Giving Mother 3 a proper review was always intended for this website, going back to my EarthBound review, and even that since that article was written, I replayed it again on a Nintendo 3DS.
I wrote about Mother 3 before but I wanted to give the review another look with this rewrite. Barring playing around with "EarthBound Zero" back in 2003 on an emulator, I first played EarthBound back around early 2005, which ends on a cliffhanger. There's an in-game gag about "planning for EarthBound 2" and a few years after EarthBound's release, work began on Mother 3 for the Nintendo 64, which was referred in Nintendo Power as "EarthBound 64".
Mother 3 was released in Japan in 2006 for the Game Boy Advance (by this time the Nintendo DS had eclipsed the handheld), and received a full fan translation a few years later. Unfortunately, the game as released is very incomplete, as it was originally much more ambitious and would be very different from the original EarthBound. It was planned for the Nintendo 64DD first, a planned add-on to the Nintendo 64 that would give the system additional capabilities, but later moved to the Nintendo 64 with a 64DD to take advantage of its features (real-time clock, etc.). This was internally referred to Mother 3.5, as reported by IGN in 1999. The team had difficulty working with 3D and only the first chapter or so was really done.
The game eventually announced for a release on the Game Boy Advance, following the release of Mother 1+2, a port of Mother and EarthBound for the GBA (this port was not released in the U.S.). Shortly after some previews, including an arrangement of the game's theme, the Theme of Love. It took a few years for the game to get an official translation, and it wasn't until 2019 when I finally sat down to play Mother 3. Unfortunately, it really isn't the same game that was planned for Nintendo 64, and unusually for Nintendo games, very easy to see how and where things were cut.
There have been some rave reviews for Mother 3 but when it came down to it, I found it inferior to EarthBound and thought it was passable as a game but failed as a sequel. It wasn't just the simplified graphics and the lack of a good sound chip (though the music was well-suited to the GBA), it was the fact that there wasn't a continuous adventure. With EarthBound, there was a real sense of adventure, as you moved from town to town in a quest to take down Giygas, even if the second half of the game was muddled with a confusing quest that took you from a resort town to a Middle Eastern desert town to a swampy wasteland to a vast underworld filled with dinosaurs...though the "last third of the game is a confusing mess" is a common symptom with game development.
Mother 3 on the other hand, has some fairly disconnected series of vignettes with different characters, but not in a way where the payoff is meaningful. It's fine to give minor characters a bit part where you control them, like Jeff's escape from the boarding house in EarthBound to his meeting with other characters, or Cyan's loss in Final Fantasy VI. But this manner of "introductions" take up almost half the game, and the characters that are there aren't really that explained. (Kumatora's intro chapter, for instance, was cut).
Even halfway into the game, there's just not a lot to explore. There's one town (which admittedly "modernizes"), a forest to the west of town, a castle east of town, and far east of town, a factory, and north of that (with a cable car ride), a nightclub. That's it! By this point in EarthBound, there were four cities, each with a major part of the story, and you would've been in several dungeons, a smaller town with a cult leader, a small village of aliens, another factory, a weird alter-world with glowing neon outlines, and a huge desert.
The sequel is only disappointing based on how much you expected. If you wanted to know the ultimate fate of Pokey (renamed "Porky" here, his original Japanese version, which makes more sense with the whole "pig army" theme), it's fine. If you wanted "another EarthBound" it's also fine. If you wanted to know the fates of Ness and his friends, it's not a good sequel, because despite what EarthBound implies, there's nothing on them. (The closest you get is Andonuts, more on that later). What I WANTED to see was something that tied all the loose ends of the previous games together, because Mother 2 (EarthBound) wasn't a sequel so much as to cover what happened to Giegue/Giygas...but at the same time, references the previous games as well, so it also fails as an anthology series. The inclusion of Dr. Andonuts is another big question that never goes answered. You meet Dr. Andonuts, Jeff's father and a major character from EarthBound somewhere halfway in, who says he's been "forced" to create chimeras for Porky, but he just as easily "quits" later, and never says why he was kidnapped either. There's no mention of how he was taken from his lab south of Winters, or what happened to Jeff, so it feels like Cid from Final Fantasy VI, who fulfills the "scientist who worked to make horrible things for the main villain but not actually a bad guy, trust us" role.
