The Nintendo 64 was a horse of a different color – especially in the mid-nineties when 3D gaming was in its primordial phase. That the hardware was largely experimental coupled with the team’s understandable lack of experience with it caused development to stall. Not helping was that Mr. Iwata had been promoted to president of HAL Laboratory, meaning he had far less time to work on the game, and in 1995, Mr. Itoi’s company, Ape Inc., became Creatures with many of its members proceeding to assist an up-and-coming designer named Satoshi Tajiri with a project of his own: Pokémon.
Despite these setbacks, by 1996, the game was in an advanced state under the working title of Mother 3: Strange Creatures Forest. During this, Nintendo tried once again to capitalize on the increasingly popular CD-ROM format that paved a golden road for Sony’s PlayStation console with their proposed Nintendo 64DD (Dynamic Drive). It was touted as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console,” which included features such as a real-time clock for persistent game world design, and expanded, rewritable data storage. Shortly after the technology’s announcement, it was decided that Mother 3 would be one of the system’s launch titles. Nintendo originally intended for the 64DD to be released in 1996 – the same year as the Nintendo 64, but it ran into numerous delays until it was pushed back to 1999. By then, interest in the product had waned, and it only boasted nine games in its library by the end of its run.
The tumultuous handling of the 64DD prompted Mr. Itoi and his team to downgrade their project to a simple Nintendo 64 title once more. By 1999, they managed to complete a playable demo which was showcased at Spaceworld, an annual video game trade event hosted by Nintendo. This time, the game had a definitive title: Mother 3: The Fall of the Pig King, and it was even scheduled for a North American release under the name Earthbound 64. As Earthbound gained a significant following in the West and it was a beloved classic in its native homeland, fans waited with bated breath to see what Mr. Itoi had in store for them. Their hope began to fade once the game was delayed again to 2000, yet failed to make an appearance at the E3 convention of the same year. With nothing to show for all of their hard work, Mr. Itoi announced the project’s cancelation in August of 2000, and it seemed his story would remain untold.
However, Shigeru Miyamoto was still interested in bringing the work to fruition. In 2003, the fans’ faith in the series was restored thanks to the release of Mother 1 + 2, a Game Boy Advance compilation port of Mr. Itoi’s first two games. A small message at the end of a TV advertisement stated, “We’re working on Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance…” Various people had approached Mr. Itoi for the proposal of film or novel adaptations of his canceled project, but he declined, believing it could only be a game and nothing else. Mr. Iwata speculated in hindsight that the game didn’t really need to be in 3D when his colleague’s talents lied in the written word, and Nintendo’s newest handheld console seemed to provide the perfect solution for their troubles. The machine would provide them with specifications similar to the tried-and-true Super Famicom, eliminating any uncertainties the team might have had. With an entirely different team formed by employees from two companies, HAL Laboratory and Brownie Brown, Mr. Itoi set forth to at last create the third and final installment of his series. The latter company was composed of former Squaresoft 2D artists, and one of its members, Nobuyuki Inoue, served as the director for Mother 3, having achieved success as the scenario writer and battle designer for Live A Live. This time, development progressed with little incident, and the game, now simply titled Mother 3, was finally released in 2006 – twelve years after its direct predecessor.
As the compilation Mother 1 + 2 was not released in the West, North American hobbyists attempted to persuade Nintendo to localize Mother 3. To ensure their pleas would not fall on deaf ears, they sent a petition that received over 30,000 signatures along with a book containing Earthbound art, stories, comics, and even music all made by fans. Sadly, these impressive efforts were for naught, as Nintendo announced that they were not interested in exporting Mother 3 overseas. Unwilling to let this deter them, the fans took it upon themselves to provide their own translation. The project was led by Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin, a professional translator who previously worked on anime such as Dragon Ball and Lupin the 3rd as well as other video games including Kingdom Hearts II. The process proved arduous, and Mr. Mandelin said that “no text display routine wound up untouched.” Even those with lesser roles were estimated to have spent anywhere from fifty to one-hundred hours while the leaders contributed one-thousand. Still, the team soldiered forward, and the patch was completed in 2008. Within its first week, it received over 100,000 downloads, and Mother 3 enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reception. Fans have been quick to point it out as one of the decade’s finest works – a sentiment echoed in several gaming publications – with some going as far as declaring it Mr. Itoi’s magnum opus.
Playing the Game
Mother 3 builds itself on the foundation of its predecessors, though there are several new features that experiment with series’ formula. Rather than pulling up the field command menu popularized by the original Dragon Quest, there is, at last, a button whose functions change depending on context. All one needs to do in order to talk to NPCs, read signs, or open boxes is get close enough to the character or object they wish to interact with and press the action button.
