Frog #7: Pitch Black + Covered in Soot

Flint stands outside a burning cabin. Lighter’s son, Fuel, is trapped inside, with seconds to go before the entire building collapses and goes up in flames. Flint is the last man in Tazmily who can save the boy’s life.

It’s time to see what this cowboy is made of.

But instead of talking about that, I want to start by talking about the save theme, or the song that plays while loading your file. This song is entrancing to me for some reason. It might be because I woke up extra early this morning to play Mother 3 and take notes, so maybe I was loopier than usual, but I sat at my desk–I mean, my Gameboy Advance–and let the song loop for like three minutes. Honestly, now that I listen to the song again, I’m pretty sure it’s the perfect personification of being groggy and half asleep. It’s like a wind-up toy that can’t decide if it wants to hit the snooze button.

Anyway, I’m not saying the song is a work of art, but hey, in my long-running list of little things I like about Mother 3, the save theme is one of them. Why not appreciate a game that even in its file selection can put a small smile on your face?

Speaking of great songs we haven’t talked about yet, “As You Wish” plays any time the player opens the pause menu. The art of the pause menu song is slowly being lost, as more and more video game menus greet the player with silence and selection chimes, but not in Mother 3! As I write this post, I’m listening to a 30-minute loop of “As You Wish,” and I don’t have any further explication to offer, other than that it makes me want to watch The Princess Bride. I think it’s a good song. It’s relaxing. It feels unique. The background is a little Twin Peaks-y. Every time I have Flint stop in the middle of the forest to eat some nut bread, I pause (ha!) for a moment and listen.

There’s the transition I’ve been looking for: nut bread! Before going to save Fuel, I decide to heal Flint, and because there’s no hot spring in sight, I chow down a few pieces of nut bread as Fuel yells for help out of a top floor window.

Doesn’t he know this is Tazmily? There’s no rush! Or maybe there is–shortly after appearing in the window, Fuel is replaced in the pane by a mysterious blue creature.

The thing has red eyes, so we can assume it’s evil. Also, another detail I have never noticed while playing Chapter 1 is that, when your back is turned, the creature looks out the window and shows itself, but if you turn around and face the window, it disappears.

I like this detail because it’s a little bit funny and a little bit creepy. The creature doesn’t exactly look threatening, at least from here, so the game of forest fire peekaboo feels innocent enough. At the same time, though, appearing and disappearing in the window suggests an uncomfortable amount of autonomy. Thus far, I’ve fought yams and bats–not exactly the highest IQ fighters. I don’t like it’s, like watching me and aware that I’m out there, you know?

Anyway, let’s go save this kid’s life.

The Flying Mouse in the Burning House

If you already thought Flint was cool, you probably saw this coming. If you needed more convincing, then pay attention–Flint knows how to make an entrance.

To get inside the cabin, you have to dash (“Imagine something called a ‘B’ button”) to break the door down. Splinters fly in all directions as Flint bashes his way in. Honestly, this whole sequence in the cabin feels like something from an action movie. I can imagine Flint running into the first room and being totally disoriented by the smoke and flames, while in the background he hears the snapping and groaning of the slow-but-sure collapse of the entire house. I’m going to say this a lot from now on, but here’s the first time: I totally think Mother 3 would work as an animated series.

Even in its simple pixel form, Mother 3 is so consistently and cinematically good at portraying its story, especially the atmosphere and the tone. Which, I guess, is part of what makes the Mother series so fun and unique. It is able to hit tonally serious/intense and tonally bizarre/comedic moments with the same level of success. I think this is why so many people connect with these games so strongly. The Mother series has so much heart.

Wheesh, what a digression. Anyway, speaking of tone:

There’s no music playing in here. Just the crackle of fire.

No turning back now, cowboy.

You’ll also notice the small blue figure flying around, which is the same red-eyed something that espied us earlier through the window. When I look at the screen-cap, I can tell it’s a flying mouse, but, I’ll be honest, sometimes I forget what this enemy is when I replay the game. I’m not saying it is itself forgettable, but just that the actual sprite isn’t very recognizable for me.

When you try to go upstairs, it suddenly attacks you! The Flying Mouse isn’t very intimidating though. I’ve always thought it looked like a rabid Looney Toon.

The background looks like a big piece of cheese.

Now I feel bad for saying that! This is the first time I’ve ever noticed that the Flying Mouse lost its front legs for wings. For some reason I always thought the lower wing was a short leg, but I guess I was just interpreting the sprite incorrectly. The poor little guy can’t even walk normally anymore.