In terms of the actual game, the item management is still awful and is only marginally improved by having a "Key Items" area to prevent taking up too much room, and the four main characters are no Chosen Four. Lucas, the Ness equivalent, is nearly not as powerful as his predecessor. On the plus side, Paula's equivalent, Kumatora, has her stats buffed so she's not nearly as weak in normal combat. Instead of Jeff, you have Duster, who like Jeff can't use "PSI" (the "magic" equivalent in the Mother series) but instead of the ability to use powerful one-shot items is replaced with who has "thief tools" that might change some stats. Boney, the Poo equivalent, is a dog that can't use weapons or PSI, and only has "Sniff" that can tell what an enemy is weak against. One plus side from EarthBound is your party can actually run (or "dash", rather) but you can't use it if anyone is down.
Despite the high praise the game gets in certain circles, from what I've heard, in Japan, the story wasn't well-liked because it was too melodramatic and clichéd. Because, let's face it, having Claus as the Masked Man is a predictable twist that even a 7-year-old could figure out, and the game seems to think so too, his identity his unmasked in a throwaway line shortly before the final boss. The other parts of the story are back-loaded in a giant text-based conversation toward the end of the game, but it doesn't make any more sense than what has already been told.
In addition to the twist lifted straight out of The Empire Strikes Back which is hack at this point, in that same text dump it reveals the game cribbed a good deal from the book The Giver too.
A large part of this jumbled-up mess was because it was supposed to be twelve chapters and more focus on the main characters, like with Claus and Flint especially playing a bigger role than they actually do...and with a few EarthBound 64-era pictures referencing a destroyed Eagleland, it also suggested a greater connection to EarthBound.
It would've been more interesting if the Masked Man was supposed to be Ness, and having Ness as the Masked Man would have made the storyline a bit darker and twisted the knife when it came to players expecting Claus, only to find he was dead all along. Obviously some lines in the last chapter would have to be changed to make this fit, but it still would be more interesting. Then again, every instance of "subverted expectations" in movies and video games seem to be more interested in pulling the rug out from the audience than making a good game. This has been a chief complaint of mine from games like LISA and Undertale, but it applies to movies too, specifically Disney movies made post-2010. (For an example of this, compare and contrast both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Big Hero 6, the real villain is a surprise to the audience, but in the latter the interactions between the real villain and the decoy villain don't make sense when applied to the reveal, whereas in the former it is properly telegraphed that the real villain makes complete sense.)
Of course, the only way Ness would even fit in is actually making the game as long as it was supposed to be, and with a longer game, the relationship between the characters could be more cultivated for the game to actually make sense and not come off as trite.
I'm giving Mother 3 (which I finally played in 2019) a FLAWED rating. As a Game Boy Advance RPG it's okay (there's a mechanic where you can attack with the beat of the music but it doesn't work very well in emulation), but as a sequel to EarthBound it's a messy and mediocre game, even without the GBA's limitations that make it uglier to look at (all those pastels) and not as audibly pleasing, though that said, when Mother 3 was released, I have fond memories of listening to the soundtrack while reading my "dead mall" blogs like Labelscar (now defunct). Some of the songs (like "Sorrowful Tatsumairi") seemed to fit.
There are credible reports (and based on what was shown, this seems to be the case) that Mother 3 on the Nintendo 64 was never finished beyond the first chapter or so, but there had to be more material that we're just not seeing, and I hope that it's eventually leaked somehow. All screenshots here are from Starmen.net except for the title, I took that one.