Recently, Mother 3 celebrated its ninth birthday on the 20th of April and, despite prolonged efforts from Mother fans, there are still no indicators of an official release in English anytime soon. It is difficult to understand why the title remains elusive in an era of ‘seemingly impossible’ releases such as Duke Nukem Forever, Final Fantasy Type-0 in the West, and even JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle Chronicles coming out in the Americas. There are the occasional references in games such as Super Smash Bros. Brawl and even Reggie Fils-Amie has turned requests for localization into something of a joke. Why is Mother 3 still a Japanese exclusive after strong sales of Earthbound, known as Mother 2 in Japan, on the Wii U virtual console and the recent overwhelming response at the announcement of the return of Lucas to Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS?
A bit of a history lesson is necessary to understand the multitude of factors that plagued the Mother 3 throughout its development and subsequent release. The game started as a SNES-based RPG that eventually moved development over to the ill-fated Nintendo 64 Disk Drive. It later resurfaced with an intended release of May 2000 on a conventional N64 cartridge. A trailer exists of the game in this form and all seemed fine until not meeting the May 2000 launch window and subsequent cancellation in August of 2000. All was quiet until the commercials for Mother 1 + 2 in 2003 outright mentioned Mother 3 was in development for the Gameboy Advance. The final release of the game in 2006 made it the swansong of the console since Nintendo had shifted its focus primarily to the Nintendo DS handheld. Realistically, a conventional Western release could have happened in 2007, albeit at the risk of potential profitability issues on the effectively retired Gameboy Advance.
The question of profitability may very well be the most rational explanation for the decision to not release the game on its original platform. Localization of text-heavy games such as RPGs require more work than the typical platforming and action adventure titles Nintendo is known for publishing. Earthbound did receive a major push from Nintendo of America in 1995, going to the effort of a special box with the strategy guide included. Unfortunately, the game’s sales were an underwhelming number of roughly 140,000 copies. This came in a different era where RPGs were still a niche market compared to the popular titles of the early 90’s. The damage was done already; Nintendo opted to not release the game in Europe while also branding the Mother series unprofitable in the West.
That didn’t stop the Western Mother fanbase from launching a localization campaign that would make Operation Rainfall blush. Fan groups like Starmen.net have been pressuring Nintendo for over nine years to officially rerelease Earthbound, release the English translation of Mother 1/Earthbound Zero and, of course, for an English release of Mother 3. PK Callin’, the movement to call Nintendo expressing interest in Mother 3, continues to this day in what could only be described as a ‘bombardment‘. The release of Earthbound on the Wii U virtual console in North America and Europe in conjunction with the emulated Gameboy Advance titles on the 3DS and Wii U have intensified efforts to push for a digital release. The ‘retro sprite’ look for games is ‘in’ again thanks to the upsurge in 2D indie titles and a trend of games invoking nostalgia. If there was ever a climate to finally release the game, then this is pretty much the perfect storm of opportunity.
Playing Devil’s Advocate for a moment, might there be some issue within the game itself that is keeping it from international release? The ‘music rights issues’ were put to rest for good when Earthbound re-released unedited from the 1995 release which had already been edited for legal reasons. Mother 3 employs a rhythm-based system for the physical attacks in combat, so getting the music, primarily original compositions and remixes of series music, cleared is a ‘make it or break it’ aspect. As a recent development showed, Nintendo’s stance on the fan translation seems to range from one of indifference to actively keeping word of it spreading. I can’t even discuss emulation of the game or the fan translation’s alteration to the content without running a risk of Nintendo accusing this site of endorsing piracy and criminal activity. Luckily, I have a physical of the game to capture screenshots from.
There are several elements in the game itself that could be potentially responsible for problems. As evidenced by the game Devil World not seeing an American release on the NES and tweaking of content to this day, Nintendo of America still likes to govern questionable morality in many of their releases. In this vein, the infamous ‘Hallucination Mushrooms’ sequence might be the major issue for very apparent drug usage. The significance of the scene in the larger scope of the game makes it difficult to excise entirely or edit without major fundamental changes being made. The context leading to the boss fight with the Barrier Trio would need to be completely changed.
Additionally, there may be problems adapting the game script and themes without butchering major portions of the game’s story. Lucas, the main protagonist, must come to terms with the sudden death of his mother while also grieving for the death of his brother Claus. There’s also the awkward issue of Nazi-like imagery in the Pig Mask Army. Many of the enemies encountered throughout the story are chimera abominations that perfectly reflect the overall dark tone of the game. Whereas Mother 1 and 2 are primarily child-friendly experiences with a few scary moments such as the Gigyas fight, Mother 3 is scary throughout.
The Smash Bros. games have done wonders for helping to expose the Mother series to a new audience. Normally, there wouldn’t be much value to gain from the flavor text of trophies beyond a small indicator of its significance. The absence of representation of Mother 3 media outside of the sprite work and script in the original game makes trophy translations somewhat of an indicator of what a localized version might be like.
Direct translation of elements and names from Mother 3 were employed for these entries. This seems to suggest that, were the game to be officially released in English, most of the major story elements would remain in place. That said, these entries are by no means a guarantee against alteration of the content. Exposure of obscure and even ‘new’ elements in crossover titles can pay off immensely in the long run. Fire Emblem‘s popularity in the West can be traced back directly to the inclusions of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee.
Who knows what the future could hold if Nintendo were to take a gamble on Mother again? The modern landscape has RPGs as a firmly established genre where even quirkier titles like the Persona series and other Atlus releases can thrive amongst the ‘heavy hitters’. For perspective, the Elder Scrolls series went from being considered ‘strictly hardcore’ to one of the most-modded and most beloved games in the last few years. Consider the continued popularity of Persona 4 spinoffs nearly seven years after initial release on the PS2. Even Nintendo’s own Xenoblade Chronicles shattered sales expectations in the Americas to such a degree that a New 3DS port was recently released. Granted, there is no guarantee of Mother 3 in its original form having such an impact. However, is it really worth the perpetual statement of ‘not yet‘?
In closing, Mother 3 is greatest example of an ‘open secret’ in the entirety of the modern video game landscape. If other ‘impossible titles’ can emerge from the void of despair, then why can’t it? Besides, Princess Kumatora is the best ‘Nintendo Princess’ with Princess Daisy as the distant second.