Review by JD Fedule
Mother 3 will captivate you like no other game can.
Know first that it took every ounce of willpower I have not to say "The Mother of all RPGs". (Besides, attributing originality to a second sequel is a very silly thing to do.)
There are a lot, and I do mean a lot, of reasons for one to say that Mother 3 is a great game. All the usual suspects - it tells a great story in an interesting way, has an outstanding soundtrack, has interesting gameplay mechanics - all that stuff, it's all there. But beyond all that, the reason Mother 3 succeeds to the degree that it does is because every element in it is thought out, polished, and justified. Mother 3 is one of the better examples of a game designed by a single individual (in this case, Shigesato Itoi, the man who likened videogames to prostitutes) who oversees and directly influences every step of development. A setup like this can end in disaster (see: that one certain big game that spent ten years in development hell that was released this year. You know which one I mean) but in the case of Mother 3, Itoi knew what he was doing and Brownie Brown (the developer in our case) were happy to comply.
To put it one way, Mother 3 is a videogame crafted around a story crafted around a videogame. Its various gameplay elements and aesthetics support and facilitate eachother beautifully, and it's all wrapped around a story that, however subtly, draws its immersiveness from its existence in a videogame.
The game's 2D graphics, rather than trying to be technically impressive, focus on attention to detail. The tiny sprites all have recognizable and expressive faces and various detailed animations. On a GBA SP or Micro, everything appears crisp and clean and beautiful. The environments are rich and colourful, the sprites well crafted and animated, the battle backgrounds weird and wonderful (we'll get back to that), and so forth. The simplicity of the graphics prevents graphical glitches from getting in the way of immersion, but their beauty brings Mother 3 to life.
The game's music is also excellent, easily the best on the GBA, not just in composition but sound quality as well. There are a large number of tracks in the game, counting the usual themes for characters, locations, and plot events, and what must be the largest number of individual battle themes in any RPG, ever (again, we'll get back to that). To top it all off, the game features what is not so much a "sound test" but a fully featured music player - you can mark your favourite tracks, reorder or ramdomize them, and then lock the buttons like a phone so you can leave your GBA in your pocket! This would be a little ridiculous if not for the aforementioned sound quality and the number of excellent tracks in the game.
The game plays like most RPGs do - your characters form a party and move around an area, talking and interacting. Due to the game's setting, there aren't a great many different locations to explore - the game instead focuses on one area as it changes over time, which you will revisit as it evolves. So while there are only a few geographical areas, there are plenty of places to go, each with different things to do and people to see, enough easily to fill up a game. Many of the subtler aspects of the plot involve details such as which people are where, and the changes in attitude they undergo over time. Besides battling enemies (which, yes, we will get to shortly), exploration and conversations will take up the bulk of your time. There are dungeons to crawl, but the game does not throw dial-a-puzzles at you to slow you down. There are no sliding blocks, no reflecting light beams, and even bog standard fetch quests are few and far between. The dungeons in Mother 3 exist merely to provide some walking for you to do between battles and plot events. If anything, they're a merciful break during which you can let the last big event sink in, and anticipate the next one. The most puzzle-like thing you will be doing is finding your way to where you want to go, and in most cases, you'll have a map.
In fact, Mother 3 is one of the most forgiving games out there. Should you fall in battle (soon, promise), you will be greeted with a familiar sight to any RPG veteran - a "Game Over" screen with a Continue? Yes/No choice. However, Itoi clearly grasps the notion that if you wanted to stop playing, you'd turn off the game before that choice was even on screen. Instead, picking "yes" will drop you off at the last save point you passed (whether or not you used it), fully healed, with whatever items and experience you had when you were defeated but less half your money. If you used a lot of healing items and don't think you can get on without them, you can pick "no" which takes you down the more traditional route of reloading your last save. This system takes a lot of the punishment out of failure without giving up any of the difficulty of the game's bosses, and provides a way out for players who would otherwise be stuck in a dungeon before a boss fight for which they are underlevelled. The difficulty curve is perfect, too, with the game set up such that, when moving into a new area, you'll level up quickly until optimal, after which it'll take far longer - until you move into the next area. If it's taking a long time to level up, you know you're ready to move on. Combined with the Continue system, it allows players to keep up with the demands of the game while discouraging players from getting so powerful that the game becomes easy. Likewise, the game throws healing items at you for most of the first few chapters, encouraging you (by means of a finite inventory) to use them regularly. It's an effective way of preventing the battles of the early game from becoming overwhelming.
