Any sequel to a work that I hold near and dear to my heart prompts simultaneous feelings of joy and dread. For every sequel that's just as good or even better than the original, there's at least twice as many that are total let downs or lack what made the original great. Since Earthbound, aka Mother 2, was such a huge step forward from Mother 1 in terms of gameplay and story, it was hard to know what to expect from its sequel, which ended up taking more than a decade to come out. I had already conceded that there was no way Mother 3 could make the same kind of deep, lasting impact on me that Earthbound did, since that was a once in a lifetime, 'right game at the right time' confluence of events. It speaks volumes for Mother 3, then, that judged on its own merits and against the RPGs of its original Japanese release date era, it's still a wholly unique and satisfying title.
Mother 3 employs a similar narrative structure to Dragon Quest IV, playing out in chapters that feature different characters in each one until the main party is formed and is relatively stable through the last few. The game's story is surprisingly dark and mature, starting off with an unexpected tragedy that plays out with a sophistication and tact completely unknown to most videogames. The surprisingly expressive 2D sprites and animations help a great deal, though it is kind of odd that the enemies in battles aren't animated. But I digress. In Mother 3, you may still ultimately be going on a quest to save the world, which is hardly novel, but as with Earthbound, it's all the places, people, and events that you encounter along the way which make this game so compelling and unique. What's more, the various callbacks and ties to Earthbound thankfully come off as well done treats for fans and not empty, artificially implemented fan service.
Though Mother 3's story and world are nearly flawless, including some final boss battles that are every bit as memorable and artfully done as Earthbound's, the gameplay does seem a bit unbalanced and dated by today's standards. The rhythm based battle system never clicked with me, but it's not necessary to survive. No, my problem with the gameplay is its strict adherence to jRPG norms. In the early chapters of the game, this works against it because of the way the plot is structured. Controlling only one or two party members at a time, there are many surprisingly difficult spots in the game that end up being far more grindy and luck based than they should. In particular, the chapter where you play as Duster going to an abandoned castle to steal something was frustrating, as you have to use items to heal and you're dependent on his not 100% reliable thief tools to incapacitate or debilitate foes. But in general there's an unbalanced feel to the game, particularly in its boss battles, since some of them are neigh impossible until you've leveled up enough to get the right PSI powers. What's more, the eventual main party of Mother 3 also lacks balance, especially in comparison to Earthbound. Only two members can use PSI powers, so their “spellbooks” are huge and unwieldly to navigate. Meanwhile, one of your party members is a dog, who's only use is to see the weaknesses of enemies as well as having a high speed stat. This 'weakness seeing' ability could easily have been another thief tool of Duster's, so the dog ends up feeling like a generic warrior type. Sure, the dog is cute and fun for story purposes, but as a party member in a RPG he's boring
And that sums up my feelings pretty nicely about Mother 3. I really loved the game, but I loved it in spite of my issues with its gameplay. Like Earthbound, the fact that it's an RPG is almost incidental to its uniqueness and artful story. Speaking of, I'd like to give special mention to the very well done translation, which elevates an already excellent game to 'underground classic' status in my book. This is easily the highest quality fan translation I've ever seen and it so perfectly captures the spirit of the game and the series that it's hard to believe it wasn't official. Anyway, Mother 3's gameplay may be frustrating and unbalanced from time to time, but it's one of those videogames, like Silent Hill 2 or Shadow Of The Colossus, where it's easy to forgive or overlook gameplay or control deficiencies because the world and the narrative contained therein is so refreshing, daring, and memorable. Its subtle themes of anti-capitalism and anti-urbanization may be lost on some, but I doubt anyone can make it through the ending and the things that take place between the family members of the main character, and not be genuinely moved.