(This one was a pure little passion project. It needs work… This may see an update sooner rather than later.)
In 1989, a role-playing game (RPG) with inspirations from Dragon Quest was released for the Famicom, named Mother. It was rather unique for its time in just about all aspects, right down to its name and advertising. Its backers were quite unusual as well. For starters, it was an RPG from Nintendo. From Nintendo. They didn’t make a lot of those back then, instead focusing more on games that brought an arcade-like experience. Additionally, this game was written and directed by Shigesato Itoi, a Japanese celebrity who was known for many things not relating to video games. To say the game did well would be an understatement.
Nintendo of America (NoA) quickly picked up localization of Mother shortly after its Japanese release. The game was given the first-class localization treatment that no first-party game had seen before. This may sound like an exaggeration, but consider the differences in content between a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 and an RPG akin to Final Fantasy. When taking a look at what had come before it, Nintendo’s localization of Mother proved to be an enormous undertaking.
The localization process for this game went deeply in depth. The game’s thousands of lines of text were translated. Its story, images, and setting were modified to be better understood by a western audience and to better suit NoA’s family friendly policies they enforced at the time. The localization for Mother had a major impact in the way Nintendo developed their games moving forward. As Phil Sandhop, the translator for the game, put it: “The Mother project and localizing it really opened up a few eyes at [Nintendo of Japan]. They began working closer with NoA and the other subidiaries [sic] to produce artwork for games that would be appropriately received anywhere in the world and not need localization.”
NoA understood their market very well. RPGs were a very niche genre in the west at the time, and thus they needed more than simply good marketing to convince their customers to get this game. They created an 80-page guidebook meant to be included with each copy of the game along with an official soundtrack meant to be released separately.
Localization of the game was completed in September of 1990, and the final game was dubbed Earth Bound. It was ready to go into production and be fully released. However, releasing the game at this time had become a risky proposition. Its large size would require high capacity ROM. SRAM would also be needed for holding save data. The large manual would increase the game box’s size and resulted in higher material and stocking costs. This would be an expensive game to produce. They would need to market the game well and sell plenty of copies to make the investment worthwhile.
Therein lied the problem: how could they? Plenty of other easier to produce games were ready to be released to keep sales momentum going. The SNES was just around the corner, and Nintendo would soon launch an aggressive marketing campaign in an effort to convince people that it was time to embrace the future. To suddenly come out with an RPG for a system they hoped to make obsolete would undermine their message and confuse their customers. The game awaited a release that never came.
To enthusiasts, the complete but unfinished game had become a sort of holy grail. Something that presumably existed but was forever out of reach. This changed in 1998, when an anonymous user wrote a message on an online forum claiming to have a prototype cartridge with the software on it. One of its members was intrigued and took the risk of buying it. As it turned out, the prototype was the real deal.
Shortly afterwards, a representative of the well-known ROM hacking group known as Demiforce arranged for the cartridge to be sent to them with the goal to extract and distribute its data. The game included several anti-piracy measures that rendered it unplayable on emulators of the era. Demiforce released another version that patched out these measures and placed the word “ZERO” onto the title screen to distinguish it from the original version. In the years to come, the game became known to fans as Earthbound Zero.
At the time of its release, people were highly skeptical. They accused Demiforce of having come out with a fan translation and daring to pass it off as an official product. You wouldn’t know it by the way things are now, but the small and tight-knit Earthbound fan community of the time were a deeply cynical bunch. There simply was no chance NoA had a hand this, they believed. This skepticism persisted for some time up until the aforementioned translator for the game, Phil Sandhop, did an in-depth interview with the website Lost Levels in July 2004.
Very suddenly and without any prior hint or warning, Nintendo released Earth Bound on the Wii U Virtual Console in June 2015 under the name Earthbound Beginnings. At this point, the series now enjoyed a reasonable amount of popularity thanks to exposure through the Super Smash Bros. series and Internet word-of-mouth, and thus this game became much better known among enthusiasts. It cannot be understated how its official release had shocked the community at large. (Even I thought someone was teasing me when I first heard the news.) Later inspection by Wii U modders confirmed the released game to be entirely identical to the prototype software found in that cartridge so many years ago.
Earthbound Beginnings has a notable place in gaming history due in many parts to its unique approach to the RPG genre, its overwhelming success in Japan, and the events regarding its eventual overseas release. Its localization was a fully complete and playable official Nintendo product that was silently held back from release for 25 years. One could speculate that if the prototype never leaked out of Nintendo, and had its buyer not taken the actions he did, this game may never have seen the light of day.
(So, about that manual…)
As unbelievable as it may seem, this story is not at all unique to this game. Another game, Star Fox 2 has a similarly fascinating history behind its development (1996), cancellation, and eventual release (2017). However, this is a story for another time and another place.