By Mento 0 Comments
When I wrote about Brownie Brown's Mother 3 just over a week ago, it wasn't too far into the game's story. In fact, I'd probably say it was well short of the mid-game. Mother 3 is not a game beholden to conventional rules of video game structure, as anyone who has played it or its predecessor EarthBound is no doubt aware, and the slightly back-heavy format of the game took some acclimatizing. In fact, a lot of the game required some acclimatizing, and it's only now that I've finally seen the ending of the game that I can process everything that happened and all the pieces the game puts into place early on.
It's for this reason that I wanted to revisit the game for a significantly deeper dive, expatiating on the game's structure, themes, genre subversions, characterization, humor, how it develops its own deeply referential mythos, game mechanics, and in particular its late-game revelations and conclusion. It's also going to be very hard not to keep alluding to Undertale, because I now understand just how much of that game was sourced from Mother 3's blueprint specifically (though not in any kind of plagiaristic manner; if anything, Undertale felt like the iterative Mother 4 we never received). I suppose it might be prudent instead to just keep Toby Fox's Indie darling in the back of your mind as you read the following.
(It's also worth pointing out that I will be spoiling the hell out of Mother 3, if that wasn't clear.)
You Can't Go Home Again
Hard to know where to start, so we'll start with what the world of Mother 3 is like. Mother 3 is set on Nowhere Island, and in a village called Tazmily in particular. Tazmily is set up to be a low-key utopia of sorts: one where the citizenry are friendly and helpful towards each other, want for nothing, have no need of money or a barter system, live in peace with the local beasts (which they can understand? It's never clear if this is due to PSI abilities, if animals work different in this world, or if their noises have simply been translated for the player's benefit), and have an empty Sheriff's office because there's no crime for them to stop. It's the first of the game's many subtle subversions, in this case riffing on the idyllic childhood home village that most JRPG heroes seem to have been raised in without incident. We're conditioned to think of this place as the archetypal happy home for our heroes, at least until the first spark of conflict comes along to be the ignition for the hero's journey. Instead, Tazmily becomes the default location for the first seven - of eight - chapters of the game, frequently acting as a hub if not always central to the immediate stage of the story.
We're conditioned to see past a lot of Tazmily's more unlikely altruism because it is typical of a JRPG to present the hero's small rural hometown as being perfect, safe, and wholesome, at least until it is tragically destroyed by a cruel world undeserving of that peaceful equilibrium. A critical media observer more versed in semiotics than myself could even attach a parallel to that with the Hollywood notion that big cities rob people of their souls, while the "heartland" of smaller rural communities are where you find home and your truest self. As someone who has lived in the latter for most of their life, I can attest that these places have as many bad apples (I had to go with the agricultural metaphor, huh?) as anywhere else, and are boring as shit to boot. The truth behind Tazmily, relayed to main character Lucas and his companions by the ludicrously tall man Leder, is that it was a deliberate attempt to recreate a society free of the ills that caused the world - our world - to destroy itself and leave nothing but an ark ship of rueful survivors. The new world built on Tazmily and Nowhere Island was an attempt to start again from scratch: thus, all the humans aboard that ship, aside from Leder, had their memories wiped and new artificial ones put in their place to kickstart this model agrarian civilization.
Of all of Mother 3's paradigmatic subversions, this twist takes the longest to get from the set-up to the reveal, and is perhaps ultimately irrelevant beyond establishing a gritty and morose reality to what was one of the game's less obtuse elements. It's taking the most mundane trait of a topsy-turvy world, where you fight bizarre metaphysical creatures with psychic abilities and converse with joyful immortal beings of indeterminate gender and whatever the heck Mr. Saturn is, before revealing that this silly, lighthearted land is actually all that remains of a terrible, world-ending series of atrocities that the game never quite makes clear is due to environmental collapse, nuclear war, or some other doomsday scenario we will evidently be ill-equipped to deal with. It's taking the one JRPG trope that feels the safest and most familiar - the paradigmatic tranquil home town full of friendly if eccentric faces - and using that as a vector for one of the game's darkest twists.
