Portraits in Pixel
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Portraits in Pixel

Great Games: Mother 3

Image used as an aide to criticism under “Fair Use.”

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details for Mother 3 follow.

What makes the Earthbound series stand out from most JRPGs is that they don’t look at all like most JRPGs. Known as the Mother series is Japan, they eschew the Dungeons & Dragons style pseudo-medieval look of popular JRPGs like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Fire Emblem, adpoting instead a satirical look at American society. The third in the series is not only the most acclaimed entry, but to many Westerners, the most elusive.

The brainchild of the Mother series is Shigesato Itoi, a fascinating figure in and of himself. Aside from video games, Itoi started out as one of Japan’s first professional copywriters in the 1980s. In 1998, he started a website called “Almost Itoi Daily News”, a sort of proto-blog where he posted interviews, essays, and updates on his dog. Itoi has also co-written a book of short stories with acclaimed Japanese fiction writer Haruki Murakami. In film and television, Itoi was a guest judge on Iron Chef, a voice actor in My Neighbor Totoro, and made his acting debut in the film adaptation of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. Even if he never created the Mother series, that’s still quite a legacy to be proud of.

The first game, Mother, (later released abroad as Earthbound Beginnings), came out in 1989, serving as both a parody of Dragon Quest and a satire of modern America. It stood out for its use of baseball bats instead of swords and warehouses instead of dungeons. The sequel, Mother 2,(known abroad as Earthbound), was released by Nintendo in 1994 for the Super Famicom and continued the themes of Mother, introducing the character Ness in his quest against Giygas. Despite almost $2 million spent in marketing, the game only sold 150,000 copies, not seeing a Western re-release until 2013.

Video preview of Mother 3 for the Nintendo 64. Original video by kukun kun.

Mother 3 was originally slated for the Nintendo 64, boasting an internal clock, a plot that spanned over 10 years, the ability to visit multiple worlds, and a unique experience for every player. This version, though, was eventually cancelled. However, after the re-release of the previous entries to the GameBoy Advance in 2003, Mother 3’s production for that handheld system was similarly announced. Mother 3 saw a Japanese release in 2006, becoming one of the top 20 best-selling games of that year. In the TV commercial, with Battle Royale’s Kou Shibasaki, she tears up describing her feelings for the game.

Mother 3, like Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series, is so effective in adopting American pop culture, that you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was stateside product. There’s cheeky references, like the popular rock group DCMC, whose memorabilia can distract certain enemies. Some of the best healing items in the game are fast food, like burgers, fries, and soda. Not to mention that Lucas’ father, Flint, is dressed like a cowboy from a Clint Eastwood film. It’s look at America, though, is as satirical as it is celebratory. Porky transforms Tazmily from a sleepy village into a small city. People who previously had no concept of money now spend most of their time staring into “happy boxes.” The glamor of New Pork City is also a facade: many of the buildings are fake, the prices are absurdly high, and the movie theater is right above a sewer where the occasional stinkbug crawls through. The game manages to capture both the thrills and the emptiness that American capital can bring. That said, there are still elements of the game which are unmistakably Japanese, such as the hot springs that restore your stats and the pork ramen available for purchase.

The game is also a comedy. You save your game with frogs; some ride around in cars, some are on the toilet, and some are stuck inside of a snake’s stomach. In Oshoe Castle, the ghosts enjoy partying with piano, fine wine, and rotten eclairs. The monster designs are also a riot. There’s the hippo that launches rockets, the absurd walrus-orangutan chimera, and the literal men’s room sign. The translators clearly had a lot of fun with some of the names: “Cleocatra”, “Balding Eagle”, and “Gently Weeping Guitar.” The presents you find not only contain items and equipment, but also pieces of music, and even farts! There’s also a silly level when your party eats some “mushrooms” and starts to see psychedelic illusions, but the best part is the bathroom maze, where you can jump in on people in the stalls, including the Ultimate Chimera. Sometimes the humor can be a little more subtle. For instance, when you first go underwater, you see a man on the beach trying to get a tan. By the time you come back, he’s pretty well-toasted.

