If you’re reading this, it means the unthinkable has happened: Nintendo has announced an official English-language localization of Mother 3, a game that has come to mean more to me in the eight years since I first played it than any other game in my lifelong love affair with the medium. I’ve discussed, analyzed, recommended, and of course played Mother 3 more times than any other game I’ve ever come into contact with, but there’s one thing I’ve yet to do: I haven’t reviewed it. But now, more than ten years after its release in Japan and eight years since the completion of an unofficial translation project that would forever change the way dedicated fans interacted with games their publishers never intended for them to play, Nintendo has finally blessed the rest of the world with the sweetest, strangest, most poignant, and just plain timeless work of interactive fiction it’s ever developed.
I’m not going to pretend I’m anything less than over-the-moon for Mother 3—it is, after all, my favorite game of all time—so if you’re just here for the score, I’ll tell you right now it’s an A+. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters, so if you want to know exactly why I think Mother 3 is perfect, read on. And worry not: there are no story spoilers ahead.
Mother 3 is, ostensibly, a Japanese role-playing game, and so, many of its most basic elements will be familiar, both to diehard genre enthusiasts and those who revile this type of game. It stars a ragtag group of heroes, bound together by tragic circumstance, who must leave their humble origins behind and embark upon a transformative journey ending in an apocalyptic showdown that determines not only the fate of the world, but their individual abilities to deal with everyday challenges. It features a turn-based battle system that pits player characters against increasingly difficult enemies in a get-the-other-guy-to-zero-first contest. It has dungeons, loot to collect, NPCs to converse with, optional bosses, optional loot, optional NPC conversations… in short, it is exactly what you think it is.
But it is also nothing like anything you’ve ever played before.
Of all the elements that comprise Mother 3, none is more core to its identity as a video game—or indeed, more often overlooked by players who’ve either skipped through the subtle in-game tutorials or played the game on emulators that weren’t properly equipped to handle it—than its “Music Battle” system. Like its predecessor, Earthbound, Mother 3’s world is populated with enemies that exist solely to take you down, and while d-pad wizards can avoid most battles with deft maneuvering, skipping too many fights can make boss battles (and thus, progress) nearly impossible. Conversely, if you spend enough time grinding through enemy encounters, you’ll find yourself more than capable of handling whatever the game throws at you. But for players who’ve committed themselves to mastering the Music Battle system, enemy encounters are more strategic, more satisfying, and often much easier to handle than they would otherwise be. Like most JRPGs since the dawn of time, each enemy encounter is underscored by a song meant to increase player engagement in what would otherwise be a pretty boring display of static characters and menu-based commands. But Mother 3’s battle music serves a deeper purpose. Each of the ~35 tracks that accompanies enemy encounters represents the beat of an enemy’s heart, and if players can master the rhythm of that heartbeat, they can string together combos of up to 16 hits, resulting in a significant increase in damage.
It’s not nearly that simple, of course, but as I’ll explain, that’s what makes Mother 3’s battles so brilliant. Again, a 16-hit combo is obviously going to do more damage to an enemy than a standard single-hit attack, but damage dealt on combo attacks typically yields diminishing returns. For example: a single-hit attack might deal 48 points of damage, while a 16 hit combo might look something like 48-2-3-1-2-2-1-5-12-2-3-3-2-5-1-4. Individually, those extra attacks aren’t doing a whole lot of damage, but that still adds up to 96 points of total damage—in the given example, a two-fold increase. Figuring out the rhythm of each song is rarely as simple as it sounds, either; while some songs play in standard 4/4 time, most battles feature constantly shifting time signatures, meaning all but the most musical theory-minded players—or at least those with photographic memory—will find it nearly impossible to reach that 16-hit max on every single song.
And there’s another complication: the rolling damage meter, first introduced in Earthbound, is back, and it plays a significantly more interesting role in Mother 3’s battles. For those who missed out on (or have forgotten) Earthbound, the way it works is this: when an enemy deals damage, it isn’t applied to player characters immediately, but gradually throughout the battle until the total damage dealt is subtracted from a character’s health. This rolling damage continues to be dispersed while a character is dishing out combos, and because of diminishing returns, it might not even be worth it to use combo attacks. In some cases, it actually makes more sense to deal a single-hit attack, then mash your way through each character’s turn as quickly as possible in an effort to deal the most damage via single-hit attacks in the shortest amount of time possible. This approach also allows time to dole out healing items or spells to characters who might have otherwise died because they ran out of health while comboing.
Beyond strategic considerations over the effectiveness of combo attacks in any given situation, Mother 3 gives you multiple ways to bend its battle system to your will. Need a little bit of practice? Use the Battle Memory item (don’t miss it—it’s in Osohe Castle in Chapter 2!) to face off in no-stakes combat against enemies you haven’t mastered yet. Can’t keep the beat on a specific enemy’s song? Get them to join a battle after you’ve already attracted a closer enemy whose rhythm you’ve mastered. Still haven’t even found the beat on a particularly annoying enemy? There’s an item to help with that, too. And if, after all that, you still can’t combo your way through a funky time signature change in the middle of battle, no worries: simply cue up your character for attack, wait until an easier section of the song starts playing, and go crazy.
