Mother 3 is a playground with plenty of room for your imagination to run free. The more you think about it, the greater Mother 3 will become. The more you feel it, the deeper it’ll become. The more fun you have, the more you’ll grow.
--Handwritten note from series creator Shigesato Itoi posted on his website prior to the release of Mother 3 in 2006.
In yesterday's post, I tried to account for the affection and devotion Mother 3 inspires in many players, me included. The game conveys an unmistakably warm, whimsical, yet foreboding vision of life in a small town undergoing vast change. The game's humor and charm, coupled with its quirky but moving storytelling, go a long way in delivering all these intangibles.
But Mother 3 is more than a stylish, big-hearted fable. It is an expertly crafted game that manages to remain faithful to its genre roots while extending the boundaries of RPG gameplay and storytelling. Mother 3 may not succeed on every count (the Grind Gremlin rears its ugly head at times), but as a traditional JRPG, it accentuates the positives and eliminates the negatives better than any of its genre contemporaries. As Steve Amodio puts it "Mother 3 does just about nothing new, but its genius is that in its tried and proven framework it finds more value than anyone else ever has..."
Itoi's design recalibrates the traditional JRPG tropes, rather than attempting to overhaul or eliminate them. For example, in a typical JRPG, we notice an NPC and approach her for an interaction. Why? Because she may have something for us: a piece of food, sage advice, directions to the next town, etc. I don't know about you, but I'm pathologically incapable of walking past an unfamiliar NPC (or any new item for that matter) because 25 years of gaming have taught me not to.
Itoi changes the formula in Mother 3 and thereby enriches the game. You will find yourself similarly compelled to speak to all the villagers in Tazmily, but not because you expect them to fill your inventory. You will speak with them to find out how they're doing; what they're thinking; and how they've changed. Itoi's NPC's are responsible for communicating the pivotal changes occuring in Tazmily and its environs, so your interactions with them feel more personal, less mercenary...and less, well, "game-y."
Similarly, Mother 3's rhythm-matching combat system (see Dan Bruno's fabulous series on this), revises standard JRPG turn-based combat by adding, though not requiring, a fun and challenging skill element to the mix. Typical of Itoi's penchant for playing with the player playing the game, as battles grow more difficult, so does the music with tricky meters and uneven tempos. In response, I found myself practicing before striking and creating games within the game: e.g. rhythm-matching combat for weaker team members and single strikes for stronger characters.
Ultimately, your attachment to Mother 3 is likely to hinge on your engagements with two separate families: one family serves as the emotional and thematic centerpiece of the story; the other is the temporary family formed by the playable foursome you control for the final chapters of the game. Once again, Itoi puts a wrinkle in the fabric by intersecting these two families via you and your controller. The first half of the story establishes history, motives, and what's at stake for this family and their village. The second half focuses on the one (and least likely) member of the family who must forge a team, face his destiny, and bring it all home. When the game ends, you have seen it and played it from multiple perspectives.
Not exactly virgin territory for RPG narratives. But again, it's not what Itoi does here that matters; it's how he does it that elevates Mother 3. Locating so much of the game in a central location alters the standard travelogue format of JRPGs and repositions the player and his objectives.
In Mother 3 your imperative is less about traveling than about interacting with and understanding your environment and the people who live there. (See Matthew Gallant's excellent Progression in Mother 3, for more on this). When the game later deviates from this philosophy for several chapters, a bit of the air goes out of Mother 3's balloon.
If you're a young gamer who's never played a JRPG, or if you tried one once and ran for the hills, I encourage you to give Mother 3 a look. It represents the best of what a Japanese role-playing game can be. I realize these games aren't for everyone; but before you decide to write off the genre as threadbare, irrelevent or outmoded, you ought to see for yourself the ardent craftsmanship, harmonious mechanics, and simple elegant storytelling of a game at the zenith of its genre.