By JeremyF 12 Comments
We all want what we can't have.
Before every Nintendo Direct, the live chat is always tittering about something or other. Animal Crossing, Pokémon, whatever. These games will come. But there’s one request that only seems to get louder each time.
“Come on Reggie, give us Mother 3!” yelled a puppet nerd at E3 a couple years ago. The community was ecstatic to get any recognition, even as Reggie burned the guy alive.
Hearts leapt when Lucas, the game’s protagonist, was reintroduced into Super Smash Bros. as DLC. He was a stark contrast against the rest of the DLC characters, the Fire Emblem swordsmen and anime dudes.
Mother 3 released on the Game Boy Advance in 2006, after the Nintendo DS had already overtaken it. Yet nearly 13 years later, hopes for the game to be officially localized are somehow still alive.
Why is this game still being talked about all these years later? What’s so special about it that fans won’t let it go? Even with a fantastic fan translation available, why do we still crave it?
“Mother 3 tomorrow for sure,” I tweeted on the 12th. I was joking, of course. But there remained a part of me, however small, that hoped I could will it to be true.
A few days earlier, a news story made the rounds that Nintendo had indeed once attempted to localize Mother 3. However, some of the more controversial elements of the game deterred them from completing the work.
Is that true? Is Mother 3 impossible to adapt to a western audience? I don’t think so.
I want to look at these controversial elements of the game. Using Nintendo’s own precedent for localization and the current climate of gaming, I believe that these elements can be rewritten into something Nintendo can be comfortable selling outside of Japan.
I’m going to explain how Nintendo could, would, and should finally localize Mother 3.
How could they?
Make no mistake, Mother 3 is one of the darkest games to hold the Nintendo seal of approval. To an outside observer, it appears to be a colorful, kiddy RPG. But there are serious themes of loss, trauma, and despair for basically the whole story. What Lucas and company go through is tragic. But I think that’s a big part of why the game has stayed alive for so long.
EarthBound has its share of uncomfortable moments, too. Most famously, the final battle against Giygas uses horrifying imagery and text. The legend is that Itoi based it off a rape scene he saw in a movie as a child, though the veracity of that has been debated. EarthBound starts as a jolly, weird trek through small-town America, but its disturbing final hours have birthed untold amounts of discussion.
Mother 3, on the other hand, uses its darker moments to develop real pathos. It’s not uncommon for a player’s first playthrough to end with tears (and the playthroughs after that, too). More than either of the prior games, Mother 3 is emotional. “No crying until the end” is a series mantra, but it’s the third entry that sincerely earns it. That’s why it’s still alive.
When EarthBound was rereleased on the Wii U, it got a T rating from the ESRB. However, it also sold quite well on the struggling platform due to the reputation the game had earned over the years. With a little work, Mother 3 could easily earn a T, even if it wouldn’t in its current form.
The primary offender cited by the recent article is the Magypsies. What’s a Magypsy? They’re the equivalent of the seven wise sages in every other RPG. They guard the needles that protect the world. For holding that role in the story, though, they’re portrayed very unconventionally.
While the Magypsies behave and identify as females, their genders are not easily pinned down. Characters use both male and female pronouns to refer to them. Some also have facial hair. The description in the fan translation reads, “these men are more ladylike than ladies are.”
I am in no way equipped to discuss gender politics in 2006 or in 2019, but I do know that Nintendo has dealt with this scenario on many occasions.
Who could forget Birdo’s infamous gender confusion? Some still believe that Birdo is or once was a man, but in the west she’s been female for decades. Vivian from Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is said to be transgender in some versions. Gracie the Giraffe in Animal Crossing is male in Japan, but female overseas.
Whether or not the current state of the Magypsies is offensive or not (I really couldn’t say), in a scenario where Mother 3 was being localized, Nintendo would almost certainly remove this aspect of their characters. Considering the above precedent, I don’t believe that the Magypsies would be an impassable roadblock. Changing a few pronouns and character designs would be no different than some of the other choices they’ve made.
The last Magypsy does identify as male. For him, I don’t believe anything major would have to change. There’s no rule that the Magypsies all have to be the same gender.
One of the Magypsies is involved with one of several sexually-themed scenes in the game. That scene in particular is uncomfortable for most westerners who play the game. It’s not clear what exactly is happening, or how the audience is supposed to interpret the scene, but the writing makes it clear what is being evoked.
In this case, writing and context is everything. I would absolutely change that scene to make it more palatable for a western audience. However, I can fairly easily think of how it could be rewritten and relocated to change the context.
Beyond that, there’s a joke about sexual harassment that I think is really funny, but it plays way differently in this climate. A few other quick moments go slightly beyond the typical Nintendo game. However, I don’t believe any of these scenes are beyond changing.
There are probably countless examples of Nintendo making those changes, but the one that immediately springs to mind is Fire Emblem Fates. The Japanese version has a whole face-petting minigame that was stripped out of the English release.
This was a controversial choice. Some thought it was unneeded censorship, while others realized it’s a really creepy thing to put in your game. I think Nintendo was in the right to remove the face-petting, and I can’t imagine that rewriting a few scenes in Mother 3 would be more difficult.
The hardest part to change would be a mushroom-induced drug trip on a tropical island. Even putting aside that cartoon drug trips have been a thing since Dumbo, it wouldn’t be that hard to recontextualize. Just make it a dream sequence instead of hallucinogens. They would definitely need to change some of the dialogue from said hallucinations, which can be unsettling. But anything could be plugged into those interactions due to their nature.
For context, the first Uncharted game has a T rating. Nathan Drake shoots and kills close to a thousand people, and it’s apparently not over the M line. I think Mother 3 in its current state could have a T rating, and changing the offending elements would surely put it there. Since EarthBound has a T rating, Nintendo clearly doesn’t mind it being associated with the series.