Mother 3 is a real delight to play. It utilizes the turn-based combat of many a JRPG, but with a time-based twist. When you get attacked by an enemy, the damage isn’t subtracted all at once, but rather, the numbers on the HP meter “roll” at a delayed pace. So a few turns could pass while your damage is still being calculated. This means that you could theoretically take “mortal damage” and still not die if you can either heal yourself or defeat the enemy before your life points hit zero.

Your party consists of four major characters, the boy Lucas, his dog Boney, the princess Kumatora, and the thief Duster. Lucas is fairly well-rounded, as he can attack with his bat and use the spell PK Love. He’s also good with casting protective and healing spells on the party. Kumatora is the mage who can cast powerful spells against the enemy, with my favorite being PK Lightning, which can strike up to four times. Duster’s tools can make enemies go to sleep or pin them in place. His masks, which lower offense and defense, were useful in boss fights. I also used him to throw Bombs and Pencil Rockets. Boney doesn’t do much, but since he usually has the first turn, I gave him all of my curative items and treated him as the healer.

Mother 3 serves as a sort of farewell to the Gameboy Advance system. The graphics are bright, colorful, and energetic, bringing a liveliness to Tazmily, New Pork City, and Club Titiboo. The world itself is also fun to explore, especially on the highway with the floating Pork Bean. My favorite scene, graphics-wise, has to be the one where the party is hanging on the airship with the Rope Snake. The music by Shogo Sakai is also top-notch, with memorable pieces like “Porky’s Pokies”, “Unfounded Revenge”, and “Master Porky’s Theme.”

Beneath all of its humor, though, Mother 3 has an emotional core. The story is one of grief, loss, and change. There’s a memorable scene in the game where Lucas lands in a field of sunflowers. As you guide him through the fields, he sees the spirit of his dead mother, Hinawa, but never touches her. There isn’t a lot of dialogue in the scene, but it deftly conveys Lucas’s feelings. Flint and Claus both react to Hinawa’s death differently. Flint closes himself off from his family. Claus, on the other hand, is seduced by Porky’s promises of power, and maybe, escape.

Porky Minch plays with the world as though it is his own little toybox, but hides high up in his tower with his fake competitions. It would’ve been easy for Lucas, who started the game as a crybaby, to fall down the path of Claus, but he instead challenged himself and grew. Porky, meanwhile, ends up sealed in an Absolutely Safe Capsule, where he can never be harmed, but also never come out. Itoi has said that a major theme in the game relates the awareness that nothing lasts forever, that even the great Earth itself will die after 5.5 billion years. For Itoi, this truth makes him want to live all the more fiercely in the present, “There’s nothing that I can do about everything coming to an end, so as long as I have my life, I’d like to appreciate it.” Porky’s fate stands in direct contrast to this ethos, and furthermore, it makes the player rethink the supposed benefits of living for eternity.

The use of violence in the game is also interesting. I don’t think that you ever actually kill anyone in Mother 3. The enemies either “grow tame” or “surrender” after defeat. This clear respect for life reaches its climax when you confront Claus. Lucas has to face his brother alone and cannot bear to bring harm to him. In one of the more unique final boss fights to grace a JRPG, you are asked to guard yourself and heal from Claus’s attacks. It sounds easy on paper, but it can get to be rather tricky. Eventually, Hinawa’s pleas and your refusal to strike him, return Claus back to his normal self, but he soon dies by his own suicidal lightning. Regarding Claus’ brief return, Itoi has said, “Even moreso than the good, it is the bad who need to be rescued.”

“When are you going to give us Mother 3, Reggie?”

The tragedy of Mother 3 is that if you live in the West, there is no legal way to play it. I find the discussions around the localization of Mother 3 to be just as interesting as the game itself. Not to mention that the constant pestering of Nintendo of America’s then-president, Reggie Fils-Aime, about a Western localization has become an Internet meme (famously parodied by Robot Chicken).

GameInformer editor, Imran Khan, wrote on a ResetEra thread that Nintendo, at some point, attempted an international release, but that localization was a “dead-end” because “there were aspects of the game that weren’t going to go without controversy.” We can only speculate as to what these aspects may have been, but if I had to guess, I would go with the mushroom hallucinogens, Salsa’s torture by Fassad, and the Magypsies. All of which seem to clash with the family-friendly and tolerant image that Nintendo has cultivated over the years, and would probably give them a bigger headache than they deserve.

For while children may be drawn to the game for its colorful designs and cartoonish characters, the parents may complain that the psychedelic mushroom scene encourages drug use, or that Salsa’s constant electrocution is too disturbing for young people. (PETA would certainly have a fit). Then again, it’s not unusual for adult humor to make its way into children’s media, and there’s certainly an argument that children’s stories shouldn’t be shielded from the cruel realities of the world, but I doubt if a company as careful with its image as Nintendo, would spend an inordinate amount of time making that defense.

Now there’s the question of stereotypes. Mother 3 is essentially a cartoon, so some degree of exaggeration in character traits is inevitable. I could see some people complain that Fassad is a stereotype of Arabs, or that Reggie is a stereotype of indigenous peoples, though I suspect that a bigger point of contention now might be the Magypsies. These are the ancient guardians of the eight Needles that keep the great Dragon asleep. Itoi has referred to them as “a fusion of man and woman.” They are also clearly modeled after the Japanese “okama”, or effeminate gay men who often perform as cross-dressers or drag queens. While some LGBT gamers may take issue with the over-the-top aspects of these characters, in particular, a rather suggestive scene with Lucas in the hot spring, the Magypsies are ultimately a rather positive portrayal.

The Magypsies are the most powerful beings in that world, and yet, instead of being uber-masculine characters, they flamboyantly cross masculine boundaries. Itoi said that he wanted to create these “non-men yet non-women people” who thrive in a game where “might equals right.” He also noted that many players were moved by the Magypsies’ unique sense of beauty. Itoi seems to imply that he based the Magypsies after his own “okama” friends, and that he hopes that players of Mother 3 come out of the game tolerant of real-life “Magypsies”, saying, “I would want them to have fun together in a world they both share.”

When fans realized that Nintendo would never release Mother 3 on Western shores, they took matters into their own hands. The eventual fan translation of Mother 3, takes its place alongside Harmy’s Despecialized Edition of Star Wars, as one of the greatest fan projects of all time. The idea was hatched on Starmen.Net, a popular EarthBound fan site, by the webmaster reidman (Reid Young), who was then joined by professional translator “Tomato” to translate, Gideon Zhi of Aeon Genesis to do the ROM hacking, and demi of Neo Demiforce to handle the script polish. There were nearly 1,000 pages of text to translate and dozens of hacks needed to fit in the English letters, all of which required thousands of unpaid man-hours to produce the project. These fans, fueled only by their love of Mother, deserve our upmost admiration and gratitude.

I was able to get my hands on a bootleg cartridge of Mother 3 and found it to be a smooth experience. The cartridge does glitch quite a bit during Chapter 3, but that aside, it’s excellent way to play the game. The trouble is, cartridges weren’t built to last forever, and there’s only so many of them to go around. The most efficient way for Westerners to experience Mother 3 is digitally, through ROMs (game data) and emulators (which mimic game systems).

Technically, this is “piracy”, but gamers really have no other choice. Now, the staff behind the fan translation has confirmed that the highest levels of Nintendo knew about their work, but so far, have done nothing to stifle it. Considering the bad optics, I doubt if Nintendo will try to suppress a beloved fan project, but that hasn’t stopped them from making video game emulation in general, more difficult online.

In 2018, Nintendo announced that it would pursue a federal lawsuit against the owners of LoveROMs and LoveRETRO websites. This lawsuit was probably enough to scare a popular ROM site, EmuParadise, into taking down all of its ROMs. While these sites do technically violate copyright, they also provide players with access to games that are either too rare or too expensive to purchase. (e.g. the lowest price for Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance on Amazon is $300). Think also of all the other fan-translated games that will never officially be localized. In any case, even if you do buy an overpriced, out-of-print game, legally, these games and their systems were not meant to last forever. Cartridges wear, discs get scratched, and motherboards shut down. Digitizing these games is necessary for preserving them for future generations, and to that end, the foibles of copyright can be a hindrance. If the example of Mother 3 teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t always depend on corporations, and that fans, like young Lucas, have to go on the perilous journey themselves.

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Sansu the Cat

Sansu the Cat

I write about art, life, and humanity. M.A. Japanese Literature. B.A. Spanish & Japanese. email: sansuthecat@yahoo.com