15 years later, “Mother 3” is a masterpiece of video game writing

Trees and metal. A subtle hint.

In the late 1980s, copywriter and writer Shigesato Itoi was full of projects: he had published a book with his partner Haruki Murakami, was working on the advertising campaigns for Studio Ghibli’s upcoming animation projects and had just been invited by Shigeru Miyamoto to visit Nintendo’s offices. There, Itoi, not very familiar with video games, presented the idea of a JRPG along the lines of Dragon Quest but set in the United States at the end of the 20th century. The idea was to contrast the conventions of the genre (full of heroic fantasy) with everyday reality and create humor out of those situations. A sword became a baseball bat, a monster deep in the woods became a stray dog, magic potions were now candy. Thus was the nation Mother (1989).

Not that before Mother there were no other variations within the JRPG. As we have commented on other occasions, JRPGs have been mutating and transgressing their own formula from the beginning. The stories could not be set in fantasy realms but in science fiction universes — Phantasy Star (1987) — in a contemporary horror setting — Sweet Home (1989) — or even both at the same time, as in Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei (1987). Not surprisingly, shortly after Mother’s release we saw titles also set in contemporary worlds of a certain magical realism, such as StarTropics (1990).

Mother was a sales success in Japan, but the translation process so laborious — we are talking about a game written and directed by a novelist with no experience in gaming— that it would take 26 years to reach the West, through a port for Wii U titled Earthbound Beginnings (2015).

Go, Lassie! Go!

Before knowing this first installment, to us would come its second part: Earthbound (1994). Five years of development in the sequel that meant several headaches between Itoi and the main designer (and future CEO of Nintendo), Satoru Iwata. It was Iwata himself who saved the game from being cancelled in the face of the level of crazy ideas that Itoi came up with every day. Confident that they had a much more ambitious game and that Western audiences were more familiar with JRPGs at the time, a huge advertising campaign was launched for its release in the United States. Translator Marcus Lindblom took on the laborious task of adapting puns without losing Itoi’s particular sense of humor.

It was a failure.

U.S. sales were not even half of the Japanese sales, both figures lower than the first installment. Critics found it a bit outdated in its mechanics and too childish. The game survived a little by word of mouth, known to be a rare collector’s item, a rarity in the SNES catalog. Its fame grew over time until it became the stuff of legend. One of the great forgotten games. The hidden gem par excellence. Why weren’t there more games like this?

Mother 3 began its development shortly after the release of Earthbound, now with an eye on the next Nintendo platform: the Nitendo 64. A technological leap to 3D that would come to equate the saga with the mechanics of Super Mario 64 (1996) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). But it never came out, the project was canceled and there was no more news except for some screenshots that circulated on the internet.

In this episode of “Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo”…

All this mystery only increased Earthbound’s fame as a small miracle. An entire generation no longer looked at it back with nostalgia, but with the feeling that it was a terrain that had not been explored enough. Programs like RPG Maker put in the hands of any fan the possibility of making something similar. And a whole sub-genre was born.

The list of games influenced by Earthbound is so large that, well, comparing a game to Earthbound has become the equivalent of comparing any game to Dark Souls (2009): almost a cliché, a sort of critical wildcard for not delving deeper, unfair to the works that find in that comparison the impossibility of being judged on their own terms. Obvious ones include OFF (2008), Space Funeral (2010), Lisa: The Painful (2014), Undertale (2015), Jimmy and The Pulsating Mass (2018), Crossing Souls (2018), Omori (2020) and, ahem, let’s just say that a certain level in Yuppie Psycho (2019) — a game you can buy now at 50% off! Run! Give me money! — pays homage to it.

If you’ve never played any game in the Mother saga but are familiar with the games it influenced, you’re probably wondering where the catch is. After all, Mother looks like a very childish and cheerful concept, not at all with that level of darkness that hides the games I have mentioned. The truth is that Itoi has admitted certain influences of Stephen King in his work: yes, here we have present groups of children living adventures in their villages, going through the forest with their games, facing creatures with a supernatural background, but, as in IT (1986) it is inevitable that things lead to an unsuspected place of pure cosmic terror.

“Let’s go find a corpse!”

