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Spotlight: EarthBound

Throughout the history of video games, there have been many titles that did not make the transition from one region of the world to another. The games that have been translated have often been transmuted from their original form before ever reaching their new markets.

One such game is EarthBound, a Super Nintendo role-playing game published by Nintendo in 1995. EarthBound was the first game in Nintendo's popular Mother series to be released in North America. However, EarthBound was not a localization of the first Mother title, but was instead a translation of Mother 2.

So what about Mother? Why was the second game of the series chosen for translation and release outside of Japan while the first game was passed over? Did Nintendo ever seriously consider the game for translation? If so, why was it never released?

And why, when a fully translated copy of the game did eventually surface in 1998, did so many people vehemently believe that it was a fake?

In our ongoing search for the real stories behind these lost games, Lost Levels is proud to bring you the true story of EarthBound.

-By Jonathan Wirth

On January 15, 1998, an unassuming "for sale" message was posted to the newsgroup rec.games.video.classic. The item offered for sale was a prototype cartridge of the game EarthBound for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Not much was known about the game at that time, as the only notable references to it in America had been a small preview in the "Pak Watch" section of Nintendo Power magazine in the November/December 1990 issue and the game's listing in the "Coming Soon" and "Coming Later" lists until May 1991. As a result of the relative obscurity of the game, people were skeptical of the seller's seriousness and the prototype cartridge was sold after less than half a dozen replies to the original message. The price was a mere $125, which is a relatively small sum for a prototype copy of an unreleased game even by 1998 standards.

Steve Demeter, leader of the fan translation group Demiforce, had been working on a project for the original Japanese version of Mother. After hearing news of the existence of a prototype cartridge, Demeter and the members of Demiforce decided to attempt to procure the cartridge so that the data could be backed up and distributed to the public.

Not only would obtaining the prototype and releasing it to the public allow people to play the game, but it would also save Demiforce a great deal of time and effort which could then be used to work on other projects. At the time, no unreleased first-party NES games had found their way into the hands of video game enthusiasts, so releasing EarthBound to the public would have been a notable event.

Demeter decided to contact the owner of the prototype, but he soon discovered that no one in the classic gaming community had stepped up to claim ownership of the cartridge. Greg Mariotti, the original seller of the cartridge, was not willing to reveal any information about the person to whom he had sold the game.

Eventually, Demeter was tipped off by another fan of the Mother series who had been in contact with the buyer. It was revealed that Kenny Brooks, a long time classic game collector, had purchased the prototype. Demiforce then contacted Mr. Brooks and began negotiating terms for the game data to be backed up and released.

An agreement was reached to pay Mr. Brooks a total of $400 in two installments: $200 up front, and an additional $200 upon the successful back up of the game data. An internet donation drive was initiated to help gather the funds needed to pay him.

The $400 total was quickly collected, and the cartridge was received by Demiforce. Work was then begun to properly back up and release the game data, and then to emulate the game so that it could be played by the public.

After the game had been backed up, the initial clean copy of the data would not run properly on Nesticle, the most widespread NES emulator available at the time. The game froze whenever a text box was drawn on the screen. EarthBound obviously could not be played in this state, so the programmer "TrelaneQ" went to work on developing a solution to the problem.

It was discovered that modifying a single byte in the game data would fix the issue. With the game ready to be played, Demiforce modified the original title screen to display EarthBound Zero so that players could easily distinguish the difference between this game and the Super Nintendo translation of Mother 2 that was also titled EarthBound. Both the original backup and the modified copy of the data were released to the public on April 27, 1998.

Almost immediately after the prototype's release, players who were eager to experience everything it had to offer discovered a fatal flaw with the modified version of the game. In several different places during gameplay, the screen would abruptly fade to black and inform the player that they were playing an illegal copy.

So what actually triggered the appearance of this copy protection screen in the game? After careful consideration, it was determined that the initial one-byte modification of the game data triggered a checksum protection routine somewhere else in the code. What this means is that the emulated game determined that the game data had been tampered with, causing the game session to be terminated and the copy protection screen to be launched.

This development was important for more than just the novelty of the copy protection screen. One of the gameplay events that triggered this screen is required to progress further in the game, thus making the game not able to be completed. TrelaneQ teamed up with another programmer, nicknamed "Barubary", to resolve this new issue. The two quickly found a way to disable the copy protection, and the newly modified game data was released to the public.