As before, there is no communal inventory bag; including equipped weapons and armor, each character is allowed to hold sixteen items. Only outside of combat are they permitted to trade among themselves. Essential items are placed in a separate area away from consumables, and are typically used automatically when they’re needed. This is another welcome change, as it means there’s no chance of having to backtrack when you realize you need a certain item to make progress, but deposited it to free up space under the impression that it wouldn’t be used again.Even though they have their place, and I’ve enjoyed several games that feature them, I typically don’t care for random encounters in JRPGs. When executed poorly, they make exploration tedious while bringing the pacing to a halt every time they occur; it can be especially bad in story-driven experiences. Mother 3 is avoids this problem, for similar to Earthbound, enemy parties are visible on the map; combat is triggered once they and the player character collide.
Combat is turn-based, functioning on a round-by-round basis. That is, you are made to input an action for each character in your party all at once. Speed determines the order in which participants act, and once each of them has had their turn, the round concludes. From here, the process begins anew, and it repeats until either the player characters or enemies have run out of HP or otherwise left the field.
The direction in which they’re facing before a battle begins is relevant as well. If you sneak up on an enemy, you can attack them from the back, giving you a free round before they can retaliate. It’s best to exercise caution, for the opposite holds true as well; if they instigate a fight by approaching your character’s back, they get a round to themselves before you can even do anything. Because of this, it’s usually a better idea to face enemies at all times and take any would-be challengers head-on.
Moreover, Mother 3 added the ability to run, though technically speaking, this isn’t unprecedented. The prototypical North American version of Mother, retroactively given the name Earthbound Beginnings once it was officially localized after its sequel, also included a run button. Granted, it was probably a last-minute addition, as the original lacked this feature and it caused NPCs to move a faster rate as well. Earthbound featured food items called “Skip Sandwiches” that, upon consumption, allowed Ness and his friends to move quickly for a brief duration. Where Mother 3 differs from its predecessors is how it impacts the gameplay. Rather than holding down the button while moving, you press it once, and your characters will begin running until they hit an obstacle. It comes across as a bit unwieldly compared to the alternative, but there’s a reason for this; once you overpower a given enemy, dashing into them will knock them away, avoiding a fight. It succeeds in expediting any backtracking you might do because you won’t have to waste time with weak encounters you can win without any strategy whatsoever. The only downside is that you don’t gain experience points or money by doing this, but chances are they probably wouldn’t give enough of either to justify fighting them in the first place anyway.
Mother 3 is notable for having caught on with the community long after the golden age of JRPGs had concluded. After ruling the nineties gaming scene, the 2000s saw something of a backlash against the genre. There are numerous reasons for this from the rise of Western RPGs to Squaresoft’s dubious actions regarding their big-budget titles costing them their credibility in the eyes of many an enthusiast. What’s also important to remember is the JRPG was not a genre that benefited from the 3D revolution of the mid-nineties. Sure, it allowed for a substantial presentation upgrade, but for the most part, the gameplay remained unchanged. As an unfortunate side effect, the greater emphasis on graphics and visuals invariably resulted in many works without a good sense of pacing. A single encounter could be resolved in a matter of seconds on the SNES, but on the PlayStation, it could take several minutes. Fans did put up with this under the pretense that the story would have an amazing payoff, but it wasn’t a sustainable design philosophy. There were some warning signs with many of Square’s big-budget releases in the late nineties having decidedly lackluster endings, but it wouldn’t truly become an issue until the following decade. At that point, they were free from their limitations, causing them to place a majority of their effort on visuals rather than engaging gameplay or an interesting story.
The takeaway from this is that Mother 3 managed to gain substantial popularity in a time when interest in the genre was at an all-time low. Therefore, it stands to reason that there was something about it other than merely being a sequel to an adored classic which caused those same people who criticized the JRPG’s conventions to embrace it wholeheartedly. Taking a few steps back to a more simplistic design motif in an era when huge projects universally focused on 3D and before 2D gaming saw a resurgence was a risk on the part of Mr. Itoi and his team. In regards to its gameplay, I would say it’s one that paid off. The battles are quick, the art style retains its personality, and the plot isn’t reliant on wandering aimlessly until you find the one person or object in the world capable of advancing it, which was easily the biggest weakness Earthbound had.
An aspect about Mother 3 I appreciate is how much more balance there is among the cast. Earthbound had solved many of the issues which plagued Earthbound Beginnings by featuring an overall better roster, but it did so by making the protagonist disproportionately more powerful than his peers. By the endgame, he was easily capable of carrying the team by himself. That’s not the case with Mother 3; the members of the final team all have their specialized role. The protagonist is a healer with good physical attacks, the female character specializes in offensive psychic maneuvers, and the latter two characters have no special powers to speak of, but make up for it by possessing the ability to use gadgets the others cannot and the highest speed growth respectively. It’s important to learn how your team operates because the boss fights are quite challenging. Anyone who attempts to blaze through the game using brute force is in for a rude awakening, and you will need to strategize in order to vanquish even the earliest bosses.
