“What is Mother 3, you ask?
It’s strange, beautiful and heart-breaking. It was never released in English (and probably never will be), so fans created an unofficial English translation. It is the third in the Mother series. Obvious, really.
Beneath its quirky exterior of transvestite magypsies, pig mask soldiers and cross-breed creatures (horsantula, anyone?) lies a social commentary you won’t want to miss and a heart that beats to a rhythm that is immediately familiar; an idealistic push for what is good and pure despite what our broken world keeps throwing at us. It has tragedy, crushing defeat and death. It has courage, strength and friendship.”
–Evan Ritchie, April 2009
Not much has changed, and now Evan has brought out the shackles again in order to force his dear friends to play through Shigesato Itoi’s masterpiece.
So let’s start with…
Evan: I think we can agree that this first chapter is a sombre one that contrasts the optimism and naiveté of the characters with the harsh reality of life’s occasional cruelty. This village is close to nature. They run around with the Dragos (dinosaurs that look like a T-Rex) and they play fight with mole crickets. It’s not explained why humans and (some) animals can understand each other, but I love how many of the creatures explain the mechanics of the game, as if it’s a secret they share with the player. In the same way, Alec (Flint’s father-in-law) often takes the player aside, breaking the fourth wall.
Aaron: It’s a JRPG, and it starts of in pretty standard JRPG tutorial mode. It’s nice that they find a way to introduce the game concepts in a slightly different way (via animals and Alec). It reminds me a lot of Grandia, in that it starts of in a pretty idyllic setting.
Adam: They like to break the 4th wall a lot, which was cute at first but gets a bit one-note. It’s a neat way to explain game concepts to the player, though.
Evan: I like how the melodies of the enemies often have a mechanical or electronic sound to contrast with the floating melodies of the world. The music has always been a pull of the series. I own so many Mother 1, 2 and 3 soundtracks, sheet music etc. The battles are definitely more fun with a gamepad, or ideally a GBA. The rhythms are VERY tough to work out in battle, but it’s an interesting system. Some more visual hints as to when to chain button presses might have helped. Overall, I find the battles to be rather fun. It’s pretty basic stuff at this point, but Running Bombs and multi-attacks and health items offer a pretty easy introduction. I like how at this stage, Boney the dog is the most useful ally you have, what with Alec “worrying about his back pain” and Thomas being completely useless. It’s a reference to EarthBound, where Ness’ pet dog King was the first useful party member to assist you.
Aaron: The main theme music is really nice and very memorable, but yeah that rhythm battle system is not presented well at all. It’s pretty much a crap shoot as to which parts of the music you’re meant to be following along to, and there are different types of battle music depending on the enemy type (nice that the Bat enemy’s battle music sounds like the Batman theme). This game came out in what, 2006? Ouendan came out in 2005, and The Legend of Dragoon came out in 1999, which while not being a rhythm game at least had the visual cues for the combo system. Fortunately, this early in the game the bonuses are not substantial enough that you feel bad for missing them, which then brings into question – why have this additional system? Hopefully there are more interesting things to do with it later.
Evan: SPOILER ALERT: Nope. The rhythm system is an odd addition and is only ever explained by a quirky NPC in a later chapter, so it’s almost as if it’s not intended to be used as a central technique, but instead a cute thing to happen upon, perhaps by accident. A cute, but kind-of-not-very-well-fleshed-out thing.
Adam: Playing on my phone on an emulator really makes the rhythm elements tough, and I played about half of the first chapter on a train without sound, which meant it took me quite a while before I realised that the extra damage I was doing occasionally was actually tied into the music at all! It’s a neat way to make JRPG combat (which I’m really not a fan of) more interesting, but I wish it was a more substantial mechanic. If all the combats were beat/rhythm games instead of JRPG combats, I’d enjoy the battles a lot more. As it happens, it feels more like a garnish than a core part of the combat, which is probably good because it’s very hard to know what tempo or part of the music you’re supposed to be tapping along with.
