November 10, 2008
There are severe Mother 3 spoilers, and some EarthBound spoilers, in this post.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s changed between EarthBound and Mother 3. The enemies are just as ridiculous, this time featuring a host of improbable chimeras (Horsantula, Ostrelephant, Cattlesnake). Gift boxes, which again take the place of the traditional treasure chests, sometimes contain fart sounds or short pieces of music instead of items. NPCs still playfully break the fourth wall (“Lucas! Try to imagine a thing called a B button!”) and ridicule RPG conventions (“I’ve only heard the rumors, but are you the ones who stock up on food and then walk around without ever eating it?”). To all appearances Mother 3 has the same freewheeling zaniness as its predecessor.
And yet something has changed: for all its wisecracks and eccentricities, Mother 3 also asks you to take it seriously. From Hinawa’s death in the first chapter it’s clear that there will be a stronger emotional charge here, and while the game is still very funny — and familiar — there is an abiding sadness as well. The distinction did not go unnoticed by Nintendo’s advertisers: the slogan for EarthBound was “This game stinks,” while the slogan for Mother 3 was “Strange, funny, and heartrending.” Japanese actress/singer Kou Shibasaki famously cries in the TV commercials for Mother 3. In many ways, it’s EarthBound grown up.
Yet even with that difference, Mother 3 is stuffed with allusions to EarthBound. Lucas’s mother unceremoniously smashes a talking insect at the beginning of the game, as Pokey’s mother did. There is another NPC who looks like Mr. T. Both games request that you input your name at some point, and then work it into the plot later on. The psychedelia of Tanetane Island’s mushroom trip evokes the disquietude of Moonside and Magicant. Both final battles exist largely outside of the combat system and are not fought so much as they are endured. Even at points where there seemed to be no direct reference, I’d often feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
In the latter part of the game, Mother 3 gives up on subtle allusions and moves to outright homage. A movie theater in New Pork City airs a film about the events of EarthBound, while the lobby sells commemorative bats and frying pans. A room in Thunder Tower is filled with EarthBound objects and a jukebox that plays EarthBound music. Just before the endgame your characters ride a boat through a veritable EarthBound museum.
What’s going on here, exactly? The connecting plot thread is that Ness’s next-door neighbor Pokey, one of the primary antagonists of EarthBound, makes his return as Porky the Pig King — but if these references are merely intended as foreshadowing, then Shigesato Itoi is laying it on thick. There’s something bigger at play, and I don’t think it’s just fan service. There is something curatorial, even reverential, about Mother 3‘s treatment of its predecessor. To be honest, I’m at a loss to explain it.
Perhaps he wanted to link the two worlds to lay the groundwork for larger thematic connections, or to cultivate a sense of continuity in a series with largely discrete stories. Maybe Itoi just didn’t think the game would stand on its own, and invoked the series’ popularity to prop it up. In any case, the separation between the weighty plot and the appropriation of EarthBound‘s legacy of frivolity is what makes Mother 3 one of the great tragicomic video games.
Next: Mother 3’s approaches towards characterization.