Mother 2 (released in America as Earthbound) and Mother 3 (released in America as… uh… well, not released in America at all) are two critically acclaimed RPGs from the mind of Japanese mega-star Shigesato Itoi. The original Mother is a Japanese exclusive game that came VERY close to receiving an American localization, but for various reasons that didn’t happen. The story of this trilogy’s development and the fight for their localization is really interesting and ultimately pretty sad, I definitely recommend you read about it or watch a video explaining the situation next time you’re bored.
While the original Mother (named after the John Lennon song of the same name) has its fans, Earthbound and Mother 3 are seen as masterpieces for different reasons. They were released 12 years apart but still look and play very similarly, which isn’t a bad thing at all if you ask me. Despite that, they tell two very different stories with radically different themes and goals. Which one is superior? Well, let’s put them to the test! I can’t give you an objective answer, but I’ll be comparing them in every category I can think of and giving you my two cents on which game pulls what off better.
To start with, the gameplay! They’re both very simplistic RPGs with just about identical mechanics. Mother 3’s, however, are almost objectively more refined. In terms of overworld exploration, Earthbound does nothing really intuitive. You walk around and eventually get a bicycle… That you can only use in one town. Smh. There are also a lot of weird areas where you’ll get caught on trees or buildings or it isn’t clear where you can or can’t walk. It’s not a huge hassle but it happens often enough to at least stick out in my memory. Navigating Mother 3’s overworld is much more convenient for a few reasons. First, it offers a really cool addition in the form of a dash button; you hold it down, release it, and all of your party members start charging forward at high speed until they crash into something. Not only does this make travel quicker and more convenient, but it has some cool gameplay functions too! There are points where you’ll have to charge into a door to break it down or into someone to knock them over. It’s not a huge deal but it’s cute and practical. Also, partially due to the setting being much more open in most places compared to Earthbound’s many towns and cities, there’s a lot less awkwardly getting caught on buildings!
In terms of battle, Mother 3 also introduces the concept of rhythmic button presses to extend the number of attacks and by extension amount of damage you can do in one turn, similar to the action commands in various Mario RPGs, the difference being that you can keep hitting the button up to 16 times and your button presses must be timed to the background music. It makes it more difficult to get that extra damage, but more engaging and fun! You also have the option to practice against any unique enemy in the game after facing them once to help get down the rhythm you need to attack against them in, which is much appreciated. But don’t worry; even if your sense of rhythm is practically non-existent, the game is still 100% playable and beatable without these extra chain attacks. A very fun and challenging addition but completely optional.
There is one area that Earthbound does a bit better in though, if only because of one mechanic; leveling up/grinding. In Earthbound, if you encounter an enemy way below your level, the fight ends instantly with a satisfying “squish” noise and you’re rewarded with a little bit of experience. Not only does this speed up grinding, but it also brings a satisfying feeling to the player! It gives you a sense of progression, it makes you feel like your party has truly grown stronger! In Mother 3 this mechanic is radically changed, basically removed. The closest thing is a feature where, if you’re dashing and you run into a particularly weak enemy, you’ll knock them aside. It’s still kind of neat, but you aren’t rewarded with any experience. It’s not as satisfying or useful if you don’t get anything for it, even if it is a minuscule amount. Overall it doesn’t feel like a huge omission while you’re playing, but in hindsight it’s one of Earthbound’s most clever mechanics and it’s pretty lame it didn’t come back.
I think the settings in Earthbound and Mother 3 both accomplish exactly what they’re meant to. Earthbound’s Eagleland is meant to parody America and it feels like it when you’re traveling. Even though in reality you explore just a handful of towns, traveling between them feels like a big deal since you usually see the highways between them. The other locations like Winters and Dalaam strike a really different tone, and their own atmospheres make it really feel like these are different countries with different cultures. The world of Earthbound feels like a living, breathing place. From when it was released to this day it’s received praise for trying something new; having an RPG in a modern setting is something that even today is extremely rare and unique, and Earthbound pulls it off seamlessly.
Mother 3’s Nowhere Islands on the other hand aren’t meant to be set in the present or satirical of the real world, they’re a unique fantasy setting like many RPGs. That’s not to say they’re generic by any means, but they feel smaller in scale and less like a large, connected world than Earthbound’s setting. The peaceful and simple Tazmily Village’s contrast against the UFOs and strange mechanical animal hybrids is hilarious and very unique (almost disturbing), but I think my problem is that I just don’t look forward to what I’ll see next the way I did with Earthbound. Travel is mostly done underground in one of the flying pig ships or the Saturn table, which is definitely fun and unique in its own right, but I had a lot more fun exploring different cities and traveling between them with Ness than I did with Lucas. Mother 3’s atmosphere is pretty consistent with “here’s a once peaceful and thriving land being changed and corrupted by the influence of technology”, which I definitely dug, but nothing really surprised me or excited me until pretty late into the game. Earthbound’s atmosphere of American culture still feels smarter and more unique to me despite being relatively simple in comparison. Each new location had something new and hilarious or otherwise interesting. And frankly, the weird or outlandish stuff is just more powerful in Earthbound I think; seeing the zombie trope being poked fun at and arriving in Saturn Valley were unexpected and memorable (probably since it was generally more unexpected since it’s got a more realistic setting), whereas in Mother 3 the impact of these same moments was weaker and they felt more like cute little throwaway moments.
