Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mother 3

Note: While I try to be as vague as possible, spoilers can be easily gleaned throughout the review. Playing the game isn't required to enjoy the review, but reader discretion is advised.

When copywriter Shigesato Itoi developed the original Mother--EarthBound Beginnings--he wanted to make a title that would break the mold of RPGs. It wouldn't be a tale of swords and sorcery, but instead children in 80's America fighting aliens and collecting melodies of love. It was an ambitious deconstruction of gameplay, tropes and story all in one Famicom (NES) cartridge, but while it captivated a Japanese audience, it wasn't immune to criticism: maps were too broad, the random encounters were too difficult, and maybe it deconstructed things a little too much, what with its lack of bosses and awkward story beats.

In that sense, Mother 2--EarthBound--is what he set out to accomplish all along. Both games revolved around similar plots, starred a mute boy wearing a red cap, and deconstructed RPG tropes and American culture in a comedic context. The 16-bit console was the perfect template for the series' minimalist vision, but it was no easy task: EarthBound's labored development took five years, with it gradually climbing up the megabit ladder (8 to 24--a huge leap for those days), implementing the overworld's oblique projection was gruelingly difficult, and the game was on the verge of cancellation numerous times...until the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata--then a top programmer for HAL Laboratory--approached Itoi and offered two choices: he could fix the game as it was now, or reboot it and make it even better.

That Itoi chose the latter was undeniably a difficult decision, but thankfully, it was also the correct one: where Beginnings was something of an enchanting rough draft, EarthBound ended up being the Super Nintendo's masterpiece. One of many for that particular console, you understand, yet the game's nebulous quality spoke to fans in a way Yoshi's Island, Chrono Trigger or Super Metroid did not. Every other top-shelf work on the system excelled in their gameplay, yet EarthBound invited the player in and encouraged them to interpret its world as they saw fit. It was a video game that celebrated the player's interaction, with its themes of memories, nostalgia and even weirdness permeating themselves into what's probably gaming's most devoted, loudest fanbase.

But though he finally accomplished his vision on the Super Nintendo, Mr. Itoi wasn't done just yet. So excited was he on the concept of a third Mother game that he'd already begun brainstorming on Mother 3 before EarthBound was even finished (much to the chagrin of his co-workers, who blankly told him to focus on the game he was still working on). And yet, in the eleven-year span it took from its ill-fated inception on the Nintendo 64 to its 2006 release on Game Boy Advance, there was something clearly different about this final entry. Whereas the first two games focused on parodying America and embracing the nostalgia of youth, Mother 3 features cowboys, dinosaurs, an army of pig-garbed soldiers, and a nature vs. technology narrative.

This is not to say Mother 3 is for the worse for this sudden thematic shift; in fact, it's the only possible way it could compete with EarthBound. If the outsider's perfect vision had already been achieved, why iterate upon it again? The only way to match up people's expectations would be to go against conventions lest it be too familiar, and so what we have here is a finale that takes place in something entirely different: a backwater town on conjoined islands in the middle of nowhere (hence the name "Nowhere Islands").

Bear in mind that Mother 3 does not strip itself entirely of Mother conventions: the game is still framed within Itoi's trademark absurdist humor, JRPG deconstruction, minimalist character design/ battle encounters, and heartfelt messages. But that is where the similarities end. The game is not a grand, globetrotting narrative, but an episodic one divided into eight chapters, most of which center around the gradual transformation of an idealistic, yet naive village. There is no eye-catching oblique projection, but instead the standard top-down perspective commonly found in retro RPGs. There are no chosen children guided by fate, but people of all ages and even animals brought together by tragic circumstance.

And therein lies the biggest shift of all: if EarthBound was a game about crafting and cherishing memories, Mother 3 is a grounded reality. The tale of Lucas, the younger of twin brothers whose family is torn apart, is perhaps the most heartbreaking story ever told in the video game medium. It's not actively harrowing, and there's still plenty of supernatural elements to go around, but the game's themes of love, loss and change are so achingly genuine and sincere you cannot play through it with a dry eye.

There's so many reasons for why it tugs at our heartstrings, be it the evolution of the series' trademark minimalist aesthetic or Shogo Sakai's beautifully fluent score (which, as of ten years later, remains his masterpiece), but I personally cannot get enough of how Mother 3 is a deconstruction of Mother itself. We see this right from the excellent transition from the prologue to Chapter 1. There may not be any America-inspired towns around, but Lucas's last day of vacation at his grandfather's still feels like home. Just like in EarthBound, there's animals with quippy inner dialogue, a sudden encounter with a talking bug, and slice-of-life moments with his mother and sibling.

