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Earthbound

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Piracy helped Earthbound become a cult classic

How fans helped create a franchise when Nintendo didn’t

HAL Laboratory/Nintendo

EarthBound, the endearing Japanese role-playing game from the Super Nintendo era, delivers a very particular brand of surreal humor and sentimentality. It’s part of a series known as Mother in Japan, but it’s EarthBound that has left its fingerprints all over a growing genre of games colloquially known as Motherlikes in some communities. Undertale is probably the best-known example of this genre, and it owes much of its goofy yet lovable tone to EarthBound.

EarthBound enjoys a dedicated fan base of North American and European players who revere it as a classic in the JRPG genre. Many fans have spent decades clamoring for Nintendo to do more with the series, which consists of just three games released over more than a decade. To show their love, the team at Starman.net created a 270-page EarthBound artbook, and fans carried out letter and phone campaigns to get a North American release of the Mother 1 + 2 compilation on the Game Boy Advance, albeit with little success. The fans even took it upon themselves to painstakingly put together a translation of Mother 3, the long-awaited 2006 follow-up to Mother and EarthBound, when Nintendo kept it exclusive to the Japanese market.

Yet it was emulation — a tool famously abhorred by Nintendo — that helped EarthBound clinch its cult status. Fans who wanted to play the game without paying through the nose for old, Super NES retail copies had only one choice: bending the law.

EarthBound’s humble beginnings

“I remember seeing all the big [video game] names on the top-rated list, such as Super Mario World and Zelda, and recognizing most of them except for EarthBound,” one Redditor, stfnotguilty, told me. Now a big fan of the game, he first found out about EarthBound via emulation. He was searching for more games from the Zelda series on ROM sites after playing 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64, and stumbled upon EarthBound when he saw it nestled among a pirate site’s best-rated games.

“I figured I’d give it a try since it was apparently very good,” he said. “I don’t remember seeing [EarthBound] at any of the video stores I used to rent games from, and I learned years later that it apparently sold terribly and was pretty difficult to find.”

EarthBound did in fact bumble through its nascent years, as its identity might have been too esoteric for the gaming community in 1994, when it launched. One reason for its lackluster initial sales — it sold fewer than 150,000 copies then — might have been its unusual setting.

Popular role-playing games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were heavily, for lack of a better word, Tolkienian. They contained stories that were often centered around defeating a great, unspeakable evil and fantastical beasts. In contrast, EarthBound took place in a time and setting that looked very much like our own. It stood out, and that might not have been helpful at the time. Why would you want to run around a town that might look like where you grew up when you could travel to a far-away place and fight amazing beasts?

The game’s marketing campaign compounded the issue. It was unabashedly juvenile, filled with gross-out humor and self-deprecating proclamations about how “this game stinks,” which were accompanied by scratch-and-sniff ads. These pages left a literal stench in gaming magazines.

A battle against Mini Barfs in EarthBound
Bad smells may have been a thing with EarthBound.
HAL Laboratory/Nintendo

“I remember specifically avoiding EarthBound because of those horrible ads in Nintendo Power,” a reader wrote in one memorable comment on an EarthBound-related article from 1UP. “I particularly remember this item you would scratch and it would smell like pickles. Pickles were the devil to me when I was a kid. Why would I get a game that stinks of pickles?”

Nonetheless, EarthBound still managed to inch its way toward cult status as the years went on and the ROM was traded among fans and shared online. Another fan on Reddit, known as RobinLSL, used emulation to play games he couldn’t buy legally, including RPGs that were never given an official release in Europe.

“Starting with Final Fantasy 4, 5, and 6, I progressively discovered more RPGs — including EarthBound,” he told me.

Nintendo’s inclusion of EarthBound’s plucky hero, Ness, in 1999’s Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64 also helped nudge players toward the game. Dylan Bishop was a new fan who found out about EarthBound via Super Smash Bros. He could only experience the game on an emulator some years later.

“There were no legal means for buying EarthBound,” Bishop said. “Hardly any game or pawn shops carried games that old then, nor did I even have a Super NES to play it with. It was just too hard to get my hands on. Yet it was this rare gem that the internet seemed to love, and I couldn’t justify not trying it.”

Bishop’s experiences with EarthBound mirrored those of other players as well. For years, Super NES cartridges of EarthBound were difficult to obtain without paying at least twice the original retail price.

Emulation, therefore, eventually became many players’ de-facto method of experiencing the joys of EarthBound. People had to find a way to play the game for it to continue living as a fan favorite, and Nintendo was offering few ways for non-Japanese speakers to do so legally, or at a fair price.