There were myriad reasons why Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound became such a hit upon release. Though it had no bearing on the gameplay itself, critics and fans alike were quick to point out the catchy soundtracks both titles had – both of which were arranged by a friend of Mr. Itoi: the leader of a Japanese alternative rock band named Keiichi Suzuki. Despite boasting a completely different composer, Shogo Sakai, Mother 3 is certainly no slouch in this regard, and it even manages to up the ante by incorporating it into the combat system. Each monster has its own leitmotif when faced in battle, and when one of your own characters attack, you can press the action button in rhythm to the track. Successful attempts will result in one or more follow-up attacks for diminishing returns on each one. One could think of it as the Earthbound trilogy’s take on the action commands which played a prominent part in RPGs featuring Nintendo’s mascot, Mario, such as Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario.
Mother 3 is not without its share of flaws, however, and there is a persistently irritating one that shows up whenever the two characters with psychic powers hone their skills. Once a certain level is passed, rather than obtaining a new technique right away, they develop a fever. Only when it passes are they able to make use of their power. On its own, this would be a mere cosmetic change, but if one of your characters is experiencing these fevers, you cannot run. This makes it much easier for enemies to get the drop on your party, and if you’re in a particularly hostile region, it could result in your party being defeated. Generally speaking, the only options for dealing with them are to slowly wade your way through the area, getting accosted by more enemies in the process or walk around in circles until the fever passes. I’m not sure how this made it past the playtesting phase. It’s possible it was meant to be an attempt at integrating story into the gameplay, but it only succeeds at inconveniencing the player. This is one of those mechanics of which the only improvement I can think of is to have never included it at all.
You also cannot run if one of your party members has zero HP. This means you are unable to evade enemies easily when getting in a fight is a terrible idea. Mercifully, it isn’t too glaring of a flaw because normal foes don’t pose nearly as much of a threat as bosses, and defeat isn’t punished too harshly, but it still feels like a design decision made by someone who doesn’t understand the minute difference between challenge and annoyance.
Even in the face of its downsides, there are many good things one can say about the gameplay, but it’s not the main attraction, is it? Mr. Itoi’s greatest appeal lies in his ability to conceive out-of-the-box, pensive scenarios, so I think it’s about time I talked about the real reason Mother 3 managed to garner a dedicated fanbase.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following story analysis will contain unmarked spoilers for the entire Earthbound trilogy.
Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound set themselves apart from your average JRPG by taking place in a world closely resembling that of real life. Mother 3 goes in a different direction from its predecessors; it’s set in the Nowhere Islands, an archipelago completely unnoticed by the rest of the world. The region’s sole community, Tazmily Village, brings to mind the Old West rather than contemporary America. Its people have no technology to speak of with its wooden houses even lacking electricity. It’s a utopia in which humans live in harmony with their environment. Money, war, and crime are entirely foreign concepts in this peaceful land.
Two of its denizens, Flint and Hinawa, are a lovely couple and parents to a pair of twin brothers: Lucas and Claus. The former is the protagonist of this game. In contrast to his outspoken, reckless brother or either of the previous main characters, he’s shy, reserved, and relies on his mother. Nonetheless, the twins care for each other, and like everyone else on the island, they lead a happy, uneventful life. One day, the islands were discovered by a mysterious force, shaking the society to its core, and changing the values of its people forever.
Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound were similar in that the plots revolved around their respective protagonists traveling the world in search of eight melodies. Mother 3 does deviate from this formula, but the concept of collecting eight important objects to save the world still manifests in a more roundabout way. This game’s story is divided into eight chapters, so one could consider the completion of one analogous to finding a melody in one of the older installments. When it comes to overall structure, Mother 3 greatly resembles Dragon Quest IV by casting a new viewpoint character for each chapter until the real protagonist permanently takes over. It makes for a novel framing device to be sure, as it gives the impression that the story is bigger than any one character – a considerably harder task for authors when they give the audience but a single perspective on the world.
Mother 3 also differs from the previous two installments in how the story presents itself. The skills Mr. Itoi developed as a copywriter translated to a minimalistic yet intriguing style that defined his debut game, Earthbound Beginnings. His ability was evident, but also somewhat lacking in direction, resulting in a plot that ran on a string of largely nonsensical ideas before culminating in an incredibly memorable, forward-looking ending. Playing his sophomore effort, Earthbound, demonstrates that he was able to refine his craft in the interim between installments, as the experience he crafted remains as fresh and interesting today as it was in 1994. For the series’ finale, Mr. Itoi opted for a novelist’s approach to storytelling, being markedly more dialogue-heavy than either of its predecessors.