Evan: That letter home from Hinawa hit me hard, but I still think that the breakdown at the campfire ranks among the most affecting scenes in any videogame. I’m always so impressed with how much character can imbue such simple sprites. The pacing and motion say so much, where his face basically doesn’t have the ability to show expressions.
Aaron: The campfire scene was very well “acted” out, and partly I think having them as sprites let you fill in some of the details, whereas whenever I see “realistic” animation styles go for drama, the lack of animation polish pulls me out a lot more. (Hi, Gears of War 2!) Kinda like how in my mind, the scenes in between comic book panels are fluidly acted out.
Adam: It was a good scene for sure, though I think the funeral scene is actually more affecting, where you have to walk through the entire village in order to see the grave. The campfire scene was a nice display of how expressive pixel art can be, but ultimately it was just a cut scene. If they’d had some kind of player input into it, I definitely would have been more impressed. Walking through the funeral crowd was more powerful to me, because you felt pressured to talk to everyone like you have been doing throughout the game.
Evan: I think you’d prefer if more of the narrative occurred as interactive “game” experiences, whereas I’d happily read Mother 3: The Visual Novel.
Adam: I’m not a fan of JRPG’s in general, and one complaint I’d level against the genre is that they tend to tell their stories through non-interactive mechanisms and then separate the gameplay into what is essentially a side-game. Rarely do player actions affect the story outcome in any way (except for perhaps selecting from different endings, right at the last minute, and even then only in some games), and it feels like that’s going to be the case here, as well. I feel bad being negative about the game at all, considering Evan loves it so much, but I think most of my complaints about Mother 3 so far are extensions of my general dislike of the JRPG genre, so don’t take it too hard.
Aaron: It’s the game of “do some combat” then “watch a cutscene” and never the twain shall meet. Otherwise known as poor man’s Metal Gear Solid.
Adam: It’s just a shame, I was kind of hoping they’d have a bit more “RP” in this particular JRPG. So maybe it’s a JG.
Aaron: They do love their Gs. Keep role-playing to the bedroom.
Evan: Have you been enjoying the creature puns? Balding Eagles, Flying Mouse (Die Fledermaus), Fireflies, Baked Yammonsters and other really strange enemies, both mischievous and greedy. Did you manage to spot a Walking Bushie or a Soot Dumpling? And all the puns of the gravestones? Classic.
Aaron: I think the enemy design is the best part of it. It’s kinda like low-stakes Pokemon? The puns and references aren’t as subtle, but it gives it more charm. I like how “non-violent” it is since defeating the local wildlife just tames them. Except for the Greedy Mice, but it’s true that they do need to learn a lesson. And that lesson is what it feels like to have a 2×4 jammed up their furry behinds. Also, am I a bad person if my first response to a Walking Bushie is to want to set it on fire? Then it started healing me and giving me shit. It’s like the magical giving tree. Perhaps if I did light it on fire, it would give me the most magical gift of all: getting high on cannabinoid compounds.
Adam: The real charm of this game is the aesthetic, and the enemies have great character, and I love the way you don’t actually “kill” any of them, but just “tame” them instead. I felt really bad “taming” the walking bushie, because it looked like it just wanted to be friends; even though I only discovered that in the combat screen.
Evan: I like the text in combat, especially from those in the party whom you can’t directly control, like Alec (and his lower back pain) and Thomas (who really needs to calm down!). It’s kind of a throw-back to Porky/Pokey in EarthBound and how incredibly useless he was. How did everyone feel about the magypsies? All powerful, eternal drag queens? Best. Allies. Ever. I had trouble working out whether they were offensive stereotypes, or just awesome. The musical notes after their speech were clearly meant to indicate a sing-song voice. I love the shell house and the general apathy for humanity. Humans are adorable at best, but are probably just pointless. And I liked Alec’s teasing of Flint in the caves, as if the effeminate manner of speech would make the cowboy blush. Did anyone pick up where the magypsies’ names came from? There’s a musical theme…
Aaron: They’re okama right? Bon Clay and Emporio Ivankov would fit right in here. What is the fascination with okama anyways? It’s kinda weird how fetishized they are in the anime/game culture. The little leg-crossing was a nice touch.