Being the first chimera we encounter in Mother 3 and probably also one of the Pigmasks’ rushed experiments, I guess it’s no surprise the Flying Mouse’s functionality would be all messed up. In its battle sprite, anyway, it doesn’t even look like it can fly properly. The mouse didn’t ask for this existence! And if those wings were taken from some huge fly somewhere, then the fly didn’t ask for it either!

Though, like last post when I mentioned Mother 3’s balance of tragedy and comedy, the Flying Mouse’s battle song, “Back Beat Battle,” does not have a very serious tone, and its battle sound effects are one of the sillier sets in the game. (For anyone who doesn’t know what I mean by battle sound effects, watch this video, but don’t watch it if you want to avoid enemy spoilers). I actually got kind of thrown off in this battle because the song was so difficult to combo. I’m not great at combo hits in the first place, but usually I can string together 7 or 8. It’s just kind of jarring to miss every time I try to hit the stupid thing.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is, I can feel sorry for the Flying Mouse all day, but his battle doesn’t exactly inspire sadness. You do get cheese for defeating it, though!

See what I mean?

Flint is one of the party members who loves cheese, so he’ll gain extra health if he eats it. Contemporary RPGs can boast about any feature they want–all I need is Mother 3′s taste-for-cheese feature, which awards certain characters 60 hit points (people who love cheese), some with 40 hit points (they don’t like cheese) and some with 20 hit points (they hate cheese). You can learn a lot about someone based on their relationship with cheese, after all.

After defeating the Flying Mouse, Flint heads upstairs, but before moving on, I wanted to add one more thing about Mother 3’s first chimera. I love this enemy because it adds an additional chaotic element to the already-chaotic scenario. Flint just defended Thomas and Lighter from a trio of Fireflies, and the burning cabin alone is dangerous enough by itself to motivate the player to save Fuel. Adding another enemy (not a full boss fight, just an enemy) is such a good decision, especially an enemy we haven’t seen anything else like yet. To me, it feels like just one more problem for our protagonist to deal with. Oh, Fuel is trapped on the top floor? And there’s a weird, flying blue mouse blocking the way? It makes me feel like every second counts, which is an important feeling to establish in a turn-based RPG, when sometimes the pacing and the tension are the first thing to wane in a series of battles.

The cabin looks even more grim upstairs. There’s a large wooden structure on the floor, fallen from above, that you also have to dash through. I can’t think of many other times in Mother 3 that you have to dash through things. I’ve always felt like the team might have had more interactive set pieces planned for the game, but ended up scrapping them. My only real reason for thinking this is that the beginning of the game features dash a few times to (kind of arbitrarily) pass obstacles, which could have been a way to condition players into viewing environments as interactive puzzles. I don’t have much more evidence other than that, and the EarthBound 64 trailer.

The EarthBound 64 trailer seems both more cinematic and more diverse in approaches to gameplay than the final GBA product of Mother 3. While talking with Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto about the cancellation of EarthBound 64, Itoi does mention that, after seeing the potential of the Nintendo 64 with Super Mario 64, he wanted something “like that” for his game, which I’ve always taken to mean more complex movement and more complex gameplay scenarios. As we’ve explored already on Frog by Frog, we know Itoi had big ideas for EarthBound 64, so I can understand why he would want a diverse set of gameplay scenarios to accompany the world of the game, which he hoped to be dynamic and immersive (and probably, as I thought above, cinematic). As we can see from the mine cart scene and the scene where Flint is driving around some kind of vehicle, there’s more going on gameplay-wise than walking around in the GBA Mother 3 and occasionally breaking something with a dash.

Anyway, this is turning in to a digression that’s full of conjectures–I have no idea what Itoi specifically had in mind for EarthBound 64, just as I have no idea if the development team of Mother 3 planted these obstacles to condition the player to interact more with the environment. I’d also like to brush up a bit more on my EarthBound 64 development history before making too many guesses about Itoi’s aims. At the most basic level, it’s at least satisfying to crash through this huge pillar.

So then just in the nick of time (see, there was no rush!) Flint takes Fuel into his care and the two escape from the cabin, just as it collapses behind them.

If you feel like I’m skipping over anything here, I’m not–you pretty much just talk to Fuel then walk out of the cabin. Fuel joins you as your next temporary party member, and I think he’s actually capable of contributing more in a fight than Thomas. In one of my battles, Fuel threw a rock at a Yammonster, which, even though it only did like 3 damage, was enough to be the finishing blow.