Said battles (I told you we'd get to these eventually) are the other main gameplay point in Mother 3. In the great JRPG tradition, they are turn based with a twist. Two twists, in this case. Rather than using random battles, Mother 3 opts to show enemies on the field screen and give you the choice of engaging or trying to evade. Cleverly, you can sneak up behind enemies for an extra turn (though enemies can do the same) and enemies weaker than you will actually run away from you. On top of all this, much weaker enemies can be knocked aside by dashing through them. The basic plan for a battle is pretty standard stuff - you input commands each round, and everyone attacks in order of speed. Different characters have special attacks as alternatives to attacking, some more useful than others. The battles work based on a few slightly nuanced but well thought out ideas.
The main twist to the battle system is the ability to combo. When you use your main (physical) attack, you can tap the A button in time with the background music to score additional hits, up to 16. The strength of each attack drops drastically after the first hit - doing maybe a tenth of the damage with the occasional critical, but still, that means you can do triple or so the damage with a full combo. To make this easier to deal with, you have control over when your attack starts - you get a prompt, and the next button you press starts the attack, so you can time your first hit with the music and start the combo. All this is optional - it's not quite right to expect that everyone will be able to play at full volume or with headphones, and so the system was designed so that the game is entirely beatable without using combos. Nevertheless, they do help you pile on the damage and are very fun to use. This simple idea has several knock on effects;
First, I reiterate that there a are lot of (very good) music tracks in Mother 3. To keep the sound battle system from being boring, a LOT of different battle tracks were written and each enemy assigned one. Each track has a different rhythm, some more complex than others.
To make things even more interesting, the music very knowingly messes with you. Some tracks have nonstandard, though steady, beats. Some speed up and slow down or even stop completely. Some are just plain random, dropping out for half-beats at a time and continually switching up the rhythm. Many battle themes have two or more versions with subtly different beats, forcing you to stay on your toes. One result of this is that nearly every boss battle has a different theme - a welcome change from most RPGs. There are enough different battle tracks to allow each kind of enemy to have its own track, too.
The other big twist is the rolling HP meter, making a return from Mother 2. When you are hit, the damage taken is displayed and your HP ticks, in real time, down to whatever. If whatever happens to be zero, you have a limited time (again, real time) to use a healing technique or item on that character, or to finish the battle in order to save them from death. In fact, a few early enemies "explode" on defeat, dealing damage that would mean instant defeat in any other game, for the sole purpose of teaching the player through experience that mortal damage does not equal instant death. This gels nicely with the combo system - if a party member is dying and you have a heal lined up, but (due to the harsh mistress that is the speed stat) someone else is attacking first, how many hits do you have time for? Other nuances exist too - for example, if you defend, your HP rolls slower. It's all designed to add a bit more thought and strategy to the tried and true Conditional Turn Based system that has been with us almost as long as RPGs themselves have, and it does a good job at keeping the battles from becoming boring.
The other (relatively inconsequential) details you'll notice about the battles are the strange and at times absurd enemies you face and the abstract, swirling, pulsating backdrops that replace more traditional, environment-reflective ones. The choice of foes does have an in-game explanation, but the backgrounds... are just something weird you'll have do deal with. They are pretty though.