Of course, this makes me want go off on a tangent about JRPGs that have also recognized this recurring cliché and have put their own spin on it (Wild Arms 4, among others, has the protagonist's "bubble" of a peaceful upbringing be literally that, as invaders smash through the protective dome making it appear for all the world that a massive crack has formed in the sky) but I feel like we'll be here all week if I point out every way the commonalities of unimaginative JRPGs have been turned on their heads by Mother 3 or others, so I'll move ahead to how the structure of this game bears notice.
An Octet of Acts
Although Mother 3 is broken up into eight chapters, these chapters aren't all necessarily the same length, feature the same protagonist, or even. In the late 1990s, when Squaresoft (as it was still called) was preparing for their big 32-bit debut with Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation, the studio was experimenting elsewhere with irregular narrative structures in their RPGs. SaGa Frontier & SaGa Frontier 2 (and to a lesser extent the Chrono series) were the only games of this unorthodox style that we in the west were privy to, but over in Japan it includes almost all of their late SNES efforts: Live A Live, Romancing SaGa 3, Treasure of the Rudras (a.k.a. Rudra no Hihou), and Seiken Densetsu 3. These games were notable not just for their episodic, almost vignette-like story structure but for the fact that the perspective character kept switching - many might be said to have a default protagonist, but not a single character was the focal point of the narrative for the entire journey, or if they were they were not always the sole option. Though there was an ever-present risk of a fractured overarching narrative that was challenging to follow, these games often found a way to tie all the disparate threads together when it came time to the end, often producing a bottom-heavy game in the process as the player got all their narrative ducks in a row. In some regard, though it comes from a different developer, Mother 3 picks up this torch from where Square left it behind.
The prologue of Mother 3 concerns Lucas and Claus, the former of whom we control for but a single battle. They are staying at their grandfather Alec's cabin far north of Tazmily Village along with their mother Hinawa, and are playing with the local peaceful Drago creatures before a calamity occurs just off-screen. We then switch to Flint for the first proper chapter of the game: a decently-sized adventure that has him pass through Tazmily's nearby forest as it burns down to establish most of the people of Tazmily, including the panicky Thomas of the local store and Lighter the lumberjack, as well as the villains (the Pigmask Army) and the mysterious Magypsies. A curious element of Mother 3 is that the protagonist of any given chapter doesn't speak: when Flint finally has his first lines, it's later in chapter 2 when we've assumed the role of Duster for a while. Duster, for his part, goes from the genial helper we meet in chapter 1 to mute himself, suggesting that being the viewpoint character also means temporarily removing themselves from any dialogue. It's yet another of Mother 3's surreal little jokes at the expense of nonsensical video game conventions, one that will come to a head with Lucas (as discussed further in just a moment).
Duster's chapter concerns sneaking into the nearby dilapidated Osohe Castle to recover a relic that his father, Wess, stashed there for safekeeping. Osohe Castle is occupied by friendly (and a few unfriendly) ghosts that offer advice and boons to Duster, including the purchase of one of the game's best ancillary characters, Rope Snake. Initially, Rope Snake seems like another "thief tool" of Duster's - he already has another animal used in this fashion called the Siren Beetle, which helpfully turns enemies around as a distraction which skips their turn and also increases damage done against them while their backs are turned. Rope Snake isn't used in battle, but rather is used as a hookshot to get over small gaps in Osohe and elsewhere. It's only later on when he's required to latch onto a flying airship while carrying the whole party that he eventually loosens his grip (or, rather, his bite) and begins a spiral of self-doubt and chagrin that becomes a recurring sub-plot well into the final chapters of the game. The Mother games have this tendency to cleverly canonize their most unexpectedly appealing ancillary characters like Apple Kid and Exit Mouse, ensuring that after their unassuming debuts they continue to have major influence on the plot in spite of their incidental statuses, and it also becomes one of Mother 3's sharpest examples of understanding its own strengths as a comedy adept. Duster's chapter is also where we encounter Kumatora for the first time, making a strong first impression by quickly insulting both Duster and Wess before quickly grasping the situation, and it's after the three of them are flushed out of the castle's waterworks by a trap (that Wess set) that the game unexpectedly switches to a plotline happening simultaneously elsewhere.