Fuel also has some really endearing lines of dialogue. When Fuel and Flint both stand in front of the wreckage, covered head to toe in soot, Fuel says:

Which he follows up with:

I love the relief in this moment, captured perfectly with Fuel’s contagious sense of youth. Fuel’s house has just collapsed behind him, but he understands that he is lucky, and that there is always something to be thankful for. Like we’ve pointed out a few times, Mother 3 balances its tragedies with its levities.

I don’t know what it is, really. I’ve always liked these lines of dialogue. Fuel seems like a cool kid. He’s probably, as I’ve always assumed, a couple years older than Lucas and Claus, maybe supposed to be seen as nearly a teenager. Fuel is, I think, the party member you have for the shortest amount of time in the game. You walk down the stairs, then outside, then back to Tazmily. After that, he’s gone.

However, Fuel’s contribution (though small) to the story interests me more than any chip damage he might provide against a Yammonster. I recently read an older interview with Itoi, about the very first Mother game, where he discusses party members and their roles in the story:

You can also name your entire party in MOTHER at the beginning of the game, and you’ll eventually encounter them in the story. Rather than allowing the player to switch characters freely at any time, the story was written so that switching characters would occur naturally. The parting and joining of party members itself creates a large part of the drama.

The first three chapters of Mother 3 are a perfect example of this idea coming to fruition, two games and over twenty years later. In EarthBound, you gain one party member at a time until the Chosen One and his friends are assembled. In Mother, there is a mixture of temporary and permanent party members, with some leaving and returning. In Mother 3, characters come and go, disappear and reappear, lend a hand, then take a break. Off the top of my head, I think Chapter 1 involves six temporary party members, which fits really well thematically.

Think of it this way: how many video games have you played where, for no real reason story-wise, NPCs are useless? Maybe it’s your AI-controlled squad in a First Person Shooter, or the notorious green units from the Fire Emblem series, who often throw themselves into Death’s waiting arms for seemingly no reason. Obviously games are made to be played by people, so all the fun would be lost in The Legend of Zelda if the knights of Hyrule defeated Ganondorf before you got to him, or something like that, or if your rival in Pokemon Red/Blue remained the true champion at the end. But I love how Itoi re-imagines the trope of the lonely hero in a video game. In the first chapter of Mother 3, other villagers have tried and failed to help out. Bronson, Lighter, Thomas, even little Fuel himself–all of these characters communicate to the player what type of place Tazmily is: a village where people help each other.

This is not an RPG where your main characters sets off on a quest because someone tells them they’re the only person who can do it. Thomas came knocking on Flint’s door because the rest of the town had already sprung into action, and they were going to need Flint’s help, too. This is an RPG where we get to see other characters try and fail to accomplish the same tasks that the players themselves get to solve. By the time Chapter 4 rolls around, it makes sense that Lucas has to assemble his own party of heroes, that people no longer join him to lend a hand, even briefly. At that point in the story, no one from Tazmily really gives a shit anymore.

Even characters like Abbey sustain minor injuries from trying to help out, which isn’t to mention that we don’t even know Lighter’s fate yet. Did he and Thomas make it out alive? What about Hinawa and the kids? Flint’s party members come and go in Chapter 1 because it’s part of the drama–in a way, you’re playing as Flint and small pieces of Tazmily. If Thomas had sent Flint out alone, and not a single other NPC has been encountered, there’d be very little drama, or at least a much weaker sense of setting.

Anyway, I can’t wait to talk about this idea more throughout the rest of Chapter 1, and especially in Chapter 3, which features the game’s most unique party combination. It’s so cool to me how in-tune Itoi’s mind was to storytelling in video games even back in the 80s, when, like he mentions, many studios seemed to just want to do more–10 party members, 50 levels, etc. Honestly, you could take the above quote, put it in a Mother 3 interview, and never guess it was something he actually said thirty years ago.

The last thing I’ll say about this for now is that, even though party members like Thomas and Fuel can’t be controlled in battle, I like that they still follow behind your main character like normal party members do. If Thomas hadn’t accompanied Flint visually, we’d lose that Tazmilian sense of community. If Fuel didn’t accompany Flint, we might think, “Wait, did Fuel just run through the rest of the forest by himself? There are little fires everywhere!”

Yeah, it’s a fantasy world where mice can fly, but Itoi still preserves his verisimilitude–his realness. And I like that. It’s also nice to not walk around alone.

Anyway, let’s get Fuel home. Out of anyone so far, he’s had it the worst, or at least what nearly was the worst. The last thing Tazmily needs is for someone’s kids to get wrapped up in all this craziness.

