I can remember it like it was yesterday:
I was 13 years old, playing Mother 3 for the first time. I had just finished Chapter 2, dropped my footage into Windows Movie Maker (making sure it was below the 10:59 mark) and uploaded the video onto YouTube. My goal, not dissimilar to the blog you’re reading now, was to upload a Mother 3 play through, one piece at a time, to the internet. I wanted to make sure as many people as possible knew about the amazing game I was playing. I also wanted to somehow become a YouTube star, but that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
Of course, my videos rarely received over 20 views, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted the footage on there so that could someone, anyone, could stumble upon Flint and Boney fighting their way through the Sunshine Forest. I wanted people to see Duster fighting off wave after wave of zombies. I wanted people to see Wess’s goofy dance, and Kumatora’s PSI abilities. After two incredible chapters of Mother 3, I was sure that the pace wasn’t going to slow down any time soon.
Unfortunately, my older sister booted me off the family computer, so I was not able to continue playing Mother 3 that day. In 2008, Computer Time was prime capital in the average American household, and I happened to be competing with a 17 year old girl, who had a MySpace to attend to. There wasn’t much I could do to defend my time hunkered in front of the Windows XP display, playing Mother 3 with the volume turned low.
But I still wondered all night: what would happen next?
Most Mother 3 players probably find themselves surprised when Chapter 3 begins. The story thus far has staged what could be a team-up between Tazmily’s last-standing heroes: Flint, Boney, Wess, and Kumatora. Instead, the story leaps leagues across the planet, to a desert far, far away. Our protagonist is not Flint, Wess, Kumatora, or any of the Tazmilians we have come to know, but a monkey: Salsa, separated from his girlfriend, and forced to travel the desert with the individual who thus far we have only known as ???. Yes, the suspicious peddler is here, and his name is Fassad.
I called Chapter 2 the black sheep of Mother 3 on occasion, but that title truly belongs to Chapter 3. We’ll have more than enough time to talk about it in the coming weeks, but, love it or hate it, Chapter 3 is a unique ride. In fact, after reading so much about Itoi’s thoughts on RPGs, I think Chapter 3 is a logical fruition of some of his most long-standing experiments with the genre. I know that’s a lofty claim to make, but I’ll do my best to back it up. For now, I’ll say this: since 1989, when Mother released, Itoi has discussed how video games have a unique storytelling potential. In a novel or a movie, you have to make sure certain things are properly explained to the reader or watcher, so that emotional reactions to the story can occur; in other words, if we don’t understand the stakes of the plot, it doesn’t matter what’s happening on-page or on-screen: we won’t care. In a video game, everything happens to the player, so the emotional response is part of the natural gameplay process. Because of this, the gameplay itself must, or at least can, be the primary way that information is fed to the player, instead of lengthy exposition or other communication. If your characters are being attacked, you are being attacked.
If that paragraph devolves into heady ranting and you don’t really get what I mean, then rest assured: I don’t really get what I mean yet, either. But what I will say for now is that Salsa and Fassad’s relationship, specifically how it manifests in battle scenarios, is one of Itoi’s more unique accomplishments in the RPG genre, in my opinion. Although I’m getting far ahead of myself…
So for now, just imagine you’re in the middle of a desert.
And of course, Chapter 3 isn’t only good because of whatever accomplishments Itoi makes in genre exploration. Actually, many players would tell you this is the worst chapter in the game. Chapter 3, as far as I can tell, is where a lot of people stop playing Mother 3, and I think that’s a shame. I mean, I get it: the gameplay takes on a new form. Salsa can’t do much in battle, at least at first when the player is getting used to the little monkey’s capabilities, and there’s one part in the chapter where the player’s pace is deliberately slowed on a delivery mission. In other words, Chapter 3 has a lot of speed bumps, and we don’t get to play as any of the characters we’ve previously met. And yes, we’ve technically met Fassad and Salsa, briefly in Chapter 2, but I don’t think many people expected to play as them, at least right after the plot took the turn it did at the end of the previous chapter.
