My love of classic 16-bit era sprite graphics is so strong that I could sit down for hours and just shuffle through picture after picture of character and background designs from old Super Nintendo-era games and never be bored. And, honestly, I don’t even think I can pinpoint exactly what it is I love about this art style. To be fair, let’s just say I love everything -- from the charming, surprisingly expressive animation to the bold color work.
Out of the myriad of beautiful moments, one sequence in particular struck me as a true testament to the level of emotion that can be wrought from such a “simple” form of visual expression. Hit the jump to witness this powerful, heart-wrenching moment.
Mother 3 is the sequel to mega-classic EarthBound for the Super Nintendo (originally called Mother 2 in Japan). Unfortunately, the Game Boy Advance game was released in Japan only with no North American release announced for the future. If you own the Japanese import, though, a recently released, amazing translation is available online. It goes without saying that I highly recommend trying it out. Mother 3 should not be missed by anyone.
Mother 3 unfolds over multiple chapters, focusing its overarching tale on a wonderful family that lives in the village of Tazmily on Nowhere Island. The family is composed of strong, loyal father Flint, unbelievably sweet mother Hinawa, and their twin boys: shy Lucas and playful Claus.
As the game begins, Lucas, Claus, and their mother are visiting Hinawa’s father Alec in the mountains far north of the village. While Hinawa catches up with her loving father, Lucas and Claus play with a pack of Dragos, huge dinosaur-like creatures that are known for being just as friendly as they are intimidating.
Although he wants to be with them, Flint stays behind to tend the sheep at the farm, anxiously awaiting the return of his family.
Before Hinawa and the children have a chance to come home, tragedy strikes.
Coming from the sky above, a group of pip-shaped spaceships descends upon the peaceful island. With no care for the beautiful surroundings, mysterious figures wearing pig masks emerge from the space craft and place bombs all over the area.
The bombs explode and send tremors all over the island.
Immediately, the forest connecting Tazmily and Alec’s mountain home is engulfed in flames.
At this point, the true game begins, with players put in control of Flint as he tries to find a way to locate his family and make sure they are okay.
After the raging fire is extinguished by a miraculous rain storm, Flint finds a note delivered by carrier pigeon at the entrance to his farm. It is from Hinawa and was written before the pig-like spaceships invaded the island.
The note reads:
Just like you said they would, the children have been running around the mountains and fields tirelessly since the moment we arrived.
Claus is as daring and full of energy as ever, while Lucas is still a bit coddled. But neither one seems tired of playing at all.
My father seems sad to say goodbye to his grandchildren after seeing them for the first time in so long, but we should be home by this evening.
I had forgotten how nice and refreshing the mountain air is. You’re always covered in the smell of sheep back in Tazmily, so I really wish you could have been here to take in this air.
The next time we visit, let’s ask one of our neighbors to tend to the sheep so we can all come up here as a family.
Claus, Lucas, and I were always thinking about you. When we get home this evening, I’ll start cooking some of your favorite [insert player’s favorite food] right away.
Your dearest Hinawa
Reading the note breaks Flint’s heart and makes him want to find his family even more.
Hurriedly, Flint makes his way through the forest on a determined rescue mission. Along the way he is forced to do battle with surprisingly aggressive creatures, some mutated to take forms Flint has never seen before.
Once he makes it to the foot of the mountain, Flint finds a piece of his wife Hinawa’s ripped dress hanging off the end of a dead tree branch.
Panicking, Flint races forward.
Eventually, Flint reaches the edge of a river, where members of the village have gathered around a controlled bonfire.
It is here, in the river’s cold mist, when the next Memory Card moment occurs ... and Flint’s life is changed forever.
Abbot, one of the villagers, rushes forward and tells Flint that they found Lucas and Claus.
To his relief, Flint’s twin sons are safe, wrapped in blankets and warming themselves by the fire. According to Abbot and the other villagers, Lucas and Claus were found washed up in the nearby river.
As Lucas and Claus embrace their emotional father, Flint quickly realizes that Hinawa is still nowhere to be found.
After resting for a bit, Flint walks around the small, makeshift camp and asks if anyone knows the whereabouts of his precious wife.
Sadly, no one knows anything.
Suddenly, a villager by the name of Bronson comes running down from a nearby mountain path.
Bronson tells Flint to remain calm and hear him out.
In a moment showing off Mother 3’s very strange humor, Bronson informs Flint that he has good news and bad news.
The villagers gather closer.
The good news, he says, is that he picked up a giant Drago Fang, which can be used as a great weapon.
The bad news? The Drago Fang was found pierced through Hinawa’s heart.
The villagers step back, each with a look of shock on their faces.
Flint doesn’t know what to say.
There is a long moment of silence, interrupted by a sharp flash of lightening and loud clap of thunder.
Hinawa is dead. She is gone forever.
Flint collapses to his knees. The overwhelming wave of emotion weakens him.
The devastating sadness inside Flint slowly turns into rage. The loving husband immediately begins punching the ground.
As the other villagers try to calm him and offer words of comfort, Flint leaps to his feet and pushes a nearby woman. He then turns around, reaches directly into the bonfire, and pulls out a burning piece of wood with his bare hands.
Angrier than he has ever been in his entire life, Flint begins wildly swinging the wood in front of him. Trying to comfort him even more, a villager steps forward to try to calm Flint down. Without even thinking, Flint slams the wood into the villager, violently knocking him to the ground.
Flint goes on a rampage, slamming his weapon into a few more villagers and severely injuring them in the process.
Bronson steps forward and struggles to grab the piece of wood out of Flint’s hands.
