At this frozen, fixed point in history, I’m writing this at the age of 38, with 39 creeping up in just 26 more days. This is all a setup to explain that in those almost-39 years, I’ve read a lot of novels, watched a lot of movies and shows, and played a lot of games. Entertainment, sometimes art, can be profound, life-changing experiences beyond just a way to spend time and experience fun moments. In my limited time on Earth, there’s been a few things that’ve stuck with me, all of which I’m not gonna bother naming because there’s a lot.
This last summer I was dealing with some pretty awful stuff, having suffered a back injury that stacked upon years of back injuries and led to a leg injury. This led to four full months of pain and inability to do much of anything. It wasn’t until November, right around Thanksgiving, when things actually felt better. The PT was working and things just cleared up. I’d say almost like magic, but the months of physical therapy and all the work that went into it meant it wasn’t at all like magic. Not even a little.
A solid half of my year got gobbled up to something frustrating, including about two months of intense pain in my leg that never relented and I couldn’t get much, if any, pain relief no matter what doctors I spoke to or tried to see. That… didn’t feel great. It was during the transition between back pain and leg pain when I sat down and played a game I’d meant to play for years, but every time I sat down to play, I thought I wasn’t in the mood for.
There are very few games that have the reputation that Mother 3 does. Mother 3 is… a lot. Technically a sequel, of sorts, to Mother 2 (Earthbound in the west), it’s more a continuation of thematic elements and one sole character. There’s a lot about Mother 2 in Mother 3, actually. In a way, it feels like what Evil Dead 2 was to Evil Dead. It’s a remake, but it’s also a sequel and somehow related. Or, better yet, it’s Mad Max: Fury Road to the original Mad Max trilogy. There’s a good chance it takes place in this same universe. There’s even a chance it’s a direct continuation of what we saw happen in Mother 2. Still, you don’t need any of that information to live this experience.
Something about this game is just… impossible to explain. There are a lot of powerful themes here, almost too many, making it difficult to express without sounding like I’m raving. Never have I seen a piece of media—a piece of art—say so much and do so through an unassuming package. This game pierced through to my very core and did so in the oddest ways possible.
Mother 3 takes place in a distant, strange land, centered on a family who lives in the countryside filled with all sorts of animals, including dinosaurs. Their village exists outside of the modern world presented in Mother 2, although it’s very similar. It exists without capitalism, but in a place built on community. Not a community dictated by fear, but a community dictated by their will to help each other and live in harmony. If that sounds too idyllic for you, well… history has shown this to exist in multiple places across the world, not without their own conflicts and hardships, because perfection isn’t real, but as best they could. This existence changed with imperialistic people’s need to expand through colonizing, bringing with them their diseases, customs and destruction.
It’s this core concept that paints the world of Mother 3.
Taminzy is a beautiful place that finds itself under siege by men (or perhaps not men) in pig masks that are kidnapping the wildlife, experimenting on them, and creating chimeras. With them comes fire and destruction, that very fiery destruction claiming the life of Lucas’s mother in the opening, and perhaps his twin brother, Claus’s life as well. Throughout the game, the player gets to play from a few different perspectives, being given a glimpse into how other people are dealing with change. You start off as Flint, Claus and Lucas’s father, on a quest for vengeance against the mecha dinosaur that killed his wife, Hinawa. The dinosaurs, although large and fearsome, were once friendly with their family, making it even more of a challenge. Then you play as a monkey, Salsa, who’s enslaved to a mysterious man from faraway, Fassad, who introduces the concept of money to the town, in addition to a new invention of a picture box told to bring happiness. Then you play as Lucas’s dog, Boney, a long lost princess from a haunted castle, Kumatora and finally, a partially disabled thief and bass player named Duster.
It takes hours before you get to play as Lucas. In fact, the events between the very beginning of the game when you meet Lucas and when you get to play as him again are three years. In those three years, Lucas has lamented in his grief. His mother is dead, his brother is still missing, his father spends every waking minute in his own grief and loss, attempting to find his missing son, and Lucas is just… alone. Compared to Claus, he’s known as the more emotional of the twins, a whiner, even. The implication is that he’s spent three years crying over the loss of his family, all while his town is changing into something more sinister.
