What’s So Special About Mother 3, Anyway?

It’s the 15th anniversary of the Game Boy Advance classic, but why do so many people obsess over it? We discuss.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 04/20/2021 22:38 Comment on this     ShareThis

Mother 3.

A game that has become almost monolithic after so many years of fans clamoring for it to be translated into English and brought to the West. For those in the US and UK, Mother 3 represents something of a holy grail in terms of unlocalized Nintendo games. The third EarthBound title (as the series is known here), it represents what is, for now, the end of a beloved series. An ending that might very well continue to remain officially out of the hands of fans for at least the foreseeable future.

After so much time, there are likely many people who wonder what all of the fuss is about in the first place. What makes Mother 3 so special? Why have fans been asking for it for so many year now? To answer these questions, let’s look to what is the start of so many fans’ love affair with the series: EarthBound.

The SNES RPG, dubbed Mother 2 in Japan, was a milestone release when it launched all the way back in 1995. Up until it did, however, there was a lot of concern that it would never see the light of day. Development was fraught with delays, taking five years to finally be completed. It wasn’t until the intervention of HAL (and eventually Nintendo) president Satoru Iwata stepping in to help guide development that the project finally reached fruition. Working with his friend and writer/director Shigesato Itoi, the duo helped mold EarthBound into something special.

EarthBound had largely traditional turn-based battle mechanics, but it was in its themes and settings that the game distinguished itself. Set in a satirical, fictional version of the United States, EarthBound traded in wizards and long swords for cultists and baseball bats. EarthBound was quirky and adventurous in ways that most RPGs, even ones produced today, are not. Quite a lot was spent to market EarthBound in the US (which was renamed in the region due to the original Mother having never been released there—fans would have been left curious as to what it was a sequel to), but sadly it sold half as many copies here is as it did in Japan.

To make things worse, EarthBound was also met with less than enthusiasm by the press. Why EarthBound failed in the US at launch is hard to say exactly. Maybe it was timing (Nintendo 64 launched just a year later), maybe it was the oddball visuals and narrative, but in 1995 EarthBound failed to find an audience in America. Years later, though, EarthBound’s greatness was eventually recognized and garnered a cult following.

In Japan, meanwhile, Mother 2 sold well enough to warrant a sequel and production began in earnest. If Mother 2’s development was difficult, then Mother 3’s was monumentally so. The project stretched across SNES, Nintendo 64, the 64DD peripheral, and eventually wound up on Game Boy Advance. When all was said and done, Mother 3 took 12 years to reach fans. When work started on Mother 3, Itoi and company envisioned a sprawling 3D world for the the player to explore. It was quickly realized that the capabilities of Nintendo 64 weren’t going to be able to accommodate Itoi’s plans. Switching over to 64DD, which used disk-based media and added extra processing power to Nintendo 64, was the next logical step, but when the device failed and never was even released outside of Japan, attention returned once more to the home console.

Then, another snag came along: it was taking too long to make the game. Mother 3 needed years more of development to be finalized and Nintendo was already prepping the launch of GameCube. Mother 3 was canceled and all hope for the sequel was lost. Until Itoi was convinced to finish making Mother 3… for Game Boy Advance. While the story remained the same, all of the visuals were returned from 3D back to 2D as they had been in EarthBound/Mother 2. In 2006, Japanese fans were finally able to purchase the game that had taken so long to be finished.

The game itself is simultaneously lauded for its production values and narrative but criticized for what is seen by some as overly traditional battle mechanics. Like EarthBound, Mother 3 is set in a more grounded real world setting, starring the young boy Lucas as he struggles with the loss of his mother. From a storytelling standpoint, Mother 3 is very ambitious. Told across multiple chapters, it deals with an eclectic cast of characters and spans years. The ending is especially somber. Many a fan will readily cite Majora’s Mask as one of, if not the, darkest narratives in a Nintendo game, but Mother 3 deserves recognition for being more daring and original than even that great game. Death, redemption, revenge, and plenty of humor and weirdness abound in Mother 3.

The battle system, on the other hand, probably got harsher criticism than it deserved. It skews simple, with the typical turn-based fights that RPG fans are so familiar with, as well as customary item and gear usage, magic spells, and so on. However, the introduction of timing-based attacks adds a fun and challenging wrinkle to combat. Every enemy has its own “rhythm” that mixes with the music that plays in the background during battles. Players can tap along to the beat and deliver devastating volleys of attacks once they figure out the rhythm of an opponent. It’s hard, sure, but incredibly rewarding and satisfying to pull off. It might not reinvent the wheel, but Mother 3’s battle mechanics are fun and engaging.

Mother 3 in the years since its release has become something of an obsession with some members of the Nintendo faithful. Notably, in 2008 a fan translation conducted by the folks at Starmen.net (which includes Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin, a video game translator renowned for his Legends of Localization books and website) became available online. Although accessible only via playing and patching Mother 3 using emulation software (which tends to exist in the gray area of legality), the translation is said to have been downloaded and applied over 100,000 times. The interest in Mother 3 clearly was there 13 years ago, but Nintendo has never brought the game outside of Japan. Why? Well, there are a couple of theories.

One is that Mother 3 released with poor timing much like EarthBound before it. Launching in 2006, Mother 3 was released right as Nintendo DS was picking up steam. Although DS was initially meant to be a “third pillar” of Nintendo’s corporate strategy, in reality it became the successor of the Game Boy line. GBA was rapidly diminishing in popularity even as Mother 3 was hitting stands in Japan; to devote the incredible amount of time and resources needed to bring the game to English-speaking players would have likely not yielded the desired profits to make it worth Nintendo’s efforts.

Another theory is that Mother 3 is simply too controversial to properly translate for audiences outside of Japan. Violent and disturbing things happen to children in the game—at one point, Lucas has a hallucinogenic experience with mushrooms. Lucas’ twin brother, Claus, is brainwashed into becoming a villain who eventually kills himself. Heavy stuff, for sure, and far darker material than virtually anything Nintendo has ever published in the West. Perhaps of greater concern to Nintendo than even those examples would be how to present the Magypsies.

The Magypsies are portrayed as what can be perceived as either mixed gender or genderless characters. What would have been tricky to present fairly in 2008 would be a veritable landmine field in today’s identity politics-charged social media landscape. Meaning, no matter what Nintendo’s intentions might be, no matter how Nintendo might try to portray the Magypsies to players in an English translation, someone is likely to be offended. Nintendo is infamous for trying to keep its games as uncontroversial (from a content perspective) as possible, so it’s arguably this one element of Mother 3 that might mean fans outside of Japan never get to officially play the game.

Which is such a shame. Mother 3 deserves to be lauded as it has been for all of these years. The ending alone is worth the price of admission. It’s been debated by fans for years now, with many divided as to what the ultimate fate of its heroes actually was. It’s the sort of conclusion that haunts and leaves the player thinking for days, if not sometimes longer. That money, or fear of controversy, should be the reason that Mother 3 has languished in limbo for Western fans is heartbreaking. Still, there are ways to play it in English or at the very least watch others play it, so if you’re interested in Mother 3 you can theoretically still experience it today. Whether or not the larger pantheon of Nintendo fans will ever have the luxury is another question entirely. For now, we will instead give our thanks to Itoi and company for producing one hell of a game and hope that someday, somehow, he can be convinced to give the world Mother 4.

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