The first time I wrote here about Mother 3, I was piping up as a despicable, shallow graphics whore who could only babble on about how great the game’s visuals look. Somehow, though, I’d forgotten just how nice the game actually does look in motion. Guys, it’s been four years, and I am old and senile. Be kind.
Yes, I know, sprites are ancient and dated and all that nonsense, but Mother 3 possesses a sort of vibrant opulence missing from most games these days. Marketing and focus group realities have conspired to crush this sort of visual design in modern games, with only the occasional exception to the rule. You have the rare oddity like Mario & Luigi popping into sight like some bizarre coelacanth darting out of gaming’s fossil record for a quick dash into the sunlight, but by and large developers are only allowed to publish 2D visuals if they’re self-consciously retro. The only way to keep classic styles and formats alive is for designers to kneecap themselves. And hey, that affected retro style definitely works, when it’s used appropriately; but there’s more to 2D visuals than big-chunky pixels (or static hand-drawn portraits, as in most corner-cutting JRPGs). Mother 3 is a beautiful reminder of how much artistry games can possess.
I almost — almost! — regret my decision to use an Afterburnered GBA to play through the game. I say “almost” because, despite the fact that a hacked-in side light for a reflective LCD offers a rather poor visual experience, the original model GBA is awfully comfortable to hold. It’s all chunky and sturdy in a way that current portables lack, what with their devotion to slim lines and clean angles. Pah. Leave that tasteful nonsense to Apple; I like my gaming platforms to be ergonomic.
Even with the dim, uneven lighting of the hacked-up GBA, Mother 3 looks amazing. The combination of beautiful color choices, crisp sprite work, and graceful animation makes for a game that’s absolutely eye-popping. Every scene so far is crammed with detail, but never cluttered. And yet it still looks like a Mother game. EarthBound was a Super NES game designed to look like an NES game, yet still be decidedly 16-bit; Mother 3 is a GBA game designed to mimic the overall aesthetic of EarthBound, yet it’s still decidedly portable. Which is to say, despite the stylistic similarity to its predecessor, it’s smartly crafted to work on smaller, less visible screens: The sprites are smaller to prevent the visuals from feeling cramped, yet the characters and environments are clean and well-defined so that everything is easily visible.
Playing Mother 3 makes me miss beautiful games like this. But that sense of loss is a lie: “Games” never looked like this, only a handful of standout titles. Mother 3 is a false relic from an era that never really existed. It’s more like… the ideal of what we remember games as being. It’s the embodiment of nostalgia, in a sense: Not what we did, but what we remember of that experience. No wonder people always talk about how moving Mother 3’s story is. It assaults your mind through your eyes right from the start with the illusion of fond memories.