Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 32, Mother 3
Thank Nintendo for developing this lovely, thoughtful game, but they aren't the reason you can play it in English.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
Mother 3 is a fantastic role-playing game, one with real heart and something to say, but it also works best if you’ve already played the other two games in the Mother trilogy. Which, for the longest time, was a near-impossible feat. Mother 3 was not released outside of Japan by Nintendo. Its predecessor, Mother 2, known as Earthbound in North America, was a commercial flop, and an increasingly expensive rarity to purchase for nearly two decades*. The initial release, Mother, never did make it out of Japan and onto the NES.
*If I ever find out who is responsible for stealing my copy of Earthbound (as well as authentic cartridges of Phantasy Star IV and Final Fantasy II) from a local video game hangout my pals and I used to frequent, you can either cut me a check for $500, or I will claim that much of your stuff from your home for myself
Times have changed, though. Earthbound is no longer restricted to its original SNES cartridge: you can buy it on the 3DS or Wii U’s eShop, and it was included in the throwback SNES Classic as well. Presumably, it will also eventually make its way to the Switch’s SNES channel, which in turn would make it more accessible than it’s ever been, given Nintendo’s current console outsold the SNES about 30 million units ago, and more recently passed the 3DS’ lifetime sales, too. Mother has released in North America, finally: it’s called Earthbound Beginnings, and is available on the Wii U eShop; don’t have a Wii U? I’m sure you can figure something out, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.
As for Mother 3 itself, Nintendo has still not given it an official release. And they probably never will. They don’t really need to, from one point of view: most everyone dying to play Mother 3 has already figured out a way to do so. There might be an audience out there that doesn’t know they would want to play it, who might decide to if they were given the opportunity to play an official English release available on the Switch eShop or what have you, but then again, Nintendo is aware of how many of the 3DS’ 75 million users downloaded Earthbound from that system’s eShop, or how many of the Wii U’s 13 million-plus users downloaded Earthbound Beginnings: I’m of the belief that you release the damn thing so that it exists and the whole saga is put to rest, and people have the opportunity to play this wonderful game or to not play it, but I don’t work for a major corporation, either. So I can disagree, but still understand, why things are the way they are.
I mentioned that everyone who actively wants to play Mother 3 has already figured out how to do that, and they’re able to because of the efforts of fans of Earthbound and the Mother franchise. Famously — well, at least within the community that pays attention to this sort of thing — Mother 3 was localized by fans, but not necessarily by amateurs. This game was localized by people who understand that doing so means more than just translating Japanese into English: that it involves significant programming chops, that it involves ensuring that the message and meaning of every line is making it through in a way that can be understood by local audiences. That’s why it’s called “localizing” and not “translating.” If you translate line for line, well, you’ve seen how Google Translate works, yeah? Or how games that utilize programs for translating read (poorly). Or how Breath of Fire II on the SNES is basically unplayable unless you’ve played the improved localized version of that localization. Localizing is an art, and, luckily for Mother 3, they had professionals on board to perform it.
Like Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin, who has literally written the book on localization. Books, even: his day job is as a localizer, he was one of the central figures behind Mother 3’s localization, multiple books on the subject of localization in games were authored by him, and are for sale at Fangamer (I highly recommend the one on Earthbound). Fangamer itself arose from intense Earthbound fandom of a small group of folks — shout out to the old internet and Starmen.net — who loved the SNES cult classic, and has since ballooned into a lovely merch store for a whole lot on the indie and cult classic side of things. Fangamer is the reason I got to wear an indie-made Mother 3 t-shirt on Japanese television once, so, yes, I have warm feelings about those people and their project. And sure, feel free to ask me more about what I just said some time.
Nintendo has left this fan translation alone, and the insinuation — one even passed along to the localizers themselves by people who would know — is that it’s because there are no plans to localize Mother 3 by Nintendo themselves. The patch is just that: a patch. It’s not an actual game file, but simply one you would, well, patch a rom file with, so that the menus, dialogue, everything is in English. That’s why the site for the patch remains up to this day, unchallenged by Nintendo, and even clearly states you need to find the rom for the Game Boy Classic RPG on your own.
You can play on an emulator with the patch, as I did back when it first released, or you can get a little fancy if you don’t mind paying a few bucks. My second (and third, and so on) times around with Mother 3 came on a reproduction GBA cartridge purchased from the kind of popular marketplace website that would have something like that for sale. It works on my GBA SP, it works on my DS Lite, it works on my Game Boy Player for the GameCube. It works!
And the reason Nintendo probably hasn’t gone after the people selling those sorts of things yet? They know that if they ever did release Mother 3 for real outside of Japan — even if it was using the exact localization that already exists, of which there is a standing offer to Nintendo to use at no charge — all of the people like me would buy the official release, too. Hey, it’s that or pray that the save data battery inside the reproduction GBA cart lasts forever, and I won’t know if it will until it or I goes.
As for the game itself: The stories of the various Mother games are separate and self-contained enough for enjoyment, sure, but Mother 3 connects themes of the first two with its own in a way that, when knowledge of all is put together, makes the story more satisfying, more complete, more affecting. Heavy story spoilers will follow for the entire rest of this entry.
