This article contains minor EarthBound and Mother 3 spoilers.
For all its famous, medium-defining characters and franchises, Nintendo still manages to have uncelebrated stars outside of the limelight reserved for Mario, Link and Pikachu. The inclusion of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee helped introduce Fire Emblem to a Western audience sometimes bewildered by their origins, while the likes of Palutena and Shulk raise even more inquisitive eyebrows. Mother is another franchise undervalued to the point that, for the long-time fan, it's almost surreal to see Ness and Lucas Amiibo on high-street shelves. While Ness is more recognisable due to a western release of his starring game, Lucas and his title Mother 3 remain largely limited to the Japanese market - and thus relatively unsung.
The Mother series, created by Shigesato Itoi, saw its first release on the NES in 1989, a game that Nintendo localised but never released in western markets. Its sequel, and the most well-known entry, Mother 2, followed on the SNES in 1994, this time enjoying a release in North America, where it was re-named EarthBound. Initial reception was lukewarm, but its subversion of the typical JRPG formula – forgoing swords and spells for baseball bats and bottle rockets, and ditching fantastical manga art for a Peanuts aesthetic – would earn it cult appeal, later aided by the protagonist's inclusion in the first Smash Bros. in 1999, as well as the nascent social Internet and emulator piracy, which kept the game alive long after it had become an expensive collectors’ item.
Sadly this expectant audience would open few doors for the series. Work on the sequel, Mother 3, started in the year of EarthBound's release, but a lengthy development hell – which saw it move from the SNES to the failed Nintendo 64DD – ultimately led to its cancellation in 2000. It eventually surfaced on the Game Boy Advance in 2006, by which point the game's production had spanned three consoles and 12 years... only for it to again suffer from Japanese exclusivity syndrome, further relegating it within Nintendo's annals. Dedicated fans rallied and developed a formidable English translation, but the official game has never seen a Nintendo-approved worldwide release.
Which sucks because, in ways both big and small, it expands and moves on from its iconic predecessor.
Mother 3 takes place in an undefined era some time after EarthBound and follows the life of Lucas on the Nowhere Islands. His world is torn apart when the menacing Pigmask Army invade his hometown of Tazmily Village, killing his mother Hinawa in the process. His sorrow is further compounded when his revenge-fuelled twin brother Claus goes missing, leaving Lucas and his father – and Lemmy Kilmister doppelganger – Flint to mourn. Family plays more of a role here than in the previous entries, particularly when it comes to the series' maternal namesake. The original Mother, to its credit, had a major plot twist involving a mum. In EarthBound, Ness's mother was simply a Pokémon-esque healing point and check-in requirement, who who was important but largely peripheral to the story. Hinawa, on the other hand, is a major catalyst for the actions and aspirations of several characters, particularly during the heart-wrenching final scene.
What's instantly more striking in terms of the storyline is the episodic play style, in which you take control of characters as varied as Flint and Salsa, a captive, dancing monkey. For as much as Lucas is the protagonist, you don't gain full control of him until the halfway point, allowing you a greater worldview of the people and places of the idyllic isles, and it's these insights that help fully actualise and establish the heroes' backstories, personalities and reasons for involvement in one of the GBA's greatest achievements.
It's a story of underdogs – Mother 3's ensemble are much less cooler on the surface than EarthBound's cast, but a whole lot more memorable. Paula was, by and large, a typical damsel in distress and, in terms of plot progression, Poo was a waste (badum-tish). You could even call Ness something of a voiceless everyman and typical “chosen one” who's dropped into the adventure, and takes it on without reluctance, by a talking bee.
Lucas, on the other hand, is an innocent child – a crybaby, to be blunt – who has heroism thrust upon him. He's joined by Kumatora, a tomboyish princess, Duster, a handicapped, dim-witted but good-hearted thief, and Boney, a dog. They're not quite archetypal hero material, but the game has you rooting for the ragtag bunch, who even find their strength in PSI abilities learned through strange, menstruation-like fevers as they fight against an enemy that forces unnatural progression and shapes in-game mainstream opinion. Don't make fun of those who don't fit in, says Mother 3 – they might just save the world one day.
EarthBound was rife with allegorical, real-life themes, most infamously its ending, which sees Ness and friends navigate a cervical landscape to battle an endgame boss who shares an unsettling resemblance to a foetus and spouts sinister gibberish based on a rape scene. Mother 3's light-hearted, cartoony charm also masks a pitch-black undercurrent that makes ideological statements, mainly the dichotomy of nature and wholesomeness battling hollow technological advancement and superficiality.