Salsa the Monkey becomes the protagonist for the relatively brief third chapter of the game. His girlfriend is being held by the Pigmask Army and as a result he's being coerced by the villain Fassad, who we briefly met as Duster in his more affable disguise as a passing trader, who keeps Salsa in check with a shock collar he cruelly activates every few moments whether Salsa obeys him or not. I'm not sure what it is about shock collars that video games find so enticing, but it does a good job (if one that's a little tough to deal with) where the player character is being forced to obey the commands of an NPC or else suffer the ignoble fate of a cartoon electrified ashening. Though I'm sure it's a complete coincidence, there was an extended sequence with shock collars in Tales of Destiny too, and like in that game I think the core purpose behind its application here is to breed animosity for the one holding the button. Though it takes the whole chapter, including a lot of little side-tasks and gesture-based monkey dancing, Salsa eventually breaks free of Fassad's dominance due to the help of Kumatora and Wess, who are shown again to be sharper than they look. However, we learn here that Duster has vanished, and the relic he was sent to recover along with him. Cut to three years later...
It's after this time skip, in which we're in control of a pre-teenaged Lucas (now and for the rest of the game), that we start to understand the seeds planted during Salsa's chapter. In helping Fassad spread the "happy boxes" of the Pigmask Army to the garrulous but gullible citizenry of Tazmily, which vaguely resemble pink CRT TVs and could be making any kind of statement about the corrupting effects of modern media (or they're simply brainwashing people, which is equally likely), Salsa may have inadvertently turned the whole town of Tazmily evil. Well, maybe not so much evil, but a familiar combination of apathetic and solipsistic that defines many of us in the real world, distracted by our various passions and problems while frequently detached from the horrors perpetrated right under our noses. Like, say, the slow erosion of human rights as it occurs to other people: various hold-outs in Tazmily are mysteriously finding their homes hit by lightning bolts over and over, which isn't quite the same as concentration camps full of immigrants but follows along a similar theme of an ethical insouciance borne from a contemporary disconnect with our fellow man. I guess what I'm saying in the most heavy-handed manner possible is that Mother 3's biggest theme is one that is still unfortunately prominent today, with Tazmily's comically rapid descent into venality and sin being largely due to the beguiling effects of propaganda and information control by the game's antagonists, resulting in the sort of jeremiad one could level at both the UK and the USA alike given recent downturns in our collective moral characters. Of course, this also ties into the above revelation about Tazmily being the colony of a seedship of a destroyed version of Earth: the reason the people of Tazmily fall into these self-destructive habits is because they're actually old habits, albeit long-forgotten, making them far easier to lapse back into. Don't you love late-story twists that help recontextualize everything that happened prior?
Chapter four is really more of a "getting the gang back together" sort of affair, with Lucas taking Boney out to understand his place in this strange new world (though to Lucas, time has passed normally). We encounter the new Tazmily, now resembling a small town of the modern era rather than one stuck in a rustic ideal of the 19th century, and how these changes have affected the citizenry. Due to Fassad's meddling, the town - and the entire game - now has an understanding of currency: "DP", or Dragon Points, are earned after every battle and can be used to purchase new items and equipment from a series of vendors. It's both jarring from a mechanical and narrative standpoint to suddenly introduce something as otherwise quotidian as earning money so late into the game, and it also takes a while to get used to how the game manages your money. Instead of holding onto any cash you earn, it is automatically deposited into the bank, ready to be withdrawn whenever you need to buy something. Ness's dad would give him money the same way also, often necessitating a trip to the nearest ATM before purchases could be made, but because Mother 3 has a game over penalty that halves the amount of money you're holding (earlier chapters, of course, have no penalty of any kind) the fact that all your money is safe with the bank - organized by the save point frogs, in a convenient doubling-up of their services - means you won't lose anything unless you make the error of taking your entire fortune with you. So it doesn't really change too much or make the game substantially harder or less convenient, but it is an additional factor that feels both alien to the experience so far and completely natural given how many RPGs depend on their economy as a major aspect of character progression and player choice (say, opting for certain consumables over others depending on their perceived utility-to-cost ratio).
