Back in 2014 I wrote about how odd EarthBound was and applauded HAL Laboratory and the designers there for their willingness to march to the beat of their own drumb. This year, I've had the chance to play the beloved sequel, Mother 3. And boy, was I in for a surprise.
From initial impressions, Mother 3 appears to be a sequel to EarthBound in the same sense that FINAL FANTASY V is a sequel to FINAL FANTASY IV: same mechanics, similar tropes, familiar world, new characters and plot. Lucas is the lead hero this time, though he's less front-and-center than Ness was. There's sideways humor in Mother 3 as well, but not the same flavor that was there before. If EarthBound was a comedy for the sake of parody, perhaps Mother 3 is a comedy commenting on tragedy. The first thing that struck me hard in Mother 3 was its tone.
Mother 3 begins in a sleepy old town where everyone is happy – or more specifically, everyone's content. They have no currency, everyone knows everyone else, and no one's apparently ever thought of changing anything. The town is painted in natural colors, placed between a green forest and a peaceful shoreline. It's tranquil, almost picture-perfect. You feel at ease here.
Yet slowly, the town begins to change. It starts with a natural disaster and a series of unfortunate events, that, while coincidental, are quite plausable. These events, and the effects they have on the characters, are sad, because they loudly call out, 'life sucks sometimes.' They weren't instigated by anyone, but there are still victims. So you feel for the citizens of the town. Then, man-made changes begin taking place. This sleepy little town is modernized, rebuilt with roads and pastel colors and glitz. People begin wearing suits, buying cars, and watching a lot of TV. When before they shared openly with everyone else, they are now looking forward to their next purchase. The first time the 'new and improved' town is shown, I'll admit, my heart sank a bit. It was depressing to see the dramatic change, and was accented by Lucas's response to it all.
Three hours in, I really want to save this town and beat up the guy who did all of this.
Dramatic Plot, Cooky Characters
Following in EarthBound's footsteps, the characters are all cooky and named to match: twins Lucas and Claus, Flint, father and son Lighter and Fuel. They speak easy, everyone knows everyone else, and everyone gets along. When one of the kids in the town goes missing, every citizen comes together to go searching for him. You feel safe there.
Then along comes a travelling salesman. If you've seen The Music Man, you know how this goes: you can't be happy and content because you don't have stuff. If you had stuff, then you would be happy. Not everyone buys in, but you can see the idea worm its way through each townsperson, bringing out these little ticks that weren't evident before. Before long, everyone's not looking out for everyone else anymore. One father is constantly calling his son a moron and belittling him, until the son goes missing. Another child is called a crybaby after losing a family member. The care, the hospitality, that marked the residents of this little old town is lost.
So who's going to fix all of these problems and set things right again? A boy, a princess, a limping thief, and a dog, apparently. Oh, and frogs. And Mr. Saturn of course.
This laughable cast of characters stands juxtaposed to the dramatic setup for the plot. It's as though things have gotten so messed up, only the social outcasts are the ones who have resolved to put them right – and they'll do so wielding sticks, cleats, and scary masks if they have to. I really do enjoy this ragtime group of heroes facing off against event stranger monsters in hopes of saving the world. And the monsters really are strange: most of them are 'chimeras', hybrids of two other animals. (Examples include Kangasharks and Ostrelephants.) This, too, tells that all is not right in the world, that the unnatural is invading the natural, and these seemingly-very-normal heroes must fight against it. The colorful roster also keeps the game from getting too depressing.
Many RPG's seem dead-set on making the most epic, highest stakes conflict they can. (See: FINAL FANTASY VII, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Tales of Symphonia.) The heroes are the best of the best, built of superhuman proportions. It's refreshing to encounter a story that looks average, that has a meaningful plot, and doesn't take itself too seriously. (There are item boxes in this game that, when opened, play reggae music. That's it, no items or effect.)
Altogether the story almost feels like a fable. The tortoise and the hair as playful, childlike even, but the lessons being presented are much deeper than the aesthetic may suggest. There's a tale here of childhood innocence being lost, warnings of consumerism and modernization, musings on the boundaries of scientific experimentation. Or maybe there's none of that and this is just a game about a kid and his dog using psychic powers to fight pigs. Either way, this has been a very enjoyable game.
Mother 3 was developed by HAL Laboratory and Brownie Brown and published by Nintendo. For this analysis I played a fan translation on GameBoy Advance for roughly 10 hours.