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Spotlight: EarthBound

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Many questions have been posed when discussing the authenticity of the EarthBound prototype cartridge, but for years there haven't been any definitive answers. The only way to officially answer the questions regarding the legitimacy of the prototype would be for Nintendo to issue an official statement to declare that the cartridge is either legitimate or a fraud. However, the odds of such a statement ever being made are virtually non-existent.

The next best way to definitively answer the questions surrounding the prototype would be for someone involved in the development of the game to come forward and provide some answers. Perhaps a programmer, a supervisor, or someone on the marketing team would come forward and want the true story of EarthBound to be known.

This is where Phil Sandhop comes in.

Phil Sandhop knows a thing or two about Nintendo games. While working at Nintendo of America as a Product Analyst/Specialist for over a decade, Sandhop had a hand in the localizations of such titles as Final Fantasy, Metroid II: Return of Samus, and Super Mario 64. In 1990, he was hard at work as the Localization Producer and English Script Writer for the upcoming NES game EarthBound.

Sandhop is able to recall most of the information on the game's development in relatively extensive detail. When asked what he remembered about the game's completion status, he replied: "Essentially, the game was already a wrap and was in line for production when the details of the Super NES launch started to firm up. The final, approved build of EarthBound was complete by September of 1990."

If EarthBound had truly been completed and approved for production, then why was the game never published? The answer, according to Sandhop, is marketing. He recalled the process that the marketing team went through that eventually led to the release being put on indefinite hold. "EarthBound's schedule and marketing got shoved aside. At first, the production was just delayed, then it no longer fit into the product mix that they (Nintendo) wanted to have at market."

While the game itself had been completed in 1990, it was not published due to a marketing decision.

But what other work had been done on EarthBound? The two other major NES RPGs that had been published by Nintendo in North America, Enix's Dragon Warrior and Square's Final Fantasy, had each been packaged with detailed maps and enhanced instruction manuals. Had any similar effort been undertaken for EarthBound?

According to Sandhop, such work had indeed been completed. "What we were going to do about instructions was really cool. The 80 page manual covered the regular instruction booklet, plus a guide book to start the player off."

There were also some additional items that were to be packaged with the game. "Two posters, with the usual ads on one side, but the opposite sides would have been a map and an enemy chart." Even the game's soundtrack was planned for some sort of US release. "During preparations for launch, NOA Legal looked at it and it probably would have been made available in the states, although NOA wasn't going to market it."

A few more creative traits were to be included in the packaging. "The title of the guide book was none other than Great-Grandfather's Diary. The final page was illustrated to show the book ripped, as it only took the player about halfway through the game. This was all complete, they only needed to manufacture the game pak and do the printing."

With both the game and the manuals completed, the only major factor keeping EarthBound from being released was marketing. Sandhop notes, "EarthBound was not cancelled, it was just not produced. Think of a movie that has been edited and need only to be copied and sent to the theaters, along with a marketing program. Sometimes these things sit for years before the studio feels it's right. Nintendo had that luxury with games, especially NES games."

Another marketing factor that hurt EarthBound was that RPGs were not extremely popular in mainstream gaming in North America at the time. This, coupled with Nintendo's shift in focus to the Super Nintendo after that system's launch in September of 1991, is what eventually killed EarthBound's chances for release.

"Once the Super NES squatted in the pipeline and shoved the game aside from its appointed time," Sandhop says, "I believe that the marketing execs just decided that the game would be too expensive to produce and unsuccessful without marketing, and that's why it fell into oblivion."

This explains why EarthBound was never published. But the game, as well as the instruction manual, was completed. Sandhop provides some of the details of how the game was created, and also what steps were taken to bring EarthBound through the localization process.

It has long been known that Nintendo had a censorship policy in place during much of the NES's lifespan. "Everyone had a copy of the policy and it was the same for all games," Sandhop notes. "As part of my process, I changed what I felt went against the policy."

Games published by Nintendo were not the only games to be censored. Maniac Mansion, developed by LucasArts Entertainment and published on the NES by Jaleco, is a well-known example of Nintendo's censorship policy. Many items in the game, from nudity on statues to text suggestive of violence or sexual situations, were modified or removed. Sandhop clarified that no favoritism was shown to games being produced by Nintendo. "We maintained an even hand with our games as well as the third parties" when it came to censorship.

Sandhop went on to describe how he personally dealt with the censorship issue when localizing EarthBound. "My changes were reviewed by other producers as I re-wrote the script, by the people that I used to check text, and by product testing. If anyone thought I wrote something or a graphic remained that violated the policy, they brought it up to me and I reviewed it with my director and/or the Licensing execs, and we asked the development team for any changes."