After chapter four and five, the latter of which simply changes the goal from "find Duster" to "follow Duster to recover the artifact he recovered from Osohe", the party eventually defeats Fassad and shuts down the Thunder Tower that caused all the Tazmily rebels to lose their homes in freak lightning storms. It's when they impulsively decide to chase after the departing Pigmask Army airship and the mysterious masked general on board that they end up falling (you tried your best, Rope Snake) and separating for chapter six. Chapter six is where the game really finds a remarkable application of this eight-part structure, as the entire chapter is spent as Lucas and Boney on their own in a field full of sunflowers - Hinawa's favorite - as they silently chase her specter off a cliff. This was all part of Hinawa's plan, as she'd already told her father Alec in a dream to build a haystack for Lucas and Boney to fall into. So ends chapter six and begins chapter seven, by far the longest chapter of the game.
Chapter seven sees the game kick into high-gear and present - fashionably late - the typical McGuffin hunt seen in most RPGs, including Mother 3's predecessor EarthBound. Similar to the Your Sanctuary locations of EarthBound, the goal here is to travel all over the island - to places you've never been before - to pull the seven mystical needles that are keeping an ancient, colossal dragon sleeping underneath the island to awaken. These needles are under the protection of the seven Magypsies - each named after one of the seven musical modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian - each of whom help Lucas find their resting place. However, the Pigmask Army is also pursuing these needles and have someone of their own who can pull them (the first big hint that Claus is this masked stranger, as Lucas is the only known person able to pull them from the player's perspective) creating a chase of sorts. At least once, the destinations that the player might follow become open-ended choices, though the enemy difficulty is such that it's usually advised to take a linear route through the following:
- Aeolia, whose needle can be spotted in the depths of Osohe Castle. This needle is pulled first by the masked man off-screen, initiating Lucas's journey to find the rest.
- Doria, whose needle is found behind the Pigmask Chimera Lab, where they've been creating the majority of the game's foes: hostile juxtapositions of two animals, or one animal and an inanimate object. The Chimera Lab is where you meet Salsa again, who has managed to rescue his lady friend and eventually decides to help you out, once you elude the Ultimate Chimera that has broken loose. Finding Doria also means meeting up with Kumatora again, adding her back to the party permanently.
- Lydia, whose needle is found on the top of the highest mountain of the island. The player reaches this location via the mole cricket cave - a mole cricket playing the unenviable comedic role as the extremely weak enemy you fight as a tutorial - and it's due to your second beatdown of their best warrior that they all decide to become merchants instead (in fact, most of the merchants you meet for the rest of the game are mole crickets). You're too late to reach this needle, alas, as the masked man beats you to it and leaves a boss behind to slow you down: that's two for the masked man, one for Lucas.
- Phrygia, whose needle is inside a volcano. Reaching this needle also means passing through Mr. Saturn Valley, full of everyone's odd, spherical, Homsar-talking favorites. Rescuing the Mr. Saturns from the Pigmask Army also frees Duster from their clutches, filling the last slot of what will be the party for the rest of the game. Before pulling the needle here, you have a fight with a cyborg Fassad who now needs an interpreter as his mouth has been replaced by French horns.
- Mixolydia, whose needle is on a remote island. This is the oddest segment of this chapter, and perhaps the whole game (excepting the Mr. Saturns above) as it begins with a trek across the ocean floor - big-lipped mermen are around to resupply your dwindling oxygen gauge - before embarking on a mushroom trip reminiscent of the metaphysical Magicant sequence of EarthBound. Here, hallucinations keep attacking the party while psychologically tormenting them until the party eventually recovers from the effects with Mixolydia's help. This leads to another encounter with the masked man and another lost needle. It's also where you fight what I thought was the hardest boss in the game: the Barrier Trio, a buff set of blue triplets who toss out powerful PSI abilities and keep switching their elemental weakness to confound you.
- Ionia, whose needle is in a temple stuck in time. Ionia is the Magypsy you've had the strongest rapport with so far, and her segment is relatively short as it means a short pass through the mountain valley first seen at the start of the game, followed by a quick trip to the temple. The masked man is fought again here, but Lucas has picked up a Franklin Badge - a series-wide artifact with protective qualities of some repute, to the extent it later appears in the Super Smash Bros. series - which protects him from the same attack that demolished the party at Mixolydia's needle. The party is victorious, evening the score in number of needles pulled with only one needle left.