I also think the unique visual style of the series just happens to compliment Earthbound more. With a lot of the game being a spoof of American culture, having the whole game look like a goofy Sunday morning comic is fitting and makes sense. That same style looks even better and more polished in Mother 3, but since the theme of Lucas’s journey is so radically different from Ness’s, it simply doesn’t make the same impression on me. There’s no real connection between Lucas’s story of seeing his hometown being corrupted by aliens and the artstyle. It looks great, but Earthbound simply gets more out of it. I could say the same for the soundtrack; both games have some absolutely phenomenal compositions, but Earthbound is full of all kinds of subtle but recognizable nods to American music that make the game feel like the parallel to American culture that it’s trying to be.
As far as characters go, it’s tough comparing them I think. Earthbound emphasizes your playable party (Paula, Jeff, Poo) about as far as it can. It does an outstanding job making you care about everyone and gives you a really good understanding of their background. You get to rescue Paula, explore her hometown, meet her family, and eventually see her become something of a love interest to Ness. You get to see Poo’s life as prince of Dalaam and experience his rigorous training duty firsthand. And in particular I really, really loved the time I spent meeting Jeff. Playing as him by himself in his home country really gives you a good insight into his life. He lives by himself at a boarding school with his friend Tony and generally seems to live a really lonely and unremarkable life until he’s summoned by Paula. In the very brief time you play as Jeff you actually get to meet his father, brilliant inventor Dr. Andonuts, and get to experience the two of them meeting for the first time Jeff can remember. Through the rest of the game you get to see their strained relationship firsthand and eventually see it resolve itself at the game’s ending. Jeff is probably the character whose journey I enjoyed the most. Your party’s unique combat mechanics also helps make them that much more characterized. Paula’s prayer ability, Jeff’s various inventions, and Poo’s crazy ability to transform into opponents and eventually unleash the hellfire of PK Starstorm are all really cool and memorable abilities.
The lead protagonist Ness is perhaps a little bit less characterized than his friends, but mostly serves as an avatar to the player. You’re experiencing this boy leaving home, making friends, seeing all kinds of insane and often horrifying events, and eventually conquering his fears and saving everyone. Specific moments like the coffee sequence in Saturn Valley really drill it into your head that Ness has come a very long way. You’re experiencing a boy maturing into a young man, and by the end of the game I found myself really attached to him.
With Mother 3 on the other hand, your party (Kumatora, Duster, Boney) isn’t up played quite as much. Given that they’re all from the same place, you don’t get the same feeling of exploring the world and meeting these really unique characters for the first time. Kumatora is a pretty generic tomboy character without much of a backstory, and as adorable as Boney is, it’s not like he offers much to the plot. I’d say the exception is Duster, his life is pretty interesting and you get a good look into it. You get to see his journey to become a better thief and make his father proud pretty deeply in Chapter 2. His distinct limp and rough appearance also make him really endearing. To quote Mr. Itoi himself, “I figure that because there are handicapped people in our world, it would also be part of the world of Mother 3. After all, there’s no way that any two people have the same physique or even the same personality. Just like with the Magypsies, I included Duster so we could have someone with bad breath, a disabled leg, and living as a thief. The Mother 3 world is all about having friends like them. Perhaps you could call them symbols of not rejecting such people.” And like Earthbound, these characters’ unique mechanics contribute to making them more characterized and generally more useful. You definitely get some good use out of Duster’s thief tools and Boney’s sniff technique.
Instead of emphasizing the party members, Mother 3 very clearly emphasizes lead protagonist Lucas and his family (brother Claus, father Flint and mother Hinawa). Hinawa is killed early in the game which takes a deep toll on everyone in Lucas’s village. Flint lashes out in anger, Lucas is left traumatized and deeply hurt, and Claus runs away to seek vengeance. Lucas watches the invading Pigmasks transform and modernize his hometown, once a place full of harmony and love (they didn’t even have any currency), into a greedy and generally disgusting place that everyone eventually leaves. There’s also a much bigger emphasis on the villains and their actions in this game; you get to directly see and experience the damage they’re causing Lucas and his friends and family. Seeing Fassad take away Salsa the monkey’s girlfriend and constantly punish him is really difficult to watch and makes him a really disgusting character and great villain. You get to watch Ness grow and mature in his own way, but with Lucas you actually experience personal tragedy through the loss of his mother and the transformation of the place he was born and raised into something he doesn’t even recognize anymore, and things certainly don’t get any easier on him. It’s less about the characters’ individual stories and more about the protagonist and his family’s lives changing as a result of the actions of the antagonist.