When asked if there were any special challenges that arose in the localization of EarthBound, Sandhop replied, "In this game, these changes also had to make Itoi and Miyamoto happy."*

An interesting revelation is that all of the actual graphic edits and gameplay improvements to EarthBound were actually implemented by the original Japanese development team. Sandhop elaborates on this: "As a general rule with games produced by NCL, the development teams continue to work and tweak their projects that they know will be localized and produced in other territories. Often they will address their own desires that were not completed due to time constraints or not completed to their satisfaction and they will also address issues raised by Japanese consumers as that release hits the street.

"American consumers are often very vocal about the length of time this process takes, but they really do get a much better product than they would otherwise."

Although it was never released, Earthbound turned out to be an important factor in the Nintendo's history. "The Mother project and localizing it really opened up a few eyes at NCL. They began working closer with NOA and the other subidiaries to produce artwork for games that would be appropriately received anywhere in the world and not need localization."

So now the story of the game's development has been cleared up and described in detail, but what about the prototype cartridge itself? Phil Sandhop himself feels entirely confident that the data is the real deal.

"Without a doubt, the game's text is what I wrote." He adds, "You can thank me for the B Button run. It was something that was added for debug, but I convinced them to keep it."

All of the changes from the Japanese Famicom release are consistent with Sandhop's memory of what was changed during development. He also commented that he's "fairly positive" the released data is the final build, despite a few typos scattered about. "There were errors that didn't get corrected for the approved version. No software is ever final!"

Sandhop was also not surprised that the Japanese release of Mother 1+2 on GameBoy Advance contained all of the improvements and changes that had been developed for EarthBound. "In software development, each subsequent version is usually derivative of prior versions. Once the program was changed they would have continued to use the revised program and plugged in their old text modules."

Since EarthBound's code, including all of the changes and improvements, had been radically altered from the original Famicom release of Mother, and all of these changes had to be approved from the top down, it isn't surprising that even the censored graphics were included in the release of Mother 1+2.

As for the physical evidence of the cart, Sandhop replies, "While I didn't prepare this one myself, it looks fairly consistent with prototypes of that era. It is my belief that the game pak was prepared by an official source within Nintendo of America, an unofficial source within NoA, or someone copycatting in a pretty authentic manner."

So according to Sandhop, the Localization Producer of EarthBound, the cartridge itself appears to be legitimate. But what about the label on the cart that so many people have pointed to as evidence that the prototype is a fake?

Sandhop comments, "These labels were made by a Smart brand label printer that was very commonly used at NoA." While this fact is indeed interesting to note, it is not solid evidence that the label was created by the EarthBound team.

However, Sandhop later made another comment on the label. "Looking at the pic again, I saw another label not printed on a Smart Label printer. That is the NES packet 23 label.

"To me, this label establishes a lot of credibility to the authenticity of the housing."

Sandhop goes on to explain why he believes that the cartridge is authentic. "We just kept re-using the same housings. At one time before those printers became so common, the department's administrative assistant was in charge of preparing packets of games to be reviewed by two internal groups of evaluators and she prepared that label on one of the only electric typewriters I ever saw at NoA using a standard file folder label.

"Without any doubt in my mind," Sandhop concludes, "I truly believe that the housing pictured is a genuine article and I probably handled it many times. However, at those times it contained different games. Open it up and my fingerprints could still be on the inside."

But what about the information on the label itself? An examination of the printing on the label brings up several questions. Sandhop provides some insight that helps clarify the situation.

"Hiroshi Yamauchi was not the only Yamauchi employed by Nintendo or its subsidiaries," he explains. "I personally know one and know of another, and had been told that these were nephews of the big guy. I'm also sure remembering that I was told that one of them was working at Nintendo of Canada at about that time."

Sandhop goes on to say: "The other individual named I did know and he certainly was working at NoA at that time. He also would have been in the position to have made the request to have the prototype produced. That is the Hiro Yamada mentioned on the labels. He was an NCL employee that was on loan and receiving further training at NoA. Last I heard he was still at NCL, working in EAD."**

In regards to the 1994 date on the label, Sandhop states, "I don't believe that the date was misprinted. I think that this prototype was prepared for evaluation at Nintendo of Canada."

While this may seem strange, take another good look at the label. NOCL stands for Nintendo of Canada Limited, and is in fact not a misprint or alternate abbreviation for NCL, or Nintendo Company Limited, which is how Nintendo of Japan is usually referred to internally and by the public.

So why would a prototype of a game that was already completed and approved for release in North America in 1990 be sent to Canada in 1994?

