All right! To celebrate my 1000th post on this site, I though to myself: why not hold a type of metaphorical party, while at the same time presenting to you, my audience, to one of my favorite games of all time? And then I thought: yes, me, that's a great idea! And here we are: my Gonzo post, Mother 3, and a full evening ahead of us. So please, help yourself to some cake, some punch, and relax while I present...one of the greatest games of the past decade.
"Take a melody,
Simple as can be,
Give it some words and
Lift your voices
All day long now,
Love grows strong now,
Sing a melody of love.
Heart of Darkness presents...
One of the most heart-wrenching games you will EVER play.
Okay, okay, I'll admit it; those lyrics are from "Eight Melodies," a song that debuted in the original Mother, but shut up. IT'S RELEVANT. I couldn't think of anything else for the intro line, so in it went--and no, I'm not putting "Pollyanna" up there instead.
Anyhoo, let's get on with it. Mother 3 is the last game in the Mother/EarthBound trilogy, released for the Game Boy Advance in 2006. Much to the chagrin of the fans of EarthBound, the release was Japan only, and, despite Lucas's appearance in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Nintendo currently has no plans for a stateside or European release of the game. But, actually, I think that might be for the best. I mean, there are less snafus that developers need to wade through in Japan than in the Americas of Europe, and most of the game's charm would need to be edited out. It's probably for the best, anyway.
Like EarthBound, Mother 3 deviates from the traditional RPG formula enough to be different, but chooses to retain several of the older elements to be accessible to the RPG crowd. Pair this up with an excellent soundtrack and an amazingly well-written story*, and all the charm that went into the previous Mother titles, and you have a game that should remain close to your heart
of darkness for all eternity.
*This is based in the fan translation made by Tomato, not the original text, as I refuse to learn how to read Japanese for just one game. The translation patch can be downloaded here.
The game chronicles the adventure of Lucas, the game's main protagonist, in his search for his brother, Claus, who disappears after a series of unfortunate events. Like all good stories, however, Mother 3 does not start en media res, but rather starts off three years before the main storyline kicks off, and puts you in the shoes of three other characters before allowing you to control Lucas. You start off playing as Flint, Lucas's father and simple sheep farmer, searching for his family during the midst of a ravenous forest fire that threatens the safety of his town and family; Duster, the noble thief who seeks to preserve the mysteries of Osohe Castle from the Pigmask army (the villains for most of the game, mind you); and Salsa, a monkey kidnapped by the Pigmask commander Fassad for reasons unknown, and who is constantly tortured.
Wait, what? A monkey?
Yeah, I'm not kidding about that. You do get to play AS a monkey. Of course, the monkey is also the weakest of the six playable characters, so it's not really that big of a deal. Now, back to the review...
Once you finally take control of Lucas in Chapter 4, you'll find that two of the games biggest flaws would have passed you by almost instantaneously. For one, while the first three chapters take their time to characterize the main cast, it feels like the only two characters who benefit from this are Lucas and Flint. The remaining four characters, while characterized slightly, don't see as much character development during the course of the game, and the rest of their development, at most, feels slightly inconsequential.
The second flaw goes hand in hand with this, and that's the disjointedness of the beginning chapters. While they do occur in some sort of timeline, the initial relevance of the chapter to the overall whole of the game seems minimal at best. In addition, the new main character will have his level reset, losing all the progress you made on the previous character (until you get him back, of course) and causing you to fight, once again, in a significantly weakened state.
However, these flaws are quickly dissipated once the main quest kicks into gear, and you're forced into doing the process a fourth and final time. Which isn't a bad thing. Lucas starts at a decent level with decent stats, and he starts with a reliable companion--his dog, Boney. From there, it's a straight shot to the heartrending endgame, and you'll come to sympathize both with Lucas and his family for the hardships that they have endured at the hands of the Pigmask Army. (Look, if I give away any more, I'm going to spoil it. Some of the plot twists should be fairly obvious--assuming you aren't dense--but spoiling a game so well-written and so full of emotion should be a crime punishable by playing E.T. for eternity.)
