(www.plasticpals.com) Each year dozens of Japanese games are passed over for release outside of the land of the rising sun, much to the chagrin of gamers around the world. One of the most egregious cases is that of Mother 3, the third game in a series created by acclaimed writer Shigesato Itoi with Nintendo. The first game had been created for the original 8-bit Nintendo Famicom, the sequel (known as Earthbound in the West) was released on the Super Nintendo, and the third game was due to be released on the Nintendo64. However, due to the game being designed specifically for the ill-fated 64DD drive, the development was eventually scrapped. It wasn't until years later, and after much encouragement, that Itoi decided to try to tell the story again; it would have to built from scratch for the GameBoy Advance.
The Mother series (which owes its name to the John Lennon song) is a role-playing game that is essentially a copy of Dragon Quest, which inspired Itoi to create the games. However, instead of taking place in a medieval fantasy setting, Itoi decided to set the game in semi-modern times based on his unique perception of 1950s America. The games are known for their humour, unusually good characterization, and moving story as well as for their distinct, simplistic art style and quirky soundtracks.
BrownieBrown, a talented group of ex-Squaresoft employees, did all of the game's artwork in a style similar to (but more refined than) Earthbound. It has a very simplistic cartoony style, but is so consistent and is so well animated that its detail will surprise you. Unfortunately, the monsters aren't animated during battle scenes, but they at least feature the same sort of trippy psychedelic backgrounds that subtly match the creatures you're fighting. Thankfully, like Dragon Quest the monsters are well designed and comical enough to be entertaining even as still images.
The music is also very good, especially for a GameBoy Advance title. The GameBoy Advance has an inferior sound chip to the Super Nintendo, but you wouldn't know it from listening to this game's many songs. The many battle theme songs keep things fresh, and the overall mood of the game is enhanced by the happy and sorrowful compositions that accompany each area and scene.
One of the pleasures of Mother 3 is its battle system, which owes much to the Dragon Quest formula, but some key innovations help to smooth out some of the wrinkles. To begin with there are no random encounters: you can see enemies on the field and you can avoid them by running around them. If you connect with an enemy from behind, you will gain a slight advantage by surprising them (and vice-versa). And when you are much stronger than an enemy, you don't have to fight them at all by simply steamrolling right through them.
Another nice feature of battles is the rolling life meter, which drains slowly as opposed to instantly when a character is attacked. Even if a character has been dealt a mortal blow, if you manage to heal them before their life is completely drained they'll stay in the fight. These are details that have rolled over from the previous games.
New to Mother 3 is a rhythm combo system which gives the game some added interactivity. There are several battle theme songs, and each one has its own rhythm. When attacking you can press the "A" button in time with the music to string together up to 16 hit combos for added damage. If you manage to put an enemy to sleep, you'll be able to hear its heartbeat which amplifies the beat, making it easier to keep the rhythm. It can be surprisingly tricky to pull off, as sometimes the beat changes mid-song, but it's a fun diversion during battles.
From the development hell experienced on the N64 to the astoundingly stupid decision to not release it outside of Japan, Mother 3 has seen more than its fair share of problems. Thanks to the determination and hard work of its fans, it finally has the English translation that it deserves. Put simply, this game is a masterpiece of storytelling. It sucked me in completely for all of its 20 or so hours, constantly surprising me with its originality, its humour, and its humanity. I had to stop myself from playing for more than 4 or 5 hours at a time. While Shigesato Itoi has said he has no plans of making another game in the series, one can only hope his boundless creativity betrays him. You can find the translation patch for the game here, but due to the illegality of ROMs I am unable to point you in its direction. I recommend playing it on the VisualBoy Advance emulator.