Documentarian Bones joins us to discuss their directorial debut Mother to Earth. We dive into the mysteries of Earth Bound, the unreleased North American version of Nintendo’s JRPG Mother. Now, this is not to be confused with the Super Nintendo game, Earthbound, which is actually the sequel; we know, it’s complicated. Set to release in America in the early 90’s, Earth Bound didn’t come to the US until 25 years later. You may think you know the story…
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Kelsey Lewin 00:09
Welcome to episode number 21 of the Video Game History Hour presented by the Video Game History Foundation. Every episode we’ll be bringing in an expert guest someone who’s done their research and has an interesting story from video game history to tell. My name is Kelsey Lewin. I’m the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation. And I’m here as always with Frank Cifaldi, the founder and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.
Frank Cifaldi 00:31
And our guest today is documentarian Bones. Their directorial debut Mother to Earth dives into the mysteries of Earth Bound, the unreleased North American version of Nintendo’s JRPG Mother. Now this is not to be confused with the Super Nintendo game, EarthBound, which is actually the sequel–it’s complicated. Bones Welcome to the Video Game History Hour
Thank you happy to be here.
Frank Cifaldi 00:56
So okay, what is it we’re talking about when we talk about Earth Bound? Earth Bound being Earth with the–“Earth” and “Bound” with the space between them?
Oh, yes. Yes. the god the spelling for that is absolutely buckwild. Yeah, so Earth _space_ Bound. Not to be confused with EarthBound or spaceBOUND.
Kelsey Lewin 01:15
With the other name for EarthBound. That was going to be spaceBOUND.
Yep. But yeah, no, this is the NES release of Mother which was completely translated and localized, ready for American release in like the early early 1990s. and ended up getting shelved and ultimately released like 25 years later on the Wii U. digitally as Earthbound Beginnings. It’s a very fascinating, fascinating story. There’s lots of like, fan, pushing for the release of this game, knowing that like, the English version exists, and most of them having played it before it actually officially released. But yeah, Mother to Earth kind of like dives into the process of of that and how that all came to be.
Frank Cifaldi 02:13
And not only how the game came to be, but how the game came to be online unofficially,
Yes, yeah, there’s quite a bit of this film that talks about the prototypes that of the game that leaked out of Nintendo, and got into the hands of collectors, and one of which was actually like, dumps the ROM for it was dumped and then put online for people to play. And so people had access to it from like, as early as 1998. Before it finally came out in 2015,
Kelsey Lewin 02:51
I think this is such a fascinating direction for a documentary or for I mean, really, for any kind of media is not just telling the story of this unreleased game, but telling the story of kind of how it became such a weird cultural phenomenon and how people were able to play it, you know, almost 20 years before Nintendo wanted you to play it. That part. Like that’s not a part of video game history that I think is explored very often.
Yeah, I’m trying to think of like other situations in which a game? Oh, I mean, there, obviously, there have been a lot of unreleased games that have made it like onto the Internet years later, because somebody found a prototype or something like that, right. But like, I think this is one of the only times that I can think of or one of the few times that I can think of where like the game was then released later on, because so much hype built up around the idea of playing it officially. where like, they finally saw that there was a big enough demand because of all of these people that played it through I guess quote unquote, dubious means.
Kelsey Lewin 04:03
Yeah, I mean, if there had never been a an English localization of Mother on the Internet, if they had never, there never been a cartridge, found a prototype cartridge found and dumped. Do you think Nintendo would have ever been like, yeah, let’s dig up this old thing.
Oh, absolutely not.
Frank Cifaldi 04:21
No. Absolutely not. No
Well, one of the biggest things about like, this game was like EarthBound hit cult classic status pretty shortly after it released
Frank Cifaldi 04:32
As in Super Nintendo game.
Yeah, Super Nintendo game just to clarify.
Frank Cifaldi 04:36
So, Mother 2, Super Nintendo.
Like, yeah, so like when EarthBound came out for Super Nintendo, and it didn’t sell super well. I mean, there’s so much history behind like Reid Young starting, You Are Now EarthBound which then became Starmen.net. And like, all of this like, history behind them like rallying to try and get a release for Mother 3 Here in America, which is still unsuccessful. But this first game like everybody kind of knew that it existed but it wasn’t until after EarthBound for Super Nintendo kind of started to pick up in popularity a little bit that like, people found out that there was even an English version of this. I don’t think that people if this hadn’t leaked, like, I don’t think that Nintendo would have thought there was a big enough demand for it, because it really is kind of a like, clunky RPG.