Cue Chapter 1: things are not so well back in the village of Tazmily, with the surrounding forest mysteriously erupting into flames, and the native animals emerging as freak hybrids and cyborgs. Lucas's father, Flint, takes it upon himself to solve the crisis, but a sudden rainfall arrives with the most chilling of news: his family never returned home.

We're approaching spoiler territory, but the following scene is infamous for hooking players into Mother 3's world. The first of many tragedies is revealed from the blacksmith Bronson, who drops the news in the most tactless way possible: "I've got good news and bad news."

If the Game Boy Advance was tethered to any limitations relative to the Super Nintendo, you wouldn't be able to tell from Mother 3's character animation. The minimalist Mother designs are now fluid in expression, with the campfire scene being the cream of the crop. Everyone suddenly reeling back in shock, Flint hopelessly pounding the ground in despair, and the act of rage you see above. I'm hard-pressed to think of any other example of sprite animation expressing such raw anger (and bear in mind, this is only the first half: how it ends depicts fear and violence just as intense).

I could go on peeling layers form this one scene. How Shogo Sakai's song of choice, a heartrending piano piece, is aptly named Confusion. What were the exact circumstances as to what made Bronson blurt out what he said (we see this later with Flint's in-law Alec, who despite sharing the same grief and is racing against the clock to help Flint save his grandson, decides now is the time to cheer up his son-in-law with wildly inappropriate fart jokes). How the repercussions of Flint's actions begin to unravel Tazmily at the seams, beginning with his prestigious honor of being the first person locked up in Tazmily Jail.

However, the most important takeaway from this scene is that these are real people. Whereas we were free to inject ourselves into the protagonists of the first two games, these are defined characters with active thoughts and development that reflect human nature in the real world. Hardly a first for video games, and it's not like there weren't already great characters in EarthBound's world, but Mother 3's wonderful balance in presenting this cast can't be stated enough. So much of this has to do with the denizens of Tazmily, who are introduced as a money-less, carefree society where no one knows the concept of sadness.

But when the likes of Yokuba and the Pig Mask Army instill the values of capitalism and vague conceptions of "happiness," we begin to wonder if their varied transformations would be right at home in EarthBound's modern-day world. Abbot and Abbey, once a sweet, young couple, selfishly believe the other villagers are jealous of their newfound happiness and fear what lies beyond the borders of their town. Jonel, a nature-loving man who worships in the nearby Sanctuary, comforts Flint with the reminder that he has friends...only to distance himself when he and Lucas refuse to adhere to the town's new regulations, informing the latter that his father is "awkward." (I imagine that his Tyrolean hat hides a pair of hair-formed devil horns is no coincidence) His wife, Brenda, descends into full-on nastiness towards the ostracized Lucas: "Your father is still looking for your brother in the mountains? You should tell him it's hopeless and give up."

Even before Tazmily's transformation, we begin to realize it's not the utopia it appears, as seen when the outsider Nana ponders about why hardly any of Tazmily's relatives resemble each other. Their naivete is just as tragic as their brainwashing, and the journey of Lucas and his band of outcasts becomes ever more poignant as you recognize you're not just taking on an invading dictatorship: you're against the only world you've ever known.

Needless to say, it's an emotionally heavy game, but never one that's overtly sappy or constantly fishing for your tear ducts. It's more somber than the other two Mother games, but what's amazing is like how EarthBound wasn't cynical in deconstructing the JRPG model, Mother 3 isn't necessarily cynical in the journey its characters embark. True to the game's tagline ("Funny, strange, heartrending"), there are just as many dark moments as there are lighthearted. It is every bit a sad story as it is an empowering tale about growing up. It may not be a globetrotting adventure, but it is one that changes the world itself.

As mentioned before, this is still a game framed within Mother's most valued conventions. If this is a world that must possesses nasty characters, then there must be characters that stay pleasant through it all. (Hey, isn't that like real life?) And if there is such pleasantness to parallel sad moments, then there must be moments that render you a convulsing, laughing mess on the floor. Itoi's writing is as wonderfully charismatic as ever, be it moments that ape series tropes (the animals' inner dialogue, including a pig who wants to see a pig seeing the ocean) or ripping on RPG conventions (there are two dungeons that consist of, respectively, a mole cricket society and a toilet/restroom maze. Do I dare spoil the enemy of choice for the latter?). 

