Sometimes you come across a thing that you love beyond all reason – a thing that someone created that brings you deep and lasting pleasure whenever it is experienced. The films of Hayao Miyazaki are this way for me, as is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” Every time I return to them, I am filled with the familiar joy and wonder that they inspire. They are infinitely rediscoverable. The game that most inspires the same love in me must be “Mother 3,” written by Shigesato Itoi and released in Japan in 2006. However, unlike “Spirited Away,” which is two hours long, or “The Little Prince,” which can be read in an afternoon, “Mother 3” requires dozens of hours to complete. Therefore, despite the place it holds in my heart, I have only every played through it once, years ago, with my then-boyfriend (now-husband). Until this month, when I began a long-desired second playthrough, this time on my own. I am far from alone in my love for “Mother 3”; it is shared by many others. As the title suggests, it is the third and final installment in the “Mother” series, though the three games are only loosely and thematically related – they do not share a plot or characters. The first was never released in America, while “Mother 2” was released for the Super Nintendo as “EarthBound.” The fanbase for “EarthBound” is devoted and loyal, and with good reason, as it is a fantastic game. Set in a satirical version of America, it is silly, cartoonish, and yet also sweet and suffused with a deep melancholic nostalgia that gives it a lasting depth and meaning. After many calls for re-release, it is now available for download if you have a Wii U. “Mother 3” never fared so well in America. The final installment in the franchise was beset with all manner of problems and took over a decade to produce, switching systems multiple times in the process and being released on the GameBoy Advance, of all things. After such a tortured process, you would expect the final product to be an overhyped mess and an inevitable disappointment. You would be wrong. “EarthBound” is a wonderful game, but “Mother 3” is a masterpiece. However, for reasons unfathomable, Nintendo of America ignored the desires of the American “Mother” fanbase, and eventually declared that there was no translation of “Mother 3” planned – that it would never be available in America. But this game inspires love like no other, love that drove a group of fans to take on the Herculean task of translating the game and creating an English language patch so the game can be played on an emulator. And no more loving translation can be imagined – it is professional quality and polished so that you would hardly realize it wasn’t official. (You can and should read all about their translation adventures; instructions for how to emulate and patch the game are here.) So, that brings us to now. The game exists and is playable in America in this odd limbo which may never be resolved. It is sort of technically illegal to download the ROM and play the game, but no other way exists, so that is what must be done. As weird as the process is to play it on the computer, the process is even more strange to make it playable on the original handheld system. But for my birthday this year, my husband jumped through all the weird hoops and purchased all the obscure bits of hardware necessary to make it workable and allowing me to start this second playthrough of what I would probably not even really hesitate to call my favorite game. And as long as I’m playing it and thinking about it, I might as well write about it too. I’ll try to write one post for each of the 8(ish) chapters. There may be some spoilers, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum. So here we go:
Chapter 1 (and also the Prologue)
In many ways, “Mother 3” is about the longing for home, the nostalgia for a place and a time that you may not ever really be able to return to, the place of your childhood. The game has a revolving cast, with the chapters being led by different people (and animals) who all live on the Nowhere Islands. In the beginning, the Nowhere Islands (and the village of Tazmily in particular) are a utopia. Tazmily has never known sadness or hardship before. The prologue establishes the nature of this Eden – a place where even the fierce-looking Dragos are gentle. It begins with a family, a mother and her twin boys visiting their grandfather. The boys play outside, the grandfather is cheerful and instructive, the mother is loving and lovely. Hinawa, the mother, writes to her husband to say they will be returning that evening. But she won’t be, because paradise is about to be disturbed. Chapter 1 picks up with the father of the family, Hinawa’s husband Flint, waiting back in Tazmilly. He is awoken in the night by a neighbor, panicked and frightened because for the first time that anyone can remember, a disaster has struck. The forest is aflame! Furthermore, it was no accident, as mysterious men wearing pig masks are seen darting about with obvious ill intent by unclear motive. Not only are Flint’s neighbors in jeopardy, his wife and sons are as well, because they have not yet returned home and even now they might be walking through those same woods. Flint is a taciturn man, and he remains calm. With his hat and his farmstead, his is modeled on the quintessential American cowboy, and he is not one to easily be upset. But in the end, despite his bravery and all he could do, the worst thing that could happen happens. Hinawa is killed. And not only did she die, but she was killed by a Drago, one of the animals that were just hours ago so gently playing with her young sons. The scene where Flint learns of Hinawa’s death is a tiny cinematic marvel. Its oddness and striking emotionality are demonstrative of the strange wonderfulness of “Mother 3” overall. The GameBoy Advance screen is only a few inches wide, and even if you play this on a computer, the window will not be much larger. Flint is only a few pixels tall, and yet his body language is so lucidly clear. This is the first tragedy that Flint has ever faced – the first taste of loss and unbearable sadness that hits Tazmily Village – and this quiet, stoic man does not know how to react. His sudden, uncontrollable violence and rage is heartrending, as he grabs a piece of firewood and swings it wildly at his neighbors who are helpless against his grief while his two sons huddle together and look on in wordless shock. But Chapter 1 does not end here. Flint is knocked unconscious and wakes up in prison – the first man who has ever been locked up in Tazmily memory. He breaks free too late for Hinawa’s funeral, just in time to see his son Claus run off and disappear, desperate for revenge against the Dragos. Flint pursues his son into the mountains, where he discovers the beast who killed Hinawa, a Drago who has been turned into a half-mechanical monster by the mysterious pigmasks. The game ends with another family having been torn apart as a baby Drago appears and fights to save the life of its dying parent. If “Mother 3” is about the longing to return home, this is series of events that led to the destruction of that home, that place of safety. The tranquility of the human world has been destroyed by the death of Hinawa and the disappearance of Claus, but the animal world has also been upset and the unity that humanity and nature previously enjoyed has been dissolved. The original state of grace, man living in harmony with beast, has been disrupted by the mechanistic forces of the pigmasks, but by killing the altered Drago in revenge, Flint himself helped drive human and animal apart. This is the end of childhood – for Tazmilly Village, but also for Flint’s remaining son, Lucas. Lucas does not make much of an appearance in Chapter 1, but it was his childhood that was so fondly displayed in the Prologue. With the death of his mother, the disappearance of his brother, and the grief of his father, Lucas will be forced to grow up, to leave the place of safety of his home, which has now been rendered unsafe, and unfamiliar. We will catch up with Lucas later, and it will be Lucas who carries forward the heart of the game.