Chapter seven could be considered the meat of the game and the home of most of its more conventional RPG aspirations, as the tried-and-tested Great Tchotchke Hunt format, but it is curious that this entire endeavor - so often the basis of an entire RPG story - is condensed into a single chapter, especially with how much ground it covers. You spend so many chapters in this game in relatively small environments - the opening chapter in Tazmily Forest, or spending most of chapter four running across a train track to get to a factory and then a nightclub, to say nothing of the single sunflower field that comprises chapter six - that to suddenly see the whole scope of the island's geography from coast to coast in one relatively rapid around-the-world tour is both remarkably strange and absolutely typical of a Mother game, especially if it's subtly decrying its predecessor for such a well-worn RPG structure.
Chapter eight takes place entirely within New Pork City, the home base of the Pigmask Army and their leader Porky Minch. There's a brief amount of time spent in the streets of this gray city, built entirely to amuse and honor its despotic leader, before you get the big exposition dump from Leder (as told in the first section of this review, regarding the truth behind Tazmily's occupants). After this, you enter Porky Tower with a meeting with the game's true antagonist. At least, that's the idea, but he can't resist putting you through multiple floors of nonsense first. Here's where the game has the most fun messing around with your expectations for what constitutes a sensible dungeon idea. You never find out which floors these events occur on, but in order:
- A concert hall for DCMC's last performance, which Duster/Lucky joins in on for old time's sake.
- An aquatic habitat for "Hippo Launchers": one of the most dangerous chimeras in the game (but completely docile, if you just wanted to walk right past).
- The purple "Fan Room", full of Porky's harem girls. Fortunately, because he has the mind of a child, these attractive women are forced to do little more than fan him with large fronds and hand feed him candy.
- A labyrinth of bathrooms, giving the game ample room for all its best potty humor. You get attacked here by sapient "men's room" signs and the Ultimate Chimera pops up for one more unexpected cameo.
- The empty Magypsy house of Locria, the one guarding the seventh needle (or supposed to be) who the others say betrayed them. There's plenty of evidence lying around to suggest Locria was actually Fassad the whole time.
- An unfinished storey full of workers and gaps in the floor. You have to knock a few of the workers over to create bridges.
- A laboratory floor full of powerful robot enemies and chimeras, and a number of citizens trapped in green canisters.
- A floor where the whole goal is to let a robotic Porky narrowly beat you in a set of mini-games.
- The actual 100th floor, where you must first defeat a powerful pig robot boss followed by a horde of robotic Porkys that explode after taking damage.
The finale of the game takes place underneath the tower, where the final needle can be found. This means defeating a familiar robotic spider version of a greatly aged Porky - who eventually retreats into an "absolute safety capsule" he can never leave - before taking on the masked man, Claus, in a climactic final duel that is like the Giygas fight in EarthBound in that it plays out via a set of unconventional rules: Lucas refuses to attack his twin, so all you can do is guard and pray. Once the end finally comes, and Lucas removes the last needle, the dragon awakes and destroys the entire island, with the game fading to black. (It took a while to realize that the game hadn't quite ended yet...)
The Anagram Twins
Since we're already talking about them, let's address the relationship between Lucas and Claus: two near-identical boys but for their hair color and temperaments. The importance of the bond between the two is not so much the crux of the game but its pivotal bookends: the final boss fight is against a brainwashed Claus, who has undergone an unknown degree of cybernetic change due to the machinations of Porky - the game's true nemesis, and a millennia-old childish troublemaker last seen in the climactic battle of EarthBound - and must be stopped before he can pull the last of the aforementioned mystical acupuncture needle McGuffins. Though Claus's early disappearance is felt most keenly by his father, Flint, who is all but absent after the first act of the game spending his days searching Claus's last known location. Claus's shadow is cast over Lucas's adventures as it becomes apparent fairly quickly - though the game doesn't get explicit about it until the end - that Claus has now become Lucas's antithesis and biggest obstacle in his mission.