“Being a teenager in Europe in the early 2000s, finding a working American copy of a game would have been quite unrealistic, not to mention very expensive,” RobinLSL explained. “It’s quite likely the game would have faded into obscurity, had Nintendo cracked down on emulation sites then.”

While ROM sites operate in an arguably gray area of the law, and Nintendo would certainly argue that downloading ROMs is an illegal act of piracy, there were few affordable ways of playing the game then. There was no lost sale, because there were no other methods of buying the game from Nintendo.

It’s basically this quirky all the way through
HAL Laboratory/Nintendo

The expensive, second-hand copies weren’t making Nintendo money; those sales only benefited the fans smart enough to hold onto an original copy to resell. And the ROM traders helped EarthBound grow in renown and popularity, growing another Nintendo franchise in the process. Nintendo may not like piracy, but this is one of the few cases where the long-term effects of the ROM’s circulation were almost all positive for the company.

EarthBound launches on Virtual Console

Fans lobbied for an EarthBound release on Nintendo’s Virtual Console through the now-defunct Miiverse social platform, and the company finally listened and released EarthBound on the Wii U Virtual Console in 2013. A release on the 3DS eShop took place in 2016. There were finally, after decades of waiting, inexpensive and legal ways for Western fans to play the game. (They even brought the original Mother, which was never released in the West, to Virtual Console as EarthBound Beginnings.)

EarthBound quickly became a bestseller on the Virtual Console — coming in third place in sales behind bigger, new Wii U games New Super Luigi U and Pikmin 3 in the month it was released — and received much more critical acclaim than it did during its release in 1994. Much of that momentum and enthusiasm was due to the game’s spread through the world of ROM sites and emulation, and fans seemed eager to finally give Nintendo money for the game they had loved for years.

The game came to the Virtual Console, at least in part, because of the dedicated and vocal fans who first played the game through emulation, and Nintendo immediately profited from the game’s updated stature as a must-play for RPG fans. And fans who emulated the game continued to support Nintendo when the game was made available other ways.

Having played EarthBound as a kid, Megan Condis wanted her own copy of the game when she left home for college, since the original cartridge had been whisked away by her brother.

“Buying a new [physical] copy at this later date would have cost like $150 on eBay,” she explained. As a result, she booted up an emulator in hopes of reliving some of her childhood memories. This reinvigorated her love for EarthBound, and she later purchased Nintendo’s Super NES Classic mini-console in 2017, as it included the game.

EarthBound continues to have a persistent presence in the public eye thanks to emulation, even decades after its release. The EarthBound subreddit, for instance, is still flourishing today, despite the lack of significant updates to the game or its series in recent years.

Yet the technology that bolstered its popularity remains a touchy subject among Nintendo communities and fan circles, not to mention the company itself. The aforementioned subreddit even has an explicit rule about not posting links to ROM sites.

Such preventative moves are understandable, since Nintendo’s attempts at shutting down ROM sites have been tenacious. The operators of two such sites — LoveROMs and LoveRETRO — had to pay Nintendo a staggering $12 million as part of a settlement for copyright infringement.

Another ROM site, EmuParadise, decided to stop offering downloads of retro games in 2018, with the owner sharing that he could not “in good conscience risk the futures of our team members who have contributed to the site through the years.”

Even a digital library of retro games known as Console Classix, which had proudly touted itself as “the only emulation service that is 100 percent legal,” received a letter from Nintendo claiming that “all Nintendo ROMs published on the Internet are necessarily unauthorized and illegal.”

Nintendo’s views on the matter seems to be set in stone, and the company has every right to protect its games from piracy. The other side of that coin is that piracy helped EarthBound grow into a popular, influential game when Nintendo didn’t offer a reasonable method to purchase the game legally. Nintendo will never admit it, but piracy kept EarthBound alive and grew its renown. And Nintendo was able to profit from that the moment it allowed fans to buy the game at a fair price.

After years of leaning on ROMs, stfnotguilty now owns EarthBound on his Nintendo 3DS as well as the Super NES Classic.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on EarthBound fansites over the years, especially Starmen.net, which collaborated to release the translated Mother 3 ROM, and you would not believe the sheer number of people who first played the game on an emulator and now own a legal copy of the game,” he told me. “As somebody who found a few of my favorite games of all time through emulation, I really hope that game developers as a whole, and Nintendo in particular, realize that emulation is helping them, not hurting them.”

Nintendo’s stance on piracy and emulation is firm. But the company — and EarthBound — sure wouldn’t have been the same without it.