As the player progresses through the first chapter, the tone of the game shifts dramatically. To begin with, Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound were both about foiling an alien invasion. In addition to fighting UFOs and Starmen, you often found yourself face-to-face with humans who had been driven temporarily insane by the antagonist’s evil influence. Here, something far more sinister is at work. An army known as the Pigmasks has been sent by their leader to the Nowhere Islands to experiment on the wildlife, transforming them into violent chimeras. One of these monstrosities goes berserk, killing Lucas’s mother. Claus disappears shortly thereafter, determined to avenge her death. While the first two games had dark elements throughout, Mother 3 is upfront about it, and it’s this moment that drives home just how high the stakes are.
Many fans have stated that Mother 3 features one of the best stories to grace the medium. The tagline of the game declares it “strange, funny, and heartrending,” and its supporters are quick to place it on a pedestal alongside classic literary works. I myself have certainly enjoyed games in which the writing was the primary selling point with Planescape: Torment being one of my personal favorites. Is Mother 3 in that league? The game doubtlessly received much care from its creator during development. It was a passion project in the truest sense of the term. It’s destined to leave an impact on those who make it to the end. After completing it and letting the experience settle in the back of my mind for some time, I can safely respond to that inquiry with a resounding “no.”
Anyone reading this who loves this game is probably wondering if I can explain my position. My reason is simple: Mother 3 has, by a significant margin, the worst story in the trilogy. How I developed my opinion, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated, so I feel the best way I can illustrate it is by providing the proper context within the game itself.
The best place to start would be with Hinawa’s death. I will give credit where it’s due and admit it’s an amazingly well-made cutscene. Flint, Lucas’s father, is the protagonist of this chapter, and thus doesn’t have any dialogue, but his grief is broadcasted through his actions; he lashes out at everyone around the campsite before being rendered unconscious.
It’s a very moving scene, but where it falls apart is in hindsight – everything tragic about Hinawa’s death lies solely in the fact that losing a parent, naturally or otherwise, is a universal concept. She was in exactly one scene alive before being unceremoniously killed for the sake of drama. In other words, we’re supposed to feel bad about her death entirely because she’s the protagonist’s mother, not because she was an actual character in her own right; Ness’s mother had more of a personality than Hinawa. Mr. Itoi even went a step further by allowing you to choose your own name for her along with the rest of the family should you so desire. He stated the reason for this was to give players the opportunity to name her after their own mother, making the moment that much more impactful. Excluding games made with the sole purpose to offend sensibilities, this is one of the most distasteful ideas any creator in this medium has ever had. It’s also pointless for anyone who uses defaults or those with a mother whose name exceeds the character limit. More to the point, it’s regrettable that he would stoop to such an insipidly manipulative tactic to get the player to care about Lucas and his family instead of giving them sympathetic personalities. Sadly, this is the least appalling mistake that will be made.
Although I enjoyed Dragon Quest IV, one of its most glaring flaws was that with each chapter, the new protagonist starts with zero EXP. This meant having to grind levels just to stand a chance against even the weakest of enemies no less than five times. Having a sixteen-year gap between those two releases, it’s reasonable to assume Mother 3 fares better when it comes to implementing this method of storytelling. The short answer is that it does and doesn’t at the same time. During the first two chapters, characters start at reasonably high levels, obviating to need to grind. While it may seem like an improvement at first, the perspective switches mean your character roster is changing all the time – sometimes occurring multiple times within the same chapter. This causes problems with the game’s flow, as you’ll be used to having characters fulfill certain roles only for them to leave abruptly, forcing you to change your tactics every time.
The pacing, which was erratic to begin with, then comes to a screeching halt in the third chapter wherein you assume control of a monkey named Salsa. The plot of this vignette is that a Pigmask commander named Fassad has captured Salsa’s girlfriend. Left with no choice but to obey his every command, Salsa is outfitted with a shock collar, which is activated every time he fails a task, and occasionally even when he succeeds. This is by far one of the most annoying sequences in any game I’ve ever played. As a damning testament to this game’s design philosophy, this was intentional. Salsa is pretty much worthless in combat; his attacks are weak, he can’t equip any weapons, he has no psychic powers, and his special abilities tend to be excessively situational to reliably use. Even after being forced to grind a few levels, something this game was deft at avoiding up until this point, the chapter’s first boss is practically undefeatable without Fassad’s assistance. You have no reason to trust this repugnant person, yet you must in order to progress. Interviews reveal the purpose of doing Fassad’s bidding is to induce Stockholm Syndrome in the player. While it’s a unique idea, Mr. Itoi inadvertently proved that certain storytelling techniques just do not work when interactivity is thrown into the equation. The worst part, or best depending on your temperament, is that Salsa doesn’t rejoin your party once his chapter is finished other than for one very brief sequence which doesn’t involve a single boss fight, making the effort to level him up pointless.