Eventually, a villager sneaks up behind him and knocks Flint out by hitting him across his head.
Flint falls to the ground unconscious, unaware that Lucas and Claus witnessed his entire outburst through their uncontrollable tears.
With this, the screen fades out.
Before awakening in a local prison, Flint sees an image of the last time he ever saw Hinawa alive: the moment he said goodbye to her before she took Lucas and Claus to see their grandpa up in the mountains.
As Hinawa walks away she flashes one final smile to her beloved husband.
Flint will never see that smile again.
As the soothing image fades into reality, the devastating scene comes to an end.
You can watch the heartbreaking drama unfold right here:
Notice how the above clip is from the original, Japanese version of the game. I chose this specifically to prove my point about how everything in Mother 3 -- and this scene in particular -- is handled using some of the most gorgeous visuals ever. Even when you can’t read the dialogue, you can still tell what is going on due to the game’s ingenious visual storytelling techniques.
The death of Hinawa is a devastating scene on so many different levels. Not only is it a surprising twist in the story, but it happens so early in the game and sets the tone for the very adult situations players will encounter throughout Mother 3’s entirety.
While the moment itself brought me to tears (no joke -- I was sobbing like a baby), it was what happened afterwards that impressed me the most.
I will go on record right now as saying Mother 3 has, quite possibly, the most beautiful sprite art I have ever seen in a game. Sure, some games may offer more detailed design -- the exuberant palettes of Muramasa and Metal Slug come to mind -- but never in my life have I seen videogame sprites used in such gorgeous, emotionally affecting ways.
I’m not going to lie: I am completely biased when it comes to sprite-based graphics. I love them. Actually, I adore them. While I appreciate the technological wonder that is today’s current graphics, there is special place in my heart for the simple beauty of 16-bit era sprites. There is just something about the way they move and the care designers put into them that really appeals to me.
To me, getting across emotion in a seemingly simple sprite-based character is much more difficult than achieving the same thing in the highly detailed, polygonal creations of today. Characters in modern games look so human-like that very traditional, cinematic techniques can be used. While, with sprites, the art is so basic and as far from realism as possible that connecting the player to what is happening on-screen is a true challenge. And, ironically, when game designers get it right, I genuinely feel more emotionally connected to these unrealistic sprite models than I do to any characters featured in a current generation videogame.
Watch the above scene from Mother 3 again to really get an idea of what I am talking about.
The scene when Flint finds out his wife has been killed is, at its most basic, some simple sprite creations moving around on a perfectly flat, 2D background. Visually, there is not a lot of depth of field to work with. Because of this, the creators had no choice but to shoot the scene from one angle.
Since the designers can’t rely on any dramatic camera tricks, all emotion has to be expressed through the character animation and in-game dialogue.
Well, as you can see, I eliminated the dialogue completely by showing you the Japanese version. That means all that is left are the visuals.
But these limitations don’t stop the scene from easily being one of the most emotionally powerful sequences in videogame history.
Notice the way the game pauses after Flint hears the devastating news about Hinawa. It is not afraid to stop for a second and let the emotions sink it. Nothing is rushed. Every beat is meticulously planned. Even looking away from Flint, observe how each villager reacts in completely unique ways -- the girl that runs down to shield Lucas and Claus from the violence is the perfect example.
Following this terrible news -- using small details in the animation -- Flint’s emotions turn from sadness to immense anger. He pounds the ground. Again, there is no dialogue -- all of this is expressed visually.
And then it happens.
Flint goes on a rampage and starts to hurt all of his friends.
You can see for yourself, but the animation in this sequence is beyond stunning. The details in Flint’s movement are some of the best I have ever seen in a sprite-based game. You can almost feel ever hit he administers to his fellow villagers. It is one of the only truly visceral scenes I have seen presented in this “simple” graphical style.
And after Flint is knocked out, the slightly washed-out beauty of his flashback, coupled with the moving music (and, once again, no need for dialogue), mark a perfect end to the horrible tragedy. Seeing Flint, Hinawa, and the family together and happy is as touching as it is heartbreaking.
I only recently played through Mother 3, and I am not exaggerating when I say it really changed my life. Looking past the remarkably moving story, the outstanding gameplay, the touching music, and the memorable characters, visually Mother 3 is everything I could have ever hoped for in a videogame.
While the entire game is one beautiful scene after another, to me, the death of Hinawa and Flint’s violent, rage-filled reaction is the most powerful.
Mother 3 is an artistic masterpiece in every way.
The Memory Card Save Files
.01 - .20 (Season 1)
.21 - .40 (Season 2)
.41: The tadpole prince (Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars)
.42: Pyramid Head! (Silent Hill 2)
.43: Waiting for Shadow (Final Fantasy VI)
.44: Solid vs. Liquid (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)
.45: The birth of the cutscene (Ninja Gaiden)
.46: Insult swordfighting (The Secret of Monkey Island)
.47: A castle stuck in time (The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker)
.48: 'That's the magic flute!' (The Wizard)
.49: Saving Santa (Secret of Mana)
.50: A shocking loss (Half-Life 2: Episode Two)
.51: The flying cow (Earthworm Jim)
.52: Blind the Thief (The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past)
.53: The nuclear blast (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare)
.54: Microwaving the hamster (Maniac Mansion)
.55: The fate of Lucca's mother (Chrono Trigger)
.56: A fiery demise? (Portal)
.57: Jade's moment of silence (Beyond Good & Evil)
.58: The Great Mighty Poo (Conker's Bad Fur Day)
.59: With knowledge comes nudity (Leisure Suit Larry III)