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It’s been a couple weeks since Nintendo president Satoru Iwata announced on Nintendo Direct that EarthBound--known overseas as Mother 2--would be coming to Japanese Wii U systems via Virtual Console this March. Awesome for Japan; not so much for the US. So far there hasn't been a glimmer of hope. Instead, North America is getting Punch-Out!! Now, I love me some Punch-Out!!, but I've played it on Wii Virtual Console; I've played it on 3DS Virtual Console. To be offered Punch-Out!! (and not even Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, but the version featuring Mr. Dream) instead of EarthBound is a slap in the face to thousands if not millions of Nintendo fans.
If there was ever a perfect time for Nintendo to bring back EarthBound, it’s now. The Wii U is still struggling to find its legs, great 3DS games are few and far between, and the Big N needs core gamer support more than ever. And pretty much nothing could garner that support more than a Virtual Console release of EarthBound.
And the EarthBound fans are most definitely there, despite having their hopes crushed time and time again. Yeah, Mega Man Legends fans have a lot to complain about, and Phantasy Star fans haven’t seen a mainline series installment in decades, and Shenmue fans were left in the lurch without a conclusion, but that pales in comparison to the agony of the North American EarthBound faithful. Super Smash Bros. notwithstanding, the series has essentially been kicked to the curb by Nintendo of America, and despite the constant pleas and outpouring of support, that doesn't look like it’s going to change anytime soon.
So why has EarthBound been neglected for all these years? Most evidence points to potential legal complications stemming from certain songs in the game bearing resemblance to real-life pop tunes--and that’s certainly a believable possibility. I can attest from experience that Nintendo’s legal team may be the most powerful driving force in the company. But wouldn't that prevent the game from being released internationally as well? In December, EarthBound creator Shigesato Itoi tweeted that issues had finally been resolved that would allow people to experience EarthBound again. We don’t yet know if that resolution involves a modified soundtrack, but if it does, then so be it; I think most EarthBound fans would agree that a VC version with modified music is better than no VC version at all. The bottom line is that the music shouldn't be an impassable roadblock to a Virtual Console re-release.
Then again, that might not be the problem; there have also been rumors of personnel within Nintendo of America who simply aren’t fans of the EarthBound series, or possibly detest it outright. And without anyone in management to push for the revival of a fiscally unproven series--and one that would have significant localization costs to go with it--it’s easy to see how the franchise has fallen into an abyss.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that the financial incentive isn’t there. You don’t have to look too far to see bustling communities at sites like EarthBound Central or Starmen.net, and when I was an editor at Nintendo Power, it was impossible to miss the constant outpouring of fan support. For a time we polled readers on their most-wanted Virtual Console games, and EarthBound was constantly the most-wanted title, with the original Mother not far behind. Support was so unwavering that I quickly had to modify the poll on a monthly basis to focus on different game systems or different genres, lest we be stuck with the same results issue after issue. I’m pretty sure that even when I asked for, say, the most-wanted Genesis game, EarthBound still actually got the highest number of votes, although I had to disqualify it for not being a Genesis game.
Of course, the drama doesn't only involve the Virtual Console version of EarthBound. Though the Super NES release was not a big hit (140,000 copies sold according to Wikipedia), Nintendo of America could have given the franchise a new life--and realized gamers' hopes and dreams in the process--during the Game Boy Advance era with the release of Mother 1 & 2, but it didn't happen. The emotionally powerful Mother 3 was famously denied North American release as well.
Ironically, Nintendo’s lack of attention to the series has made fan support only grow, and the property has practically reached mythical status. Chances are good that many of the players demanding to see EarthBound on Virtual Console have never even played the original Super NES version, but are caught up in the mystique. Not that I blame them--if I’d been denied the chance to play one of the most legendary RPGs of the 16-bit era, I’d be raising a ruckus, too.
Now, I might be thinking about this the wrong way. Maybe Nintendo realizes that now is the time to bring EarthBound back, and it’s already concocted a plan to bring EarthBound back through Virtual Console, and just doesn't want to squander it in a 30-cent promotion when they know they could make a small fortune at full price. Maybe the North American announcement will get a Nintendo Direct of its very own. Sadly, it’s hopes and possibilities like that that make being an EarthBound fan so heart-wrenching to begin with.
Nintendo, let me take you aside for a sec and make one final plea for EarthBound. If you won’t bring it back for business reasons or for the millions of fans...do it for me. My greatest regret as a gamer is that I sold off my copy of EarthBound after I beat it (hey, I was young and dumb and needed the money!), and I would dearly like to see my old friends Mr. Saturn, Poo, and The Runaway Five once again. At least, think about it.
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