The goal of the Pigmasks is to establish commerce in a game that doesn't even believe in money at first. They do so by introducing “happy boxes” – television-like devices – to Tazmily and soon the charming village, of which you've grown fond, becomes a bustling, capitalistic town. There's more going on and the music has a spring in its step but, unlike most games where ‘upgrading’ is simplistic, there's an odd darkness behind the idea of the inn becoming a hotel and the humble bakery transforming into a restaurant. Much like Itoi's hard-working, largely absent father inspired Ness's unseen dad in EarthBound, it seems that what lies behind Mother 3 is Japan's exhaustive working week and gleaming skyscrapers, and what they do to the individuals and the families caught up in them. You might be playing the game on the sort of digital technology it rails against, but so evocatively painted are the characters that as the community’s heart is taken away, piece-by-piece, it makes you yearn for the pleasant, organic simplicity of old Tazmily.
But money isn't everything, and the game subtly ties your experience to that anarchic ideal. On my first play-through I made it a good chunk of the way with relative ease while spending barely a penny, unlike other RPGs, in which grinding for wealth between towns is imperative to improving your arsenal come the next shop. Without even realising my earnings were going into a Ranidaean banking system, I had amassed a small fortune by the halfway point. Maybe I’d learned nothing from Mother 3, though, as I then splurged on materialistic goods just because I could. I was everything wrong with this world.
Wealth and power were also themes of EarthBound and no one symbolises this more than returning antagonist Porky – also known as Pokey – who, as the unseen leader of the Pigmasks, is the one responsible for disrupting the natural harmony of the Nowhere Islands and therefore recklessly driving away or killing its inhabitants. In the previous game, his family live in poverty and he's driven by a desire to rise out of it, eventually landing a job at a lavish company in Fourside. His corruption at the hands of both Giygas and money helps establish the socialism-versus-capitalism motif that runs into Mother 3.
Porky's transformation from a mischievous, Gary Oak-like rival to a tyrannical, time-travelling, godlike creature makes for a horrific juxtaposition of childhood innocence and nihilistic evil. His barbaric army and their theme song's resemblance to nursery rhyme Frère Jacques serves to further the contrast. There's an underlying sadness, though; it's heavily implied that Porky's hatefulness stems from an abusive childhood and being spurned by the only one he considered a friend – Ness. The protagonist of Mother 2 had a yo-yo, which we find kept as some kind of fetishised item in Porky's Mother 3 playroom. It's hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the now-elderly, time-ravaged boy who just wanted a pal, and it makes him one of the most sad and scary antagonists in Nintendo history.
He's not the only evocative baddie, though – his henchman Fassad is a genuinely repulsive, despicable character who'll have you shouting at your screen due to his physical abuse of Salsa, who he continually electrocutes using a rigged collar. This animal cruelty, however, is part of a potential reason that we haven't seen a Western release of Mother 3 – censorship. The game might look like a cartoon but is chock-full of mature, controversial, divisive themes and references, including God, death and suicide, sexual harassment, subtle anti-war messages, alcohol and drug consumption and even the odd swear word.
While Nintendo could easily rewrite the textual side of the fan translation, they'd have a harder job masking the physical violence and body horror that comprise several of the game's significant moments. The most striking is an early scene in which Flint receives the news of Hinawa's death and violently lashes out at the townsfolk in anger before being knocked out with a plank of wood himself, all while his children's eyes are shielded from such brutality. There’s also a particularly distressing, Lost-inspired chapter in which the heroes trip balls on hallucinogenic mushrooms. That's not to mention the Pigmasks doing what looks like the Sieg Heil salute – censored in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door and, in multiple instances, Pokémon – and the villainous Masked Man's resemblance to an SS officer. Then there's the underwater section, in which the heroes replenish their oxygen by getting a snog from various mermen. Nintendo awkwardly stumbled around the concept of having gay people in Tomodachi Life, so what chance do these amorous sea creatures or the gender-bending Magypsies have? The first two games were subjected to heavy censorship outside of Japan; these possibly insurmountable changes will no doubt delay a Western eShop release, if it's even on the cards at all.
Nintendo have too often focused on repetitive formulas with their biggest franchises, and prioritising cutesy fluff like Yoshi's Woolly World, lazy Star Fox instalments or bland Mario spinoffs do nothing to combat the unfair assessment that they make childish products. That’s why the world – or the rest of it, at least – needs Mother 3. While it looks saccharine it is, in fact, a brilliant balance of palatably sweet and shockingly sour. It's genuinely one of those games that you'll start to miss after the credits roll – the kind that leaves a little hole in the soul. The runaway success of quirky RPGs like Undertale have surely opened the door for an influx of new fans, and to have only the first two Mothers on the Virtual Console leaves things in an unfair state of incompletion. The Big N have a thing for celebrating anniversaries – look at recent HD remakes of The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess or the Year of Luigi – but since Mother 3’s ten-year milestone came and went with barely a rumbling, we can only continue to hope a re-release will materialise at some point. Every day that the wider audience of gamers miss out on this dazzling hidden gem, one of Nintendo’s mature masterpieces, is a crying shame.