Frank Cifaldi 05:33
I mean, its still–
Frank Cifaldi 05:38
it is okay. If you’ve not played RPGs of this era, this will come across as clunky if you’ve played for example, the first 4 Dragon Quests–
Frank Cifaldi 05:51
–this is a I think traditional RPG. And I take issue with the way people talk about this game in terms of its necessary grinding, etc. But
Frank Cifaldi 06:04
I don’t I don’t know that it’s time for my soapbox on this yet. I’ll pocket this.
Kelsey Lewin 06:08
I think is a comes across in the documentary too, though, is that there? There are people who are like, I think sometimes people consider this game to be the worse, just a worse version of Super Nintendo EarthBound, of Mother 2. I have considered I that is exactly my opinion. And also, it’s a pretty decent game that doesn’t require a lot of grinding.
Kelsey Lewin 06:29
It is the it is it is essentially the the I would consider it you know, in a more traditional sense, sort of the prototypical Earthbound it is it is the essence of what I think Ito and company were going for, ultimately, that they finally realized in the sequel. Is that kind of how I think of this game.
Yeah, and I mean, I like I still think that EarthBound Beginnings is like, one of my favorite RPGs of all time. Even like even knowing that EarthBound for Super Nintendo is kind of like where this led because it really does feel a little bit like it’s like a proto EarthBound for Super Nintendo. But like, there are so many moments in that game that just like, in the way that they set the tone. And like the vibe of it is a lot more like we mentioned in the film, but it’s a lot more like a like a Steven Spielberg film, almost. The music is just very, like, mysterious. And there’s all sorts of like, little pieces here and there that just like even this, like having black backgrounds, rather than like the psychedelic battle backgrounds and stuff like that just add to like, the the, like mystery and intrigue of it in a way that I don’t think that EarthBound for Super Nintendo ever really. Like, attained?
Frank Cifaldi 07:57
Yeah. And and I think that’s fair. And I think it’s, you know, if you if you examine this game, in its time and place, I mean, you know, had it come out, it would have been the cult classic that the sequel was here, right? Like, it’s, it’s, it kind of changed the way that we think of JRPGs in terms of, you know, their setting, being in something more analogous to the real world in terms of being able to be spontaneous and kind of funny. Like, it’s, I would, I wouldn’t say that it’s a parody of the Dragon Quest games. I would say that it’s, you know, very much. It’s, it’s someone who, I mean, I don’t I don’t actually know. But I suspect that Itoi was a Dragon Quest fanatic–
Frank Cifaldi 08:46
And that he wanted to make a Dragon Quest in his style. And, and he and you know, the result was EarthBound.
Yeah. Oh, yeah. There’s like they’re even direct references that were removed in the localization to Dragon Quest that like, that was sort of, like a big part of Itoi’s inspiration was through playing Dragon Quest, and then thinking about the like, the connection of like, it’s like, it’s like the cross between Dragon Quest and like a coming of age story for teenagers. Or like young kids. I also think that there’s a lot of I think there’s something really fascinating about the fact that like, in a genre that was so dominated by like, fantasy, that this game really sort of broke out and was like, No, I want to I want to make a game that’s about like, just a kid, like going around the country and like fighting things that you would encounter in a modern setting, you know.
Frank Cifaldi 09:55
So the the original Mother was, I don’t have sales numbers or anything, but was a success in Japan.
Frank Cifaldi 10:02
And Nintendo of America was as we as we discussed localizing it for the US. You You spoke to a video game historian who kind of, you know, explained in the film.
Frank Cifaldi 10:16
Yeah, this would have been the– The joke is it was me folks.