Ultimately, Earthbound tells a story about a boy growing up and experiencing the world for what it really is, the good and bad. From the joys of exploring new cultures and making new friends to… well, facing insane cultists and watching his next-door neighbor Pokey transform into a despicable monster. You don’t just come to care for Ness, but his friends and the world around him! With Mother 3, you’re getting a more personal story about Lucas and his family facing loss and tragedy. In some ways it’s more simple and in some ways it’s much darker and more complicated, but I’ll be talking more about that in the spoiler section toward the end. It’s a matter of preference I guess, I like them both about equally, but I can see someone really enjoying one and not enjoying the other as much.
HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD!!
At the end of Earthbound, Ness and his party face Pokey, who’s transformed from Ness’s obnoxious nextdoor neighbor into a destructive and disgusting creature. As a result of some time travel shenanigans he unleashes Giygas, evil in its purest form, and Ness and his friends overcome them with the power of prayer in a slightly cheesy but emotionally intense final boss sequence. You see everyone return home, with Poo going back to his duties as Prince, Jeff going to help his father, and Ness escorting Paula home. At the end of the game you’re shown a series of photographs from your journey that, again, reinforce how far Ness and the player have come together. It’s a very sweet and satisfying ending without any loose ends! …until Pokey’s little brother comes to tell Ness that Pokey is still alive in some time period. Yikes.
Spoilers for Mother 3 are a fair bit more abundant. Mother 3’s invading Pigmask aliens are revealed to be a product of none other than Pokey from Earthbound! Now going by the name Porky (or maybe he was meant to be Porky all along, beats me), his army is responsible for bringing greed and evil to Lucas’s hometown and turning their animals into hostile and silly-looking chimera hybrids. All his time travel has had some pretty gross effects on his body, turning him from a chubby 13 year old into a disgusting old man said to be several thousand years old.
There’s a mysterious and ultra powerful dragon sealed beneath the Nowhere Islands, being kept in sleep by 7 magical needles. If the needles are removed, the dragon awakens! If the needles were pulled by one with a pure heart, the dragon will wash away evil and life will shine brightly. If these needles are pulled by someone evil, however, he would destroy Earth as we know it. The catch is, these needles can only be pulled by someone with the “PK Love” ability, only belonging to two known people; Lucas and the mysterious general of the Pigmask Army known simply as the Masked Man. Of course, Porky’s plan is to use the Masked Man to pull the needles and have the dragon destroy the Earth.
At the end of the game, the powerful and secretive Masked Man is revealed to be Lucas’s brother Claus, who ran away after their mother was killed, kidnapped and brainwashed by Porky and the pigmasks. They race to the final needle and have a heartwrenching one-on-one fight that’s legitimately really hard to play. At the end, Claus removes his mask, remembers his real identity, and kills himself. Lucas pulls the final needle and the world is implied to be restored.
Comparing them, again, is really hard. Earthbound’s ending is very fulfilling and whole, whereas Mother 3’s is much stronger emotionally and more open to the player’s interpretation. I think I actually kind of prefer Earthbound’s for a few reasons, mostly in the fact that the same fulfillment and relief you get at the end of that game was totally possible in Mother 3, but you don’t really get any of it… you’re shown the dragon’s silhouette, you see a black screen with some dialogue that says you saved everyone, and that’s about it. You don’t get to see Lucas and Flint return to their everyday lives, you don’t get to see what comes of Duster or Kumatora, you’re just told “hey, everything worked out, you saved them!” and that’s about it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s satisfying and all, but after going through the emotional turmoil that is the final encounter between Lucas and Claus I guess I was kind of hoping things would work themselves out a little bit more cleanly.
END OF SPOILERS
At the end of the day the games both have a lot of pros and cons over each other. They’re two very different stories told with similar visual styles and gameplay mechanics. Mother 3’s mechanics are a bit more convenient and open-ended whereas Earthbound’s are more satisfying to the player. Their characters and stories are both really well done, with Mother 3’s being more intricate and emotional but Earthbound’s being more personal and involving of the player. I prefer Earthbound’s ending but they’re both really, really good.
Ultimately, I think Earthbound’s atmosphere and setting give it the edge. It’s not a marvel in story telling or anything the way you could say its sequel is, but as with several other aspects of the game, I think it’s generally more satisfying to the player. I have an easier time relating to Ness’s journey of leaving home and growing up than I do with Lucas’s story of overcoming tragedy and watching the world around him be transformed. I made a point earlier about Earthbound’s setting being a satirized America and the game’s visuals and music contributing a lot to the success of that, and I think that’s what pushes it over the edge to me. The fact that this 1990s American satire can feel so complete and manage to coexist with other countries and cultures makes the journey feel so rich and interesting. I probably prefer the story of Lucas and his family to the story of Ness and his friends, but personally, I had a much more satisfying and exciting time exploring the world of Earthbound than the islands of Mother 3. It does a better job bringing together all the elements that make a game memorable and turning them into something fantastic. I love both games dearly, but I think where Mother 3 feels like a deeper and more emotional story, Earthbound simply feels like a more complete and satisfying adventure.