However, Mother 3's emphasis on character animation brings a new sort of humor that Mother was largely unable to capitalize upon before. This is not to diminish the quality of the humourous writing (you don't see the best of the DCMC band outside of their dialogue, for example), but there's a far bigger emphasis of such writing working in tandem with aesthetics. Fans would be quick to point out the infamous dance sequence, but I'm particularly fond of the measures Lucas takes to sneak his dog Boney into Club Titiboo.

And yet despite being so vivid in animation, it's amazing how Mother 3 continues to channel the series' most compelling asset: letting the player fill in the blanks. The minimalist approach to sprite design and battle encounters are just as integral as they were before. For example, how exactly does Duster kick in battle despite his limping leg? You can tell right from his sprite model that he has a bad hip--quite inconvenient for an aspiring thief-who-doesn't-steal-anything--and yet he deals some mighty damage; in fact, he's built as a primarily offensive character. Itoi offers some suggestions in this Nintendo Dream interview, but since the game borrows EarthBound's minimalist battle system (more on that later), he leaves it up to the player's imagination.

Even the actual story works into this. We had this in the first two games, too, but the active symbolism and character motivations grip at us long after the game's completion. What makes Yokuba such a despicable, evil man despite his late-game revelation? What's the deal with the doorknob we hear whispers of? Is the Negative Man really just a joke enemy? Can we even begin to fathom the depths of the tragic villain, whose callous, childish disregard for all life gradually unveils itself throughout the story's progression? Their roles and more are so tantalizing, beating just underneath the surface, that we can't help but speculate.

My personal feelings steer me to want to affirm everything the player thinks about the game. I wanted to make Mother 3 like a mirror. One that reflects the heart of the player off of the screen...Mother 3 is a playground with plenty of room for your imagination to run free. The more you think about it, the greater Mother 3 will become. The more you feel it, the deeper it will become. The more fun you have, the more you'll grow. -Shigesato Itoi

Ah yes, that reminds me: this is also a game! Despite being more linear than the first two, there's quite a bit more "game" here. I could go upon about how are more sequences resembling sidequests--particularly with hidden enemies and bosses in places you wouldn't normally think to look--but remember how EarthBound was a game past its time with elements like onscreen enemies and a rolling HP meter. Mother 3 doesn't necessarily introduce ground-breaking in that regard, but chooses to instead build upon where its predecessor left off. Where previous protagonists may've moved a tad too slow, there's now a run button. Whereas inventory may've been a tad too confining and cumbersome to manage before, there's plenty of space now that there's a separate pocket for important items.

And then there's the rhythm combos. The sole strength of Mother's combat was that it let you be the star: how the parties of Ness and Ninten fought off Giygas's forces was entirely up to you. Well-suited for players seeking immersive gaming, mind, but not particularly compelling for those looking for deep battle systems. As mentioned previously, this immersion is alive and well in Mother 3, but it decides to include a combo system to make things more interesting. Tap the A button to the rhythm of the battle music, and you can perform up to a 16-hit attack.

Considering how there's over fifty battle themes in the game courtesy of Shogo Sakai, it's a lot harder than it sounds. Some are repeats, but those throw in off-tempo beats calculated just perfectly to trip you up. Of course, you don't have to master it if you don't want to--you can win any and all fights just fine without them; after all, most of the additional hits largely deal minuscule damage. Those hits can rack up, however, and the feeling accomplished combo unleashes a deserved audience cheer can't be understated. Think of it as an "every little bit helps" sort of thing.

And you can certainly think of it as capitalizing upon some of the best battle themes in JRPG history. Above is one of my favorite boss themes, Unfounded Revenge. It's a fast-paced, trumpet-heavy frenzy that will test your button-tapping reflexes not just in memorizing the beat, but in that the related battles themselves are notoriously difficult (so don't neglect your HP meter in favor of keeping with the beat). Since it's reserved for repeat encounters, it doesn't just pave the road for off-tempo screw-ups: it serves as the game's theme for rivalry.

However, there will be times where rhythm combos will be the least of your concern, for the story's themes certainly work their way into certain battles. Fight Against Mecha Drago, which concludes the the first chapter, is the beginning of the end of the initial Mother deconstruction. Previous Mother games had never sounded this raw barring maybe their respective final battles, yet here early on we're treated to a track so dangerous it immediately removes any sense of security that things will turn okay. Without going into the details, they don't, and it's superseded by the heartbreaking Long Shadow closer only brings this point home.

