What Does EarthBound Mean to Nintendo?

The most un-Nintendo Nintendo classic of all.

By Jake Shapiro. Posted 03/10/2014 09:00 2 Comments     ShareThis

In my Super Smash Bros. editorial, I wrote about how the bestselling brawler series is most fans’ introduction to the quirky SNES cult classic EarthBound, known as Mother 2 in Japan. Most players had never heard of Ness before Super Smash Bros. Unlike many other obscure Smash Bros. cameos like Kid Icarus and Fire Emblem, though, Ness’ popularity in SSB hasn’t turned EarthBound into a massive franchise. In fact, the game has only had one sequel, Mother 3… that was never released outside Japan.

Don’t tell that to HAL Laboratory, creators of both EarthBound and Super Smash Bros. EarthBound‘s characters and locations remain a mainstay of SSB, from places like Onett and Fourside to protagonists like Ness, Jeff, and… Mr. Saturn. And despite Mother 3‘s Japan-only release, its protagonist Lucas and one of its locales, New Pork City, found their way into Super Smash Bros. Brawl. But considering the Smash Bros. franchise has sold 20 million copies worldwide, Nintendo isn’t likely to throw its cult games into SSB unless it really believed in them.

So why does Nintendo still have so much love for a game whose sequel wasn’t even made available in the West?

EarthBound stands out as one of Nintendo’s few traditional role-playing games. Super Mario RPG didn’t come out until a year later, and its development was outsourced to Square. EarthBound was ahead of its time, as Japanese RPGs wouldn’t gain mainstream acceptance in the West until Final Fantasy VII two years later.

In many ways, EarthBound is a very un-Nintendo game. While the company was known for pushing the graphical capabilities of its 16-bit Super Nintendo, EarthBound sports a simplistic 8-bit look. Retro 8-bit art design is all the rage today, but not in the mid-1990s. The game has rudimentary graphics for a Super Nintendo title, particularly one released so late in the SNES lifespan. Compounding the issue was EarthBound‘s North American release date: June 1995, six months after pre-rendered graphical powerhouse Donkey Kong Country and only a year before 3D game-changer Super Mario 64. EarthBound doesn’t even have animated battle sequences.

Looking back, though, EarthBound‘s cheerful little sprites and basic graphics help it age far better than its 1995 peers. What was popular in 1995? Mortal Kombat 3Tekken 2. PhantasmagoriaTime Crisis. Twisted Metal. All were more popular and cutting-edge at the time than EarthBound, but which would you rather look at in 2014?

It’s not just the graphics that were dated. EarthBound features an archaic interface. If you want to talk to an NPC, you can’t just walk up to them and press A. You have to press A to bring up your menu screen, then choose whether you want to “Talk to” or “Check.” You can’t even see how much health your enemies have during battles. Strange that this came from Nintendo, famous for intuitive gameplay mechanics and simple controls. Not to mention EarthBound‘s Japanese-to-English translation, which has an interesting story but is simply bizarre considering Nintendo is known for some of the best localizations of any Japanese company.

All this adds up to an awkward, inaccessible experience. But as I noted in last Saturday’s Week: End Game: On, EarthBound is awkward and inaccessible in all the best ways to tickle my fancy. It’s awkward and inaccessible like some of my favorite games, Killer7 and Deadly Premonition. EarthBound is an absurdist adventure that ranges from cute and cheerful to obtuse and horrifying. And despite the wacky humor, at its core EarthBound is the melancholic story of a fatherless child. It’s much more dark and unsettling than anything Nintendo has produced before or since (yes, more than Majora’s Mask). The WarioWare games’ absurdist flavor is reminiscent of it, but EarthBound is on another level.

Nintendo’s position on EarthBound today is tough to discern. It clearly realizes its cult classic status. When current Nintendo president Satoru Iwata worked at HAL in the ’90s, he was both producer and programmer on EarthBound, so it’s close to his heart. And the company knows the series has tons of fans outside Japan. When EarthBound was released on the Wii U Virtual Console last year, IGN asked Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime about the likelihood of a Mother 3 release on the North American Virtual Console:

“To answer your specific question, I would have to say no. We knew the response to EarthBound was going to be strong. Believe me, I’ve met those fans. The first question out of their mouth is, ‘Reggie, when is EarthBound coming? Mother 3!’ I’ve met, I think, all of them. So we’re always looking at our rich history to identify those opportunities of games we could bring back and have consumers experience.”

Although Mother 4 is unlikely, it doesn’t seem to be outside the realm of possibility that Nintendo and HAL could create some sort of spiritual successor to EarthBound on Wii U or 3DS. Both the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario series seem to be losing a bit of steam, and Nintendo could use some fresh ideas when it comes to its RPGs. Why not turn to EarthBound?

2 Responses to “What Does EarthBound Mean to Nintendo?”

  • 207 points
    Jon Stevens says...

    Truth be told, I can actually see Nintendo announcing some kind of Earthbound/Mother game. The franchise as a whole has achieved cult status after all, like you said.

    Would it sell insane amounts? Probably not, but I think there would definitely be enough interest in it.

  • 1567 points
    penduin says...

    I’d love to see a direct or spiritual successor to Earthbound. And I think it’s even more ripe for quirky modern-Nintendo-style reinterpretation than we might think…

    Take another look at the simplistic character art – do those faces remind anyone else of Mii’s? Bear with me, my idea is just crazy enough that it might work:

    You’re playing through your trippy quest to save the world, and so are a bunch of other people. It’s like a huge, disorganized pilgrimage. We all start out in our little hometown. Keeping with Earthbound’s modern-day, familiar setting, we’re encouraged to in-game “tweet”, take pictures, and look at bulletin boards. Everywhere we go, a bunch of NPCs are doing all these things too, because their behavior is derived from other players in the same area of the game. It’s a single-player RPG, only it isn’t.

    Boil out the spastic nature of Twitch Plays Pokemon but keep the weird random flavor that online communities secrete, add the Miiverse integration from Mario 3D World and Wind Waker HD, and wrap it all up in an absurdist quest. There might even be ingredients to borrow from Find Mii on 3DS – build a temporary party out of other characters you meet, whom inherit abilities based on the Mii character itself. And if you’re offline, or one day when Nintendo discontinues the Wii U’s online services, then the NPCs are randomized and their posts and pictures are drawn from a well of stuff the developers came up with.

    I think this could work both as an Earthbound game and as a Mii RPG. Perhaps it’s too far out there, and maybe it couldn’t work, but I’d be really surprised if someone at Nintendo wasn’t looking into these kinds of possibilities. Whether it would take on an Earthbound style, who knows, but I can think of no better “brand” for the idea.

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