The amount of flexibility within Mother 3’s combat still astonishes me, and it’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to the game. But I’d be lying if I said Mother 3’s battle mechanics were the main reason I’ve played through it so many times. No, what really draws me back to Mother 3 is how its story continues to reveal new insights to me with each passing year. Reading through emails posted to Mother creator Shigesato Itoi’s website from Japanese players at the game’s original launch in 2006, one particular testimonial has always stood out to me: amongst all the declarations that “Mother 3 made me cry” (a sentiment I certainly won’t argue with), one insightful person suggests the series should be required reading for elementary school students. And indeed, when I think of the impact Mother 3’s story has had on me, I find myself comparing it not to other video games, but to books I grew up with. Like To Kill A Mockingbird, or Lord of the Flies, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or even “lighter” fare like Where the Wild Things Are, Mother 3 deals with universal human issues that, quite frankly, players might not necessarily be equipped to appreciate when they’re first exposed to them. And, like those great books, it only grows more resonant with time.
My first playthrough of Mother 3 helped me consider my grief over my mother’s death from a new perspective, and was a good reminder that there is no wrong way to grieve. Subsequent playthroughs enhanced my understanding of the injustices of inequality; or helped me learn to accept prejudices I’d held since birth; or reminded me of the dangers of willful ignorance; or of the supreme importance of letting myself laugh in moments of utmost despair. It also wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Mother 3 has helped shape me into a better person, both by guiding me to a fuller understanding and appreciation of my privileged position as a straight, white American, and by nudging me toward a more empathetic view of lives that are different from mine. I still struggle with my own demons, but Mother 3 reminds me that they are struggles worth having.
What’s all the more astonishing about Mother 3’s insights is that they’re delivered under a comic veneer that lets players shut the messaging out if they’re not receptive to it. Maybe you don’t want to be preached at. Maybe you don’t want your beliefs called into question by a video game. Maybe you’re just plain sick of all that SJW Nonsense and you just want to play the sequel to Earthbound, for fuck’s sake. If that’s you, you’ll probably still have a great time with Mother 3. But don’t be surprised when you’re up late one night, watching the latest parade of insanity march across your favorite news network after you’ve put the controller down for the evening, and you begin to realize that maybe you don’t like the way the world has turned, or the version of yourself you’ve cultivated. Mother 3 has the power to realign your moral compass. Or you can ignore it. It’s your call.
It’s clear that Itoi’s dedication to storytelling was the primary motivating factor in Mother 3’s ultimate completion, despite a decade of development hell that saw the game move from the Super Famicom, to the 64DD, to the Nintendo 64, and finally, to the Game Boy Advance (and now, another decade later, the Nintendo Switch.) And indeed, in terms of actual gameplay, Mother 3 might seem somewhat slight in comparison to other JRPGs. Rather than presenting a sprawling quest that is easy to lose track of on a large, open world map, the narrative is doled out over eight chapters, with exploration limited strictly to the areas of the game world that are directly relevant to the current chapter. There are very few dungeons to explore, and certainly none that don’t have a direct bearing on the characters’ journeys. And of course, there’s the aforementioned battle system, which so playfully subverts player expectations as to almost be a complete separate game in and of itself. Some might interpret this as disdain for the mechanical tropes of role-playing games, and while I can’t speak for Itoi in that regard, I will say this: the traditional elements of JRPG design that Mother 3 takes such liberties with are the reason many of the classics of the genre don’t hold up very well today. How many times have you returned to a JRPG after an extended break, only to realize you have no idea what’s going on, where to go, or why you should do so? Mother 3 doesn’t have those kinds of issues, because it doesn’t care about upholding the genre’s questionable design legacy. It just is what it is. And that makes it as fresh today as it’s ever been.
So that’s it, then.
Nintendo has finally given English-speaking players an official release of a game we’ve been asking for longer than Half-Life 3. Mother 3 is here, it’s my all-time favorite game , and I’m beside myself with joy at the thought that more players will finally get to dive into it. Is it going to change the landscape of the video game industry? No, absolutely not. But it did change my life, and continues to do so every time I play it. Give it a chance, and it just might change yours, too. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay: at least you finally have a chance to experience what the rest of us have been obsessing over since 2006.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Mother 3 is based on years and years and years of playing the fan translation and the Japanese version. We haven’t yet dug into the official English localization because
it hasn’t yet been made available to us. Expect a followup on the localization in the near future there isn’t one!
Oh, sorry, you were looking for a grade? But we already told you what it is! Guess you’ll have to read the review again!