Slight flaws aside, there's plenty to love about Mother 3. Fans of the series should be pleased to know that the charm and humor from the previous titles is kept in tact, both in the inane dialogue of the NPCs to the ridiculous enemies--from the deadly Men's Room Sign, the vicious Kangashark, and the Gently Weeping Guitar, a discarded guitar with a broken string. The game also features a few segments that would probably be deemed to risqué for an American release, from Lucas's naked bath with an androgynous Magypsie (a strange being that is neither man nor woman) to the party's experience of being high on wild mushrooms. These weird-and-slightly-disturbing segments of the game, however, add to the whole of the atmosphere, which makes up greatly for Mother 3's decision to take the game outside of suburban America.
In addition to the charm and wit, Mother 3 also trumps other games with it's massive soundtrack, featuring exactly 250 tracks to fit nearly every single mood the plot portrays. And this is impressive, considering that the music is so well-manipulated that it catapults the mood from the level of "mildly there" to "full-on engrossing." In times of sadness, melancholy tunes fill the streets with their themes of quiet recollection; times of tension and anxiety are accompanied by rock; and a massive backstory-scene in the seventh chapter is fitted to the solemn piano of Gymnopédie No. 1, a fantastic realization of long-lost memories and a certain quietude that only comes with reflective thinking. The soundtrack is also littered with musical allusions (or, in the case of Gymnopédie No. 1, flat-out stolen, but it's not a bad thing); I could delve into it, or you could give it a read for yourself (spoiler alert!).
In addition to the music, Mother 3 also offers up an incredibly unique battle system. Although at first glance Mother 3 battle system may look like a simple menu-driven turn-based engine, playing even one battle will show you how unique it really is. Similar to EarthBound, Mother 3 displays HP as a rolling odometer rather than as static text; instead of characters instantly losing health (and possibly dying), the odometers will gradually roll down to zero, allowing you to heal before the final hit point is lost and preventing your character from dying. In addition, finishing the battle before the odometer finishes it's trip down will stop it from rolling, allowing that character to keep whatever HP is left over.
In addition to the odometers, Mother 3 introduces a new mechanic to battles that was not present in EarthBound: action commands. By tapping the action button in time to the heartbeat tracks of the many different battle themes, your characters can string together 16-hit combos that can double or even triple your base damage...but it's not that easy. For one, most of the battle themes have both an easy track and a hard track, with a slight difference in the scoring that can throw pauses into your tapping or even remove beats entirely. In addition, not every song requires a steady, metronome-like pulse: instead, some songs may require you to combo in time to the bass line, or at a constantly increasing tempo. Songs that do require a steady pulse will gradually throw you off, by playing accented noted on the off-beats to purposefully throw you out of the combo. Timing in these battles is key--even a miss of a sixteen of a beat is enough to kill your combo--making the entire battle system fresh, fun, and incredibly immersive. You can see a more detailed explanation of the battle system, along with examples, here.
Backing up the game's amazing battle system is Mother 3's incredible script. While the actual subject of the script isn't entirely original, what is used is written incredibly well. As stated earlier, moods and feelings are masterfully manipulated, even changing from a humorous tone to an incredibly dark one in a matter of seconds with an incredibly fluid, almost invisible transition. And while the star of the writing is unquestionably the mood, the game's thematic undertones take away a rightly-deserved second place. These thematic undertones--family love, sibling rivalry, the fragility of nature, the dangers of a consumerist society, etc.--are so well-integrated into the writing that you won't even know that they're there on your first playthrough. But they are there, and the ideals that these themes impart are wholesome ideals that many should take to heart.
Mother 3 does just enough to the turn-based RPG to morph it into something that is both incredibly accessible and refreshing at the same time. When it comes down to it, Mother 3 is a shining example to the RPG industry, focusing on strong, central writing to provide an experience that is both incredibly deep and incredibly moving. And, if you don't cry at least once during this game, you will truly have...a heart of darkness.
Bottom Line: With strong writing, a fantastic battle system, and incredibly varied music, Mother 3 is a highly-polished game that few gamers will be disappointed with, especially to fans of the entire Mother series.
Recommendation: Play it. I can't really say any more than this. As a Japan-only Game Boy Advance game, it's hard to get, not to mention what you need to do to even get it patched. I'm sure you'll find a way to play it, though. For a game as unique as Mother 3, you SHOULD find a way to play this. I've provided the patch, but that's it; figure the rest of this problem out for yourselves.
Heart of Darkness is a professional student by trade, amateur composer, writer, and game developer by hobby. He hasn't played the original Mother yet, but he hopes to change that within the next few weeks.