That’s right, Earthbound is famous because under its first appearance of flat colors and cheerful atmosphere are hidden some moments, as the player progresses, of deep maturity and pure terror. Its famous final boss, Giygas, is inspired by an incident where a young Itoi got the wrong movie theater and went to see the movie The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty (Kenpei to barabara shibijin; Kyôtarô Namiki, 1957), and his imagination did the rest.

This contrast between the warm, lighthearted look of the saga and the deep psychological horror of some of its moments is part of what has given it its fame, but it is also one of its most superficial elements. Think of another name that critics often use as a comparative device when they get lazy: David Lynch. Like Itoi, Lynch contrasts a ridiculous and naive sense of humor with moments of fierce drama and psychological trauma. For Lynch, one cannot exist without the other: not only do we need those moments of exaggerated innocence to emphasize the horror when it makes an appearance, but it also works the other way around and the intensity of those same horror sequences make the candid moments more appealing to us.

Hahahaha!… Ha… ha. No. Wait…

Beneath Lynch and Itoi’s work lies a profound humanism. The first key moment of Mother 3 begins as the premise of a joke: “I have good news and bad news…” a character tells us. What follows is a punch in the gut, and the reaction it leads to would not be out of place in an adult melodrama. This is not a way of, simply, catching the player off guard or trying to “trick” them: it’s something Itoi’s writing has been honestly earning, presenting a peaceful dream village, a utopic place full of quirky characters, that is traumatized by a terrible tragedy to the point of corrupting everyone’s spirit. Yes, you’re thinking of Twin Peaks, too.

Fire Walk With Me.

If Earthbound was Stephen King’s IT, something about Mother 3 is reminiscent of The Body (1982) — You will probably know it for the movie, Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986), and not just because of a level that involves the child protagonist following the train tracks. The earlier story of a group of children whose faith in imagination leads them to defeat Absolute Evil with the power of a slingshot is here replaced by a sense that tragedy is inevitable in the process of maturing and growing up. Mother 3’s protagonist, Lucas, is depicted as a crybaby, a cowardly child. His journey is not a story to become the fantasy hero he would like to be but one to accept that one is not braver for not crying, but for what we do once we have run out of tears. In fact, he cry at the end of this game, completing his journey. You will cry too, I can promise you that.

Mother 3 was eventually released on the Game Boy Advance, after Itoi joked that after the failure of the Nintendo 64 project, the only way to get the game out the way he would like would be to return to the Super Nintendo. Iwata was the one who convinced Itoi (apparently during a cab ride they shared) to rewrite the story in two weeks and bring it out on Nintendo’s handheld. The graphics weren’t going to be state-of-the-art (and certainly not on a console known for its games full of 3D prerendering that hasn’t aged very well) and the turn-based combat system would be as archaic as it had been in Earthbound, but Itoi, who had already tried writing a novel in video game format in Mother and a video game that looked like a novel in Earthbound, now knew exactly what he was getting into and had learned a lot in these years of experience.

Every line of this game is gold.

Part of Itoi’s daring as a video game “outsider” is how he approaches the genre without taking for granted many of its conventions. For example, one of the first signs you encounter in Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride (1992) — one of the franchises to which Itoi explicitly refers and also one of the best games of all time — alerts you to the danger you’ll encounter in an enchanted castle… but the in-game text also tells you that your character is still too young to be able to read, so he can’t pay attention to it. Similarly, many of the signs we encounter throughout Mother 3 are jokes with the very fact that we’re interacting with the environment through second-hand information (the text box acting as a narrator) and not reading it ourselves.

Throughout its first part, Mother 3 forces us to constantly change between characters with whom we are forced to train and level up or get used to the peculiarities and limitations offered by each one. It is not a linear path, nor is its story. Few games have so openly embraced their conditions and limitations to explore them in this way: Can you level up this character throughout this first part? Well, sorry, you’re not going to play him, you’re going to play this kid, at a much lower level, when everything you’ve done at the beginning has done nothing to avert the catastrophe that plagues the game.

For example, the difference from other turn-based combat systems is a use similar to the “Action Command” of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996) that here does not rely on hitting only at the right time but doing so at a pace that corresponds to the heartbeat of the enemies. In addition, the game maintains from its predecessor the health system in the form of a counter that does not drop all at once but does it little by little, inviting the player who has received a mortal blow to hurry up in order to deliver a last attack before falling or, even, to heal himself. This combination of mechanics encourages speed in combat, although many of them require particular strategies. Shogo Sakai’s fantastic music is essential to make this work.