When you finally do gain control of Lucas, the game begins in earnest. Earthbound didn’t take this long to be good; you investigate a meteorite, have the basic premise explained, and then you’re off on your merry way. An opening to a game should be directly proportional to its overall length. The time it takes to complete the first three chapters wouldn’t be so bad if Mother 3 was one-hundred hours long like Dragon Quest VII or Persona 4, but as it stands, it’s a shorter game than Earthbound. That’s not what I’d call a step in the right direction.
Three years have passed since that awful day. Claus was never found the day after his mother’s death. Every day, Flint would tirelessly search for him after visiting his wife’s grave. This left Lucas all alone. Tazmily has undergone a radical change, transforming from a sleepy village to a commercial center for the Nowhere Islands. Fassad peddled glowing devices called Happy Boxes to the townspeople. When lightning struck the houses of those who did not initially wish to own one, he and the Pigmasks were able to convince them that the boxes conferred a blessing of happiness. This caused the Happy Box fad to catch on, and they eventually adopted his philosophies.
The next three chapters provide insight as to how the island has changed, and for the most part, there’s nothing that really bears commenting on. The storytelling doesn’t take a turn for the worse until the seventh chapter when we become privy to the game’s central conflict. The Magypsies, a group of seven androgynous beings, are each guarding over a magical needle. Their ancestors used these artifacts to put a creature called the Dark Dragon to sleep once they deemed that its power was too great for humans to control. The Dark Dragon will reawaken once all seven needles are pulled. Only those with a certain power can accomplish this task: Lucas and an enigmatic Pigmask soldier known as the Masked Man. The heart of whoever pulls the needles shall be inherited by the Dark Dragon. It could wash evil away or satisfy wicked ambitions depending on the circumstances.
The short explanation is that it would be disastrous to have the Masked Man pull more than half of the needles. Therefore, I feel it would make no sense whatsoever for Lucas and company to, upon reaching one of them, proceed to just stand there when they hear the Masked Man arrive, watching as he lands his airship, rolls out a red carpet, marches right up to them on said carpet, and knocks them out of the way so that he can pull the needle in their stead. Evidently, no one who would agree on my stance of an oddly specific hypothetical scenario worked on this game because that is precisely what happens.
Because it’s a cutscene, you are not allowed to input a control to have your characters move three centimeters up to get to the needle before the villains. Considering that the preceding boss fight is one of the hardest in the game, I found this to be insulting to my intelligence. It’s one of those unbelievable scenes that fails no matter how you perceive it. If it was meant to be a joke, it was painfully unfunny. If it was meant to be serious, it risks the player losing respect for the story, its characters, and even the author. You cannot begin your epic with a poignant grievance of a loved one’s passing only to later include a scenario that could only work if the heroes’ brains collectively stopped functioning without compromising your story’s integrity. As bad as the scene is, it gets worse when you try to work it into the overall plot. At this point, the Masked Man has pulled three needles to Lucas’s two. This means our noble hero must pull the rest of the needles in order for the Dark Dragon to not fall into the hands of evil. To put it another way, Lucas’s astounding display of incompetence drives the conflict for the remainder of the game.
Dissecting the Ending
The most frustrating works out there tend to be products of legitimately good writers who have nobody around to point out their mistakes. Despite everything that has gone wrong, I would say all of the mistakes Mother 3 made going into the final chapter were dire, but not insurmountable. This was an opportunity Mr. Itoi could have used to wrap everything up nicely, ending the experience on a high note to thank his fans for their dedication and patience. Unfortunately, the endgame systematically dashed any chance it had of redeeming itself, cementing Mother 3 as one of the most disappointing games I’ve ever played.
When Lucas and his friends pull the sixth needle, they’re personally invited by the Pigmasks to New Pork City, a community they built to glorify their leader. It’s revealed from the various effigies floating around that their leader is none other than Porky, the secondary antagonist of Earthbound. Shortly after arriving in his domain, Lucas encounters Leder, an abnormally tall, seemingly mute old man who was once Tazmily’s bell ringer. As it turns out, his silent nature was entirely voluntary, and what he has to say turns the entire setting on its head.