So where does this leave us? Is Chapter 3 great, or terrible? A blast, or a drag? Well, I guess we’ll find out. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed Chapter 3, even though it is different from the rest of the game. However, playing Frog by Frog made me enjoy Chapter 2 more than I ever have before. I’ll admit that, at times, writing about Chapter 2 was difficult, because Duster isn’t as emotive or complex as Flint, but playing Chapter 2 was always great. I’m hoping that playing Frog by Frog will have a similar effect on Chapter 3. I’d love to fall in love with Salsa’s adventure more than I ever have before. I’d love to find new inspiration from this chapter, and I’m certain that I will.
Well, here we are at another beginning. Great care must be taken at the beginning, so it is said. As I look out my window, the sky is gray. It is cold outside, around 30 degrees. Salsa and I find ourselves in vastly different circumstances. But instead of being here, I’m going to teleport myself to 2008, when my sister finally logged off the computer. I slide into the too-big chair, change my desktop background to something funny, and double click a folder titled “funny pics,” wherein I have hidden my VisualBoyAdvance emulator, so that my parents don’t know I am a fledgling video game pirate (not that they would have known what the emulator was).
The Mother 3 logo fades in to the screen. I select “Load Game” and expect to see myself back in Tazmily. Maybe we’ll be in Wess’s house, planning our next move. Maybe we’ll be on the Drago Plateau, hunting for signs of Claus. Maybe we’ll finally rejoin Lucas, and start the timid boy’s path to being the story’s greatest hero.
But no. Instead, there is sand. As far as the eye can see.
The Monkey’s Collar
If there is anything I’ve learned from crime dramas, it’s that you never want to be out in the middle of the desert. Specifically, you never want to be detained out in the middle of the desert. More specifically, you never want to be detained by Pigmask soldiers in the middle of the desert, with your girlfriend also held captive on their spaceship.
Simply put: you don’t want to be Salsa.
I don’t know how this little monkey found himself in this position, but Salsa is having a bad day. A Pimask Spaceship lands seemingly deep in the desert, as a small battalion of soldiers stand by. Salsa, who is escorted off the ship while his girlfriend is left behind, wears a simple blue collar. I’m not pointing this out because his girlfriend, whose name is perhaps Chips, wears a pink bow of her own, but because I wish I could say this collar was only a decoration. Unfortunately, when ??? shows up, whose name is revealed to be Fassad, we learn that the collar is anything but that.
Yes, the titular Suspicious Peddler shows up from stage right, confirming our suspicions that he was associated with the Pigmasks all along. I mean, it wasn’t impossible to put together, with him purchasing some of Butch’s prized pigs for $50,000, but it’s nice to have the confirmation. We can also be all the more confident now that this dude is most likely a huge jerk, but I’ll give him a chance to speak for himself.
It doesn’t take long for Fassad to show his true personality, however. Right off the bat, he lays down the rules: if Salsa doesn’t follow his every command, then he’ll never see his girlfriend again–actually, not even that, but Salsa’s girlfriend will die by the hands of the Pigmasks.
Now, you might be thinking: what if it’s an empty threat? And hey, it might be. I don’t actually know if Fassad, or the Pigmasks, would kill Salsa and his girlfriend if the poor little monkey refused to comply. I do know, however, that whether death is the consequence or not doesn’t really matter, because Fassad has a much more sinister situation in mind.
Unfortunately for Salsa (get used to that phrase, because I’m going to be saying it a lot), his collar is not just a blue collar, but a remote-controlled device that allows Fassad to electrocute the poor monkey at any time. Jump when Fassad says dance? Shock. Walk when Fassad says run? Shock again. Breathe when Fassad says nothing? Possibility of shock. In fact, the range on the collar, according to Fassad, spans the entire desert, to its very edges, so even if Salsa could escape, Fassad could just hit the button on his remote control over and over until Salsa probably dies or something.
Pretty grim circumstances for our new monkey friend.
And I guess, again, there’s the possibility that Fassad is lying about the range of the collar, but 1) Fassad is part of an army that has spaceships, so I don’t see why a long-ranged shock collar would be impossible, and 2), even if he is lying, the psychological damage is enough. Salsa is going to think twice before running off or trying to escape.
