2D: Mother’s day, part one (of ??)

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.

17 thoughts on “2D: Mother’s day, part one (of ??)

  1. Uncharacteristically effusive of you, Parish sir. It’s kind of nice; given your typically stern appraisals, it means something.

    This makes me want to go back and try to finish it (I hit a wall fighting a cello (?) and couldn’t muster the will to grind).

  2. I’ve been playing Mother 3 on the Homebrew Channel on my Wii, so I have to ask: is there a way to play the Mother 3 translation on an actual GBA without resorting to buying an illegal flash cart? If not, then I’m curious what the input lag is like for the rhythm-based battles.

  3. I followed Mother 3 through much of its translation process, and I remember being amazed by an early gameplay video Tomato released. It showed off the opening sequence with the forest fire, and the animals actually *looked* like they were running in a panic. Even then, I knew it was unlikely those sprites would ever be used again, and it was impossible not to appreciate the fact somebody cared enough to put such effort into crafting an animation that literally lasted three seconds.

    Then there’s the scene with Flint. You know which one I’m talking about. Er, provided you’ve reached the end of the first act.

  4. I will maintain that 16-bit 2D sprites hold up better as they age than 3D graphics, and that literally has nothing to do with nostalgia.

    Heck. Chrono Trigger still looks far more beautiful today than FFVII does, as one example I’m sure there are more.

  5. @Vilnius: Ditto that (the cello was tough). I phased out ankle-deep into Chapter 6. I need to give it that final push.

    @jrc: So weird: just last night I was marveling at how great Chrono Trigger DS looks on the XL. A Super Metroid port is sorely needed.

    @Jeremy: Thanks for deciding to write about your adventures in the Nowhere Islands. As with Vilnius, you’ve re-kindled a desire to finish the game. Since I’m stuck at work, however, I’ll do the next best thing and fire up the soundtrack.

  6. “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.”

    I…man. I just want to say right here that I want you to come back and reread this passage you wrote when you get to the end of the game, Parish.

  7. Totally agree — when I first popped in the fan translation I was blown away by the graphics. I’m not 100% on the chronology, but I’d say the game anticipated the pixel art trend so popular today (obviously all games have “pixel art,” but Mother has that eboy style).

  8. @Ryan D.: The flash cart itself is not illegal. My advice, if you want to be completely legit about it, would be to obtain the original GBA cart, and then get a cheap GBA flash cart and play the translation there.

  9. Ah, the afterburner. When installed right, the lighting was quite even. Clumsy as I am, I messed up on the clear film part ad got a bubble on the lower corner of the screen. It looked almost as good as the light/screen on the SP, but it had more of a bluish tint I think.

  10. Take that reflective LCD out in the SUN! Direct sunlight makes the colours look fantastic. Playing a GBA or GBA SP (Or GBC for that matter) out on the deck in the summer is one of my favorite things to do. Makes me wish some devices would still use reflective LCD.

  11. Yeah, I’ve already decided that since the original model GBA is already in play, I’m going to tackle the Boktai trilogy next. (And I am digging up the blacklight bulb for nocturnal use.)

  12. I have almost every single GB ever made, and the latest SP version makes my hands hurt after a while even though it has the best screen. Not only that, but the pad sucks big time because it’s too sensitive, and the shoulder buttons cramp my hands too. I have been looking online to find someone who can mod the first generation GBA to use the SP’s screen, but no luck yet. Now THAT would be a perfect version.

  13. @Ryan D: As [Sarge] pointed out, the Flash Cart itself is not illegal and would be perfectly fine to do what he has instructed, otherwise you can always try to reprogram your Mother 3 cartridge. :) I do find it amusing that you have no problem playing Mother 3 on your Wii with Homebrew Channel installed and yet you think that a piece of hardware is “illegal”. Personally the best way I would enjoy Mother 3 is with a flash cart on my Gamecube/Gameboy Player w/ Component Cables. :) But the Wii Homebrew Channel sounds like a decent idea.

  14. Maybe this’s been said before, but does anyone else get a distinct Dragon Quest IV vibe from Mother 3? What I mean, the structuring of discreet Chapters with different characters. I just started Chapter 3 and the fact you even have a ‘merchant’ in your party made me fondly recall DQIV and Torneko.

  15. Regardless of people’s ethical stance on flash cards, is the game unplayable on an emulator?

  16. I played a copy of the fan translation on a 26″ hdtv fullscreened and scaled and it looked absolutely stunning. I love this game.

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