Adam: They were pretty awesome, but the highlight was definitely all the homophobe jokes afterwards, since Flint seems like he’s meant to be a cut-out “manly” stereotype.
Evan: I actually considered changing my online handle to Myxolidia after I played Mother 3. Do you feel like you want to keep playing at this point, or is it all a slog? I know that my affection for its predecessor ensured that I would play it through regardless. The emotional ride was certainly motivation enough for me: The music when the rain starts to fall, the tension surrounding the missing child and those goofy baddies certainly made me want to see what was around the corner.
Aaron: Like I said at the start, it’s a JRPG. It’s got really cute art and a nice charm, but so far the game part of it is pretty standard. I’m sticking with it based on the setting and plot, and that’s pretty much my general approach to most JRPGs. Specifically with this prologue and Chapter 1, it feels a lot like a tutorial chapter which is pretty standard. I get the feeling Lucas is going to be the main character, and you just play through the first chapter as Flint with a more basic move set and later chapters will be Lucas dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy and changing world. Chatting with Adam and Evan, we were discussing how more modern game designs would be quicker to introduce more of the game mechanics earlier, but I do appreciate the narrative-driven tutorial as well. I really enjoyed the Roxas section of Kingdom Hearts 2 even though I’ve heard others complain about playing a 10-hour tutorial before getting to the “real game”. However, Roxas’ story was crucial to Kingdom Hearts 2 and was a strong emotional point of that game, to the point where I kinda didn’t want to play as Sora once I got to the end of Roxas’ bit (but hey we got 358/2 days out of it, which I enjoyed too. I’m a sucker for all that Kingdom Hearts melodrama). I get the same kind of feeling from this first chapter of Mother 3, where it’s setting up a strong emotional thread for the rest of the game. So bring on the 10-hour tutorials, as long as they make narrative sense and are still interesting to play.
Adam: I have to say, it’s a bit of a slog for me, and if I had just discovered the game randomly at some point I might not have continued for much longer at this point. The story seems well-delivered, and the world has a lot of charm, but the combat is 100% slog and there doesn’t seem to be any player agency in the context of the storyline. It also doesn’t help that there are a few moments of plain bad game design that nearly ruined the end of the chapter for me: apparently there’s a weapon upgrade that I just walked past without getting, and that meant I had to do most of the chapter with the most basic weapon of the game, which almost got me stuck at a few points.
Evan: My highschool years were spent playing these sort of games, so I guess I feel more at home. I’m excited to see how your views on the systems change (or don’t) as they introduce more complexity.
Adam: Ultimately, my biggest complaint is that I don’t find the combat enjoyable, and it takes up a pretty large portion of the gameplay (as well as gating the player at various points). Whenever I enter combat I tend to just mash the A button until I get low on health, at which point I use a healing item. Oh, and if there are multiple enemies I’ll press the swing attack, which is about the extent of the combat strategy in chapter 1. Hopefully they’ll add more mechanics later and it’ll get more interesting.
Evan: At this stage it’s all about healing, swinging, bashing and strengthening up for bosses. Once PSI attacks come into play it gets more interesting, and they’ve hinted at the strategy behind those with Boney’s “sniff” technique, used to sniff out weaknesses. Duster’s Wall Staple technique was handy for pinning down that Reconstructed Caribou, so there’s certainly some variety if you want it at this stage. It’ll be interesting to see if the combat does end up holding your interest beyond that point. I feel sorry that your experience was hampered by missing the lumber when Lighter dropped it. This section of the game should have been breezy and quick, and although the game is designed so that 5 year olds can play it, they are probably meant to be 5 year olds steeped in the tropes of JRPG’s. We’ve come to an interesting juncture in the story, so I look forward to your reflections as we press on.
Thanks for joining us! The Action Points Crew will be working through roughly one chapter each month. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments!