Bucketlog June: Mother 3

Welcome to the Bucketlog! It's going to be 2019's year-long blog series, focusing on games I've been meaning to play since forever. I've put together a list derived from a mix of systems, genres, and vintages because it's starting to look like 2019 might be the first "lean" year for games in a spell (though time will tell whether that pans out to be true) and I figured this would be a fine opportunity to finally tick off a few items I've had on my various backlog lists/spreadsheets for longer than I'd care to admit.

January: No More Heroes 2 (Wii)February: Steins;Gate (PS3)March: Okage: Shadow King (PS2)
April: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies (3DS)May: Banjo-Tooie (N64)June: Mother 3 (GBA)
July: Beyond Oasis (MD)August: Two Worlds II (X360)September: Kaeru no tame ni Kane wa Naru (GB)
October: Arc the Lad (PS1)November: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)December: Tokyo Mirage Sessions: ♯FE (Wii U)


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Long-time fans of Nintendo and JRPGs were delighted by the recent announcement, turned immediate reality, that Seiken Densetsu 3 would finally see an official localization and a worldwide retail release as "Trials of Mana." It is in fact, getting two releases if we count the remake coming next year. However, though I did not hear it myself, I couldn't help but imagine some small voice at the back - similar to the guy who kept "nay"-ing Homer Simpson when he was temporarily a union president - complaining that it wasn't Mother 3 instead.

Shigesato Itoi's RPG trilogy juggled surreal humor with a contemporary setting and a deeply emotional core. By emotion, I do not mean the usual melodrama that most JRPGs traffic; it was borne instead of a certain maturity and complexity that Itoi felt his audience were ready to accept. The combination of these unusual factors and a streak of personality so large that could be seen from space helped endear the franchise to a cult following in its native land. Outside of Japan, however, we were only initially blessed with the middle child of this series: EarthBound (a.k.a. Mother 2), released on the American SNES in 1995. (Europe would have to wait a little longer to get into the smaaaash-ing action: EarthBound became available here for the first time via the worldwide Wii U Virtual Console release in 2013.) The first of the two games that sandwich EarthBound, Mother for Famicom, would also later see a Wii U Virtual Console localized release as EarthBound Beginnings. Presently, however, the last of those three - Mother 3 - remains Japan-exclusive.

"Localize Mother 3," has long been the inevitable mantra rolled out by the Mother faithful whenever a Nintendo Direct is scheduled to drop, and they've only been emboldened in recent years with the success of Operation Rainfall - the fan-driven campaign to get excellent Wii RPGs Xenoblade Chronicles, Pandora's Tower, and The Last Story released internationally, which all three eventually did - a second (or third) life for EarthBound as part of the SNES Classic Mini compilation, the advent of EarthBound Beginnings, and now this surprise localization of Seiken Densetsu 3/Trials of Mana.

Personally, I've been looking for any reason to try Mother 3 out for myself. I was a huge fan of EarthBound back before I could purchase it legally (and have done so since; twice, even) and knowing that Mother 3 is not only created in a similar vein, but is full of mechanical improvements and an even more emotionally-affecting story - without sacrificing either the silly humor or ear for comedic dialogue of the previous game - is enough reason to want to jump in. I had intended to wait for a localized version, but after thirteen years (eleven since the well-regarded fan translation from Tomato and his team) it's not clear when this will actually occur. This year's all about plucking the games out of the ether I've wanted to play the most, after all, and in no sane world does Mother 3 not make that shortlist.

The GBA's native 240x160 resolution doesn't make for impressive screenshots, so here's a kooky collage for y'all.
The GBA's native 240x160 resolution doesn't make for impressive screenshots, so here's a kooky collage for y'all.

For the unfamiliar, the Mother series are set in a fantastical version of a mostly modern United States, and are turn-based RPGs where characters are frequently able to call upon psychic powers. Though the major antagonists require a bit more lore to properly introduce, most enemies in this series are often mundane objects, animals, supernatural beings, and people made sentient and/or real and/or mutated and/or hypnotized by nebulous evil energies: this might include zombies, robots, ghosts, time-travellers, hippies, sapient blobs of slime, trees, gravestones, punk bullies, balls of soot, and at least one memorable encounter with a Terminator caribou. The combat system has its quirks too, the most well-known of which is a feature wherein a player character can take a mortal hit - losing all their HP - but the actual HP tracker will count down slowly enough that the character might still be able to finish the fight and survive. Mother 3 expands on the combat system further, including a novel feature where players can tap the attack button to the beat of the fight music to do additional hits to their opponent, up to 16 bonus hits for the truly rhythmically-inclined. The difficulty is such that this mastery over the soundtrack isn't strictly necessary, but still offers a worthy enough boost of around 100-200% bonus damage to make it worth the effort of learning the cadence. Beatings to the beat, as it were.

Mother 3 also has an uncommon (but not unheard of) structure in that each chapter so far follows a different protagonist following a different objective. I've sadly not made as much progress as I would've preferred - I'm still reviewing E3 trailers and have spent more than a few hours being distracted by SGDQ speedruns this past week - but in the three chapters I've seen I've been introduced to at least six playable characters and followed four of them: Flint, the patriarch of a family that includes a mother Hinawa and twin boys Lucas (of Super Smash Bros. fame) and Claus; Duster, a dimwitted "thief for justice" who is capable enough with his special thief tools; and Salsa, a clever monkey who badly wants to be reunited with his lady love Samba. There is also Kumatora, the tomboy princess whose solitude has turned her vaguely feral; and Boney, the family dog of Flint and Lucas and a pup who has significantly more fight in him than the cowardly King of EarthBound. Each character has their own special set of skills - Duster's thief tools, for instance, all carry specific debuffs which work better against certain enemies - though for the time being you don't have a whole lot of control over who enters the party and when: it's been a strictly linear affair for these early chapters.

I already adore the game. Even if it's been extremely linear so far, there's a certain unpredictability with where the plot is heading next, and some truly heartrending scenes have already occurred to spoil the quiet and almost Utopian peace and natural harmony of the Nowhere Islands after the sudden appearance of an army of "pigmask" stormtroopers with advanced technology. The local eccentrics of Tazmily Village are amusing enough that I frequently see what new commentary they have to provide after story events. The combat's been challenging and a little grindy, if I'm being honest, though getting to grips with this "sound battle" system, learning which abilities to use and when, and an ample supply of healing items dropped after battles have kept me going. The game also doesn't have a penalty for death, besides tossing you back to the last save point (which are all frogs, for some reason, though I've seen weirder save points - remember the Time Minders of Anachronox? (I swear that isn't a B-Movie title I just made up)), which makes my frequent demises easier to swallow. Even if the combat isn't riveting, the story, dialogue, characters, and incidental surreality have been more than enough to push me forward. I'm sure I'll have more to say about the game at a later date, perhaps once it's opened up more in the later chapters (one assumes, at least) or I've seen the full narrative play out by the game's end. For now, though, I'm just sorry to have waited this long to finally play it.