Who was…? Yeah. I’m in the film. So yeah, I kind of explained in the film that, and this is true. And I think this is a good way to think about this. Like this is Nintendo of America’s third attempt to convince US players to play JRPGs because Minoru Arakawa, the president of Nintendo of America at the time, you know, he’s looking at Japanese sales. He’s looking at Japanese trends. He’s seeing people lining up on whatever day it was Tuesday or Wednesday for you know, like to buy the new Dragon Quest. And he’s thinking, you know, players here aren’t different than players there. They just don’t know what these games are yet. And so NOA, localized they licensed from Square the original Final Fantasy and localized it here they licensed from Enix, the original Dragon Quest released here as Dragon Warrior, pumped the heck out of him, right? Like he’s trying to basically create RPG literacy in America by not only releasing these games, but using Nintendo Power, which was, you know, in over a million homes. I mean, there, there was an issue. I mean, I was a subscriber at the time, there’s an issue of Nintendo Power that came and you only got one every month, that literally the whole issue was a guide to Final Fantasy. Like, that’s how much they were forcing you to understand what these games were because they saw this sort of untapped market. Neither game does particularly well, they do okay, I think but I mean, Dragon Quest, you know, they literally gave the game away. Yeah.
Frank Cifaldi 12:05
Give it away for free, if you subscribe to the magazine. And so EarthBound would have been sort of NOA’s, like third attempt at JRPG. literacy, and I just get the feeling they gave up at that point.
Yeah. Yeah. And it’s also funny because like, I know, Phil Sandhop, who did the localization for EarthBound. also worked on the localization for Final Fantasy. And so like, there was this sort of feeling that like, Okay, let’s do it one more time, you know.
Kelsey Lewin 12:38
And you have such a different subject matter this time that I can see, like, I can see the logic there, right?
Kelsey Lewin 12:43
Like they’re like, Well, okay, maybe it’s like the dragons and fantasy stuff isn’t working so well with these guys. But like, what if we put it in? Like, what if they’re just regular kids? You know, they’re using baseball bats and stuff, then maybe the Americans will understand?
Yeah, yeah. Well, and it’s also set in rural America. So like, that also was a one of the ties, I think that would have tried to make it really resonate with American audiences was like the fact that it literally took place there.
Frank Cifaldi 13:14
Make sense to me? Let’s ship it. So yeah, I mean, this wasn’t just, you know, I’ll give a little bit of context here. This wasn’t just some internal project that no one knew about. I mean, this is something that was announced. I mean, it was previewed in Nintendo’s own Nintendo Power magazine. It was actually demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show. I can’t recall offhand exactly which one or ones but I mean, this is a game that was photographed on the show floor by Electronic Gaming Monthly, it’s something that they had out. And it ended and also we know from historical records that the game was completed. The localization it passed certification.
Frank Cifaldi 14:00
it was ready to manufacturer and they just didn’t do it.
Yeah, I mean, talking to Phil Sandhop, as well, like they, I know for a fact that they also had like, the box art and marketing materials and like, it was ready to like, pull the trigger.
Frank Cifaldi 14:18
Kelsey Lewin 14:20
And I love the way that that Phil was talking to about, about all of this packaging. I mean, to me, it really felt like they were going all in on this and really trying to treat this like the ultimate nothing is missing RPG experience. You know, if we’re going to try this one more time, we’re going to try to get the Americans into this one more time. You know, we’re gonna have a poster with all the enemies on it. And we’re gonna have this really nice thick guidebook and you know, like a double sided guidebook and–
Kelsey Lewin 14:52
–you’ve got this artistic expression at the end where like, the pages are ripped out. So it’s like, yeah, you think you know the story and then and then there rest is up to you. I mean, there were there’s so much in there so much love in there.
Kelsey Lewin 15:04
That you can feel like,
Yeah, well, they I mean, they even like with that guide book like they actually went and tied it into the game lore because it’s supposed to be like that the other side of it is supposed to be based on great grandfather’s diary, which is like an item in the game. So the idea was that, like, that whole part of the manual was going to be written in character. So yeah, there was so much craft put into it to that like it, I really wish I really wish I had access to it, because I really want to see like, just how much love was put into it.
Kelsey Lewin 15:43
And what does Phil say happened to all of that stuff?
I, well. I mean, they didn’t really keep a lot of things. Back then compared to now well, even like, even now I feel like, you know, archival could always be better. Supposedly, that stuff may or may not be in a shredder. We may never see that stuff. I mean, they could pull it out sometime later and be like, you know, hey, here’s like, what the original manual is gonna look like, but I don’t think they ever will.