But let us not forget how wonderful the music outside the battle system. It really is amazing how much Shogo Sakai gets the story's themes (and he should, considering he even contributed to how certain scenes unfolded), as seen for the shifting music themes of Tazmily. What's interesting is that while they're all based on the same song, we can never pinpoint which one is its "real" theme. The very first time we hear it, Sorrowful Tazmily, plays when the town is in mourning, and we know it can't define what was the town was before.  Happy Town?, the version above, is probably the closest to an actual main theme, but the title raises a good point: is this industrialized renovation of the town really the right direction?

I'm also a fan of how Sakai handles the supernatural. The Magypsies are some of the game's most flamboyant characters, but they're embedded deep into the game's mythology, and so their homes are granted the above theme of mystery and reflection. The like of aliens are nowhere to be found, but how Mother 3 instead focuses on the world's history makes it seem that much more real. Speaking of ancient history, perhaps their shell-shaped homes recall the series' one other instance of magic and mystery...

I mentioned the presence of a nature vs. technology/modernism narrative. This isn't to say the game full-out promotes tree-hugging or the like, but you can easily point to themes representing each. For the latter, the march of the Pig Masks you can hear above was actually the original main theme for Mother 3, and it seeps into numerous facets of the game. At times a comedic fanfare and others a majestic song of triumph, the way the ultimately childish His Highness's Theme bookends the game is nothing sort of genius.

Which renders the background behind the Mother 3 Love Theme all the more a miracle. It's a song that wasn't composed until the very final stretches of development, and despite being just as simple and short as both iterations of Eight Melodies, for it to turn out so poignant, so beautiful and full of hope in its accompanying themes of family, acceptance and moving on is just flawless. (It's highly implied in the aforementioned Itoi interview he already had the song thought up before he was even asked; perhaps it being the basis of the early Mom's Hometown theme was the inspiration...?) If neither of the two versions here can make you cry, the haunting chorus found in the final battle will.

I could cheap out and just say something cliche like how it's the greatest song Shogo Sakai ever composed (which is true!), but it's something that means so much to me on a personal level. The game's own tragedies very much mirror the ones I had to personally overcome, and while the song itself always has me on the verge of tears. the lessons I continue to derive from it give me the strength every day to pursue my dreams, live on for the memory of those who've departed from my life, and to continue loving and appreciating everyone I hold dear. For that alone, I'm eternally grateful for the series to have touched my life.

Despite what the provided screenshots have implied, Mother 3 is a Japan-only game. There's a variety of factors to why it never came out westward: it came out too late in the Game Boy Advance's life cycle to justify localization costs, the underwhelming sales for EarthBound, and the story themes were probably too problematic for a 2006 America. (The poor Magypsies!) We do, however, have access to a wonderful fan translation courtesy of Clyde Mandelin and several other Mother superfans. It reads with all the flow of a legitimate game localization (and it should, considering Mr. Mandelin has localized quite a number of games and anime himself), and has been celebrated as one of the most polished fan efforts in the game industry.

As a Mother superfan myself, I own the original Japanese cartridge. (And by the way, I'm not ashamed to admit I still pull it out just to listen to the Sound Player) What Reid Young pointed out in the Do-It-Yourself Devotion project announcement is true: you won't be able to perceive every story detail and character interaction if you're Japanese-illiterate, but most of what you really need to know is conveyed through the masterful context of sprite animation and the like. It's eerie just how far they went to do this: you almost always know where to go and every single item has a little graphic next to its description.

Will the game ever come out in America? If the recent deluge of inside rumors saying it finally will this year, it might. Us Mother fans are notorious for our resilient optimism, and if it took right up to the game's 10th anniversary for us to be right (and right off the heels of the original Mother's surprise launch last year, no less!), then that makes it all the more magical.

Maybe I could cite moments where Mother 3 falters in going through the motions, and maybe its advances in minimalist design just miss the heights of how EarthBound came full circle for me, but such trivialities mean little in the fact that it's one of gaming's greatest treasures. As a self-contained narrative, it's thought-provoking and powerful. As the finale to a beloved trilogy, it's cathartic and even hopeful. It's the Game Boy Advance's masterwork swan song, and ten years later, I'm still hearing it.

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