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EarthBotched: A History of Nintendo vs. Starmen

It may have confused some of you to see a select number of gamers fall into paralytic fits of glee over an ESRB rating for Earthbound on the Virtual Console, marking the quirky SNES RPG's first appearance in North America after almost 13 years.

Those uninitiated to the game might've wondered what the fuss was all about. "Balderdash," you exclaimed to nobody in particular. "What's the big deal about an ESRB rating? Who cares if it comes out on the Virtual Console?"

And you'd be right to say so. At face value, EarthBound's appearance on the Virtual Console might seem an insignificant feat. But for the community that has fought tooth and nail for the series in an unwelcoming territory, the rating is a nod from Nintendo that's been anticipated for a full decade, and is just about the best news these gamers have had in just as long.

A History Lesson
Unconventional from the start, what was released in North America as EarthBound was actually the second in a Japanese series called Mother, characterized by its modern Western settings, outlandish characters and enemies, and an utterly bizarre sense of humor. The first title, which hit the Famicom in 1989, came ridiculously close to a North American release, with a translation in the can and packaging and advertising readied for a late 1991 release on the NES. But with the SNES having hit store shelves just a few months before, Nintendo deemed Mother's North American debut--then-titled Earth Bound--too risky, and the project was shelved.

The company gave it another shot with the release of Mother 2 in 1994, which arrived in North America just short of a year later. Retitled EarthBound, the game introduced the overseas audience to prophetic bees, zombie prostitutes, enraged hippies and menacing piles of sentient vomit. A fun and scathing satire of Western culture, EarthBound quickly became a fan favorite.

Sadly, the game tanked in North America, selling roughly 140,000 copies compared to about twice that figure in Japan. In embracing the game's unconventional sense of humor, Nintendo of America marketed the game in a similarly unusual manner, printing awful scented scratch-'n-sniff ads that proclaimed "this game stinks." The ill-advised marketing push--part of Nintendo's somewhat laughable "Play It Loud" campaign--coupled with EarthBound's $70 price point lead many gamers to look elsewhere for their role-playing fix.

A third and final game, Mother 3, was announced in 1996 for the Nintendo 64, where it was mired in development hell until its cancellation in 2000. Three years later in an advertisement for a Mother 1 and 2 compilation on the Game Boy Advance, series creator Shigesato Itoi announced plans to bring Mother 3 to the portable system, returning the series to its 2D roots and maintaining a scenario similar to what had been planned for the Nintendo 64. The game finally saw release in April of 2006, leading the burgeoning EarthBound fan community to clamor for a North American localization.

Nintendo of America, meanwhile, seemed content to pretend that the game had never existed to begin with.

What do we want / When do we want it
Back in 1997, Reid Young created one of the internet's first EarthBound fan sites, and joined with Clyde "Tomato" Mandelin to create Starmen.Net two years later. The site has since become the one-stop destination for the EarthBound fan community for almost a decade. Named for EarthBound's most iconic villain, the Starman, the site has served as a repository for an absolutely massive stock of fan-created media, information on the Mother series and, perhaps most notably, a means of rallying the fan community to the cause of seeing more of the games in North America.

Starmen's lengthy history of fan activism began the year of its inception, when the site organized a petition to see the original Mother released on the Game Boy Color. To that end, the site amassed 1850 real signatures of supportive gamers, bound them neatly in a customized book, and sent them off to Nintendo of America. A representative of the company replied to Young, saying that the package was "forwarded to the appropriate department for review," which became Nintendo's last word on the subject.

Or was it? Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Starmen later rallied just over 10,000 gamers to their cause to see a North American release of Mother 3 on the Nintendo 64 in 2000, and roughly 31,000 for its Game Boy Advance incarnation in 2003. The community accompanied its petitions with letter-writing and phone campaigns meant to show Nintendo of America just how much they wanted Mother's return to the United States.