Mother 3 takes place after the fall of civilization, and the Nowhere Islands are the only inhabitable landmasses on Earth. He never states exactly what brought about the end of the world – only that humans were responsible. Just before the world’s destruction, a White Ship arrived at these islands, establishing the village of Tazmily. Wishing to avoid another catastrophe, the people voluntarily had their memories erased, though they stored them in a device dubbed the Hummingbird’s Egg. Leder himself volunteered to retain his memories in order to keep watch over the citizens. He was therefore the only one with no role to act out in this story. Things went well until Porky discovered the islands. He ended up using the land as his personal toy box, introducing concepts that tore apart a tightly knit community while causing harm to the land’s flora and fauna.
Mr. Itoi was evidently proud of this bombshell revelation because Leder asks if you understand with each paragraph, and even kindly gives you the option to replay it once it’s over. It also casts the Pigmasks’ actions in a whole new light. While Eagleland was an affectionate pastiche of American culture from a foreigner’s perspective, the hollow shell Tazmily becomes is an unapologetic critique. It argues that modernity causes people to grow distant from each other and implies the ways of old are superior.
Setting aside the inherent cognitive dissonance of placing an anti-modernity message in a video game, there are no fewer than four major problems with this little sermon of his. First of all, there’s no material evidence to back up his claims; his word is the only reason we know the Earth is a cold, dead place. The game did a reasonably good job showing instead of telling, so it’s jarring that such an important piece of information would never be presented to the player. Secondly, this retroactively makes the efforts of Ninten and Ness pointless, lending an ugly, nihilistic tone to the trilogy as a whole – almost insulting those who enjoyed the first two games. Another flaw in this argument is that the game mechanics themselves don’t support Mr. Itoi’s thesis. Early in the game, the food items that restore HP are nutritious ones such as nut bread and yogurt. In New Pork City, junk food rules the day with large hamburgers being their specialty. It’s certainly an interesting touch except that the junk food restores more HP than the allegedly healthier comestibles. There’s also the minor detail that Lucas’s best weapon, the Real Bat, could be considered a symbol of the culture Mr. Itoi is lambasting, so modernity gets the final laugh yet again.
The ongoing debate of nature versus technology is a perfectly fine one; the problem with Mr. Itoi’s interpretation stems from how Lucas’s old-fashioned community is portrayed as unequivocally idyllic compared to the cold, sterile, modernized parody it turns into. Throughout the course of the game, the villagers became selfish and wholly apathetic to Lucas’s plight, abandoning the environment they were once in tune with. However, I cannot accept that every change the Pigmasks effected was bad.
Case in point, there is a conversation with one elderly NPC who expresses his delight about having “nice-bodied girls” to keep him company only to be informed, to his grave disappointment, that his attitude constitutes sexual harassment under the new ideals they’ve adopted. This suggests that such behavior wasn’t taboo before the Pigmasks invaded. I have no doubt in my mind that this was meant to be a meaningless one-off gag, but it has the unintended effect of presenting the former society as more flawed than the narrative’s continued insistence to the contrary would have you believe. Instead of acknowledging that both eras have their advantages and disadvantages, it’s presented in shades of black and white, thus ruining any kind of meaningful discussions, and turning the entire affair into a trite strawman argument.
I have seen a game handle this topic with a lot more maturity without even resorting to dialogue. It was released thirteen years before Mother 3, and through its visuals, it argued that technology itself wasn’t evil, but rather its misuse. If you make the right choices, you’re treated to a world where technology and nature coexisted in perfect harmony. |That game is none other than Sonic the Hedgehog CD.| I appreciate the comparison is strange considering how much more effort went into the story of Mother 3, but sometimes you can derive an intriguing premise in this medium through the environment alone rather than with mountains of text.
Speaking of which, this is the primary reason why Porky doesn’t make for a compelling villain. The sheer length he goes to in order to accomplish his goals suggest a complex motivation. From a meta standpoint, Porky is meant to be a reflection of humankind’s dark side. In this case, his actions are consistent with that bit of symbolism; the reason he corrupts what little remains of humanity is to embody what the author believes is everything wrong with modern people. However, when you try to work out a reason for why Porky does what he does within the confines of the fictional world Mr. Itoi has created, it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny because it can be summed up in one word: boredom. He enacted this elaborate, three-year plan because he needed a laugh. In an attempt at rich storytelling, it’s disappointing that Porky is such a one-dimensional antagonist. It is possible to create a good villain who does evil things for their own sadistic pleasure, but it’s easy to forget that a successful example tends to be the exception, not the rule. To wit, the reason Gigyas worked as an ostensibly flat embodiment of evil is that it was once something which could think and feel, making the transformation all the more tragic; at the end of the day, you couldn’t make sense of what it became. It’s easy to make sense out of Porky because there really isn’t much to him.
