Imagine yourself in the late 90s. 3D games are finally taken off, people are excited for the next Star Wars movie, and people are in a panic over Y2K.
Somewhere in this time, Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 released. This game was so odd for it’s time. You rarely saw Nintendo characters crossover, let alone in a fighting game. But Nintendo struck gold here, as the game was a success.
I mean, it was a winning formula. A fun platform fighter, set in well known Nintendo areas with the all-stars of Nintendo. Mario, Link, DK, Kirby etc. And even more obscure ones, maybe only the hardcore fans knew of, such as Samus, Captain Falcon, and… Ness?
This was the reaction and introduction many people had to Ness. Who was he? Why was there a little boy with a baseball bat in this game? What game is he from? Well, if you looked at his info, he was in Earthbound for the Super Nintendo. What the hell was Earthbound?!
The year is 199X
Let’s go back 4 years, when Earthbound (or Mother 2 as it was known in Japan) launched. This was late into the Super Nintendo’s life cycle. 3D games and Mode-7 graphics were all the rage. It seemed like the core values of a quality game were being overshadowed by a race for the best graphics (Sound familiar?).
Somewhere in this storm, was Earthbound. An odd, Japanese RPG that launched in North America in 1995. It didn’t reinvent how we played RPGs, it didn’t have jaw-dropping graphics, but it had something. It had charm, it had appeal. It would make you feel connected to this strange world. It would do things differently that other games wouldn’t at this time, and it just had fun.
It was quirky. It had a basic, yet colourful, display. The soundtracks were catchy, and had a vaguely familiar sound to them. The combat was simple, yet oddly addicting. Each NPC had something to say, and you would feel compelled to talk to everyone.
This game had commercials, full posters and cards in Nintendo Power, and had full displays in rental stores. It stood out, due to it’s large box that contained a strategy guide, that was as charming as the game.
This game stinks
So, what went wrong? This was a Nintendo game! Nintendo always does well with their games, especially with a marketing push this hard. Well, it seemed everything was over complicated.
First, let’s look at the campaign. “This game stinks”. Yep, that was the tagline for the entire campaign. Along with this were scratch and smell cards that smelt terrible, based on some enemies. Why? Why was this a good idea? Well, it wasn’t as Earthbound was a commercial failure in North America. “A quirky campaign for a quirky game!” said some higher up, probably. And sure, I get that line of thinking. There were so many games you had to stand out, but this was just odd. Not in an attractive way, just in a “why do these cards smell like dirty socks” way.
Secondly, the box. The publishers were afraid people would have issues completing the game. I suppose the simpler look would lend itself to younger children buying it. Again, over complicating things. “This game is hard, put a guide in it!” Did they not see Final Fantasy succeed on the Super Nintendo? Or how about any NES game before it? This simply raised the cost of the game, and while I hold a soft spot in my heart for it, it did hurt the game.
Lastly, timing. Earthbound came out at an odd time. The SNES already had a developed library, and games were pushing for stronger graphics, bigger cart sizes, and constant innovation. So, it seemed like Earthbound was behind in that aspect. But think about gamers. We love quirky things! Things that are different, weird, and new. So, I’m sure out of the 140,000 people who bought this initially would love to share online their thoughts. Only one thing, this was 1995. Only 9.2% of the US population had internet access. (Source) There was no way to find out much about it, besides the stinky commercials.
In the end, Earthbound is a fantastic, fun, and relaxing adventure. It doesn’t over complicate things, compared to it’s advertising. Every player has a different favourite memory of it, and it’s a game that lingers, that makes a difference in the way you think of games.
Maybe, just maybe, if this game succeeded we could’ve seen the sequels release in the west. Maybe developers would decide to focus on game play and experience rater than technical performance.
If you haven’t played Earthbound yet, I urge you to play it soon! After many years of begging for it, it launched on the WiiU e-shop in 2013.