The experience of playing a truly brilliant game sticks to one’s mind with the ferocity of an electromagnet covered in super glue. The memories can be so fond and profound that the mere mention of its title will instantly bring to mind the images, sounds, stories, characters, and, in at least on occasion, smells. The nostrils of many SNES RPG gamers probably just flared, just like the very first time they cracked open the EarthBound player’s guide and tentatively took a whiff of the included scratch and sniff cards. Of course all those readers out there currently caught in a gaseous cloud of nostalgia will also share the opinion that is the main point of this article — the EarthBound franchise has been horribly neglected on this side of the Pacific.
One quick warning, some spoilers ahead!
While EarthBound was North America’s first, and only, taste of this RPG franchise developed by the brilliant folks at Nintendo and HAL Laboratory, Japan has been blessed with a total of three games, and EarthBound is the middle chapter. In Japan the series is known as Mother and started out in 1989 on NES and quickly became a hit. While most 8-bit RPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy focused on swords, sorcery, and dragons, Mother told the story of kids with psychic powers battling an invasion of psychic aliens in contemporary America. Furthermore, the game embraced a rather strange sense of humor while also doing more to give the story, characters and setting greater psychological and symbolic weight, a combination embraced throughout the series. Most likely due to the game’s success at home, Nintendo began to prep the game for international release, going so far as to translate the game, rename it EarthBound and design the final packaging. However, when it became apparent that the game wouldn’t launch in America until after the release of SNES, Nintendo scrapped the project.
Luckily for North American gamers, Mother 2 was released squarely in the middle of the SNES console cycle and proved to be just as big a hit in Japan, so Nintendo was once again interested in bringing the series to American shores. Nintendo stuck with the EarthBound moniker and released it to a surprisingly mediocre response; sales weren’t terrible, but marketing attention Nintendo gave the game obviously failed to resonate with consumers. Like the first title, EarthBound once again followed a group of psychic children, and they were battling Giygas, the same antagonist, only this time around he had grown so powerful that his psychic energy had effectively destroyed his body and mind, leaving only his evil will to dominate and destroy. Adding to the party’s sense of urgency is the knowledge that Giygas will succeed in his mission within ten years if they do nothing. The resulting adventure is filled with tense time traveling craziness, but the humor once again lightens the mood. Despite the middling sales, EarthBound has become a cult classic and frequently shows up on lists of top RPGs and even games of all time.
Unfortunately for fans of series worldwide, Mother 3 would go through a very turbulent development process. Immediately after finishing up EarthBound/Mother 2, development began on an SNES sequel, but with a new generation just over the horizon, production was moved to the N64 Disk Drive, but that failed miserably and the game was moved onto the standard N64. With the system apparently set, production moved along but it didn’t go smoothly, forcing Nintendo to delay the game numerous times before finally calling it quits. It wasn’t until a Japan-only compilation of Mother 1 and 2 was released on GBA in 2003 that interest in the series was once again piqued and the idea of releasing Mother 3 on GBA occurred. In 2006, Mother 3 finally saw the light of day in Japan.
Mother 3 took place in the same universe as its predecessors and continued the same general themes. Once again the main character was a boy with psychic powers and the world was once again being invaded. This time around, the threat was terrestrial and the villain was Porky, Giygas’s former right hand man who had fled through time following his master’s demise; and just like his old boss, Porky lusted for greater power and control. The franchises’ mix of quirky humor and surprisingly deep storytelling once again returned, and Japanese gamers once again ate it up. Despite the immensely positive reception in Japan, Nintendo opted not to bring the title to the rest of world.
Considering the fact that only EarthBound was released in America and it did not sell very well, it is rather amazing how much of a devoted following the series has outside of Japan. American fans of the game are very much aware that they are missing out on the bulk of the series and have been quite vocal about their demand for the rest of the series to receive American releases; some fans have even gone so far as to bring the games to English speaking audiences by any means necessary. As was previously mentioned, Mother was pretty much ready to ship in North America when it was canceled and apparently somebody was able to get a copy of Nintendo’s final build and leaked it onto the internet in ROM form. As for Mother 3, fans who happened to actually be professional game localizers took it upon themselves to translate the entire game and release it online. While these folks have allowed English speaking fans to enjoy the series in its entirety, it is worth remembering that both of these translations are completely illegal and Nintendojo in no way, shape, or form encourages the use of ROMS and emulators for any reason!
It is also worth considering what exactly makes the series so appealing compared to other RPGs. Realistically, it probably isn’t the gameplay; the core mechanics, such as exploration, menus and battles, are almost carbon copies of the Dragon Quest games and nothing really stands out amongst the rest of the genre either. Where EarthBound really earns respect is with the humor, and to a lesser extent, the deeper aspects of the story. First, the humor is bizarre and memorable; EarthBound’s plot is set in motion by a powerful, time traveling bee named Buzz Buzz who meets his end thanks to a housewife with a fly swatter; the party frequently crosses paths with the Runaway Five, a blues band with more than a passing resemblance to the Blues Brothers; and the the list of foes include anthropomorphic piles of puke, blue clad cultists, and the brilliantly named New Age Retro Hippie.
As for the plot and characters, the stories of the two villains are particularly interesting. In the first game, it was revealed that Giygas was actually lovingly raised by the great grandparents of the protagonist and could only be defeated after being sung the lullaby his foster mother used to sing to calm him as a child. For the second game, Giygas’ desire for conquest was so great that he allowed his own immense power to consume every shred of his physical and emotional being, leaving him a formless cloud of malevolence. Porky, on the other hand, was raised by rather uncaring, materialistic parents, so he followed in their footsteps to the extreme as he joined in with the bad guys. While Giygas did possess the ability to control minds, it is ultimately revealed that Porky is truly evil as he continues in his evil ways even after Giygas is defeated. In the end, Porky turns out to be very much like Giygas, as his constant time traveling and search for power has also left him incredibly strong but effectively robbed him of his humanity.
Ultimately, the point is rather simple. Regardless of Nintendo’s reasons for not releasing the first and third Mother/EarthBound games, non-Japanese fans of the series are passionate about the games and desperately want to experience the saga in its entirety. Sure, Nintendo threw Ness and Lucas into the Smash Bros. games, and while that might have whetted some gamers’ appetites briefly awhile ago, at this point it is more or less a slap in the face. Gamers don’t want a touch of EarthBound in a Nintendo sampler dish, they want the full three-course meal. The mere existence of the fan-released translations of the other games in the series should serve as evidence enough of the length gamers are willing to go to play these games, and Nintendo is doing all those fans a huge disservice.