At the very end of the game, Lucas discovers that the Masked Man is his long lost brother, Claus. He was resurrected from the dead as a mindless servant of Porky’s so that the latter’s evil ambition could claim the power of the Dark Dragon. The final battle of Mother 3 pits the twin brothers against each other, but you’ll quickly learn that you cannot attack Claus. In order to win this fight, you must simply defend every turn until the spirit of Hinawa allows Claus to regain his memories and he subsequently commits suicide to save his brother. In Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound, Gigyas was dispatched not through brute force, but human emotion. They were the product of Mr. Itoi cleverly tying story into the gameplay, enhancing both significantly. The encounter with Claus doesn’t hold a candle to either of the confrontations with Gigyas. This is because, while you had to use unorthodox tactics to win those fights, you still actively had to input actions. Sure, you still have to keep Lucas’s health up, but if you have the right items, the final battle is a matter of passively waiting for it to resolve on its own. I realize it’s supposed to be emotionally taxing rather than mentally challenging, but it’s still a bad game design choice. Ideally, you don’t want to set up a situation where you have to choose between gameplay and story, but if you absolutely must, nine times out of ten, it’s better to sacrifice the latter.
There’s another less-obvious problem with this moment. Much like how Hinawa was not a character in her own right, the only reason Claus’s death is sad is because he’s Lucas’s twin brother and the soundtrack plays depressing music, indicating that you are meant to feel emotions. In reality, Claus barely got any screen time before he disappeared for most of the plot only to turn up later as the Masked Man. He is present in Lucas’s flashbacks, but we, the audience, barely see them interact. Instead, the writers felt it was a better use of their time to make a big deal about not letting the aforementioned Hummingbird’s Egg fall into the Pigmasks’ hands during the second and fifth chapters only for it to see no use whatsoever and force us to run several fool’s errands for a contemptibly obnoxious individual in the third. When you’re setting up an emotional moment such as this, you need to truly earn it; you can’t afford to go through the motions – especially not when the only reason it’s even necessary is due to gross incompetence on the protagonist’s part.
When Lucas pulls the final needle, the Dark Dragon is awakened, but before you get to see it, the screen fades to black, and the word, “END?” appears in the void. By moving the directional pad, the cast will address you directly. You can’t see them, but they assure you they survived somehow and are perfectly happy. This leaves us to wonder if the apocalypse actually wiped out everything and they’re in the afterlife or if everything turned out alright and the game won’t show us for undisclosed reasons. It’s a question that shall remain unanswered.
I’m not going to mince words; this is one of the most incongruous endings I’ve ever experienced. Leading up to this moment, Mr. Itoi forewent any and all notions of subtlety and tact. You can’t write in such a fashion only to leave the ending up for interpretation without running into serious stylistic problems. To highlight a counterexample, the ambiguous ending of Shadow of the Colossus works because the entire story was up for interpretation. Conversely, though it can get annoying when authors decide repeat their point twenty times in case you didn’t get it the first one-hundred, if the ending in such a work were to be equally unsubtle, I would at least have to applaud their consistency. As it stands, I liken Mother 3 to a person giving an hour-long speech only for them to lose their voice before they could finish, leaving listeners to wonder what their last point was going to be.
So to recap, character arcs take a backseat either going nowhere or being resolved in unsatisfactory manners, the villains are a little more than one-dimensional strawmen, Porky himself is trapped in a capsule that will keep him alive for the next 5.5 billion years, thus avoiding any kind of repercussions for his actions, the narrative is prepared to talk your ear off until it comes time to wrap up the proceedings whereupon it just sort of fizzles out, and the ridiculous amount of suffering Lucas goes through has no satisfying payoff. Also, Mr. Itoi expressed no interest in making a sequel, so this exceptionally sour note is the one on which the trilogy ends. Not a step in the right direction, indeed.
Drawing a Conclusion
I do understand why people enjoy Mother 3, as a professional writer had a hand in its creation, and an outsider’s perspective does often result in many genuinely interesting ideas being formed. Mr. Itoi himself proved this when he made Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound; they were forward-looking titles that raised the bar for storytelling in gaming. Along those same lines, I even empathize to a certain degree with the people who vehemently defend the game whenever it faces any sort of criticism. The lengths to which the fandom went in order to petition Nintendo to release Mother 3 in the West not only included a petition, but also a compilation of tributes that denote a passion which was equal parts earnest and heartfelt. This was further proven when this effort failed, and they responded by dedicating thousands upon thousands of hours of their time to creating their own translation. However, in order for this scenario to have a happy ending, Mother 3 couldn’t settle for merely being good; it needed to be a masterpiece and stand above its peers as one of the greatest games ever made. Anything less would mean all of the goodwill was for naught; therefore, it’s plain to see why someone so invested in this narrative would have a difficult time accepting a dissenting opinion. I commend Mr. Mandelin, his team, and the fans for their astonishing devotion, but in light of the numerous appalling storytelling decisions prevalent throughout the experience, the conclusion from which I simply cannot escape is that Mother 3 is not a masterpiece – not by any stretch of the imagination.