There's also some tragic dramatic bookends in the deaths of Hinawa and Claus at the start and end of the game, respectively, and how that factors into Lucas's journey of maturation. Of course, as a silent protagonist with a permanent blank expression (I told you Undertale comparisons were difficult to ignore) you don't get much sense of this bildungsroman in action, which in my view makes it yet another of the game's subversions. For all we can tell, Lucas has been dead inside ever since his mother died and his brother disappeared: we only have the assurance of secondary and tertiary characters that he's developed in any way, shape, or form at all. Lucas follows Ness and Ninten as EarthBound protagonists that represent the all-American kid hero, with a catapult tucked in the back pocket and a twinkle of mischief in his eye, and maybe some formidable psychic powers in their corner. However, even though all three are effectively player ciphers, Lucas has the most relevance to the plot and the most intense emotional arc of everyone in this game if not the trilogy: hence why I recognize him as another subversion. After all, how far you can accept the typical mute, emotionless hero character when they have been through so much anguish and misfortune? Especially when multiple characters remark on how sensitive Lucas is even before the tragedies that befall his childhood. It's as if he spends the whole game shellshocked.
As always, it's the other characters in your party that prove to be the more interesting. Duster is a trainee thief who lacks PSI abilities but makes up for it with a selection of "thief tools" that adequately take their place, especially when there's debuffing to be done. His items allow for four different status effects, plus strength downgrades and defense downgrades, and coupled with his relatively fast speed and strength he makes for a strong melee character able to soften enemies up before moving in for the kill. As a character, Duster is a dimwitted figure of mirth but also of hidden depths and obscure ambition: he disappears at one point only to re-emerge as the amnesiac bassist for the game's jazz ensemble and Runaway Five ersatz, Desperado Crash Mambo Combo (or DCMC), where he realizes a self-made place in the world beyond meekly accepting his thief father's reprimands and insults. That you then have to shake him out of his reverie and have him join you in his old thief guise is both played for comedy and tragedy: DCMC immediately sends him off with a powerful ballad, as the erstwhile Lucky the Bassist symbolically leaves behind his big comedy afro to hit the road with his newly rediscovered friends.
Kumatora, meanwhile, is a character about whom little is initially apparent. Despite being a princess, she's given a tomboyish inflection to her voice, wears her hair short, has a badass name that is essentially Japanese for "bear-tiger", and her idea of going incognito is dressing and acting like a stereotypical valley girl - one that every guy in the vicinity quickly falls for. There's no denying Kumatora kicks ass, but it takes a while to understand how she got there: she was raised by the Magypsies, the gender-obfuscated magically immortal beings I spoke of earlier (the translation, and possibly the original Japanese script, gets very cagey about their pronouns - switching between one or the other, often depending on the viewpoint character's perception of them), which explains both her own non-binary leanings and how she came to be the party's other major PSI user. Lucas's PSI abilities are almost all buffs and heals, while Kumatora is more of an offensive and debuff type. Though she usually has the least HP and defense of the party, she's frequently the biggest damage-dealer of the group, especially when the enemy has an elemental weakness to exploit.
Finally, of the main group, we have Boney. Boney is Lucas's loyal dog, one far more inclined to action and adventure than the cowardly King of EarthBound (who taps out after that game's prologue chapter), and occupies an unusual and underrated role in combat that takes some time to properly figure out. Boney's canine form means he is prohibited from a lot of equipment that might improve his stats, which usually has him tailing the rest of the party in damage output, defense, and offense. His one advantage is his alacrity: he'll almost always act first, unless the enemy is particularly quick. This makes him well-suited as the party's item-hound, so to speak. When characters take mortal damage, they have precious seconds to rescue themselves with a quick heal: as Boney always goes first, he does the lion share's of the work in keeping people just outside the critical HP range until the PSI members can take over with their more substantial healing abilities. Likewise, he's good to give consumables like bombs and debuff items to throw at enemies as they're likely to take effect first. You can thus strategize around following up these opening salvos with whatever other complementary abilities you might have. A useful item you procure mid-game from a slightly irksome side-quest is the Shield Snatcher: an endlessly reusable item that removes shields that can halve or reflect different types of damage, which many bosses start with. Since Boney will go first, he can remove the shield with the item allowing the rest of the party to wail on the now unprotected foe. Beyond his speed, Boney can also sniff enemies to determine weaknesses: you will often get important information about which status effects and elemental PSI abilities will work best. As a character, Boney's an intelligent if uncomplicated beast who follows Lucas out of his instinctual loyalty but will - like the dog companion from Secret of Evermore - occasionally give in to other doggo instincts, like chasing strange animals or refusing to eat weird food. An extended sequence where he has to pretend to be a human, or "that weird hairy kid that smells like a dog", presents him with a great deal of discomfort especially when he has to walk on his hind legs everywhere.