There’s an Erik Satie song in this game. You have been warned.

Another point is how skills are not acquired immediately when leveling up: it is necessary to go through a “fever” that leaves the character vulnerable for a few moments, unable to run, to, once overcome this feverish state, acquire a new surprise skill. Or how to recover life you must rest in hot springs and when I say “rest” I mean you have to wait a bit before it works, as if the game itself is asking you, as a player, to take that break as well in an example of ludonarrative harmony.

This is where Mother 3 stands above its predecessors: letting Itoi’s narrative breathe. With a greater understanding of the end result, the story flows without the game ever losing freshness. The levels are short and diverse, there’s always something new to explore (a joke, a detail, a scene), the switches between characters keep your attention. By the time the game gets fully into what everyone assumes a JRPG should be (Travel the land looking for magic items to save the world!) we’ve already delved so deeply into the motivations and conditions of its protagonists that we’re almost taken by surprise by something relatively more conventional. That problem that many JRPGs (and videogames, in general) have of beginnings that drag on too long before they really start to interest us never happens here. Every fight with a new enemy has its particularity, every new scenario invites to be explored whenever we pass through it.

Mother 3’s cadence is unparalleled. If the combats are performed by combining strategies of different skills and items with combo attacks at a specific rhythm, if the story advances from different angles and with chapters of very varied length is because the story of Mother 3 is not prose: it is poetry.

Poetry with SKATER YETIS!

That particular rhythm influences every element of the game: from the way Itoi constructs his dialogues (“All cows, no matter what they think, go “moo”, “There’s nothing in this mailbox. Except for a thousand rat corpses”) to the game’s very accessible difficulty where death doesn’t penalize experience points and you can usually continue the game from the last frog (the game’s fun save points) you came across. Rhythm is so important that it not only carries over to the Sakai’s quirky soundtrack, but it’s not uncommon to come across containers throughout our adventure that are only there for some particular type of music to start playing (samba, jazz, reggae) while players and characters stop to listen. It is not strange, then, that just before the last bars of the game begin, the plot stops to offer us the last performance of a band we have previously met in our adventures: their last song is a nostalgic farewell, the song that the audience wants to hear again before the band dissolves again (this time, for good) and we, the players, take part in the end of this story.

The plot cross genres, from the deconstruction of video game clichés to social commentary: Itoi could not be more direct in its message of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. The “happy boxes” that flood the town like household appliances promising a better life can be directly traced to how the desire for a television by the child protagonists of Good Morning (Ohayō; Yasuhiro Ozu, 1959) showed the intergenerational contrast in Japan in the face of the incorporation of American values. After all, both are stories of islands that, after a collective trauma, are invaded with promises of improvement.

Mother 3 was never officially released in the West. Nintendo explored the idea of translating it and at least trying to export it to Europe, but they wrote it off. Such is the frustration that this generated that, in 2014, Nintendo itself would open its E3 conference with a Robot Chicken gag where someone from the audience would claim to Reggie Fils-Aimé, from Nintendo of America, that they should export Mother 3 once and for all and Reggie would respond by burning him alive. Yes, Nintendo knows we want the game, it also knows that its commercial viability is probably not worth it. And that’s just the way it is.

It should be in a museum.

Luckily, there is a translated rom. It is not official but it is of recognized quality. Faced with a work of this literary magnitude, the translation work itself becomes an essential element. For those of us who cannot read Japanese, Mother 3 is as much the work of Itoi as of the community formed around Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin. Such is the situation that Nintendo, notorious for pursuing copyright violations regarding how fans exploit its catalog, decided to turn a blind eye. The rumor is that Iwata himself knew about this translation and thought it was convenient to pretend they hadn’t heard about it. Mother 3 exists in English, yes, in a loophole, increasing its legend.

In Itoi’s own self-awareness, one of the bosses you face throughout the game includes an interpreter. The joke is that the interpreter translates everything in a somewhat literal way, with strange constructions or confusing words, but letting us glimpse the background of his statement through the context and our previous history with that character.

We need more games that approach literature in this way. Or, in more evocative words which is after all the language Mother 3 is trying to appeal to, next time someone ask you about the writing on a videogame, just say: “They should have sent a poet”.

“…?”.

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Writing essays. Writing games. Writing essays about games. Narrative Design Teacher.