Fascism has taken hold of his once beautiful town, with jackbooted pig masks everywhere. Those who refuse the happy boxes are ostracized and introducing money has destroyed the sense of community that once existed. Lucas, joined by Boney, Kumatora and Duster, sets off on a journey to right the wrongs introduced to their lives and protect the people from the blossoming evil that is fascism working hand-in-hand with capitalism as its enabler. Why do these kids need to go on this journey? Because there are seven pins placed throughout the countryside, protected by a strange race of gender nonconforming entities called the Magypsies, and if those pins are removed, it would awaken a dragon that could destroy and rebuild the world again. And the pig masks are one-by-one plucking these pins with the help of a masked man. Lucas is the only other person alive that can pull them.
Games featuring possible apocalyptic events, kids needing to venture forth on quests that help them grow and mature is nothing new. Almost every Japanese RPG or adventure game (think Zelda) features the same basic things. Life as we know it is threatened, this kid needs to go on an adventure because they’re the chosen one and along the way they’ll meet new friends that’ll help them grow and mature along the way, until powerful enough to stop the baddies. Mother 3 does all of this, but makes it more real. The bad guys aren’t monolithic in their evil. They’re almost comical and bumbling, although effective. The tools they use are what’s effective and very real.
They take what’s good and fair about these people, remove it, break down their barriers and empathy towards each other, and create divisions based on arbitrary things. All of this while the main baddie consolidates his power and laughs along the way. I haven’t mentioned the main baddie yet because he’s a character from Mother 2. In fact, he’s a character from Mother 2 that you have to see devolve into this, making it more difficult when confronted by this. It’s a character who fell victim to these same things and could not resist the allure of money and power, looking to corrupt something new and make his own legacy.
NOTE: I’m not a person who believes that “spoilers” can ruin something this good, but I’ll put a warning up for anyone who wishes to experience the 25+ hours of Mother 3 with a fresh perspective. After here, I’m gonna talk about stuff that happens.
What Mother 3 presents is twin brothers, both dealing with different sides of grief. While Lucas fell into depression and found friendship, his own inner strength and love to help him push forward, his brother, Claus, was seduced by the power that came from fascism. Somehow, he was scooped up by the pig men, and when their leader realized his power, he became an integral part of their plan. If you’ve played Mother 2, you’ll remember Ness’s neighbor, Porky. If not, that’s OK. He was the neighbor that sorta resembled a pig and gained money and power in the world through the invading alien, and ran away during the end boss fight. At the very end of the game, Ness is given a letter from Porky that tells him to come find him, if he can. Using that alien tech, Porky ventured through time to create his pig mask army and found the perfect place to build his empire.
The corruption of Porky isn’t a necessary thing to know the full depths of to enjoy Mother 3, but I still think it’s worth understanding. Hell, I hadn’t played Earthbound until I started playing it recently because of how much I loved Mother 3, and I still loved Mother 3 and what Porky (or Pokey) represented. Porky’s end here is not hopeful. He proves a formidable boss fight, but when he’s defeated, opts to lock himself in his bubble where he’ll live for eternity in a state of suspended animation, not really living at all.
Lucas and his friends go through some heavy stuff throughout the game, and experience the full depths of depravity. We see first hand what capitalism truly introduces to the lives of these people, which reworked the village until ultimately abandoning it for newer ones built elsewhere on the island for no reason. Porky’s own stronghold is a theme park built to resemble a bustling city, but a bulk of the buildings themselves are just cutouts built to create the illusion. It’s the illusion of capitalism and the illusion of the grandeur that comes with these choices. The emperor has no clothes.
What’s worse, the people in Taminzy came from that same reality prior. It’s revealed that they escaped to the island, only the comically tall bell ringer known as ‘Leader’ remembering the time before when they escaped. They escaped to Taminzy because of how ruined their home became under these same systems, forgetting it and instead living in the idyllic world of their creation. Instead of facing these issues and creating this new world for themselves, they created it and collectively forgot, leaving themselves ripe for the picking when it came back, leaving the scarred and damaged children to clean up the mess and attempt to avoid calamity yet again.