The answer to this question is the same reason that EarthBound was not released in North America to begin with: marketing.

Sandhop explains why he believes this to be the case in a further explanation of the localization process. "Often, we would finish up the localization of a game immediately after the game was finished for the Japanese market. This was done before the development teams would be disbanded or re-assigned.

"Also, as a good number of NCL projects are done by second parties, immediately completing the US version ROM data was specified in the contract. This gave NoA complete leisure to feed the market as it saw fit.

"The reason you would see so many games get delayed forever, then suddenly come to market was that NoA would keep producing and distributing what people were buying. This meant completed games would wait for production until what was already being marketed stopped selling."

Is it really possible that Marketing could have been contemplating the release of an unproduced NES game at that time? With an installed user base of over 20 million in the United States and the market for NES games not officially declared dead yet, evaluating the release of a game that was already completely finished and ready for production would not be out of the question.

Phil Sandhop believes that the prototype was probably prepared for this purpose. "I'm not sure at this point if it was sent to NOCL to look at prior to the release of the SNES EarthBound, or if it was being looked at as one of the late NES releases after the SNES.

"Games marketed in Canada needed a bilingual instruction booklet and I don't believe that this had been done for this title" during the original development in 1990. "NOCL taking another look before a decision was made to produce for North American distribution would be logical."

Sandhop further explains: "A post-SNES release of an NES game needed to be successful without a lot of marketing support and the game could not be sold in Canada without a bilingual manual. If they couldn't distribute to Canada they might have determined that they couldn't get their return on investment.

"Nintendo never hesitated to use a little bit of money to research if they could make a lot of money and I saw them say many times that, yes, we can make money, just not enough to justify using our resources on that project and denying them from other possibilities. I'm certain that is what happened with EarthBound."

"This would have been an expensive product to manufacture and distribute," Sandhop notes. The game would have needed "2 Meg of program ROM, 2 Meg of character ROM, 64KSRAM and battery" for saving games, plus 80 pages of instructions in the manual, two poster maps, and additional packaging.

It's ironic to note that the EarthBound project may not have finally been killed by the decline of the NES and the rise of the Super NES, but rather by the game's own memory-intensive improvements over the original Mother.

Now that answers have been given to many of the questions regarding the EarthBound prototype, most of the doubts about the authenticity of the cartridge can be put to rest.

The possibility of this prototype being faked by someone who had nothing but the game data can be ruled out. The public had yet to see a single first-party Nintendo prototype for the NES in 1998, and no other prototype with these specific labels has surfaced to this day. Someone trying to forge an authentic copy of the cartridge would have had no example to work from.

But what about the supposition that someone from the development team decided to manufacture their own EarthBound prototype cartridge with the completed game data? Even if someone from the development team were to have made a fake prototype of EarthBound to try and make money by scamming video game enthusiasts over the internet, why would they bother meticulously counterfeiting the labels on the cartridge to represent every feature of a true first party prototype, down to the names of actual Nintendo employees, when the video game collecting community didn't even know what a first party Nintendo prototype was supposed to look like?

And if all of these highly unlikely actions had actually been taken, why would anyone who went through all of the effort that it would take to create such an authentic fake EarthBound cartridge sell it for the ridiculously low price of $125? It does not make sense.

But invariably, even with most of the questions about the EarthBound prototype cartridge now answered, still more questions will need to be answered before some people will accept the legitimacy of the prototype. And these questions do need to be answered, if for no other reason than to finally put to rest the doubts about the authenticity of the work that was done on EarthBound by people like Phil Sandhop.

However, further proof on the cartridge's authenticity is not possible at this time. No pictures of the inside were ever released and the current owner of the cartridge is unknown. After recieving the cartridge back from Demiforce, Kenny Brooks attempted to auction it on eBay but the $1000 reserve was not met.

A young collector named Andrew Derouin made a deal with Brooks to buy the prototype for that price. About a year after purchasing the game for $1000, Derouin decided to put it up for auction himself. Whether another person bought the cartridge or Derouin retained position is unclear.

Derouin could not be reached for comment at the time this article was published. Pictures of the inside of the cartridge may provide enough information to the prove, once and for all, that the prototype EarthBound cartridge is real.

* Shigesato Itoi was the creator of the Mother series, and Shigeru Miyamoto was the general manager of Nintendo Co. Ltd.

** EAD stands for Entertainment, Analysis, and Development. Nintendo EAD was one of Nintendo's primary game development studios.

Douglas Crockford's article The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for the Nintendo Entertainment System can be found here. Special thanks to Phil Sandhop.


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