Note that this post contains massive spoilers for Mother 3. I’ll warn you when they’re about to get rotton, but if you want to experience the game clean, you’ve been warned.
Why is it on this list?
The four preceding games are all “games” first and foremost: yes, there’s a story, heroes that grow, and villains to be defeated, but the primary focus of all of these games is the actual experience of playing the game. In a way, they are a miniscule step up from sports: you can play a game of football, but that game won’t be about something, the best you can hope for is to win, or at least to improve your own skills. Give it a few playthroughs, and nobody cares about Sigma, he’s just the last obstacle before completing the challenge.
This, of course, isn’t to say that there can’t be intricate stories hiding within even the thinnest plots. Super Metroid stars Samus Aran, a woman who, to my knowledge, only speaks “in game” during the introduction of one game out of three, and even that “dialogue” could rearrange a few pronouns to make her a complete mute. In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), even though Samus only had a total of three games between 1986 and 2002, she somehow acquired a number of apparently fan-attributed personality traits. Samus is brave and determined and solitary in her dangerous missions… uh…. like every video game character that stuck around long enough to topple the final boss. Regardless, look at the backlash against Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Other M for sullying the good name of Samus Aran… a character that had previously been little more than a player cipher. The reality is that Samus could either bulldoze everything on Zebes, or cower and never fire a shot to do anything more than defeat a boss or open a door, it was entirely up to the player.
But this is important, and it’s just as much a part of video games as jumping and shooting. More than any other medium, you are the protagonist in nearly every video game ever released. You may relate to Harry Potter, you might admire Schwarzenegger’s latest role, but it’s only in the realm of video games that you so totally inhabit a character. It’s no great surprise, really, as prior to the advent of cinema scenes, you controlled literally every movement of your digital hero for hours, so it’s only natural to feel a close bond with that tubby plumber or little metal boy you’ve been guiding all this time. Who needs virtual reality? We’ve been living it ever since the first person got into the headspace of that long, white paddle (no, it’s not just a vertical rectangle, that’s silly).
So if you get the same feeling from Super Mario Bros., why Mother 3?
Because Mother 3 knows.
For anyone that is reading this site exclusively because they like the sound of my voice in their head, and not because they like video games (hi, Mom!), Mother 3 is the sequel to Earthbound, aka Mother 2. Mother 3, like the rest of the series, was the brainchild of Shigesato Itoi, a name that means nothing to most Americans, but a fellow that has made quite a name for himself in Japan as a writer. Like… a for real writer, not someone who had to fill up a cutscene with words so “Over 40 hours of gameplay!” can be stapled onto the back of a box. Hey, I admire you, video game writers, it can’t be easy to get JRPG Protagonist #371 to prattle on about friendship for an entire scene and make it seem fresh (or at least not completely horrible); but Itoi was a writer first and foremost, which is very different from the rest of the video game industry where that skill appears to be valued somewhere below “guy who models armhair”.
Itoi started with Mother 1 (and, before I go any further, I want to be clear that I’m not claiming Itoi was solely responsible for these games, as Earthbound in particular was obviously a labor of love for other luminaries in the industry… there’s just an unmistakable tone that runs through all three games, and I find it hard to believe that kind of thing could originate from any more than one dedicated person), a game that was meant to emulate (the big in Japan) Dragon Quest series. It had its fun moments, but it was way too opaque for much of the game, and the charm that would define the following installments was buried under a crushing difficulty. Mind you, this was pretty much standard for JRPGs of the NES era, so whaddya gonna do?
Earthbound, Mother 2, still cribbed heavily from the Dragon Quest series (which, by the SNES era, was becoming about as relevant as Kabuki Quantum Fighter in the West), but anyone willing to deal with its “dated” graphics and gameplay was in for a treat. This was where the meta-elements of the Mother series really came to the forefront, and while it could all be seen as nothing more than silly jokes to a child player, a mature gamer might recognize the variety of components on display that, in their way, mocked the very concept of video games from within a video game. In order to read a sign warning of the dangers of stepping on the grass, you must stand on the grass. A city where everything is the opposite of how it should be proves how a simple switch between yes and no really means little when you understand what will happen. A village that caged itself in is convinced that their confinement is an illusion and it’s the outside world that is trapped. A statue gets you high, a stone calls to you, and a rock speaks words. I always disparage the thinking that someone “was so high” to create something creative, but the entire game feels like a trip: something just outside reality so you can return and experience life in a new way. Earthbound may reflect the real world, but it is a fantasy first and foremost, and its tone reminds you to just have fun with it.
Mother 3, though. Mother 3 is reality.
It’s amusing that Mother 3 is the Mother game most based in a fantasy world. Mother 1 & 2 were both set in a modern, suburban environment… albeit one with psychic powers, giant pencil statues, and invading aliens. Mother 3, meanwhile, is tucked into a rural village that has a few modern conveniences at the start, but there’s no reason this couldn’t be some corner of an early Final Fantasy world (or maybe Wild Arms. I do see a cowboy hat). But while the setting is absolutely important to the game, what’s more important are the characters, and, specifically, your character. Yes, you “play as” your entire party (and one mischievous monkey) at one point or another during this game, but the central protagonist, and the number one body you inhabit during this adventure is that of Lucas, a young boy with a mother, father, grandfather, and brother.
This is about where the spoilers get intense… so click to proceed.