What is it about a game that stirs devotion? How can a 20x28 pixel character elicit empathy? What possible relevance can a 2-generation-old Japanese game - twice canceled, many times delayed, with no official English translation - contain for a modern audience? And how is it that such an outmoded game can pack a heftier thematic and narrative wallop than most next-gen, hi-def, multiplayer, DLC-riddled games released this year?
I say the reason is love. Mother 3 goes where few games seem willing to tread. Its wide canvas and broad palette convey tenderness and rage; softness and cruelty; memory and regret - all in a fable that slowly unfolds itself and works its way into your heart. It is a surprisingly graceful contemplation on love, loss, and change. Without mawkish bathos, overreaching profundity, or maudlin sentimentality, Mother 3 tugs at you and makes you care about its humble 2-D sprites.
Mother 3 greets you with a wink and an embrace. Tazmily Village, a tiny peaceful town nestled among the Nowhere Islands, welcomes you and reveals itself gradually over time. When a fire threatens to consume a nearby forest, the event functions as more than the customary JRPG curse or cataclysm. Its devastating consequences are played out in the game, and its effects on a family are explored over the course of the following chapters. Thus, the incident is more than an arbitrary plot trigger, and its narrative and metaphorical dimension has genuine significance.
With a unique mix of self-deprecating genre-aware humor and genuine pathos, the game turns the typical JRPG travelogue on its head, replacing it with an evolving portrait of a single town, told from multiple perspectives. The genius of this system is the way it varies the player's experience from chapter to chapter (each character has different skills) while spinning a Rashomon-like story from various angles. Wisely, Mother 3 embraces its JRPG origins, while avoiding its empty grind. It replaces mindless A-button battle mashing with a considerably more organic (and fun) music and rhythm system.
All of this eventually leads to a surprisingly lethal social commentary, the likes of which few contemporary games aspire. Insidious consumerism, mindless escapism, and a fearful city's gradual slide into totalitarianism are all presented simply but forcefully. Mother 3 offers no speeches or ruminations on any of its themes. Like most fables, its story is told in bold strokes, leaving space for interpretation and contemporary application.
An unexpected darkness punctuates Mother 3's whimsy. Characters say and do terribly cruel things that seem to fall outside the boundaries of such a colorful child-like universe. Part of the game's allure is its tonal complexity and the surprisingly wide range of actions it depicts. After discovering his wife has been killed, Flint flies into a wild rage, lashing out at anyone and everyone around him with a fiery plank of wood. It's an unexpected moment of anger and despair that occurs early in the game, and it's a marker of things to come.
I'll return tomorrow with a closer look at how the game fuses its elements, raising the bar for RPGs while reaffirming the potency - and relevance - of the genre.