The outpouring ramped up with the Japanese release of Mother 3. Young and his cohorts knew that Nintendo of America's history of ignoring the series meant that the chances of seeing the title localized in North America were slim to none, but the challenge did little to stymie the efforts of the EarthBound fan community. In what might be considered the greatest gaming love letter ever created, Starmen created the EarthBound Anthology--a bound folk history of the community's efforts paired with fan-created artwork, media, and music spread across 263 pages and 4 DVDs.

I received a copy of the Anthology last year, along with several other journalists and developers, just prior to E3 2007. The aim of the Anthology, said Young, was to demonstrate the community's commitment to the series to members of the game industry's press and development circles in the hopes that contacted parties would join Starmen's campaign in demanding that Nintendo bring the series back to North America.

"We've already got the fans making personal contact with Nintendo to let them know what they want," wrote Young in an accompanying letter. "We're also working to get copies of this book into the hands of Nintendo's decision makers. We hope that a display of interest from the media will be the final straw which convinces [Nintendo] to give their position on the series a second look."

A big fan of the series myself, I had kept an eye on Starmen's activities since the site was young. But until that book was in my hands, I never really had a grasp of just how much blood, sweat and tears the community had dumped into what was, at that point, a fruitless endeavor. The Anthology was elegantly designed, professionally presented, and read more like a proposal than a fan art compilation.

The Anthology's proposal was simply stated. "With an established and devoted fanbase, media awareness, and a completed sequel begging to be translated, EarthBound is poised for a comeback." This wasn't just some lousy campaign -- it was business. Starmen had grown up, and its ceaseless devotion matured in kind.

At the following E3, I ran into a Nintendo employee at a luncheon. Over soggy sandwiches and the common conversation exchanged at the show--"Don't these shuttles just suck?"-- I made a point to ask about the EarthBound Anthology, to which my new friend replied, "Oh yeah, I heard about that. Those guys don't know when to quit, do they?"

Apparently not.

The Last Straw
Mother 3's Japanese release and Starmen's massive campaign came and went without so much as a word from Nintendo of America. With Mother creator Shigesato Itoi declaring the series finished with the third title, there seemed little hope that EarthBound would ever reemerge overseas. The EarthBound Anthology had won Young and crew recognition from the company in the pages of Nintendo Power, but no official announcement one way or the other was ever made.

Once Mother 3 seemed irrevocably destined to be a Japan-only release, Starmen began organizing a fan translation of the title in November of 2006, promising to bring Mother 3 to English-speaking audiences for the first time. Progress has been steady, and while a release date for the translation patch has yet to be announced, the effort is much closer today than it was a year ago.

The translators assured fans that development would cease if and when Nintendo announced plans to bring the title to North America. To date, Nintendo has issued no official statements concerning the translation besides vague deflections by CEO Reggie Fils-Aime when questioned directly about the project.

"It certainly is a franchise near and dear to [Nintendo Co. President Satoru Iwata's] heart, and it's something I'm trying to get smart on to understand whether or not there is an opportunity here," Fils-Aime told MTV. "But certainly I've seen the success in Japan. That hasn't gone unnoticed. And it's certainly something we're looking at."

Next, more of Nintendo's internal view of the Mother series, Starmen's defeat, and a silver lining. _PAGE_BREAK_

With the fan translation effort underway, Starmen aimed at ensuring EarthBound's release on Nintendo's Virtual Console, a downloadable gaming platform on the Wii featuring scores of classic titles. Prior to Mother 3's shut-out, it was thought that strong commercial performance might strengthen the sequel's chances for a North American release--with those hopes dashed, however, the movement turned towards just getting something in North America, be it a Virtual Console release, a port on the Nintendo DS, anything.

But along the way, the site had made a few friends inside of Nintendo, who relayed information back to Starmen covertly, like secretive wartime communiques. A source inside Nintendo revealed that the company conducted an internal "culture audit" late last year and found that it ranked in the lower 9th percentile among 850 companies for altering their business based on consumer feedback.

"That bit of information serves as a perfect intro/backdrop for telling the story of EarthBound fans," Young told me in an email exchange.