Porky, the (tangible) big bad of Mother 3, was known as Pokey in Earthbound, thanks to a localization choice that changed his name from its initial intent. His entire journey, his personal justifications for becoming the monster he is in Mother 3, it all makes more sense if you can view it through the lens of his origins in Mother 2/Earthbound.
Not just in the sense that you understand he has access to a time- and dimension-traveling robotic spider and therefore is able to insert himself into the timeline of Mother 3 despite his origins in the world of Mother 2, but also in his loneliness, in his need to be liked, in understanding the hole in his heart where love from family should have been, but never was, and never will be. It’s how you understand why he’s willing to destroy everything in the world except himself, because that’s how the world is for Porky, anyway: it’s just him already, and at least in destroying everything else, he might feel a single moment of joy that’s been absent in his life for such a long time that Porky himself cannot tell you how long he’s been the way he is.
Mother 3 does not ask you to forgive Porky: it simply asks you to understand why he is the way he is, to put a backstory on the tragedy that he is and hopes to inflict. You are meant to pity him: you are also meant to stop him. Pity does not change what needs to be done, but it remains important to feel that emotion, to recognize Porky for what he is, for how pathetic he has become, and most importantly, for how he became that way.
Porky’s own journey — abused by his father, ignored by his mother, friendless outside of whatever small kindnesses his neighbor Ness directed his way — is central to Mother 3, even if Porky himself only appears in the game’s final chapter. It is an extension of the journey of the villain of the original Mother — an alien abandoned on Earth, raised by a couple on Earth, recovered by his people and eventually sent to destroy the planet of the only beings who ever showed him love. That alien was Giygas: the trauma of his attempts at the initial invasion of Earth, in the kind of being it made him, the kind of creature you must allow yourself to become to destroy what loves you, is what led him to become the dominating force of time and space found in Earthbound. For Giygas, there was no coming back to who he once was: by the time you find him at Earthbound’s end, he isn’t even sure of who he is, or where he is, or what he is.
Porky’s vision, similarly shaped by his experiences with his family, his peers, his relationship with would-be ruler of galaxies Giygas in Earthbound, shapes the world of Lucas and company in Mother 3: his arrival on the island the game takes place on changes it forever. I referred to Porky as the “tangible” big bad, because he is not the only enemy force of Mother 3. Capitalism and imperialism are also at the core of understanding Mother 3, and Porky brought both through time and space to this iteration of Earth, ruining a peaceful way of life in a village that did not know strife, did not know wanting, did not know about money.
Mother 3 is an extremely personal, inwardly-looking, and emotional story, but it also tackles some bigger picture elements: it serves as a critique of capitalism and consumerism, and not-so-subtly contains an allegory for the United States coming into Japan and pushing its culture and capitalism onto the country post-World War II, forever changing the nature of Japan and its people. It’s not a complete surprise that Nintendo wouldn’t want to release the even less thematically approachable (for western audiences) Mother game after the failure of Earthbound, but still, it would be nice if they had some faith in us, like Sega and Atlus did with Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim in 2020.
If anything, though, Mother 3 is more easily understood today than it ever was. Capitalism isn’t secretly a problem. The United States’ cultural dominance, often shoved onto other nations by way of the presence of hundreds and hundreds of world-spanning military bases and America’s general hegemony, is more obvious from the imperial core than it’s ever been. The story of these elements breaking a family that simply wants to live life, to be normal, should be universally understood. A broken family trying to piece itself back together as best as it can while facing the horrors of a changing world forced upon them? That’s just life for much of the world.
Mother 3 certainly isn’t the first attempt by developers — Japanese or otherwise — to show the evils of man and the world and capitalism. The approach Mother 3 and its writer, Shigesato Itoi, took, though, was more novel, and for my money, impactful. Video games often show slaves and prisoners working for tyrants, for mass murderers, for charismatic generals, and so on. The system itself is rarely attacked: just the person or country imprisoning and enslaving, with the insinuation being that these people, forced against their will to work for these tyrants, will be right and whole again once the tyrant is taken care of. Often replaced by someone else from the same class, who, even if they themselves are benevolent, will only rule temporarily themselves.
In Mother 3, though, a more banal side of evil is on display. How do you rescue those slaves and prisoners that aren’t aware they need rescuing? Who have fallen into the trap of believing that the small pleasures handed to them in exchange for their labor are a just and fair reward for the way of life they have been pushed into as aggressively as any prisoner ever was? Mother 3 takes place over a number of years, and your protagonist, Lucas, sees the world view of his fellow villagers change. They’re all so happy in the beginning: they aren’t competing against one another, they all work together, and share, and come together in a crisis.
The whole village is one family, working together to survive the world they find themselves in. When Porky and his forces arrive, though, everything changes: technology that isn’t necessarily needed is brought in, money is introduced, power over others comes into play. There is more work to be done than ever despite the fact that some of these folks are working at factories building robots that are supposedly doing all of the work: they have less time to themselves, they have less of themselves, and they don’t seem to realize it. They do have television to distract them from all of that, though, just like those too old to labor for Porky any longer: their televisions just happen to be in a decrepit nursing home that was somehow built already falling apart.