And unfortunately for the player, this means we’re going to have to watch Salsa get shocked. A lot. You can tell that Itoi and his team at least tried to make the electrocution animation cartoonish enough to where it doesn’t always look brutal, but sometimes I think it’s rough watching Salsa get shocked over and over. I know there’s one point of Chapter 3 where Fassad shocks Salsa so many times in a row that I literally have to look away from the screen. It ain’t fun watching Salsa go through what he goes through, and it doesn’t take long for him to gain our sympathies.
Even the animation itself isn’t exactly fun. Yes, Salsa looks like any cartoon animal getting electrocuted; I’m sure we’ve all seen Tom go through worse on Tom and Jerry. Call me too sensitive, but it’s just kind of fucked up in my opinion to see Salsa’s eyes bugging out, legs shaking, and arms involuntarily spurring in random directions at the press of a single button. But again–I’m sure we aren’t supposed to see this as too dark. Or maybe we are. I don’t know!
I know some people have wondered if the abuse against Salsa is also what makes Nintendo reluctant to localize Mother 3, and I could see that being at least one of the reasons. However, Nintendo of America seems okay with Link attacking actual chickens in The Legend of Zelda, so either animal abuse isn’t high on their radar, or the money-making series get away with more than the little guys. Who knows, maybe Nintendo just doesn’t want PETA on their case in addition to any of the other potential pitfalls of localizing Mother 3.
But, for me anyway, it’s tough to see Salsa go through so much pain, and I’m conflicted as to how I feel about his inclusion in the game. See, on one hand, I think Salsa’s chapter is great because it allows us to see the story of Mother 3 through an unexpected angle–the Bad Guys! It’s an unexpected decision that I think pays off, and it’s definitely new for the Mother series. There has never been a perspective shift like this in the games before, unless you count EarthBound’s introduction of Jeff and Poo, and even in their case, it’s not like they’re bad guys or anything. Of eight Mother 3 chapters, I think it’s important that we have at least one like this!
What I wonder about though, is that I think that it’s impossible not to sympathize with Salsa, because he’s a super cute money who is being tortured. I could see someone arguing that, in a way, Salsa is lazy writing, at least in the sense that it’s emotional pandering. Everything Fassad does to Salsa reminds me of what some people have called “Disney Evil,” i.e., the types of villains that, you know, ruin nature or destroy Christmas or take away Love and Beauty from the world. Fassad, in a way, is Disney Evil. And I’m not saying this is a bad thing, nor am I saying that a monkey needs to be deeply characterized. Boney is one of my favorite, if not my favorite, characters in the game, and it’s not like Boney carries around some kind of deep, emotional depth.
I think what ultimately bugs me is that, despite the abuse he endures, Salsa doesn’t contribute that much in the grand scheme of Mother 3. So even though I enjoy him as a character, and sympathize with his plight, he can feel like more of a plot device to show how evil Fassad is than an actual character who has an important role in the story. Yes, Salsa shows up again after Chapter 3, but it’s not for anything substantial, in my opinion. And maybe the monkey wanted to lie low, which is also cool, and maybe his brief inclusion is meant to mirror the Bubble Gum monkey in EarthBound, which, again, is also cool…
I just wonder! That’s all. Is Salsa here to manipulate our emotions, then we all move on? Is Salsa just a plot device to show us how awful Fassad is? I guess I’m fine with it either way.
And to be fair, Salsa, right off the bat, has a lot in common with the rest of Mother 3’s cast. Lucas and Flint’s family has been torn apart; Duster just got washed down a river, out of the story completely and leaving Wess behind; Kumatora didn’t seem to have much family left to begin with. Now, our monkey pal is being separated from the only thing he cared about: his girlfriend. Even worse, Salsa’s poor girlfriend has to watch the entire thing, as her boyfriend is shocked, knocked over by a Pigmask soldier, and laughed at.
That’s another thing you’ll want to get used to: Fassad’s evil laugh. Before you know it, that laugh is going to be a staple of your experience in Mother 3. “Nwehehehehe!” Anytime something evil happens in this game, there’s a chance that that damned laugh isn’t too far behind.