Also, if I’m being honest, I have to say that Mr. Itoi’s greatest appeal was also his fatal flaw in the end, for he made several errors even novice developers would have avoided out of common sense. It wasn’t so bad with Earthbound Beginnings because poorly balanced though the endgame may have been, it didn’t fare particularly worse than other 8-bit JRPGs in that regard. If anything, that it actually had a save point in the last area places it ahead of Final Fantasy III, which was released a year later. Otherwise, the most egregious example in either of those games would be the homesickness mechanic from Earthbound, which was annoying, but it didn’t actively harm the experience. The same can’t be said of Mother 3 with its PSI fevers, multiple perspective flips, raving, self-contradictory diatribes, and protagonists’ incompetence when not under direct control of the player. Art enthusiasts love to extol the importance of the auteur theory, but in reality, giving a single person complete control over a project is not without its downsides – something this game demonstrates all too well.
At some point in the 2000s, connoisseurs latched onto the belief that a game’s artistic merit is measured by how much it makes the player cry, and there’s a good chance Mother 3 is patient zero for this phenomenon. If nothing else, it went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure the mentality would be embraced. In a way, this trend showed that video games had a rightful place as a cornerstone of culture rather than being dismissed offhandedly as fancy toys. One of the inevitable outcomes was the appropriation of storytelling tropes that helped films and books capture critical attention into this newer medium. I understand why hobbyists want outsiders to take them and the games they enjoy seriously, but assuming that a work of art is measured by how depressing it is bears two problems. The first is that although it’s a cliché only sad, dramatic movies ever receive accolades, closer examination of each year’s Academy Award winning picture reveals more diversity in tones than the average person would likely give them credit for. I highly doubt the judges were keeping in track of how many handkerchiefs moviegoers were using when they decided to christen The Silence of the Lambs “Picture of the Year” in 1992, for example. Secondly, it’s easy to forget that history is a better indication of a work’s staying power than any trophy. Sometimes, there’s no contradiction, but there are also numerous provable instances when films that would become universally beloved, such as Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction, failed to get the Academy’s highest prestige while the winners from their respective years, How Green Was My Valley and Forrest Gump, aren’t nearly as fondly remembered.
When it comes to my personal stance on recommending Mother 3, I used to think that it was worth experiencing for its unique premise and challenging gameplay, but now I find myself significantly less enthusiastic about doing so than when I originally finished it. Playing it isn’t a terrible idea, but when placed side-by-side with its contemporaries and those that came before, it’s clear Mother 3 falls short in many ways. Anyone who wishes to play a quality JRPG from the Game Boy Advance’s library would probably find more value in Golden Sun and its sequel, The Lost Age. On the subject of good story-driven JRPGs from the 2000s, I’d say Persona 4 is more worthy of one’s time. Those seeking an experience that provides many of the same emotional highs as Mother 3 without any of its drawbacks would do better to try Dragon Quest V instead. If someone desperately wanted play a game that started off as a Nintendo 64DD title only for it to have a troubled production before ultimately ending up on an entirely different system, I’d say they should give Dragon Quest VII a shot.
Perhaps what I find most intriguing about Mother 3 is that in Japan, the only country in which it was initially released, fans weren’t nearly as welcoming as their Western counterparts – quite the opposite, in fact. It was widely ridiculed on Japanese forums, and that it failed to place on popular gaming polls when its two predecessors had no problem doing so leads me to infer they weren’t merely the fulminations of an unduly negative, vocal minority. Admittedly, when I first learned of this, I surmised nostalgia played a significant role in that consensus, but the longer I thought about it, the more I started seeing things from their perspective. In its attempts to be darker and edgier without understanding how, Mother 3 ends up being exceedingly sophomoric as though conceived by a teenager who read a few dystopian novels and suddenly believes they know everything about human nature. Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound have a more grounded, mature feel to them despite, or maybe even because of, their wackiness, granting them a cross-generational appeal that Mother 3 lacks.
The biggest sin of Mother 3 is that, with only the tiniest veneer of irony, it chooses to revel in the clichés its predecessors would have openly mocked. In doing so, it became the embodiment of the decade’s most tiresome trends – which were already beginning to overstay their welcome by 2006 – while Earthbound remains a timeless classic in spite of its antiquated aesthetics. That and skipping school to beat up drunks and hippies utterly thrashes crying in the corner any day of the week.
Final Score: 4/10