Taking all of that into account, I don’t believe that modern-day Nintendo would be unable to translate Mother 3 strictly because of the risqué elements. That means localizing Mother 3 is a matter of will they, not can they. So why don’t they? The answer is more complicated than you might think.
When would they?
Nintendo of America has much less power than many realize. Reggie doesn’t have a Mother 3 button in his office that he stares at every day, laughing in spite. Other branches of Nintendo need approval from Japan before they can do much of anything.
I’ve been in love with the Mother series for years, but I didn’t find out until very recently that the fandom is completely different in Japan than in the west.
To western audiences, EarthBound is the definition of a cult classic. It sold very poorly in America due to terrible marketing, and it wasn’t released at all in Europe. But the game is so special that it grew a small, incredibly dedicated fanbase.
People say that all fandoms are terrible, but I have never seen anything from the EarthBound community I didn’t love. Everyone is held together by a passion for this incredibly weird, quirky, beautiful game. It inspires fan art, music albums, documentaries, and even cookbooks. EarthBound was the ultimate underdog, the neglected child kept around only through memories and Super Smash Bros.
When EarthBound finally saw a rerelease on Wii U, it was like a weight had been lifted. Nintendo seemed to know the game was special, and they treated it differently than the rest of the virtual console games. It was a big success.
EarthBound finally got the chance it deserved. For the people who had stuck with it for so long, it was vindication for nearly 20 years of passion. Ness wasn’t just the guy from Smash anymore.
Mother 3 had an even greater aura of mystique. It never made it outside of Japan officially, which just added to the legend. The fan translation has shown thousands how great the game truly is. To keep such a special game out of westerners’ hands seems like a crime. How could they?
Well, Japan doesn’t think the same way. It shocked me to learn that Mother 3 wasn’t actually very popular in its original country. In fact, the whole series is viewed differently over there. The first and second Mother games are remembered as “those games I played when I was a kid.” They’re just a footnote in the long and varied career of Itoi.
Was it the timing of Mother 3 that dampened its reception? The darker story and themes? The state of the genre at that point? Maybe a little of all of them. In the west, Mother 3 is the holy grail that was kept away from us, and we had to take it back. In Japan, it’s nothing amazing. Of course, I’m speaking generally, and the actual situation may be different than how I understand it.
The release of EarthBound Beginnings in the west is not analogous to a prospective Mother 3 localization. Mother 1 was already translated, but never came out until decades later. While Mother 3 may have begun translation, as indicated by the recent rumor, it was never finished. There would have to be a certain opportunity for the game to get a proper localization.
Knowing the relationship between the branches of Nintendo, the only way to get that opportunity is for the game to be reissued or remade. Knowing Mother 3’s Japanese reputation, it doesn’t seem like that opportunity is incredibly likely. It was released on the Japanese Wii U Virtual Console, but it stayed exclusive to that region.
On the Switch, Nintendo’s classic game library is a husk of its former self. As of this writing, only NES games have been offered in their subscription service. While it would be great to have EarthBound Beginnings added to that list, the current situation is pretty pathetic. The Wii incarnation of the Virtual Console had games from Nintendo’s first three consoles, as well as some from then-rivals. The Wii U kept it Nintendo-only but added Game Boy Advance and DS.
The current state of the Switch makes it unlikely for this specific GBA game to come back as-is. People are always dreaming of a remade collection of the trilogy, but that’s sadly nothing more than a fantasy at the moment.
Why should they?
Aside from its original release, this is the best time in history to release Mother 3. The Switch is the new haven of RPGs after the migration from the 3DS and PS Vita. In fact, tons of small, quirky games are enjoying success on the Switch, even more than on other platforms. And I can’t diminish Undertale and its ilk, which are unabashedly inspired by EarthBound. The climate is right for Mother 3 to thrive.
Some people say that the fan translation is good enough. In fact, it’s probably better than what Nintendo would put out officially. The translation is a basically pure version of the game, free of the changes and censorship an official localization would bring. It’s readily available in rom form and on reproduction cartridges that can be played on official hardware. What’s the point?
The amazing team that translated the game did so because Mother 3 is special. Because of their work, everyone can experience it. But an official translation would mean that, finally, Nintendo realizes it’s special.
The story may be subjective, but Mother 3 certainly has the best gameplay of the trilogy. Rhythmic attacks add some needed depth to EarthBound’s combat system. Environments are creative and memorable. New characters and scenarios are introduced so that the experience is never stale, as happens to many RPGs.
I’m of the opinion that the GBA sound chip is typically awful. Mother 3 has the best music on the system, period. Shogo Sakai must be a genius, because the instruments sound incredible. There’s not a bad song in the whole soundtrack, which jumps between genres, tempos, and time signatures.
The spritework is effective and expressive. There are so many little touches to the animation that’s rarely found in most games.
Every character has a story. Most RPGs are content to have a few repeating generic NPCs, but Mother 3 has a whole village of individuals that develop and change over the game. The player barely gets to know Lucas and his family before they’re fully invested in their story, and they want more than anything to give them a happy ending.
The story will make you cry.
Do we deserve Mother 3?
Mother 3 deserves us.
Mother 3 deserves the second chance that the first two games got. It deserves to be recognized for the art that it is. It deserves to be more than a meme before Nintendo Directs, and it deserves to be more than a set of references in Smash.
Lucas deserves happiness.
I barely realized, but I’m writing this on Valentine’s Day. Lucas’s signature attack is PK Love, and the game’s theme song is the Love Theme. Mother 3 is a game about love struggling against hate. It shows the worst and best aspects of humanity personified in a clash for the fate of life.
I truly believe that one day, though not any day soon, it will finally come here. That's the optimism the series is built on.
When and if it ever does, remember…
No crying until the end.