Though to be fair, sometimes the laugh is “Nwahahahaha.”
But back to the family element. Even though I pointed out that Salsa fringes on plot device instead of character, I do like how he thematically connects to the other human characters of the plot. So what if Salsa is just a monkey, just an animal? Why even use just? Animals, wild life, and the natural world are just as much of victims of the Pigmasks as anything else. Salsa’s circumstances remind us that the Pigmask truly rip apart, truly destroy, everything to get what they want. It’s not just human families who suffer losses; animals do too, which, playing Frog by Frog, has actually been easy to forget by now. Just a few days ago in game-time, the Pigmasks ripped apart a family of Dragos, reconstructed and irreparably altered an innocent caribou, and burned a natural habitat (the Sunshine Forest) largely to the ground. Salsa can’t speak or express himself like Boney can through barking, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t share in the emotional drama of the other characters. He is a part of this, too!
Oh man–I didn’t expect myself to do such a quick 180 on my interpretation of Salsa, but here we are. But that’s all the more a reason to be disappointed by how the plot ultimately treats him. Though maybe that’s just Salsa’s fate: we meet him in sad circumstances, and that’s what leaves the strongest impression on us.
One of the sadder parts of the whole exchange is when Fassad commands Salsa to do specific actions by pointing to a direction. If you feel like making Salsa’s life even worse, you can purposely mess up the commands, causing the monkey, of course, to be shocked. If you follow along, however, Fassad will cycle through four different Monkey Moves, which you’ll want to remember later in the chapter. All of this happens, of course, while Salsa is surrounded by armed Pigmask Soldiers, and while Fassad himself laid out his two rules: listen to everything Fassad says, and don’t you dare try to run away. “You and me are buddies,” Fassad says, referring not to the reality of the situation, but to the reality, the Cruel Facade! that Salsa had better be quick to accept.
And that’s that. After being publicly shocked and humiliated, Salsa watches the Pigmasks take his girlfriend away, back into the spaceship and into the sky. One of the soliders kicks Salsa as a goodbye present, which Fassad doesn’t miss as an opportunity to harass Salsa even more. “Hey, you stupid monkey! “You only get to cry when I tell you to!”
Salsa, however, waits a second too long to get moving again, so Fassad shocks him, adding a warning to quit sleeping on the job.
And that’s our introduction to Salsa and Fassad. I apologize that I jumped around a bit instead of describing the action of the scene chronologically, but I promise you still heard all the important parts: two monkeys in a desert, one gets kidnapped by soldiers, the other gets kidnapped by an evil man, the rest is history. Though I do like how, with Flint, we started Chapter 1 as a hero running into a dangerous situation; and, with Duster, we started Chapter 2 and headed straight for a zombie ambush; with Salsa, in Chapter 3, we’re starting off in the pits. We’re starting off with things already as bad as they can be. Writers, pay attention: this is how you start a character off at their lowest point.
Unless you see Fassad as the main character of this chapter, that is. In which case, Salsa is just our bridge to Fassad’s story. I’d say it’s a little bit of both: Fassad will be one of our main characters for the majority of Mother 3, but Chapter 3 still has a story to tell about Salsa as well, and it’s not going to be a smooth ride for the monkey. If the desert didn’t make it clear enough, Salsa is in hell, or at least something resembling it. And Fassad’s actions show us that the Pigmasks are essentially corrupt from top to bottom, at least as far as we can tell. Their foot soldiers wreak havoc in their paths, as they set up and operate the technology that turns animals into chimeras. Their commanders, or whatever Fassad is, don’t mind torturing innocent animals to accomplish tasks–so while Fassad may not be ruining animal life in the same way his soldiers do, he’s still ruining an animal’s life all the same.
Will we learn more about their motives? Will we learn more about Fassad?