You also have Flint, the father, and Salsa, the monkey. Neither character has much time as a playable member of the group: Flint really just serves as a tutorial character with nothing but a handful of buffs (rather than PSI abilities, they're manifestations of his innate stubborn manliness) while Salsa, as a tiny monkey, is depicted as a deliberately weak character who wins battles mostly out of guile and force of will. Both interesting characters represented well via game mechanics for the battles in which they appear - Flint's high stats are capable of carrying new players through the first chapter of the game, especially if they rely on his risky but powerful all-out attack skill, and Salsa's relative fragility is tied into the abuse his character suffers and the unexpected help in battle that his abuser provides - but are both purposefully lacking in the versatility of the main four.
I don't believe that Shigesato Itoi makes these games to be this weird on purpose. Rather, the way he makes and writes games is a combination of personal philosophies, what he finds appealing, and what he finds lacking in the games of others. In that regard he's not at all different from other auteurs like Hidetaka Suehiro, Goichi Suda, or Hideo Kojima: they focus on what they think is cool, or original, or makes the most sense to them, and the rest of us have to endeavor to see through their filter of the world and popular culture so we can appreciate where they're coming from. Or don't, and simply enjoy their unusual fiction for whatever we perceive it to be.
I was excited to finally read this translated interview Itoi had with a Japanese gaming magazine shortly after the launch of Mother 3. He talks candidly about the game's production troubles - it was originally slated for the Nintendo 64, and in-progress development screenshots of a 3D Mother 3 are plenteous - and his choices for various sequences in the game, suggesting that Osohe Castle was a relic stuck in time, how Hinawa's death becomes more impactful because the player can rename her before they start, suggesting the way characters earn new PSI abilities - which in-game involves a short sequence where those characters "look feverish" and can no longer dash (a convenient means of getting around quickly that can also instantly defeat weaker enemies) until it passes and they acquire the new ability(ies) - is akin to teething or growing pains or puberty (a comparison enhanced further by how both characters with PSI abilities, Kumatora and Lucas, are youths approaching adulthood), and how his fondness for those misunderstood by society or carry ailments - like the androgynous Magypsies or the limping Duster - means they are given chances to be heroic and noble in his games. It's a great interview full of noteworthy observations and attributions that gave me a lot of missing context for the decisions Itoi made: decisions that, ultimately, aren't all that strange or bizarre at all once you understand the authorial intent behind them.
I've evaded the comparisons to Undertale as best as I've been able to, but I think the one thing that Toby Fox and Shigesato Itoi are most in concordance about is the importance of love. Not just love of gaming, but love for your fellow human beings, and how a game is better for reflecting that unconditional compassion and pushing socially progressive mores than paddling around in the usual pool of power fantasies of an ultimate +1 sword or abs you could grate cheese on. Heroes that have emotional or physical dysfunctions that they rise above, and antagonists that you work to befriend and see eye-to-eye with than bash into an early grave - it's why Mother enemies often "become tame" or "surrender" once defeated. For such a cult series, I think there's a deep universal appeal to the Mother games that is easy to overlook with Mr. Saturn spouting "Dakota!" or recurring sub-plots about a snake who pretended to be a rope trying to get his groove back or an errant doorknob that passes from person to person until it eventually falls into the hands of the actual player themselves. I'm happy there continues to be game developers like Toby Fox out there keeping that particular wholesome oddness alive in their own inimitable way, and I'm certainly glad I finally found my way to Mother 3 after a decade of vacillation. Nintendo really needs to think about following the recent Collection of Mana with a Collection of Mother, and sooner rather than later.
Thanks for reading, and give my regards to the next frog you meet.