I've been deliberately avoiding going into too much detail about the actual story for a few reasons - a combination of the usual spoiler reasons and the fact that as early as the first chapter, big, unexpected things happen that set the tone for the entire game. What I will say is that the story is excellent from start to finish, and runs the gamut of laugh-out-loud funny lines to moments that could bring the manliest of men to tears (if the manliest of men played JRPGs). Itoi's motto for the game was "Strange, Funny, Heartrending", and Mother 3 does indeed cover all of these.
The game's plot and setting combine to create an experience that is rich and immersive, and the focus on one location changing over time along with the increasing presence of the story's antagonists adds a great sense of a living, breathing, (fantasy) world. It's full of interesting characters who develop over the course of the game. Some of them you'll feel sorry for, some you'll hate. I've mentioned before that Mother 3 doesn't waste any time with puzzle dungeons or meaningless sidequests - there's only you, some environments, and the people (or creatures) trying to stop you. Everything is set up to keep the plot moving forward with each step. The result is a truly palpable sense of urgency and a better motivation for the player than any amount of "oh no, the [whatever big disaster] will strike in three days!" lines could ever accomplish (and besides, everyone knows fate will hang around for however many consecutive nights you stay at the inn). The other result is that what would otherwise have been "sidequest time" is instead devoted to the main plot. This means that instead of padding out the Total Gameplay Time Per Dollar (or Yen, I guess) measurement with fetch quests and minigames, more time and effort was spent fleshing out the story, which is, after all, the main purpose of an RPG*. The effect of all this on you is that you're going to spend about 20 hours between New Game and the credits, which is not bad for a GBA game and certainly not bad when the plot is of this kind of quality for all of those hours. It's also longer than most new generation titles will last you if you choose not to bother with whatever the developers tell you constitutes "replay value". It's worth mentioning at this point that if you've ever read a book more than once, you may well enjoy playing Mother 3 more than once.
*Which is not to imply that an RPG is bad if it has a ton of sidequests, just sayin' that Mother 3 uses the opposite approach to spectacular effect.
Perhaps the only even more remarkable aspect of Mother 3 is that through all the doom and gloom, Itoi's characteristic humour shines through. Parts of Mother 3 are deadly serious, introspective, brooding and dark. The rest is hilarious, absurdist and thoroughly charming. While its predecessor, EarthBound, carried you through the main plot using humour until the very end, at which point it suddenly got serious, Mother 3 starts the dark clouds rolling from the word go, and yet will still find time to amuse and entertain you as the drama unfolds. In fact Mother 3's self awareness as a videogame (and the humour that is derived from such) is part of the formula that aids your suspension of disbelief, producing characters and ideas that are coherent despite being totally absurd.
It says a lot about the quality of this world when cash dispensing frogs, hybrid rocket-rhinos and people who tell you to "imagine something like a B button" fail to break the spell that Mother 3 puts you under.
Finally, as an aside of sorts, there's something to be said for the argument that Mother 3 has a lot in common with a work of literature - it does, after all, use text to convey dialog and narration, and as mentioned, unlike many other RPGs where the end of the world waits up for the heroes, Mother 3 keeps the plot moving forward, steady and unrelenting. Books don't have sidequests or optional dungeons, after all. It is no coincidence that, when not designing Mother games (or Bass Fishing games), Shigesato Itoi writes essays and articles on lifestyle, spirituality and philosophy.
More than any single aspect, though, the key to what makes Mother 3 so brilliant is the synergy between its constituent parts. The story (excellent in its own right) is punctuated by the battles, which are fun to play, and from which is derived the excellent soundtrack, with the graphics and other themes providing the interface between all this and the player, and also providing the means for telling the story. If ever there was a game greater than the sum of its parts, it is Mother 3.
If you enjoy a well put together Role Playing Game, or if you just enjoy a good story, or if you enjoyed EarthBound, or - hell, you know what? Screw the ifs and buts. You, yes, YOU, will enjoy Mother 3 immensely. Even if you don't like, or think you don't like RPGs, you will love Mother 3. It's just that good.
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Product Release: Mother 3 (JP, 04/20/06)
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