The SNES Classic Edition is an exciting release for people worldwide, and for European Nintendo fans in particular. While Final Fantasy 3, EarthBound and Super Mario RPG have been released in the region on various recent consoles, the mini console’s launch marks the first time they’ll be playable on the SNES itself — or, at least, an approximation of it.
Japanese RPGs struggled in North America, let alone Europe
Although beloved in their home country, the Super Nintendo’s JRPG collection often met poor sales overseas. EarthBound is a notorious example, barely turning a profit for Nintendo. (It likely didn’t help that the game launched in 1995, at the tail-end of the SNES’ lifespan.) Nintendo spent $2 million marketing the game overseas, but the company reportedly sold just 140,000 copies in North America.
EarthBound had some other difficulties facing it. Its extensive script would have been a huge endeavour to localize for the multilingual European audiences at the time. As fans know, much of that script is so culturally focused that it wouldn’t just be a matter of translation, but of maintaining its trademark humor for disparate audiences. All European games also required optimization to work with PAL-region TV sets, another expense.
Even games that maintain their classic status weren’t considered successful upon their initial North American release. Hironobu Sakaguchi, former president of Squaresoft, called Final Fantasy 6’s (known as Final Fantasy 3 on its first release) U.S. sales figures disappointing in retrospect.
"In terms of numbers, [Final Fantasy 6] didn't sell in the States,” he told USGamer in 2015. “It actually did very well in Japan. ... But I am kind of mystified [by 6's current popularity in the West], because [Americans] didn't buy Final Fantasy 6 back then."
With Western interest seemingly non-existent, it was hard to justify further porting and localizing these seemingly niche titles to other areas.
Although North America was lucky enough to get Final Fantasy 6, oft-regarded as one the greatest entries in the series, that it was renamed Final Fantasy 3 is indicative of how sporadic JRPG releases were in that region, too.
“Throughout the rest of the 8 and 16-bit eras, [console] RPGs in America — and especially Europe — were relative rarities,” wrote Gamasutra in a primer on the JRPG’s long history at home and abroad. “While Square continued to translate most of its better games for America, most publishers had left the market, with only sporadic releases from the likes of Capcom, Sega, Working Designs, and a handful of others.”
Those “better games” include Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 4 and Final Fantasy 6 (or 2 and 3, to North Americans) and Super Mario RPG. But Square’s other classics, from Romancing SaGa to Final Fantasy 3 and 5, failed to leave Japan.
Nintendo was reticent to bring some of its beloved JRPGs to other regions as well. The Fire Emblem series failed to launch in the West until the Game Boy Advance era; that’s why we won’t get Mystery of the Emblem, the first Fire Emblem title, on our SNES Classic Edition.
It wasn’t until Final Fantasy 7 became a smash sensation worldwide that JRPGs began making their way Westward in droves, a phenomenon we’ve examined before. That also happened to be the first Final Fantasy game to launch in Europe at all, and the region has yet to miss one of the franchise’s titles since.
And while the Virtual Console has filled in the gaps ever since — all three of these JRPGs have made it over to Europe in recent years — for Europeans who grew up during the SNES era, never getting the chance to play some of the system’s biggest classics is a sore spot.