With literature, art, or nearly any other form of creative work, what you get out is often proportional to what you bring in to it. Take good writing, for example - first of all, there's a certain competency level in reading comprehension that you have to attain, which comes only through long hours of practice. Then, the author may make a broad range of allusions which will not be understood without a comprehensive education in history, social and political theory, the sciences, economics, and so on. Without these things in place before you come to the work, it might appear to you to just be so much jibberish, incomprehensible. In a way, having a high literacy level in an art is kind of like being able to read magical runes; you are able to "de-code" messages left for you by someone with a similar level of knowledge, messages that not everyone is able to see. Oftentimes, the key to understanding the "code" of an artistic work lies in understanding the creator - what their influences were, what their life was like, what their politics and their ideals are, and what kind of a situation they were in when they brought each particular creation to life.
Thus far, console video gaming has not been a world of artists, so this level of understanding has been completely unnecessary nearly all of the time. Consoles are proprietary devices, toys really, and unlike computers are almost wholly beyond the active, creative control of the end user. The dynamics of economics have ruled console gaming from inception to present; thus they focus on visceral thrills, simple child-like fantasy-play and repetitive patterns of base emotional gratification, very rarely venturing beyond these dynamics because the profit-minded companies producing them do not want to risk economic failure.
Shigesato Itoi's Mother series has been a rare exception to this dynamic in the console world - at least in Japan. The first game was a fairly stock Dragon Quest clone for the NES, but set in a modern-style world and having several new developments for console RPGs such as a contiguous world map that spans the whole game without interruption. Dragon Quest is about the biggest thing going in the history of Japanese gaming, so a solid clone with a unique theme and gameplay elements was virtually guaranteed popular success there. This led to the creation of Mother 2, better known to Western gamers as Earthbound; a highly quirky and satirical take on the established console RPG formula rife with humor that was very culturally Japanese in style. Nintendo canned the stateside release of Mother due to the NES being at the end of it's sales life at the time, but decided to give Earthbound a shot, even going so far as to hype the game heavily in Nintendo Power and give it an elaborate (and expensive) packaging full of extras like scratch-n-sniff cards. It was more or less a dud, at least in terms of the advertising effort expended on it; so, despite the gathering of a large and organized fanbase in the West, and despite tremendous sales performance in Japan, when Mother 3 finally saw the light of day in 2006, Nintendo quickly announced they had no intentions of localizing it in English.
The thing that is different about the Mother games, in terms of the console world, is that Itoi seems to have a tremendous amount of latitude to be experimental, indulgent and even personal with his games, considering that they are being published by one of the biggest game companies in the world. You can probably chalk a lot of this up to his celebrity status in Japan, where he has become some sort of a pop-philosopher rock star, and the rest of it comes from establishing a solid sales base with the more conservative and clone-alicious first Mother game. Itoi's Mother series is not free of commercialization, nor was it not untouched by the commercial pressures and hurried deadlines of the console game development business, but it is *a lot closer* to something that could be considered "art" than 99% of the rest of console gaming. I'm not ready to say it actually is "art", but if you were trying to make that case, I would cite both Earthbound and Mother 3 while doing it.
I don't know how much anyone is really going to be concerned about all that, except for people who are already established fans of the game (and thus probably have already completed Mother 3 and are just cruising around to see what everyone else thinks about it). I think it is an important thing to understand in evaluating the game, however, because this particular game especially does not spoon-feed everything to you, and will rely on you bringing some context to it to get the full value out of it that you can.
To get down to this tiresome "reviewing" business, however - there are really only two questions to be answered, from two different groups of people, and one of those groups likely has already plunged in and tried the game for themselves at this point, thanks to the release about a week ago of Tomato's fab fan-made English translation patch. That group, of course, would be the established Earthbound fans who just want to know if this game lives up to their expectations. The other group - now probably of a considerable size thanks to the new Super Smash Brothers game - are either newbs to the series, or those who were very quickly put off by Earthbound's quirkiness and tone, and simply want to know if this is something they will enjoy. I'll spend most of the rest of this addressing the latter group.
The short answer - Mother 3 is a more polished, more "traditional" RPG that I really can't see anyone who likes old-school pixelicious RPGs not enjoying. It eases up on the quirk and the Japanese humor (though there's still plenty of that, though it seems to be less random on the whole this time), makes the battle system a little smoother and more interesting, has vastly improved graphics, a killer soundtrack, and a story with decided plot and character development that incorporates a darker and more tragic tone and gives the player more impetus to proceed than "what goofy shit will happen in the next town?" Not all of this may please all of those looking for Earthbound 2 : Electric Boogaloo, but there is no way to deny that this is a top-flight RPG, one of the best of the genre really, and very much worth playing.
