We venture into the history of the beloved Super Nintendo role playing game, EarthBound and the whole Mother series in North America.
As part of our localization month, we're going to recount the history of EarthBound' release in North America. That means we're going to look at everything from EarthBound Zero to the fan translation of Mother 3. But first, what's an EarthBound?
You play as a kid from the suburbs, Ness. Ness lives in Eagleland, and recently an alien crash landed near his house. At the crash site, a bee from the future tells Ness that ten years from now the world sucks, but Ness can change that. He can travel across Eagleland, to the big cities and defeat the evil alien Gygas. The world was definitely not our own, but the monsters were street punks, and to save you had to call your dad. Originally released in 1995, game designer Shigesato Itoi wrote the game to be a bit of an oddity. There were no empires to defeat, like in Final Fantasy. And there was no great wizard to find, like in Dragon Quest. You were just a kid with a bat who wanted to make a few friends and occasionally got homesick.
So you'd think the game would be this great success, like those games were. Well, not really. For that we talked to Jeff Benson. Jeff is working on a documentary about EarthBound called EarthBound USA. Jeff grew up with the game. He played it alongside his father and his brother, and even made an embarrassing home movie about it.
But Jeff's family was only one of a few who picked that game up. According to Jeff, both the marketing and the price seemed to push people away. For instance, the tagline was "This game STINKS," and all the advertising was based around that one line.
EarthBound, at $60, was also a little expensive for the time. Nintendo included the strategy guide in the box, which made the box bigger, and $10 more than the average SNES game. It didn't help that they used scratch and sniff cards that reeked of gym socks to draw kids to stores.
That didn't stop the people who did pick it up from forming a community around it at Starmen.net. Jeff eventually became part of that community, and over time grew so fascinated he's working on a full length documentary all about it. He talks about the game, the marketing campaign, and why he made a terrible home movie about it starting 28:00.
Before EarthBound there was one other game, Mother, also known as EarthBound Zero, that sat dormant for years.
EarthBound wasn't the first time Nintendo tried to bring over Shigesato Itoi's work from Japan. They'd tried before with Mother, the first game in the series. Mother was Itoi's first major RPG and was a minor sensation in Japan. Partially it's because Itoi wrote really catchy advertising copy. In the 80s, Japanese people quoted his ads like they would a pop song. It was also the first role playing game to not focus on swords and sorcery for the Famicom game console. But the game never made it over to North America, despite Nintendo having essentially finished localizing it. It would have been released on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but with the SNES less than a year away, they didn't have time to market it. So it sat in someone's drawer for four years.
Steve Demeter, better known as Demiforce, is a fan translator who got his hands on a copy of a late prototype of Mother, then called Earth Bound (note the space in the middle). A few prototypes had escaped from Nintendo, and ended up in his lap. That version only needed a some light editing, so in 1998 he copied the game off the cartridge and fixed it up. Then it was just a matter of uploading it to the internet for people to see as EarthBound Zero. To hear more about how he found one of four known copies of Earth Bound, and why he dumped it online, tune in around 35:00.
Games don't usually pop out of aether, fully translated, especially text heavy games like RPGs. Someone has to spend hours translating and editing together the dialogue.
For plain old EarthBound, Marcus Lindblom had that job. In 1995, Marcus was a software analyst in Nintendo's game group. Software analyst is a fancy name that meant he worked on the localization team for a couple games. These games didn't require much text outside of the menus. Games like Wario's Woods don't really provide much opportunity for creativity. So when they suggested he work on the localization of Mother 2, Marcus leaped at the chance. Here was a 10 hour long game that needed new jokes and new dialogue.
Marcus teamed up with an ex-Ape employee, Masayuki Miura. Miura translated the game line by line, then handed it over to Marcus who'd make each line more palatable to an English speaking audience. Together they created a memorable translation that referenced the Beatles and included lines like "Aiiiiiie, I screamed 'cause I didn't know what to do."
But Marcus picked an awkward time to get into localization. There were no tools to make the translation process simpler. Miura would read out each line and Marcus would offer an edited version. Then Miura would copy that into the code. For a while, they didn't have a functional version of the game to see the context either.
As for the length offering creativity, turns out 10 hour games take a long time to translate. By the time Marcus had the job, 10 per cent of the work was already done. Nintendo wanted the project done before June, however, and with most of the dialogue unfinished and items unnamed, he needed to work about 14 hours a day. Marcus took one day off in February for the birth of his daughter, and then worked for the next few weeks non-stop.
When they wrapped it all up, Miura printed out the script for Marcus to read over. Page laid on top of page, it was about six inches high.
And then in June, the game flopped. There was that misguided ad campaign, and EarthBound didn't review well. It was the 90s, and EarthBound's cheery tone didn't sit well with a lot of critics. In a few months the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn would be in stores. Who wanted to play an rpg on their SNES with new consoles on the way? Marcus didn't really talk about EarthBound for the next 10 years. To hear what happened next, tune in around 38:45.
Years passed before anyone heard about another EarthBound game coming to North America, but once a new game existed, people were ready to do anything to see more.
For a long time, that seemed like it would be the end of the Mother series. It didn't sell well. Nintendo cancelled Earthbound 64, the sequel for the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive. Fans had gathered on Starmen.net but there wasn't much to do. They petitioned Nintendo to continue on with the N64 game but the disk drive was another Nintendo peripheral that just didn't sell.
Then in 2006, Mother 3 landed on the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo's handheld gaming platform. Fans cheered for it to be released across the pacific, but it was too late. Like EarthBound Zero (and EarthBound to a lesser extent) it came out at the end of the platform's life. The new system, the Nintendo DS, had been out for two years already. Who was going to buy a GBA game in 2006?
Jeff Erbrecht would. Jeff, known online as JeffMan, found someone in a forum willing to share a copy of Mother 3. It was the day before that game was supposed to come out in Japan, but the ROM was real. Jeff immediately set out to translate the game and so that people could play it. The main problem was that he was in tenth grade in an Ontario high school, and didn't know much Japanese. So he teamed up with a few friends online who knew a little more, and became their main programmer.
Clyde Mandelin had the same idea, except he was a professional translator during his day job. He translated anime for Funimation, like Gunslinger Guns. Clyde loved EarthBound and helped to build the community around it on Starmen.net, where he was known as Tomato. He built his own group, bringing together a who's who of fan translators, like Steve Demeter. Jeff's group eventually fell apart due to some laziness and bad blood, so he joined Clyde's.
He again settled in as the programmer, and every night, after he finished his homework, he'd work on bringing to life the last game in the Mother series. It took them three years to finish it, but along the way the Mother 3 translation brought in tons of new fans and a new respect for the series. Or you can hear them tell it starting 50:50.
This week's music came from the OC Remix, the Free Music Archive, and the Earthbound OST. From OC Remix we used: "Twoson Hits the Road" by djpretzel, "The Great Blizzard of '9X" by halc and "Practicing Retrocognition" by sci. From the Free Music Archive we used: Luca La Morgia's "Money Talks," Charles Atlas' "Photosphere," and Candlegravity's "Always." From the EarthBound OST we used: "Sunrise & Onett Theme" and "Buzz Buzz Prophecy." Our opening theme was special! We used "Lonely Summer" by Super Flower from the Free Music Archive.
As always, this episode was written by Arman Aghbali and Daniel Rosen, and edited by Arman.
Our header image was from KurkoBoltsi on DeviantArt. His fan art about the Mother series is incredible. Everyone check it out.
If you have any questions about the show, want to comment or critique us, comment below or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you've heard your music used inappropriately on our show, be sure to send us an email.