Playing this during year two of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the first year of the “safe” Biden presidency, of course made playing this game feel more pronounced. America’s own issue with creeping fascism has been documented. This game perfectly illustrates the relationship that community can have to people living a better life and how detrimental materialist greed can have on people. It also shows that while people are distracted by those shiny things, they don’t notice the destruction and injustice around them.
These people chose ignorance because it made them feel better. They chose to forget because it made them believe if they didn’t remember the bad parts that helped destroy their prior home, they could have a fresh start. But it didn’t work. You can’t just forget. These things happen and there’s a reason for them, just like Lucas losing his mother influenced him. Lucas couldn’t forget. That wasn’t who he was, nor could Claus. Both of them lurched forward in the direction their grief took them, until each one had pulled three of the seven needles and were confronted with a final, climactic battle to see who would pull that last needle and influence the very soul of this dragon.
This is where this game, really… I mean, it really hammers home the core conceit of what makes this special. Like I said before, the world in danger, kid on a quest, this is nothing new. While you, the player, can intuit that the masked man is Claus earlier, Lucas doesn’t know it, or refuses to accept it. It isn’t until he’s confronted with him in the final battle that it’s clear.
During the opening sequence of the game, the game asks you to name each character. Mostly, I’d say err on the side of keeping the canonical names because it’s neater that way. There are things here, though, that aren’t so easy to name. The game asks you to name your favorite thing. Not Lucas, the character, but you, the person holding the controller. Whatever name you select becomes the name for your ultimate PSI spell in the game, something that only Lucas can do.
… it’s also something that only his twin brother, Claus, could do, as well, and he uses the spell on Lucas. And it’s something you, the player, picked. Depending on what you picked, that can have a different impact. My own twin boys, collectively called ‘Bubs’ in a lot of my folders and such, became the name I put in, which meant PK Bubs was used against Lucas and that was… fucking weird, alright? The power of my kids. What follows is a battle where Lucas, realizing it’s his brother, refuses to fight in, in a mechanic that turned into an entire game I don’t care for in Undertale (I hate the bullet hell battle stuff with a burning passion). But here, it’s effective. Claus has embraced the void and is just lashing out with violence, while Lucas embraced love and doesn’t want to hurt his brother. We get Hinawa talking to them from beyond the grave, Flint ending the battle by jumping in and taking massive damage from Claus multiple times until Claus just… wakes up and realizes the monster he’s become, shooting a deadly lightning bolt at Lucas knowing it would bounce off of his lightning badge and kill him, but not before apologizing and telling his brother he was glad they got to be together in the end.
This is… crushing.
With nothing left to do, Lucas pulls the needle and we’re treated to a few scenes of the island rumbling, rocks streaking down from the sky and then… nothing.
The Word “END” spells itself out in the center of the screen while the main theme plays, but after a long enough pause, a question mark appears behind it. There’s no credits scrawl, no nothing. Just that word, “END?” in the center of the screen, staring back at you. Most players are going to press a few buttons to see what happens and what happens here is truly remarkable. You can move the word around the screen.
You can move the end of the game, you can control it.
Stop for a second and think about that. You can control the end.
What follows is conversations with the characters in the game, talking to you, the player, from the blackness of that screen. Moving that word around, you’re bumping into them, you can’t see where you’re going! There’s comedy here, because you’re stumbling around in the dark after that ending, but eventually, they address you, thanking you for all of your help.
You never see a dragon, nor do you ever see what Lucas, the boy with the pure heart, pulling the needle, does to influence this dragon. They assure you things are fine, but you can’t see that. All you see is the word “END?” and their dialogue. The dialogue continues until something happens and you are asked a question.
“Say, are you Dave?”
It asks for you by the name you entered earlier on in the game at the church. The character you’re speaking with assures everyone that you’re doing fine as well and they didn’t lose you. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s one line here that really hits me hard.
“Dave! Lucas said he wanted to meet you.”
Followed by “Dave. Thank you so much for everything. And for helping Lucas and the others.”
After some more dialogue, it’s revealed that you’re speaking with Kumatora. After interacting with more characters, Kumatora thanks you again and wishes she could have more time with you. Kumatora says bye, but then you’re addressed again, and this time it gets… personal.
“Dave! What’s the world there like?”
This next part was just… I’m not sure how to describe it.