This game was about ten years or so in gestation, as it was originally developed and planned out as a Nintendo 64 title, only to later be canned. Most of the assets seen in the Nintendo 64 pre-release materials have been kept for this one, indicating that (at least plot-wise) it isn't much different from what we were originally supposed to see in 3D almost a decade ago.
I make a cameo in the game, apparently
The story, initially, appears to have little connection to the events of Earthbound. It centers around Tazmily Village, a co-operative and idyllic little hamlet on an island that is further isolated by being ringed with mountains. Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to talk about the story without spoiling it, as even the first 30 minutes or so of the game is loaded with some rather shocking plot turns. The quest, however, will see Lucas, his father Flint, his dog Boney, and a number of other allies contending against the Pigmask Army, a strange and technologically advanced force that comes seemingly out of nowhere and starts imposing itself upon Tazmily. Also involved is a mysterious merchant named Fassad, who also appears from nowhere and introduces the concept of a money economy to the village.
The game is divided up into eight "chapters", which vary greatly in length. The system is a bit similar to Dragon Quest IV, where each of the opening chapters has you controlling a different main character and playing out a portion of different coinciding stories, bringing everyone back together in the later chapters as an ensemble cast. The tone of the first and last chapters is surprisingly dark and serious for those accustomed to the style of Earthbound, but the middle chapters - the vast bulk of the game - is for the most part a silly and lighthearted romp, yet it does develop a definite narrative. Characters are somewhat better fleshed out than they are in Earthbound, but this really applies more to supporting characters and villains than it does to most of the characters that you control.
The graphics are really where the game has leapt forward from it's predecessor. Earthbound featured a distinctive, simple style with many sprites looking like they were scrawled by children. It was totally appropriate given the theme of the game and even added to it, but also made it easy to dismiss on a superficial level as "ugly" or "below standards for the time". This one retains enough of the feel and the flavor of Earthbound to make it feel totally cohesive, yet both the art and animation have improved in quality tremendously. The backgrounds are just gorgeous. Characters are larger now, with a much greater range of animations. Every enemy in the game has both an overworld and a battle sprite, complete with unique animations, in the style of Chrono Trigger (though this game is even more detailed than Trig is on that count). The only thing that doesn't really look much different is the battle graphics - same static sprites, though the enemies are less goofy, larger and generally more dangerous-looking than they were in Earthbound.
Powered by Mudkips?
The battle system plays just about as similar as it looks, but there is one new feature that makes it less tedious than before. There is now a "combo system" whereby regular attacks can be extended to up to 16 hits by tapping along to the time signature of the music. Well, generally speaking, it's the time signature - but the game likes to throw you twists, like sudden beat breaks and shifts in tempo, particularly in boss battles. Personally, being a fan of rhythm games like Parappa and whatnot, I really enjoyed this addition, and it's something I would like to see other RPGs rip off and expand upon. It seems to be one of the bigger bones of contention in the game, though; a lot of people just don't seem to be able to get the timing. It isn't always intuitive, and is challenging, but as of the second chapter of the game you can "practice" in a sense by putting enemies to sleep and hearing a "heartbeat" that enunciates the beats you need to tap on for each song.
Special mention is deserved for the soundtrack. Composer Shogo Sakai has been around the video game scene for a long time, but has more or less languished in obscurity, seeing as most of his projects have been dud games like Renegade. I really hope he won awards in Japan for his score here, because I do believe that Mother 3 has the best musical soundtrack of any game ever made, sheerly from a technical and workload perspective. Let me clarify that - I'm not saying it's the best music ever heard in a game, nor is it even my personal favorite (there are still Mitsuda soundtracks that are unshakable in that regard). However, given that the game has an incredible 250 songs in total, and given that just about all of those songs are very creative, pleasant and high-quality, and that they hew so perfectly to the traditions and the expected mood of the game (and with such high expectations given Mother's large and rabid fanbase), I think it's the single best *effort* ever seen in video game music composition, period. I think it's regrettable that this composer hasn't had such meaty projects to work on throughout his career, because he'd be up there with Uematsu and all of them if he did, I am sure. Anyway, he's definitely on my Watch List for the future, and over half of this soundtrack is on my mp3 player.
This is an incredible game. I wish I could delve more into the plot and narrative structure, but there's no way to do that without being spoileriffic, so I'd just ask that you consider the long-winded paragraphs I opened this with when coming to this game. Even if you don't hook into the "art" aspect, sheerly as a video game and an RPG, it is highly satisfying in its own right.
* English translation patch
* Full soundtrack at Starmen.net (.OGG files)
* Long Itoi interview on the game (warning - spoils damn near everything)
* Gameplay Video (untranslated)