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Mother 3 (Game Boy Advance) artwork

Mother 3 (Game Boy Advance) review

"A good game, although it's not EarthBound no matter how many trips down memory lane it provides."

Maybe the shoes were too big to fill. I can't say for sure. I just know that while playing Mother 3, I felt decidedly underwhelmed for much of its duration.

Let's go back in time. During the days of the Famicom, the game Mother was released. I played it for a bit. It was nothing special, just a Dragon Quest clone taking place in a modern world. It had potential, but played things a bit too close to the vest. As one of many RPGs that didn't get ported over from Japan back in the day, it wasn't bad, but it didn't stand out from the pack in any noteworthy way. It was a different story when the second game in the series got ported over to America, renamed as EarthBound and available on the SNES. Now that was a game! Loaded with clever dialogue, its long quest through a massive world stands out as one of the finest RPGs on arguably the best console in gaming history for that genre. Often humorous, occasionally touching and sometimes "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!??!?" creepy, it's a game that long has stood out in my mind as memorable -- to the degree that, humongous backlog be damned, I still find it worth replaying every few years just so I can enjoy another walk down memory lane.

And so, creator Shigesato Itoi went back to the drawing board to wrap up the Mother trilogy and, damn, things just didn't work out smoothly. A bit of online research will tell you that the game's development started in 1994 for the SNES…and continued for the Nintendo 64 as time passed…and then was canceled…and then restarted development a few years later to eventually arrive on the Game Boy Advance in 2006. Because EarthBound was a cult hit that gained popularity as time passed, as opposed to an actual hit that sold like crazy the instant it hit the market, it never got ported to America (unless you count the efforts of fans who were eager to translate it for emulation purposes).

So, after all those years and all that work, is Mother 3 a decent game? Sure. Hell, at times, it was so good that it brought back my fondest memories of EarthBound. The thing is, it's not a consistently memorable game and it can be a slog to get to most of its best moments.

Mother 3 screenshot Mother 3 screenshot

That may be a by-product of having Lucas, the game's main protagonist, not be introduced as a full-time party member until three of the game's eight chapters have already been completed. Or perhaps, it's because the emphasis skewed dramatically from making a great game to telling a memorable story. This shift makes many dungeons feel like short trials you have to endure in order to reach the next revelation. Or could it be the shift from a massive game world to a much smaller one where you'll be regularly backtracking? Or maybe it's simply that, especially as you near the end, the game spends so much time revisiting EarthBound that it often feels like you're playing a nostalgia trip destined to stand in the shadow of its predecessor.

To give credit where credit is due, this game was wildly successful in telling its story at the beginning and end. After going through a brief prologue that introduces you to Lucas and his brother Claus, as well as mother Hinawa, you move to an opening chapter taking place in the village of Tazmily. Flint, the husband of Hinawa, finds out that she and the boys still haven't returned from visiting her father. This is a very worrisome tidbit, since the local animals seem to be acting far more aggressively than usual. Flint sets off to search for them with the help of a few townspeople, but his story doesn't have a happy ending. While Lucas and Claus are only shaken up, Hinawa was impaled by a beast's claw and no longer is among the living. Flint doesn't take the news so well and has an on-screen breakdown where he mindlessly assaults the other villagers until one is able to knock him unconscious.

And things only get worse for him from there. Upon waking up in a jail that previously served very little purpose (Tazmily is a utopian society where crime doesn't exist, everyone helps everyone else and goods are freely bartered), Flint discovers that Claus, the more outgoing and adventuresome of his sons, has decided to personally avenge his mother's death. Flint and Hinawa's father undergo a frantic search for the lad, which leads to Hinawa's death being avenged. However, they can't find Claus. As the opening chapter concludes, the screen scrolls to show the boy's body at the bottom of a crevice, seriously wounded if not dead.

Now that is how you start a game! Take the typical introductory/tutorial chapter, but insert a whole bunch of tragedy into it, making it so a person is compelled to keep going a little bit further just to see what happens next. And so, we follow up with Duster, one of the people who helped Flint in the first chapter, being sent to a local haunted castle to obtain a certain item. Then, the third chapter focuses on a monkey forced into subservience by an abusive snake-oil salesman. Now, I'm not going to say these chapters are unimportant to the game's narrative. The MacGuffin you're searching for in the second chapter maintains relevance for a good while. And the third chapter shows the opening stages of Tazmily's downfall, since the monkey's master introduces commerce (and materialism) to the tranquil location. But playing through those sequences felt tedious and anticlimactic after those prior events.

At least the third chapter reintroduces Lucas to the game, as he shows up to save the day at its end. After a time-skip, we finally get to control him. His life has kind of sucked, as it's been just him and his dog, while Flint spends his days alternating between mourning at Hinawa's grave and futilely searching for Claus. So Lucas and his dog explore and eventually get reunited with Duster, as well as the princess of said haunted castle (who played a supporting role in the previous two chapters), and the quartet gradually work their way around the world, racing against formidable adversaries to reach certain locations in order to perform actions that will determine the fate of the world. Which might be the most "intentionally vague to avoid spoilers" sentence I've ever written.

Mother 3 screenshot Mother 3 screenshot

If you've gotten this far, you might as well stick it out to the end, as the final chapter is an amazing conclusion to the series, featuring a villain who seemingly is more nostalgic for EarthBound than I am, as well as a number of memorable encounters (including a heartrending final battle against an adversary who is as much a victim as anyone else in Mother 3's world). It's just that getting to that point can be a bit tedious. While there are some memorable moments, such as a survival horror-like trip through a laboratory after a super-deadly experimental specimen breaks free, as well as a hallucination-infused visit to a nearby island, there's just so much stuff that feels like it was lifted directly from EarthBound. During the course of your adventures, you'll learn of a traveling rock band that you must meet to advance the plot. And they return late in the game to get the party out of a no-win situation. Also, there is a village consisting of the eccentric Mr. Saturn creatures, including a moment where you have "coffee time" with one of them, leading to a lengthy motivational speech.

I can understand the nostalgic moments when they're derived from the game's main villain, but when they bleed into so many more facets of the game, it just feels like all the good ideas went into the main story arc and everything else was just sort of thrown into the mix. Add in the fact that (with the exception of the final one) dungeons are shorter in this game and it can be hard to shake the feeling that the story was more important than the game itself.

That's not to say there aren't a couple nice improvements that deserve praise. Battles are more interactive, because you can try tapping the action button to each enemy's battle theme (of which there are A LOT) to inflict combo attacks. Bosses are far more difficult than in EarthBound, as well. Look online for strategies on many of these encounters and you'll see a whole lot of "buff yourself repeatedly" and "debuff them even more often" instructions, with things like "attack" and "use your most damaging PSI spells" playing second fiddle. Those are instructions you had best follow unless you like getting wrecked by powerful attacks on a turn-by-turn basis. And some of the neat series staples have returned, such as how your health slowly lowers as you take damage, allowing you to survive deadly attacks if you can either win the fight or heal the dying party member before their hit points fall all the way to zero.

Sometimes I think any negativity I felt is my fault. EarthBound was a massive improvement upon Mother, and I was hoping for this game to provide a comparable jump in quality. That's foolishness when you consider how large those shoes already were to fill. And when push comes to shove, this is a good game that tells a great story, culminating in a memorable ending that is both tragic and happy at the same time. But still, upon finishing it, I was left pondering this conundrum: Mother 3 is best experienced after playing EarthBound, but its nostalgia is so "fan-fic" strong that after playing EarthBound, it's hard not to look at parts of Mother 3 as derivative and lacking in that same magic.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (June 30, 2018)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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