Spoilers and all that.
Mother 3 is a weird JRPG. I didn’t say funny, I said weird. Everything in the Mother series is awkward and slightly unsettling and sometimes humorous—but always weird. Many elements draw upon real-world geography, history, and mythology—from the Nazca Lines of Peru to the poem “Casey at the Bat”. Enemies range from beanpole hippies (playing an ersatz version of Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, no less) to piles of vomit, sentient street signs, moles with drills for hands, a melting clock inspired by that one Salvador Dali painting, mountains with faces on them, an army of soldiers dressed like pigs, and the strangest space fetus since the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, all within an idealized-yet-sinister version of 1950s America. Every character’s dialogue was bizarre even in Japanese; in English, they are often grammatically correct but incomprehensible with their worrying advice, vague premonitions, and references to obscure Japan stuff that didn’t make the translation. Even the games’ code is all jumbled and convoluted in a completely unnecessary way, just to make things stranger.
Mother 3 came out in 2006 and was fan-translated into English in 2008. Downloading and patching a ROM is currently the only way to access the game in a language other than Japanese. (Hilariously, most non-Japanese players’ first experience with Mother 3 was not the game itself but with Lucas’s appearance as a character in 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl, complete with major spoilers about the villain of Mother 3.) I played EarthBound (AKA Mother 2) when it was first released in the U.S. in 1995. How much progress has Itoi made in eleven years?
Mother 3’s combat is standard JRPG fare, except that the names are changed from generic fantasy stuff to vintage Americana with some 1950s sci-fi thrown in the mix. You fight with yo-yos, sticks, shoes, bottle rockets, staples, and your pet dog, not swords and axes. It’s a cosmetic difference from other JRPGs but a welcome one nonetheless.
Combat is more complex than Pokémon but is still quite simple. You won’t find many surprises in its combat mechanics. The “press a button at the right time for extra damage” thing bears resemblance to Super Mario RPG, but is significantly more difficult. Being a pathetic honky with no rhythm, I found myself unable to attack in time to the music without abusing save states. I can’t even keep up with the songs in basic 4/4 time, let alone the one in 29/16. Later in the game, it’s generally better to use PSI attacks anyway, but it irked me that the rhythmic attacks were beyond my capabilities.
An intriguing combat mechanic that Mother 2 and Mother 3 have is the roll-over health. In most games when you get hit, you lose health instantly. In two of the three Mother games, it instead rolls down at a fast but not instantaneous pace, giving you time (if you’re quick) to use healing PSI or items to recover from otherwise fatal blows. You can reduce the speed at which it rolls down by defending. You can even try to beat the enemy as quickly as possible to stop your health from swiftly counting down. This is only present on occasion, but it adds a modicum of strategy to an otherwise stripped-down and honestly bland combat system.
The menus and such are much easier to manage, being heavily streamlined without losing any functionality. You can switch between characters in a menu with the shoulder buttons. Item shops give you the stats of whatever you’re looking at. And you have a run button, something every JRPG without exception ought to have. How great is it that the walking-around parts of the game are made that much simpler?
But the point of Mother games is not the highly simplified gameplay; if it was, they would be no different from early Dragon Quest games, which would be a laughable lack of progress for a game from 2006. People play Mother games because they have some hippie message about believing in yourself even when things turn awful. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, there is a strange and unsettling direness just barely underneath the surface optimism. The result is a not a schizophrenic mess but in fact a reasonable conclusion: the world is cruel and evil, but we don’t have to be. A group of magical transvestites will teach you the power of friendship.
Much like EarthBound, Mother 3’s final boss is an unusual and heart-gouging one. The theme I like best about the Mother series (and particularly about Mother 3’s finale) is a message of hope and comfort. Even when faced against family death, the forces of nature, otherworldly beasts, and monstrous man-children, Lucas and his friends always keep a positive attitude. Innocence may be a childish weakness, but hope is not. Nothing is absolutely evil, not even the most corrupt and poisonous of us. Giygas is an incomprehensible world-destroying behemoth but he too was once an innocent child. Porky Minch is a disgusting cretin with too much power who uses all of his resources to cause suffering in others for his own amusement, but he was once a neglected child who was never taught how to show empathy, a pathetic boy who just wanted his parents to pay attention to him. His final fate of being trapped in a steel ball for eternity would be a nightmare for most people, but the ending implies that he’s happier being left alone. Even a monster deserves some measure of comfort, even if it entails his isolation from the rest of humanity.
Mother 3 will probably never be officially released in America due to low demand and the copyright nazis. Many of the themes are based on copyrighted material and thus would never fly in our creativity-squelching, lawyer-infested country. (Though there are also many songs sampled from public domain classical music.) Despite the best efforts of Mother fans, EarthBound never appeared on the Wii’s Virtual Console for the same reasons. You can thank the Walt Disney Corporation for most of America’s tyrannical copyright laws.
I’ve griped about games with terrible fanbases in the past. Gamers are too frequently a bunch of lazy, arrogant, entitled fools. Mother fans, on the other hand, are some of the kindest and most selfless people on the planet. Go to any Mother forum and ask for help and people will stop what they’re doing to assist you. The works they create are joyful and inspiring, not pathetic and pedophilic like Sonic fanart. Someone from Something Awful (a forum typically known for its internet tough guys) labored for an eternity to create a let’s play of Mother 3 meshed with his own surprisingly not-bad fanfiction. They worked tirelessly for several years to translate Mother 3‘s jumbled code and strange dialogue into understandable English. For free. Mother fans are some of the finest citizens of humanity you will ever face. Do them justice and give the game to which they devote themselves a chance.