Mother 3 has mystique. This sequel to a beloved SNES RPG (EarthBound, the artist formerly known as Mother 2) was never officially localized in English, and as a result feels like a game that was kept from players worldwide instead of shared and celebrated. Which is odd, because Nintendo has no qualms about including Lucas as a playable fighter in multiple Super Smash Bros. games and is certainly aware of EarthBound‘s worldwide popularity. So what gives?
An English language version of Mother 3 likely would have sparked a small amount of outrage, but enough that Nintendo’s North American and European branches didn’t want to deal with it. Mother 3 is a pointed critique of extreme capitalism and features characters that resemble drag queens, and those two things are enough to make some people upset. That’s the best answer I have. But it’s still a bad answer, because Mother 3 is a beautiful poem of a video game.
Mother 3‘s aesthetic resembles that of EarthBound, with round, colorful sprites that almost resemble crayon drawings, and music and sound that evoke video games of the 16-bit era. Mechanically, Mother 3 is impressive indeed, with the movesets of the four main characters being diverse, creative, and consistently fun. Dungeons and battles are moderately challenging but never unfair. By all appearances, Mother 3 is an innocent RPG like so many others.
…but Mother 3 deals with themes of grief, death, loss of innocence, fascism, and cruelty to both humans and animals that belie its childlike presentation. Throughlines of family and heroism are also explored, but handled in such a way that I was shocked and ready to cry at different moments in Mother 3‘s first and final hours. This game is an emotional journey that subverts its very nature of being a cute handheld RPG, and is probably my new favorite game for the Game Boy Advance. I won’t be able to think of sunflowers or shaving razors in the same way ever again. Please find a way to play this game in your Mother tongue, using your preferred internet search engine.
Give my regards to the next frog you meet.
As a long time fan of the Mother series (especially EarthBound), I’ve been meaning to play all the way through Mother 3 for years. I started and stopped at least 4 different times, and all the while I was hoping that we might get an official localization. It turns out that’s probably not happening, so when we had the opportunity to play it for Retro Encounter, I jumped.
I shouldn’t have waited so long.
In almost all ways, Mother 3 is the apex of the series. Sure, it might not be quite as funny as EarthBound, nor is it as inventive. But from both a gameplay and especially story perspective, Mother 3 is incredible.
I haven’t struggled this much in a turn-based RPG in years, and I mean that in the best possible way. The combat is a smart mix of elements from previous Mother games with a new rhythm element. It might just be my complete lack of rhythm, or the method I was using the play the game, but I could almost never get the beat right. Nonetheless, by smartly using your skills, every opponent is manageable.
Eschewing the “road movie” elements of the previous two Mother games allowed Itoi to focus on one town and the impact of the intrusion of capitalism on its citizens remarkably well. Sure, we know when we start in an idyllic town that things are going to go haywire, but it’s both the subtly of the social commentary and the total change that happens in the town that turns us on our heads. Gone is much of the humor of EarthBound (but this game is still very, very funny). Instead, what we have is a cutting social satire the likes of which I’ve never seen in a video game. In a moment where we can see the impact of capitalism on the lower class, this element of the game hit me hard.
But really, this is a game about family. The relationship between Lucas, Claus, Hinawa and Flint is true, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautifully uplifting. Don’t even get me started on Chapter 6. Or the end of Chapter 1… or the ending…
Mother 3 has quickly ascended to one of my all-time favorite games. And even if it never gets localized, the wonderful fan translation is a more than worthy way to experience this masterpiece.
Note: Spoilers will follow below. Read with caution.
I don’t think I’ve ever resonated with a game quite in the same way as I have with Mother 3. Having played both EarthBound Beginnings and EarthBound (Mother and Mother 2, respectively), I thought I already had a good idea of what the template for this series was, and saw Mother 3 going in a similar direction. But within the first few chapters, my heart, and my expectations, were torn to pieces, tossed to one side and trampled all over. I was being made to watch the lives of one family, and the lives of those in Tazmily Village, get turned upside down by the forces of capitalism and facism.
Mother 3 is refreshingly frank in its critique of both of these things. While in chapter 1, the residents of Tazmily are a tight-knit community, working together to ensure the safety of Flint’s family, by chapter 3 they were accepting televisions, learning about the concept of money, and allowing their peaceful home to be overrun by the Pig Mask Army. Next thing you know, three years have passed and the quaint little village has become a built-up suburbia not unlike Onett. Shops are no longer free. Paths are now tarmac roads. A care home had been built, and is now decrepit and neglected. This is capitalism at its most corrupt, a force of evil that has swept through a town and changed it for the worse. In the middle of all this, a young boy named Lucas is grieving for the loss of his mother three years prior, and whose father spends day after day trying to find Lucas’ missing twin brother, and who too cannot get over the death of his wife.
Lucas’ journey to save his home is as bizarre as it is unsettling, following Lucas and his companions — three other unremarkable characters who just wish to save their home — as they travel through the Nowhere Islands and witness the very worst side of humanity. Yet, for every time I cried, and every time I felt anger, I also laughed an equal amount of time. The balance between these three emotions is so effective in Mother 3 and it makes its messages even clearer to me. While I’d be horrified at the decadence and flair of New Pork City, it wouldn’t take me long to find an NPC who made me laugh out loud. The Mr. Saturns make a return, and once again I was howling with laughter at their speech patterns, but then, moments later, I was faced with mechanized humans and unspeakable evils. And then, as the ending unravelled, I was stunned. I’ve cried at endings before, but the final sequence between Lucas and The Masked Man is one of the most emotionally difficult fights I’ve ever been through. Watching a boy slowly come to his senses, and listening to Lucas’ mother speak, and remind Lucas of his childhood, and The Masked Man of his humanity, is heart-wrenching. It rocked me in such a way that I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Was saving the world really worth it, if we can’t get any of this back? And what happens if humans fall back into the same pattern again?