Gentle Rain

Leaving the cabin, or should I say, the pile of rubble, isn’t exactly comforting, seeing as we have to go back through the gauntlet of Yammonsters, but there’s nothing left here for Fuel, for Flint, for anyone. If you’ve ever wanted to move into a forest and pull a Thoreau, just remember that a science fiction pig army can attack at any time. Maybe Lighter and Fuel have some extended family members they could stay with in the meantime, like Butane and Tinder, or Match and Spark. Either way, it’ll be a while before anyone is living in that cabin again, but I’m sure the loyal, friendly people of Tazmily will have it rebuilt in no time.

Although, the trip back is pretty easy. Like I mentioned before, Fuel can actually contribute in combat sometimes, not that it’s really necessary with the Yammonsters, and, with Lighter’s Lumber equipped, Flint can swing his way through pretty easily. The most notable thing here is that, if you go into the hot spring with Fuel (I know that sounds sketchy, but you’d take a hot spring bath, if you could, if you had just lost your house) all of the soot, except that on Flint’s and Fuel’s faces, will wash away.

Ha! I’ve always thought that is just hilarious. And again, this is something you can only do once, with a temporary party member. Some players might not even have Fuel in their party for more than two minutes, yet there is something memorable you can do, only at this part of the game, with him. That’s cool to me! In a similar vein, I always remember Porky’s younger brother, Picky, from EarthBound, because while the craven Porky does not help out in battles while being a temporary party member, Picky, sometimes, does.

I also like how Flint saves someone else’s son while his own children are still out there. It’s cool to see Flint walking and Fuel following behind him–Flint’s a good guy! He really is a hero.

Then, finally, we are free from the forest! To think it loomed over us for so long! I’m happy to be out of it (for now!). Matt, Abbey, and Abbott can be found waiting around the forest’s interest, which I think is the first time we see that Matt may be the Tazmily town drunk. He calls Flint “Mr. Pitch Black Guy” and hiccups a few times.

But hey, I’m not here to judge. Matt was out there helping with everyone else. Maybe he needed a little liquid courage before running into the Sunshine Forest.

Then, there’s Abbey and Abbott, who claim to have seen the Flying Mouse, which even attacked Abbey. Something that always cracks me up is how, after Abbott describes what he thinks the mouse looked, “Abbey here was attacked by some bizarre flying mouse thing with bug wings,” Abbey says:

These two are such sweethearts! Maybe they really weren’t trying to be tutorial NPCs a few posts ago when Abbey insisted she was helping us find the forest out of the kindness of her heart. And, while it’s much more prevalent in the upcoming scene, I enjoy how none of the Tazmilians are one-and-done characters. Even in small moments of dialogue like this, Itoi builds each individual character and gives them something to talk about. Abbey sustained an injury! That’s notable! It’s also Abbot and Abbey who first discuss the emergence of the chimeras.

Matt stares in drunken disbelief.

Stuff like this is important to me as a player. It makes me feel like I’m reading a novel, where even the most minor characters have some sort of role to play. Here, I’m thinking again of Itoi’s rejection of tropes, and how villagers in the RPGs of the late 80s and early 90s often just talked about problems, like a dragon up in the moments, or a crystal having lost its energy. Like earlier, when I said that, in a way, we’re playing as Flint and as Tazmily, this is one of those moments where I feel a little less alone, even though I’m playing as a lonesome-looking cowboy.

Speaking of every character having a role to play, the following scene is an amazing example of character and setting development. Flint and Fuel find Thomas a bit farther up the road, and he explains that he and Lighter made it out safely. Well, he says it a bit more pompously than that, but I think he deserves this one! Getting Lighter all the way back to safety, especially when he was incapacitated, is just as difficult as anything Flint accomplished with Fuel, or at least pretty close! So bravo, Thomas. You’ve earned it.

Then, Fuel and Lighter are reunited, as various Tazmilians congregate around Lighter and discuss the events that have transpired.

Man, I just love this scene. The dialogue between the characters feels so natural, like they’ve all known each other for years, like they’re all neighbors. You’ve got Bud and Lou (who work for Lighter) remarking on how their boss rarely thanks anyone, yet he thanks Flint straight away. You’ve got Lighter joking that he doesn’t want to show his not-so-tough side. You’ve got Ed giving us a small piece of exposition and background with this detail:

And I haven’t even mentioned the song! I’m so sorry! “Gentle Rain” begins to play as soon as Lighter is revealed on the table, and even though Mother 3 doesn’t have voice-acting, somehow I can hear Fuel yell, “Daaad!” every time I see this scene. Honestly, somehow I can “hear” everyone talking (I swear I’m not crazy) in this scene. Every line of dialogue feels so natural. The scene itself feels earned, especially after the Sunshine Forest sequence, where the ground was colored red, where there was fire all over the place, where we just saw someone’s home collapse… this scene comes in at just the right time. We finally have a breather. Everyone is going to be okay.

