MOTHER 3 (2006) – BROWNIE BROWN/HAL LABORATORY
In the JRPG genre, the Mother series has always been the black sheep. The likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy may well go out and steal the headlines, but since the days of the NES, the series of Mother games have attracted a loyal fanbase with their quirky take on how an RPG should be played. The original is highly regarded, and its successor, Earthbound, is the epitome of a cult classic, with the original SNES cartridges picking up anywhere near to £100. What fans wanted then, was the third instalment; and my word didn’t they have to wait for it. Mother 3 was originally intended for the Super Famicom, and then was transferred to the doomed Nintendo 64DD. Eventually, it was released on the Game Boy Advance in 2006…in Japan only. With the possibility of a localisation looking remote, fans at Starmen.net decided to make a fan translation, taking over two years to complete. Finally, in October 2008, Western fans of the Mother franchise were able to get their hands on the game. The question is, after such a troubled birth (call it the Japanese ‘Duke Nukem Forever’), is it any good?
Mother 3 is somewhat of a spiritual successor to Earthbound. The story takes place on the Nowhere Islands, a peaceful area where the community gets along by sharing with each other (kind of a perfect Communist life if you will). On these islands lives a family, where Flint and his wife Hinawa have raised two sons, Lucas and Claus, along with their dog Boney. One day however, a mysterious flying object is seen over the islands, setting fire to the forest. Flint tries to save his family, who have been away on vacation at the other end of the island, and in doing so manages to save Lucas and the dog, but Hinawa passes away, and Claus is deemed missing. From here on in you play the game through the perspective of several different characters, as you battle the Pigmask Army who have invaded the islands and subjected the people to their control.
Overall, the plot is pretty solid. It is split into eight different chapters, and this helps the pacing of the story to be more manageable. Of particular note is one of the latter chapters, where the story starts tripping balls on mushrooms. Literally. The characters are an interesting bunch as well, aside from the main characters that you play through the game as, there’s a massive cast of individuals spread throughout the game that help or hinder your quest. Giving so many NPC’s a sense of individuality really sells the plot for me, and as a result it’s one of the better stories that I have played through in recent times. I will say that some of the boss fights are sprung upon you at random times, but overall they fit into the story so it is of no great concern. I was also a bit dissapointed with how vague the ending was, but it does leave the door open for Mother 4.
The one thing that has always separated the Mother games from the likes of Dragon Quest in Japan is the approach to gameplay; they are not games of swords and potions. Instead, they take a refreshingly modern take on how to make an RPG. So Mother 3 is set in a modern time, and the weapons that the characters use ranges from baseball bats and yo-yos to gloves and boots. They wear sweaters to repel ice enemies. They drink cola and eat noodles to regain health. It is all fantastically quirky. There also some other very important gameplay changes to traditional JRPG’s. You do not get random encounters in Mother 3; all the enemies are present on the screen, and you can choose to run straight past them or engage them in three different ways: attacking them head on leads to a normal battle, but attack them from the rear and you get a pre-emptive strike, and if they hit you in the back then they get the first hit. The resultant fight is also deviation from the norm. You get four basic options, to attack, use items, deploy a character specific skill or run. However, if you choose the standard attack, you have the option to get a big combo by attacking in time with the background music, and you can get up to 16 hits in one attack. This is a excellent and rather unique gameplay dynamic, as enemies all have different tunes playing in the background when you fight them, meaning you have several sequences to tap out for bonus damage. Another important feature is the way that health and magicka is depleted; instead of losing numbers in chunks, Mother 3 operates a countdown meter that gradually decreases. This means that if a character receives mortal damage, they can be healed and saved before the counter reaches 0. It means that battles can be fought at breakneck speed, as counters fall during move selection meaning that you have to activate moves ASAP, and it leads to a much more engaging battle experience, especially since revives are virtually non existent in this game. Traditional magic is also absent from Mother 3; instead characters can learn PSI moves by levelling up. There are three types of PSI magic; offensive moves utilising fire, ice and thunder, defensive moves that can boost and lower stats, and healing moves that restore HP and cure negative statuses. You will soon come to rely on these characters as they are both the hard hitters and healers at the same time, meaning that some elements of tactics needs to be employed: do you sacrifice a turn of healing to get a bit hit in and potentially win? Overall it’s a fantastic system for battling.
The process is aided further by the enemies you will be fighting. The quirkiness of the series is highly evident in the design of the enemies; the main guys that you will be fighting are the Pigmask’s, but throughout the story they create all sorts of chimera’s, leading to some crazy mashups. For example, a horses head attached to the body of a tarantula. An elephants face forming the body of an ostrich. Hippo’s that can fire rockets. A petunia that has the buds replaced with pigs heads. Damaged drums and guitars. If this all sounds freakish and terrifying, do not worry: everything is depicted in a cartoonish matter so you shouldn’t be getting any nightmares. Enemies give a fair amount of EXP as well, so grinding is not required in great amounts to progress through the game.
There a few final things to note on the gameplay front in Mother 3. Saving is encouraging readily throughout the game (you use frogs which are handily placed throughout the world to record progress and deal with DP, the in-game currency), and there are hot springs dotted around which fully heal your party. It does the make the game perhaps less of a challenge than the more hardcore Dragon Quest series. And if you are looking for something that will swallow up your life, then this is not the RPG for you; it took me roughly 22 hours to get through first time. However, it is a quality experience from start to finish.
Visually, Mother 3 is not pushing forward the boundaries of what it possible. I think the fact that it was intended for major consoles means that it has been redesigned endlessly, and in the end they settled on mostly repeating the style of Earthbound on the SNES. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I would say that Earthbound looked much crisper on the SNES than this does on the GBA. Still, Mother 3 will not make your eyes bleed, and is worth playing through just to witness the crazy enemy design in action and the psychedelic battle backgrounds.
As previously mentioned, music forms a large part of the battling combo system, so you would expect some care and attention in the sound department. Mother 3 indeed has a very large soundtrack with precisely 250 songs (much more than games like Final Fantasy 4). Many of the tracks can be passed off as slight variations of earlier tunes, but some of the standalone tracks are excellent, including F-F-Fire!, A Railway In Our Village, Big Shot’s Theme and the Mr Batty Twist (NANANANANANANANA) . Again, I get the feeling that on a console it would have sounded better, but the GBA speakers just about do this game justice. I should also note that on the main menu there is a sound player that lets you listen to all the tracks in the game and build a playlist of your favourites to prevent searching everytime, much like that in the GBA versions of the Final Fantasy games. A very nice feature to include.
Mother 3 has certainly kept the tradition of the series it represents going with its release; it features all the traits which prevent it from becoming just another Final Fantasy clone, and it has led to Nintendo realising that it deserves more exposure; Lucas features as a playable character in Super Smash Brothers Brawl, and New Pork City is one of the stages which can be fought on. One would anticipate that this will be the last entry into the Mother franchise, and if it is then it will stand the test of time for offering gamers something different within the JRPG genre. Now if you will excuse me, where did I leave my Cup Of Pork Noodles…