Video game satires are always a tricky enterprise because you inevitably draw the player into the joke. As the sometimes mixed reactions to No More Heroes can demonstrate, there is a higher risk of alienating your audience when that audience is the punchline. As much fun as it can be to mock the genre tropes and quirks of a video game, doing so makes the actual act of play seem petty and foolish.
The predecessor to Mother 3, known as Earthbound in the U.S., has the unique honor of being a fun and engaging satire of JRPGs. Whether it’s using frying pans as weapons or the quirky depiction of American culture, Earthbound struck a balance between making the game silly and still fun to play. The sequel has changed gears a bit by shifting its subject from the JRPG and focusing the satire almost entirely on the player. Like No More Heroes, this is a game where your own reactions and views are being toyed with. Unlike that game, however, this one is willing to do so with both humor and tragedy.
One note about finding this game: it has not yet been released in the United States. You can find a copy of it at several sites, but these will all be in Japanese. A community of fans came together and created a patch for the game which can be found here. A functioning knowledge of how to use DS Flash Cards and apply files to them is going to be necessary to play the game until Nintendo chooses to release the game outside of Japan.
The game resembles Earthbound (or Mother 2 in Japan) in terms of game design. You level up through combat, money is deposited in an account rather than handed over in battle, and the story is linear. Health works on an odometer, so that combat can suddenly become frantic when a blow that will totally drain your health has been struck. You only have a few moments to get the character a health boost before they drop off. Enemies can be seen onscreen as in Chrono Trigger, so there are no random encounters, and depending on what direction you run into them you can ambush them for an extra turn. There is a rhythm game to go along with this along the lines of Super Mario RPG, except it relies on musical instead of visual cues. If you hit A in coordination with the battle music, you’ll score an extra hit up to 16 times. The game lets you totally ignore this should you not be interested, but the difficulty cranks up enough that you’ll have to grind heavily to keep ignoring it.
I was never able to score more than two extra hits but blogger Dan Bruno, who has written on the game extensively, enjoyed the feature and goes in-depth on how the system works. Each character has a set of pre-defined abilities, and certain characters learn new ones by leveling up. The game is broken up into eight chapters and each character you’ll be using is assigned based on the plot rather than by any decision of the player.
The satire carries itself out in the game design by creating a JRPG that you must intentionally ‘game’ or take advantage of in order to win. If you die you go back to a hot spring with all your money and accumulated experience. The best way to get ahead in the game is then to just waltz around blasting away while earning money and experience, respawning fully intact once you’re done. Several dungeons have ways that you can cheat the system as well. For example, in one chapter a character will hand you an item repeatedly so long as you walk on and off screen. The item can be exchanged for Beef Jerky, which heals you. The dungeon you’re in is sufficiently hard enough and the creatures have enough cheap shots that you pretty much have to take advantage of this scenario. Another is placing a hot spring next to several mini-bosses so that you never have to tax yourself. The game design is working to make sure the player is always intrinsically aware of the fact that they’re playing a game. It’s constantly tugging at you to think in terms of items, stats, and grinding through the various dungeons.
There are also numerous quirks in the art and sound. The game still resembles its SNES counterpart, despite the fact that the Game Boy Advance is capable of more advanced graphics. The sounds are also distinctly electronic and beep-like, contrasting the strong musical score the game otherwise provides. Even the items are named in a way that facilitates this experience, such as the ‘Stick’ versus ‘Better Stick’ being distinguished by the increase in damage. This is a game that is trying to get you to think of it as a game.
And yet, in stark contrast to all of this, the plot is pulling with all its might to get you to care about the characters and their fate in this world. It is continually challenging the player to abandon seeing these people as merely tools or objects and to see them as people. This tension is the essence of the narrative itself as the once peaceful world of Nowhere Island is transformed by money and technology. The Pig Mask Army, marked so by their capitalist and greedy nature, introduce their culture to the island with little regard for those who do not approve.
The game comments on this in a myriad of ways: their labs create comical animal hybrids, they shoot lightning at any who don’t conform to their views, and they have no concern for the people they hurt in the process. Among those harmed is the family you get to know through the game’s story. Although there are a myriad of supporting characters, at the game’s core are two brothers and a father coping with the tragic loss of their mother. The father is unable to communicate these emotions, instead sinking into a rage and striking anyone who comes near him. One brother tries to find vengeance, another clings to her memory for several years. These are the people whose lives we are asked to care about while the conflict is the very one the Pig Mask Army is creating for both the game’s world and the player. The temptation to only see the statistical value of things and ignore them as people is what the game design and villains propose. The sad story and characters are what the narrative uses to push us to into seeing beyond this simple view.
One of the first heartbreaking moments in the game is when, while looking for a key character, an NPC arrives to tell us they have good news and bad news. The good news is that we now have a fancy new weapon to use. The bad news is that someone important to us is dead. That’s the kind of joke this satire is making of players and the way they treat people in games. Often light-hearted, often sad, the game yanks on emotional strings to snap you out of the spell of its game design and make you question your own behavior. If Earthbound struck a balance between making the game silly and the player having fun, then Mother 3 strikes a balance between making the game artificial and the player still caring.