You don’t have to learn Japanese to be a weeb, but it helps


Mother 3 (2006/2008)

It’s one of the most natural and dangerous human instincts we possess: we all want what we can’t have. And we PAL gamers ought to know this – after all, how else was I going to react to the news that Super Noah’s Ark 3D and Mahjong 64 wouldn’t be making it to Dublin? So wrapped up in my carnal desire for these games was I that I didn’t even know what an EarthBound was until I kept getting battered by some tubheaded kid called Ness in Super Smash Bros.

I later became acquainted with EarthBound, second game in the Mother series, and found it to be a game that would have to be described as pretty dece but not top dece. Soon, though, I became more than a little bit worried by the braying bloodhounds that worship the game. I can see why the fanbase were giving it so much welly though: there was another Mother game on the cards, and vocal shows of support seemed necessary to get that mother out of Japan and into realms that wouldn’t understand half the jokes, references and Japanese-ness.

It’s a game that’s been a long time coming, that’s for sure – about twelve years by my reckoning. We could have had it on the Super Nintendo (or more likely, the Super Famicom), the Nintendo 64 and even that infamous 64DD effort, before it was finally restarted and released on the Game Boy Advance. This did have the unusual benefit of having the right graphics at the right time; rather than going for now severely dated 3D graphics, as can be seen in the N64 trailers for Mother 3, the final GBA version brings us some truly wonderful spritework, a lovely reminder of what lovingly crafted sprites can do.

It’s easiest to compare the battle system in this game to EarthBound. If you haven’t played that, go and play that first, or else we can compare the battle system to Dragon Warrior instead. And if you haven’t played that… well, let me just give you the dope: there are no random encounters, and in fact you can see all enemies on the field before getting into a scrape with them. Battle takes place in a first-person perspective, so you can take a good look at the enemies trying to crush you into dust, enemies such as the Forlorn Junk Heap, the Men’s Room Sign, the Artsy Ghost and the Gently Weeping Guitar. What’s really triffic is that every enemy has out-of-battle sprites as well, which must have took designer Shigesato Itoi and his boys a fair chunk of time.

The battling is your usual RPG stuff – equip weapons and armour for higher stats, and attack foes with physical blows or PSI, which is your somewhat limited array of magic. There’s not much in the way of customisation in battle – you just wail on your enemies until they bounce out of existence. An ingenious quirk to the battle system keeps things interesting though: keep tapping the attack button to the beat of the battle music to deliver more and more damage. It’s challenging, it’s fun and it offers great reward. It doesn’t make the battle system world class, but at least it’s something that keeps you awake.

The plot of this game was designed to be ‘strange, funny and heartrending’, and it takes place over a number of different chapters, and even from the perspective of different characters at the beginning. In fact, it’s not until you heartrend your way to Chapter 4 that you assume permanent control of your main character.

It’s got some great ideas, particularly watching the development of the world around you and how malevolently designed technology starts to destroy nature. But the story is just a bit too goofy to really care about. There’s a heartbreaker in the first chapter, years before the game’s main plot begins, and it really sets the tone. The two subsequent chapters set up a few more background details, and then the action switches to the present day as you traipse around odd event after odd event, until you finally go to pull seven needles out of the ground, which has some sort of world-shattering effect.

The nature versus technology theme is one that I enjoy, and Mother 3’s cartoony look doesn’t mean that the game isn’t hard-hitting with this idea. Although it can be a bit cack-handed; even taking a look at the Mother 3 Wikipedia page at the top of the page, it proudly declares that “the logo’s wooden and metallic combination is intended to invoke feelings of unease and discomfort.” Err, right. It’s one thing to have grown-up themes that make me feel mature and like I’m not too much of an oik to appreciate art, but let’s not overegg the pudding either.

One thing we have to mention is that this game never did make it out of Moonland, even after a hell of a lot of anxiety and aggravation on the part of the rabid fanbase I warned you about earlier. This was a problem, as the witty dialogue of Mother is half the fun and I sure as hell don’t speak animu. Which means that there were, and still remains, only two ways for me and the rest of the fans to play through Mother 3: one was to stumble through the main plot not knowing what any of those funny little symbols are, not knowing whether the character said “I’m sorry, Mike, but that’s called sexual harassment these days,” or whether they were saying “Watashi wa Pearl Hahbah is just the beginning American infidel-desu!”

The other way of experiencing the game is through playing the fan translation, released late in 2008. This of course means ROMs and emulators and all that hobbledehoy, but it’s the only way. It never fell victim to a cease-and-desist during its development either despite Nintendo having knowledge of it, which is refreshing. Two years, thousands of manhours, some complex coding doohickery and 1,000 pages of dialogue to translate it took, including all sorts of subtly nuanced jokes that the Mother series is famous for.

And the result is a huge triumph, another glowing endorsement for the dedicated fanbase. Think about that achievement. A group of fans actually contributing something useful beyond bluster, for once? And not only that, but a group-effort fan translation that actually didn’t end with online drama, shady controversy, whiny meltdowns, strops and in-fighting? I wasn’t willing to believe it, but it happened, and it’s a credit to the guys in the charge – particularly led by a pro vidyah game translator who goes by the online moniker Tomato.

Let’s face it, we like to romanticise it a little but the truth is, the Super Nintendo’s EarthBound is up against competition so stiff that it can’t really be called a top-tier game for the console. It definitely deserves a couple of playthroughs, and the fans adore it religiously and good luck to them – Christ, I’d build a shrine to it too if I dropped hundreds of dollars on a complete copy of it.

Mother 3 may have less competition on the GBA, if you can fairly dismiss the Final Fantasy ports and Pokémon Ruby, Leaf Green and Lint Purple, but is it the best RPG on the system? One of the finest RPGs of all? Not really. Despite some very poignant moments, the plot is a bit too disjointed and the final villains are hardly big twists. The battle system is always fun, even for the rhythmically bewildered people like me. That said, there’s usually little strategy involved and it does get tiresome having to buff all of your party members three times and debuff the enemy thrice as well for every single boss fight, just so that you don’t get chiefed early doors.

It’s not a disappointing game, even an old grump like me wouldn’t go that far. But, and with my apologies to those who still campaign militantly for this game to come Stateside and beyond, the only way we’re ever going to play this is via the fan-translated ROM. We must be realistic about that. But do we really need this one to be localised and released? The spritework, different story and fun battle system all offer good reasons to play through this one. And it’s a nice way to cap off the series, which now looks to be finished for good. But it just isn’t a top tier game.

02 February 2015

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