Version tested: GameBoy Advance
Few pregnancies have been as painful and protracted as Mother 3's. The follow-up to Super Nintendo classic Earthbound, a game that won a dedicated following for its cute and funny modern-world styling of the Japanese RPG, was first announced twelve years ago. Numerous false starts and broken promises later, lead designer Shigesato Itoi finally announced its imminent Japanese release for the Game Boy Advance on his blog in 2005.
As the latest instalment in one of Japan's most beloved RPG series, Mother 3 raced to the top of the pre-order charts before enjoying considerable success at retail, a feat that still failed to secure it a Western release. Despite Earthbound's status as a sacred cow amongst gaming's cognoscenti, it sold poorly, a performance that scuppered this sequel's chances for a Western release. Shigeru Miyamoto himself said of the game: "We had high hopes for Earthbound in the US, but it didn't do well. You might not know this, but there was a 'Please Make Mother 3' petition, which received 30,000 signatures! After that, we thought, 'Wow... Earthbound fans are really solid.'"
"Really solid" is understatement when it comes to Mother's followers, whose dedication often beggars belief. So when Nintendo's localisation producer Nate Bihldorff confirmed in an interview that the publisher had no plans to take Mother 3 outside of Japan, it was no surprise that a group of fan translators sprang into action. Extracting the text files from the Japanese GBA game, the team began the painstaking work of translating the game's thousands of lines of dialogue before reinserting them using the Earthbound English language font. Finally, on 17th October, over two years after the group began its work, a fully translated patch was released onto the Internet, freely available for anyone with a digital copy of the game to play via emulator.
The release occupies a grey legal area, dipping its toes into murky litigious water, but the fan localisers' motives are transparently pure. At start-up a message urges players to support Mother 3 by importing official merchandise and, should the game ever receive a Western release, purchasing a legitimate copy at that time.
Of course, motives alone don't maketh the translation. The process of translating a JRPG is time-consuming, a labour that's all too often handled poorly by the professionals, so the fact that a group of fans should produce a script of such wit and vim is startling. It's also something they simply had to get right if they were to do this, of all games, justice, because Mother 3 is a game that fits the term 'interactive story' more comfortably than most. It's a game made by a storyteller, one who's chosen to use the vocabulary and tropes of the JRPG to bring his tale to an audience.
As such, the gameplay's not so much a set of lines to link the drama as a clutch of dots, short interactive hops from cut-scene to cut-scene, employing what appears to be the most basic form and function of its chosen genre. What initially appears to be a straightforward tale told in primary colours soon demonstrates a breadth and depth of quality that few titles many times its budget achieve. Its childlike sprites (unusually Western in appearance) communicate comedy and tragedy with unexpected impact, the simple story drawing readers in with a nod and wink before turning on a sixpence to deliver affecting scenes.
To begin with, you name each member of the central protagonist's family, from the father down to the dog, and it's a mammoth undertaking if you're anything like us. If that isn't enough, you then answer a series of questions, the answers to which are then incorporated into the story. These take the form of "What is your favourite food?" and "What is your favourite thing?" It's the simplest of tricks, an obvious way for a game to tailor itself to the player, but it's still effective when tragedy and triumph befalls your characters later in the game and the customisation becomes relevant.
Split into eight chapters, the game adopts a similar approach to recent DS favourite, Dragon Quest IV. Most of the chapters are viewed from a different character's perspective, your role shifting from that of cowboy father to inept thief, to family dog, to abused monkey. The game begins, in contrast to the previous Mother titles, in pastoral forest village, soon threatened by a forest fire that acts as the first dramatic trigger. Overlaid onto this is a larger, darker menace: the pig mask army. Throughout the game they invade your town, transforming it from rustic haven to technologically advanced police state. It's an unsubtle transformation, but one that allows the writers to explore the relationship between nature and technology, feudalism and capitalism, individuals and community, albeit a little heavy-handedly.
The systems that the story clothes are less effective. This is, by any standards, an RPG-lite with a single Swiss Army knife button used for investigating areas and instigating conversations, and another for running about and charging into objects. These two inputs make up your entire arsenal (although some characters do have their own, context-sensitive actions) when out on the field, so the only systemic innovation is in the game's battle system.
Here the basic mechanics mirror Dragon Quest, albeit with a rhythm-action mechanic bolted on. When attacking enemies in the standard way, if you continue to tap the button in time with the battle music you can execute additional free attacks, one per tap, up to a maximum of sixteen in a chain. Occasionally it's not always clear which part of the soundtrack you're meant to be beat-matching but put an enemy to sleep and the game will isolate the correct pulse with a heartbeat sound effect. Later on, the rhythm of the music during battles speeds up and slows down, and some enemies will try to mess with its timing to wrong-thumb you.
Nevertheless, there's no disguising that this is a game with few headline-friendly unique selling points. Instead there's wonder in its detail: the Batman theme tune that plays out every time you fight a bat; the character who chastises you for not giggling at puns; the time you take a restorative bath after rescuing a villager from a burning house and emerge to find your clothes have been washed clean but your face it still sooty; the ubiquitous frogs who save your game for you and their increasingly ridiculous get-up; the way the flying mice bouff up their hair to make themselves more imposing before battles; the time you fight a reconstructed mecha caribou; the ants and sparrows who detail the game's finer points and explain where you're going wrong; the terrible haiku; the time you open a treasure chest only for a ghost to pop out and belch in your face; the palate-cleansing mint you receive in the next room to help you forget what happened; the campfire scene. Mother 3's packed with memorable moments.
Sometimes simplicity in a videogame is analogous to raw stupidity. But well-executed simplicity, the kind of willful unfussiness it takes a competent designer to pull off, is elegance. Mother 3 is elegant in its simplicity. It nestles a compelling story of surprising depth inside a game of focused breadth. Devoid of random battles and with no need to grind to get through the story, this is a journey palatable even to genre detractors. Mother 3's birth might have been protracted and wholly unorthodox it was well worth the pain and sacrifice.
7 / 10
Instructions on how to play Mother 3 in English can be found at the fan translators' official website.