As far back as the Demiforce donation fund, there had been skepticism and controversy over the origins of the game. Some people believed that the entire process had been a ruse designed to bilk the gaming community out of a few hundred dollars, regardless of the origin of the cartridge. Others insisted that the game that was released was in fact a fake that had been created by Demiforce, already a well-known fan translation group. The belief was that Demiforce had taken the original Japanese Mother, translated the script, and made several significant modifications to the original game data.

Skeptics also pointed at inconsistencies in the cartridge's label, which states that the game had been prepared in 1994, three years after the game's planned release. The cartridge also seems to be specifically addressed to NCL* leader Hiroshi Yamauchi, a man who hadn't really ever played a video game in his life**, and had never had an active role in the actual development process.

EarthBound had also received next to no publicity, even during the game's initial development several years before. Wouldn't Nintendo want to have more publicity for a game that they were developing if they really intended to release it? These and other issues have led many people to question the authenticity of the NES EarthBound prototype.

On the other hand, an in-depth comparison of the EarthBound prototype and the original Japanese version of Mother reveals a variety of differences between the two games as well as many new features in EarthBound that are not present in Mother, such as a convenient configuration menu, a "run" option, detailed enemy descriptions, and even new and redesigned areas on the map.

Perhaps the most significant change between Mother and EarthBound is the ending sequence. After the final battle in Mother, Giegue's spaceship is seen blasting away, the kids turn towards the screen, and the credits roll in the background. The EarthBound prototype expands this ending significantly by adding in character and subplot resolutions, a retrospective on every character that appeared in the game, and even an exclusive remix of a few different songs that plays during the credits.

Another significant addition is the copy protection screen, accidentally discovered when the game's data was slightly modified. Faking such a screen would require not only an ingenious sense of detail, but also an extensive knowledge of machine-level programming.

In addition to all the other differences between Mother and EarthBound, there are multiple graphic and text changes that are completely consistent with the censorship that Nintendo of America's standards department was well known to adhere to.

Violent elements of dialogue and gameplay were removed, as well as use of tobacco products. NoA's version of the game was not to feature "Smokey the Crow," the name many fans now like to use for the original version of the Crow enemy, taking part in his trademark activity. Any crosses or other religious references were altered or deleted, and churches were either converted into "chateaus" or entirely unmentioned in EarthBound's text.

Despite these additions, and even a physical increase of memory capacity in the supposed prototype cartridge, EarthBound's authenticity was still doubted amongst a number of skeptics in the so-called online "community." One favorite theory was that a "Nintendo employee," supposedly heartbroken over the game's cancellation, took it upon his or herself to bring a very early, incomplete version of the localization to completion single-handedly, as a sort of extracurricular activity. Others suggested that a malicious team, or perhaps Demeter himself, and dedicated themselves to "hacking" Mother and creating a believable fake cartridge in order to gather a profit from desperate fans.

On June 20, 2003, Mother 1+2 was released for the GameBoy Advance in Japan. The version of Mother in this collection contains the same new features, modified areas, censored graphics, and extended ending as the alleged EarthBound prototype.

And yet, despite all the documented facts concerning the differences between the prototype EarthBound, the original Japanese Mother, and the new version of Mother that was included in the GBA Mother 1+2 collection, some people still do not believe that there is enough evidence to show that the EarthBound prototype is legitimate. In some circles, simply suggesting that it might be real is liable to cause a significant amount of laughter.

It is still technically possible that the prototype was completed by an unofficial source. And what about the mysterious label on the prototype and the inconsistencies that it provides? And if EarthBound had truly progressed as far along through the development process as the prototype, wouldn't there definitely have been more publicity given to the game?

These things cannot be overlooked, and until the day that some definitive answers are given, there will always be some doubts as to the authenticity of the EarthBound prototype.

That day is today.

Never satisfied with anything less than the truth, we decided to do a little digging. What we've found likely won't surprise you, and hopefully will put the skepticism to rest once and for all.

Read on, and learn the true story of EarthBound.

* NCL stands for Nintendo Company Limited, which is what Nintendo of Japan is commonly referred to both internally and by the public.

** as referenced in Game Over by David Sheff, p. 39.

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