Well, like I said in the intro, I think Salsa and Fassad’s dynamic is one of Mother 3’s more unique accomplishments, and I’m excited to discuss it over the coming weeks. To be honest, I think this is going to be the first time that I wrote a frog in a single day, since some time in Chapter 1. Lately, frogs have taken me on average four or five days to write, with one day of proofreading before posting. Chapter 2, as I said, was difficult to write about at times. Even though I enjoyed the environment and the enemies, having the more direct story moments helps to talk about those things. With Chapter 2’s looser approach to storytelling, I often had no tangible event to center my discussion around, so I sometimes felt like I was simply listing observations.
Chapter 3, though, is off to a fun start! And honestly, I think I’m going to play more Mother 3 today, which would also mark the first time that I not only wrote a frog in one day, but also continued playing the game at the same time. What can I say? Salsa has drug me in to the plot! I’m invested! Something about Salsa’s distress has hooked me.
I also really enjoy that I get to walk around a desert. I’ve recently been really into the Dune series, so I’ve been itching for a sandy adventure for quite some time. Show me the Fremen! Where is Muad Dib?!
In frogs news, we actually get to see Itoi’s philosophy in action. Not too far away from Salsa and Fassad, a barrel of water jostles back and forth. Knowing what we know about Fassad, I’m surprised he didn’t walk over to the barrel and spill all of the water into the sand, but luckily he didn’t. Instead, Salsa trots up to the barrel, and carefully places a paw in the water. He scoops up a small paw-full and takes a drink… before realizing there is a frog hanging on the edge!
“Heya,” says the frog. “I saw everything.” The frog meets Salsa eyes and tries to help the monkey calm down. The frog can tell that the monkey is panicked, and the frog knows that if the monkey shows too much of that panic, he’s sure to be shocked again. “I’m sure things will start to go your way someday,” says the frog, noticing that Salsa has started to calm down. “To help that day come… will you save your game now?”
This is a significant frog for us on the Frog by Frog Blog. Do you know why? You should know why!
I’m just kidding. It’s okay if you don’t know why. To me, this is an important frog because it’s one of the first times we’ve seen a frog say and do exactly what Itoi explains in the Nintendo Dream interview. Sure, the dads in Mother and EarthBound might give you words of the encouragement over the phone, but a frog… a frog can really cheer you up. Nothing is really so bad as long as there is a frog around, at least according to Itoi. If you’ve had a bad day, or some bad luck, and a frog tells you everything will be okay, well… things are probably going to be okay.
But Mother 3 hasn’t always felt that way, has it? There have been frogs around when Hinawa died, and when Claus plummeted off the side of the Drago Plateau. There have been frogs around when Claymen crumbled, and when Duster sunk into obscurity. Things seem just as bad as ever, whether there is a frog around or not. Can we really believe that things will be okay, just because there’s a frog nearby?
But when I think about this frog in the barrel, I think he has done all that he can do. Sometimes, when something terrible happens to us, it helps to hear someone say, “Hey, I saw that, and it looked like it sucked. In time, you will feel better again.” And while some people might call that an empty promise, or a lazy response, well, sometimes I think, when you’re in circumstances like Salsa, you take what you can get. And maybe it’s true: if a frog is telling you that things will be okay, maybe they will be. It’s not just that there is only one way up from rock bottom, but that there is always a way out of it. That’s the thing to remember. You’re allowed to move laterally from rock bottom. Maybe you find soft grass bottom, then comfy bed bottom. Both of these are perfectly acceptable pitstops on the way to something better.
I know that what I’ve just painted here is more flimsy optimism than anything else, but as I get older, I start to see that flimsy optimism can keep you alive, and little signs can keep you believing. To me, the magic of the frog encouraging Salsa is that there’s just nothing else here. Who else is Salsa supposed to confide in? Take a breather with? Lean on for emotional support? No one! There is not a thing in this desert that cares about a poor little monkey like Salsa.
But there’s a frog in a barrel, asking him to hang in there. There’s a save frog who has a chance to be Salsa’s friend, for just a moment, because sometimes that’s all we need. And there’s me at a computer, hoping that the frog isn’t lying when he says someday things will get better. Because if I can’t believe a save frog when it tells me to keep my chin up, who can I believe about anything at all?