“It looks like things will work out here, but what about your world? Will it be alright?”
“Hey, other world. Be good to Dave!”
I’m not sure how to describe this moment, but there was such a profound impact by something so simple. You’re controlling the end of the game, bumping into these characters that you’ve met and, through the actions you took, controlling Lucas and the rest, helped improve the lives of. And these characters want to make sure that you and the world you inhabit are okay. Are they okay? Or is this game a reflection of the damaged world we inhabit? Is Porky the avatar for that bully of a kid that exacts his revenge through controlling money and power? Is Claus that person close to you that goes a different path and chooses the wrong side and you’re helpless to it. Or, even worse, are you Claus, working for the wrong people and betraying the people you love?
Of course, the game never shows you a dragon.
Why would Mother 3 show you a dragon when you’re the dragon? While you may have been sitting there, pressing buttons to make these characters do things, their paths were predetermined and plotted out. You were the one who needed to work your way through the puzzles and enemies to find the right way to get to this point. Lucas pulling that final needle after a heart wrenching battle with his lost twin brother wasn’t influencing some mystical dragon set to destroy his reality. It was influencing you, the player.
Lucas, that crybaby who became a compassionate, and fully realized person in control of his emotions and abilities to help those around him, was trying to influence you, the player. Because when the game is over, you have this power to shape the ending and what happens to them. It’s in your mind. You have this ability to control and influence them.
In that same vein, you have the power to control and influence the people around you. Yes, in real life. You have that power. Right now! No, you won’t be pulling seven mystical needles from the ground and awakening a magical dragon to recreate the world, but how you think, feel, and act is under your control. This game asked me if my world was doing alright and no, it very much isn’t doing alright. At the time, when I was pretty low and in a lot of pain, it asked me if I was going to be okay.
This is the magic of Mother 3 and Shigesato Itoi, the creator. Itoi was a famous copywriter in the 80s, spearheading an anti-war campaign that made him a superstar in advertising and pushed Nintendo to recruit him to make the first Mother game. His ability to, in a concise and effective manner, convey powerful emotions with simple sentences is mind-blowing. There’s this soul behind this game, that through the absurd, comedic, tragic and surreal exterior, can worm its way into the player’s mind and make a profound impact. I can think of very few instances where a piece of media has done these things and to do so in such an effective, touching manner.
Completing Mother 3 was such a strange experience, because when it was over, I realized I would never experience another game like this ever again. There would never be another piece of media that felt like this, no matter how hard they tried. Parts of this game were frustrating, difficult or off putting. Lucas literally unlocks his magical abilities by getting into a hot spring with one of the Magypsies and has an… experience?! What was that? Why was it necessary? But still, there’s so much here and it’s difficult to not let it linger.
Last year, I wrote a novel that had a lot of big concepts in it. It’s longer, dense and has a lot of my collected thoughts condensed into characters that are either in earnest or satire. I played Mother 3 after I’d finished that book and had passed it along to get feedback. All the feedback I got was both helpful and complimentary, allowing me to tighten things up and complete it. The thing is, after Mother 3, something about it feels off. There’s something missing from this book and how I wish to communicate with the world, something that Mother 3 taught me, and it’s difficult to elaborate. That beating heart in Mother 3, demonstrated by the battle system where you press a button along with the beat of the song to do additional damage like the beating of a heart, isn’t present and it’s eating me up.
I suppose, in a way, that’s what good art does. It makes you think, feel and helps you as an artist to look at your own work and solidify what it is you want to communicate to others.
Be good to each other.
As an aside, when I was dealing with my various injuries I decided to take time off from any heavy writing and wrote a serialized story, INTERGALACTIC BASTARD. The original intent was something fun, kind of ridiculous and it wouldn’t stress me out too much. When my leg injury worsened, my plans were interrupted and I was forced to stop for a while, which is where Mother 3 came in.
To say that Mother 3 influenced this story is an understatement. There was a point in writing this where things changed and it started to become something more. Now, as I finish up releasing it as a serial, I’m formatting and revising it to be a novel and it’s… exactly what I want it to be.
I’m releasing this via ebook and paperback on March 25th, 2022. You can pre-order the ebook right now, and the paperback pre-order will be live as soon as my editor has the final book back to me.