Mother 3 does something that so few video games have ever done before. It speaks to me as a human being, uncomfortable with the way we sometimes accept things we’re not sure we can challenge, or how we let billionaires rule the world. It also spoke to me as someone who struggles to grieve. It’s mechanically solid, looks and sounds beautiful for a Game Boy Advance game, and through its simplicity, manages to tell a story that’s a meaningful critique, but also emotionally resonant. There’s nothing else I can say about Mother 3 other than that I think it’s an essential RPG. If you can get hold of a copy, you owe it to yourself to play through this game.
To its fans, Mother 3 is the Holy Grail. One look at the fervor and dedication of the Starmen.net community and the unofficial English localization team makes quite apparent that this game inspires a passion like few others. Frequently held aloft as one of Japan’s greatest RPGs to never receive a release outside of the country, it should have been impossible for my experience with this 2006 Game Boy Advance classic to be commensurate with the weight of my own expectations. And yet, Mother 3 stunned me, with gorgeous visual design, wickedly comical writing, and a quirky, rhythm-based battle system. And if that all wasn’t satisfactory, this story will rip your heart out with all the forewarning and ferocity of a Mortal Kombat fatality.
To demonstrate what gives Shigesato Itoi’s family affair narrative power, I’d like to narrow our scope, and discuss only a fraction of the adventure: the opening of Chapter 4 in Tazmily Village. For context, previous to Chapter 4, Tazmily was a humble, idyllic community. The houses were modest, the hotel was free, and the jail cell was eternally unoccupied. There was nothing we could recognize as modern law enforcement or even currency. Unattainable? Maybe. But to suspend possible disbelief, the Tazmily Village we first see is a perfect encapsulation of Karl Marx’s famous quote “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” And amidst this inconceivable world, in steps a man named Fassad, who introduces money and the mysterious curios known as “Happy Boxes.” We aren’t allowed to see the gradual introduction of a capitalist, consumerist society worm its way through Tazmily. Instead, we flash-forward 3 years to the beginning of Chapter 4, as we stroll through a new Tazmily.
We take control of Lucas, the cowlicked tween protagonist of our journey as he leaves his house. He and his family have refused to get a “Happy Box” and his house is continually beset by volleys of lightning. He doesn’t know why, but we learn later that this is no natural phenomenon. The houses of Tazmily resemble American suburbia now. He walks to the Mayor’s house, who asks you to abandon your house so the city can pursue a profit initiative on the land (he also casually asks for donations after we pass the pristine Rolls Royce in his driveway). The Thomas Shop is no longer giving out items, but charging money for objects of negligible quality. One house seems filled with books, but it’s actually only a wallpaper made to look like the collection of a scholar. Another abode features a young girl, glued to her Happy Box, crying because she can’t take her eyes off the screen long enough to visit her grandfather. Lucas happens on another unlucky resident, a Black man named Reggie whose house has been completely fried to ash from lightning strikes. Reggie also never took a Happy Box, and one of Fassad’s Pigmask henchmen refers to the recently homeless citizen as a “bad guy.” It is also of note that, prior to Chapter 4, the Pigmasks could only communicate by squealing and saluting. Now, many are possessed of a full vocabulary.
Lucas looks for Old Man Wess, who is now living in “Old Man’s Paradise,” a nursing home on the outskirts of town praised by the metropole. When we enter Old Man’s Paradise, the conditions are appalling. Water drips everywhere, the wooden floors creak where they’re not filled with holes, the roof is unfinished, and the rooms are nothing more than jail cells. Curiously, there is a Happy Box here and, unsurprisingly, no one is using it and it has done nothing to fix this broken complex. The home’s Director is looking for more workers on a billboard outside but pleads for new hires to “stop quitting one after the other.”
With the same, blank smile he’s worn for most of the game, Lucas darts across town to the previously unused jail. There are officers outside now, and a full cell. “Please don’t stare directly at me, it might make me want to arrest you,” one officer boldly asserts. “Select, cheerful police officers wanted… you could even make some Pigmask friends!” reads a job posting from the Mayor.
This 20-minute sequence left me utterly astounded. What was once a peaceful collective of citizens has become a hellhole of suburban malaise, corruption, vanity, media obsession, gentrification, Amazonification, ageism, panoptic surveillance, police brutality, and racial capitalism. Though pared down and simplified, this is the best, most accessible encapsulation of the inevitable twist of capitalism that I have ever seen. In less than a half hour, Mother 3 communicates brilliantly where many of its contemporaries have failed across hundreds of pages and dozens of hours. This is a powerful critique of the status quo intertwined with a heart-wrenching tale of a boy and the quest to find his brother, all presented on a little 32-bit machine, already past its prime 14 years ago. There is far more to the story than what I have written here, but my deepest desire is for every person to experience more of what I now regard as one of the greatest games of all time.
I cannot stress this enough. Play Mother 3.