Battle music in Mother 3

Mother 3’s music-based battle system is one of its unsung pleasures. It reduces both the necessity and the tedium of grinding for experience, and conceals a surprisingly thoughtful and well-considered design.

The high-level summary is this: if, during an attack, you hit the A button in time with the background music, you begin a combo. Each successful hit adds to a riff that the characters “play” along with the song—Kumatora shreds on an electric guitar while Duster slaps out bass solos, for example. Music notes appear and spin around the enemy as your attack continues, and a crowd cheers if you manage to strike sixteen times in a row (the maximum). A lengthy combo can deal two or three times the damage of a single attack.

This may sound trivial, but Mother 3 features dozens of battle themes and many are specifically designed to thwart prospective comboers. The definition of “in time with the background music” is more difficult to pin down than it initially seems!

Standard fare

Let’s look at some examples. Here’s a simple battle song, “Tragic Reconstruction”:

To learn the rhythm for a combo you must use the Hypno-Pendulum, an item obtained early in the game that allows you put most enemies to sleep. Sleeping enemies emit a “heartbeat,” which manifests as an extra audio track layered on top of the background music. This heartbeat track reveals the rhythm you need to tap for a combo.

Here is “Tragic Reconstruction” again, with its heartbeat track:

As you can hear, all that’s required for this song is slow, metronomic tapping. (Indeed, many of Mother 3’s heartbeat tracks are nothing more than steady quarter note pulses. I’ll skip most of those.)

Here’s another battle song, “Fate”:

Though it’s also a simple 4/4 tune, this theme requires attacking in time with the bass. Here’s “Fate” with its heartbeat track:

Not too tough yet, but we’re getting somewhere.

This battle theme, appropriately titled “Accelerando,” requires you to match a changing tempo:

Here’s “Accelerando” with its (fairly predictable) heartbeat track:

It’s a simple piece, but “Accelerando” is one of the more difficult songs to combo because of the unusually small timing window in which the game will accept a hit.

Variations on a theme

This is where things begin to get complicated. Many battle themes appear twice in the game: once in a “easy” version, and again later on with some minor rhythmic variation. The latter versions play upon your expectations of the former in order to ruin your combos.

Listen to “Cumbersome Guys,” an easy battle theme with a steady quarter note heartbeat:

Now listen to “More Cumbersome Guys,” a variation:

Did you catch that? Every few bars there is a brief glitchy break that throws the rhythm out of whack. Here’s the new heartbeat track:

There’s a very similar hesitation added to the battle song “Troublesome Guys.” Here’s the original version, which also features a quarter note heartbeat:

And here’s “More Troublesome Guys”; pay attention at about 0:11:

Incidentally, fans of the series might recognize the “short, glitchy break that messes up the meter” motif from the EarthBound soundtrack. Listen to this battle song, for example:

Of course, EarthBound’s battle system didn’t rely on rhythmic input, so it wasn’t a problem back then!

There are other tricks Mother 3 employs to mess with your timing. Here is a theme called “Astonishing March,” which uses a quarter note heartbeat track:

And here’s “Toppling March,” its evil cousin:

“Toppling” is certainly the right word for this one. During the A section there are a bunch of extra beats, and in the B section there are some beats missing. Listen to “Toppling March” with its heartbeat track:

Here’s a bare-bones transcription featuring just the melody and the heartbeat track:

“Toppling March”

Note how the additional 2/4 measures don’t have any taps but the compressed 7/4 measures still have eight, just to keep things interesting.

Metrical mayhem

Two more pairs. Here’s “Back Beat Battle”:

I found this to be a tricky song on its own, actually—though its heartbeat track features straight quarter notes, the unusual accents in the melody made it somewhat difficult to internalize the rhythm. I did better once I ignored the melody altogether and focused on tapping in between the guitar strums. Here’s “Back Beat Battle” with its heartbeat track:

Got that? Here’s its more difficult variant, “Back Beat Battle – Hard”:

For my money, this is the most difficult song in the game to combo. Not only do you have to ignore the offbeat accents, but the rhythm changes at seemingly arbitrary times because some measures have an extra eighth note. Here’s “Back Beat Battle – Hard” with its heartbeat track:

And here’s a transcription with the melody, bass, and heartbeat:

“Back Beat Battle – Hard”

If you’re like me, you’ll still have some trouble following along even with the sheet music!

Finally, let’s listen to “Strong One,” the pièce de résistance:

“Strong One” doesn’t appear until very late in the game. Even though it’s ostensibly the basic version of the song, it has an irregular meter (15/8) and a very strange heartbeat track. Have a listen:

I’ve transcribed that against the melody and timpani so you can get a better look at the rhythm:

“Strong One”

It’s messy, but doable. At least the pattern is consistent, unlike “Back Beat Battle – Hard”!

Of course, that was the easy version. Here’s “Strong One (Masked Man)”:

Did you notice the difference? In addition to being slightly faster, every measure is missing half of a beat.

Since 14.5/8 isn’t really an option, that leaves us with the decidedly spicy time signature of 29/16. Not only that, this metrical compression has created 3:5 tuplets—three notes are divided evenly into the last five beats of each measure.

Remember how I said that the timing window in Mother 3 is very small? Here’s where that really comes into play. In most rhythm games, being late by a sixteenth note at this speed (around 253 BPM, if you’re counting eighth notes) is within the acceptable margin of error. Not so here—if you try to play this track like the easier “Strong One,” your combo will get buried.

There’s no heartbeat track available for “Strong One (Masked Man),” unfortunately, but I’ve transcribed the pattern and added a sixteenth-note hi-hat to make the rhythm more obvious:

“Strong One (Masked Man)”

As I’ve transcribed it, the meter is subdivided into six groups of four 16th notes followed by one group of five 16th notes. In other words, it would make Dave Brubeck cry.

And that is why Mother 3’s rhythm battle system is worth playing.