Despite Nintendo's silence, the site's efforts didn't go unnoticed--at least, not publicly. Starmen's contact at Nintendo of America also told them that the site's 2003 phone campaign to get the Mother 1+2 compilation for the Game Boy Advance localized in North America almost worked.

"He said they flagged the game and waited to see if interest would stay steady, but our phone campaign ended after a week," Reid added. "As soon as we heard that, we immediately resolved to keep our current campaign going indefinitely."

Given that the Virtual Console amounts to little more than straight emulation of classic titles on the Wii, the process involved in bringing the game to the platform is virtually effortless--but the game never showed, and true to form, Nintendo remained silent. Starmen later learned that despite overwhelming support for the game, EarthBound was likely not coming to the Virtual Console for a number of reasons, including some undisclosed legal hang-ups.

The webmaster also revealed that Starmen made official attempts to license Mother 3 for release in North America, in a partnership with a small development and publishing studio. They later sent out exploratory emails to Nintendo of America, which were swiftly and decisively answered by the company.

"A few days later we got a decidedly curt response from Nintendo," Young said. "To paraphrase, a representative said 'the Mother series is our IP, and we're not letting anybody touch it. Even if we wanted to do something with the series, we would do it ourselves.'"

To make matters worse, Nintendo unceremoniously removed EarthBound from the Masterpieces collection--essentially a set of time-limited demos of several classic Nintendo games--in the North American localization of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, released in the States earlier this year. Mother appeared utterly abandoned by Nintendo of America.

Late last month, Young announced Starmen's (likely final) campaign: a YouTube contest awarding EarthBound-related memorabilia to videos dedicated to raising awareness for the series and getting the game on the Virtual Console. But morale was low--after several petitions, massive mail and phone campaigns and an entire book dedicated to fan devotion to EarthBound, what reason would Nintendo have to listen now?

"I firmly believe that this will be the end of the line for the series if we can't make something happen," Young said.

Just under a week later, EarthBound was listed on the ESRB's website. Though this small victory might not have been directly related to Starmen's campaign, after so many years of toil, it may have well been the first moon landing.

On Bone-Throwing
The gaming community at large has moved away from print magazines and has become one of the most vocal groups on the internet, spewing forth countless pages of forum posts at the slightest provocation. Overwhelming fan response has moved 2K Games to market a limited edition BioShock with a Big Daddy action figure; consumer outrage over a misplaced IGN logo on Okami's Wii box art spurred Capcom to supply replacement inserts to irate gamers. Developers read enthusiast blogs and forums, and keep tabs on consumer interest.

In a market with so much interplay between the fan and development communities, Nintendo's historic passive-aggression towards EarthBound fans seems somehow anachronistic, especially given the overwhelming show of support from Starmen. It's almost unfortunate that Shigesato Itoi's opus came courtesy of a company which routinely delivers some of the most personal experiences in gaming's history, but lacks the sort of "bedside manner" that many companies have come to adopt as part of strengthening their presence in the modern gaming industry.

And while Starmen's numbers might not rival the hundreds of thousands of gamers snarling over broken figurines or manual misprints, it's difficult to argue that they haven't put in the work for what they want. It takes little to no effort to gripe and complain on a message board as thousands do every day, but it's another thing altogether to communicate the way the EarthBound fan community has -- a respectful enthusiasm accompanied by a simple, honest appreciation of their favorite games.

EarthBound's ESRB rating is certainly a good sign, but it by no means guarantees the game's appearance on the Virtual Console. But if Nintendo has any sense of decency towards its base, it's time for something to happen. Even if it's just a simple re-release of a 13-year-old RPG that features zombie prostitutes, angry hippies and a delightfully crude sense of humor, at least it would be something.

After almost ten years of crushed hopes and unsatisfied efforts, I'd be hard pressed to imagine a more deserving fan base than Starmen and the EarthBound fan community. Nintendo, take heed: nearly a decade of devotion demands that you give back.

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