When it’s revealed late in the game that this island houses the only survivors of an Earth already ravaged by capitalism, by imperialism, by rampant consumerism and climate catastrophe, that these people found out how to erase their own memories in order to forget about the world that came before and build a new one without any knowledge of the problems that sank the planet to begin with, so there would be no temptation to return to that way of life, the messages of the game hit even harder. This world has already been destroyed once by the exact forces that Porky brought back to it. And now will destroy it again, and for the same base reasons: greed, and selfishness.
Porky’s cruel, needless experiments on the animals of the world result in the death of Lucas’ mother, of Flint’s wife. You control Flint until this time: afterwards, his spirit broken by the loss of his wife, and the disappearance of his son and Lucas’ twin brother Claus, you will no longer play as Flint, who spends the rest of his time in the game floating through daily life, visiting the grave of the woman he loved, hoping to find some clue as to the location of his lost son. (As Nadia Oxford wrote a couple years back, Mother 3 depicts a messy, realistic mourning, and it does not frame it positively.) You primarily control Lucas from here on out: he is also hoping to find his brother, lost in his need for revenge for the death of his mother, and to recover the father he used to have. It falls onto a young boy to put his family back together, and I will tell you right now: he does not. He cannot.
The game, as I said, is highly moving and affecting. Lucas’ mother is gone. His brother will be found, but not really: he, too, has been changed by a world in transition, and, like with Porky, like with the now consumer-obsessed island of Tazmily, there is no going back to what used to be. Lucas, and by extension, you, must reckon with these truths, harsh as they may be. I’ve played Mother 3 multiple times: the way the end of the game plays out is still capable of making me shed tears. It might seem like a silly, off-beat title, but if you pay any attention to what Mother 3 is telling you, if you let it make you feel the way it wants you to feel, you will realize that it’s a deadly serious game, and, as with Porky’s incessant attempts at childish humor, the rest is all a deflection, a veneer meant to hide what’s inside.
Mother 3 wants us to realize that loneliness and alienation are devastating to the lonely, and can make crossing paths with them dangerous and destructive. Not all lonely people, though: do you think Lucas’ life is anything but one of alienation? Like Claus, his mother is gone. Like Porky, his house is now broken, his father rarely, if ever, paying him attention, lost in his mourning. Despite this, Lucas tries to find a way to heal himself and others, while Claus instead seeks a violent path, and the difference in how they grow and change from there matters. We are meant to pity Claus like we pity Porky, but we are also allowed to feel differently about him, because of the way Claus inevitably deals with his alienation and descent. That he is able to at all is a testament to the power of ending his feelings of alienation, though: while Claus still has Lucas and Flint in the end, Porky is, and will always be, alone: there is no saving him, especially when salvation is the last thing he wants. All Porky has is himself, and his distorted memories, distorted in order to make only having himself easier to handle.
The gameplay of Mother 3 is similar to Earthbound, which means it’s similar to classic Dragon Quest games. Turn-based battles with enemies you find on the map. A rolling hit point meter, where a loss of life can be avoided if you can finish up your battle before the meter hits zero. Psychic powers in place of magic, healing items primarily being foods, “money” placed into an account for you to spend rather than collected from monsters, but still based on how much battling you’re doing. The music is once again fantastic, though, there aren’t quite as many standout tracks here as in Earthbound.
The game is a little less open than Earthbound was, too, and that structure is part of why Mother 3 is the “worse” of the two. A chapter structure was necessary to tell Mother 3’s story and get its themes across, and it works wonderfully in that way, don’t get me wrong. There’s just something about Earthbound’s freedom that works even better, in the sense of exploration and discovery it gives you. It’s a preference thing, though: if you like Mother 3 better than its predecessor, I cannot fault you for that. Hell, we’re talking about the 32nd-ranked game on this list, compiled out of the over 1,000 games Nintendo has put their name on over multiple decades: no matter where Earthbound is in relation to Mother 3 on this list, they’re practically on top of each other, as is.
Mother 3 is a beautiful experience, and a fitting end to this trilogy of games by Itoi and Nintendo that understood both the power and effectiveness of video games of the time, and how they could be much more than they were. Commercially, the world disagreed, but when has how many copies sold of anything been the real measure of its quality? Mother 3 is the crowning achievement of Brownie Brown, a game so good that it’s a bit disappointing Nintendo reorganized and renamed the studio and put them on helper developer duty, instead of letting them continue to create original experiences on their own. Sure, Itoi wouldn’t be around for those, and, Mother being his franchise in a way that not even the connection between Mario and Shigeru Miyamoto can match means we wouldn’t necessarily get another game of this quality from them. Still, though. Disappointment.
Find a way to play Mother 3. I’ve listed multiple paths to that for you above. I promise, it will be worth whatever effort you have to expend to do so, and there is no reason to wait for Nintendo to come around on this themselves. They probably won’t, and you’ll only be hurting yourself by waiting for the day that might never come.
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