And of course: right as Bronson says:

It starts to rain.

I think another thing that makes this scene, and this chapter, so successful is that all of the player’s efforts are rewarded with such tangible outcomes. I know I make fun of older RPGs a lot, but I really do enjoy them. Still, it’s nice for the stakes to not always be saving the entire world, or killing some huge monster, at least from the get-go. Mother 3 definitely builds to a plot of that level eventually, and I’ll talk about that more as we go, but I can’t say enough how great it feels to have entered the forest to save Lighter and Fuel, and to now see Lighter and Fuel saved.

You know, even if Itoi didn’t fully accomplish his aim for having a living, changing city (which Miyamoto compared to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask), Tazmily feels real enough to me. We get to meet and interact with everyone in some way or another. We get to learn things about each of the NPCs and how they think. Tazmily feels like it’s made up of good people. As Bud later says, in haiku (or high-ku) form:

Helping others out

Being helped out by others

Helping others out

Anyway, letting each character have their own chance to shine is cool, that’s all. Like when Lighter sets his own broken leg back in to place.

Even though this moment is played for humor, I like it, too, as a hopeful sign of Tazmily’s resilience. Bad things might happen to good people, but good people can always bounce back.

Let’s hope Thomas is right, and the rain puts out the fire.

Time to Go Innside

That’s no typo: when the scene changes, we’re suddenly inside the Yado Inn, where a small group of Tazmilians gathers to discuss the night’s events.

Yado, y’know?

Specifically, Thomas, Lighter, Fuel, Flint, Bud, Lou, and a new villager, Tessie, hang out in one of the Yado Inn’s rooms to take everything in. Lighter, a little bit loopy, remarks on how both Fuel and Flint were covered in soot (I like how everyone keeps pointing out the whole “covered in soot” thing). Even though Hinawa and the kids are still out there, and Isaac hasn’t come back from picking mushrooms, the rain, like Tessie points out, came just in time. And Bud’s off spitting haikus, so everything isn’t so bad.

The Yado Inn theme fits so well here. The song is cozy, yet forlorn, like returning home after a rough day, but feeling hopeful that everything might be okay. I’ve always thought it matches Jackie’s character design really well, too. There’s just something that’s both depressing and not depressing at the same time about this track. Perfect for dozing in and out of sleep.

I think the track is actually making me a little sleepy, especially with the rain outside the windows…

Well, the day is finally winding down. This has been a long night for Tazmily. I decided to walk around the Yado Inn for a little while, where Jackie can be found behind the bar. He promises to help next time something comes up, but I wouldn’t bet on him. I’d rather take Fuel, honestly. Not that I blame Jackie for not wanting to run out into the fire, but let’s stop the pretending, Jackie. Though I also met Jackie’s wife, Betsy, who doesn’t seem to have much faith in him.

Wheesh! Betsy would probably fit right in with the gossiping women. I might have made my crack at Jackie, but I don’t think badly of him. Everyone was a bit of a nervous wreck during the fire! Thomas might have played it off like he was acting like a siren, but I think that he was just freaking out. Plus, the night is still young. There might be time for Jackie to help out.

Oh, then there’s Bob, I guess. Just a guy hanging out and drinking. I have no memory of Bob from previous play-throughs, so we’ll have to see how often he actually shows up. Well, cheers, Bob. Though I didn’t know your name.

If you get that joke, email me to get on the super secret frog email list, with a MOTHER 1 weekly update.

I think that’s about it for now, friends. Even though I was directed to the last room on the right, I peeked inside the middle room and found the frog of the day. I wanted to check and see whether you could leave the Inn without going to take a rest, or if you have to lay down to advance to the next part of the game. I know, I know–a very exciting experiment!. Seeing whether or not I can leave the inn!

But I’ll have to save it for next time. Or maybe I won’t run the experiment. Flint really could use some rest. I feel like Itoi might say, “Flint has just been through so much! Let him sleep!”

The poor guy carries a whole village on his shoulders.

4 thoughts on “Frog #7: Pitch Black + Covered in Soot

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