Frank Cifaldi 16:16
I mean, I my suspicion is that it’s it’s possible it technically exists somewhere. Right. But– –you know, it’s maybe in a warehouse. You know, they might have the I mean, there was some notion of digital at that point. I know, from talking to other producers that they, you know, produce the manuals digitally, at least the text so there might be files somewhere. We don’t know, it’s possible that I but what I’m getting at is that I don’t think that Nintendo as a company is likely to put in the resources to go hunting for something just for what’s going to end up being like a good tweet or something.
Yeah Yeah, yeah, pretty much. I mean, that’s ultimately what it comes down to is like, effort and response, right? Like, you’re gonna obviously make a lot of EarthBound fans happy. But like, that’s still I mean, even with all of like, it was just trending a couple days ago, too. They added 4 new titles onto there like SNES online, and people were tweeting about EarthBound so much that it started trending.
Frank Cifaldi 17:21
As in where’s EarthBound? Is it?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. They’re like, why not just put this game on here so that we can play it on Switch? But ya no, like, there’s, I think that it would get like a pretty big response, but probably mostly just from like, the hardcore fans, and everybody else would probably be like, what is what is this? What are you showing me right now?
Kelsey Lewin 17:42
And Nintendo famously is all about making the hardcore Earthbound fans happy.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, just look at Mother 3. Like, we’ve only been trying for 15 years. Oh, god, it’s been 15 years. Oh, no.
Frank Cifaldi 18:00
But actually, you know, I think this is kind of important topic to bring up and and it’s something that you do, you know, document in this film is that Mother, really at this point has transcended being video games and is more of a fan community. Right. It’s, it’s, and and I don’t think, you know, this film happens without this community, which I believe you’re a part of, in some way.
Yeah, um, that’s actually how I kind of got started to it. Like getting into making this film. I pretty much grew up on StarMen.net, as like, which is the the EarthBound like fan forums. They had a huge community of people who were like making hacks, like their own custom games in it. And like, were making fan art and doing archival stuff. And like, one of the things that there was like a huge gap on was sort of the history of EarthBound Beginnings as far as like, where all of the prototypes were, because one of them had disappeared off the face of the Earth for like, 14 years. And so that was something that I really wanted to like dig into and be like, I wonder if I can find Phil Sandhop. And so I just interviewed him in a coffee shop. After finding him through various like internet searches, and I ended up like, getting to hear just for like an hour and a half or so like him talk about the process. Originally, all of this stuff was just going to be put on the website. And then we realized just how big the story was, and like, really wanted to find a way to interview those people in person like the owners of the prototypes and Phil and Matt Alderman who was one of the testers for it, and really just like hear their stories, too. But yeah, I think as far as like the community goes the I mean, there’s there’s also another film that’s in development. The folks at Fan Gamer have been working on it pretty hard is EarthBound USA, which should hopefully be coming out sometime soon-ish.
Frank Cifaldi 20:17
And don’t worry, folks, I’m in that one too.
Yeah. And so that goes especially into like the history of trying to localize Mother 3, it’s sort of like a StarMen.net story in a way
Frank Cifaldi 20:32
Wait wait, it goes into 3 also?
It goes in it goes into that, or sorry, it goes into them trying to get a localization from Mother 3.
Frank Cifaldi 20:39
I should clarify. Yeah. Because when when they spoke to me, oh, what, 6 years ago? At the time, literally, no one on the crew had played 3, which blew my mind. Because, like, Guys, you know, they, they, they this game that you love so much that you’re making a documentary, about they made a sequel? Yeah.
Kelsey Lewin 21:05
They made another one, guys.
Frank Cifaldi 21:07
There’s another you could play it. I think the best it’s the best one. Also, secretly,
God gave Reid Young so much crap for not having played EarthBound Beginnings ever.
Frank Cifaldi 21:19
Wow. He hasn’t? I’ve played that game like 5 times.
Well, no, I mean So he’s finally
Frank Cifaldi 21:24
It’s not a hard ga…
He finally beat it like a year ago, I think. But like, there was a point where it became such a big running joke that we started taking donations at Camp Fangamer. Their like convention that they ran a few times. And the donation was like for every dollar or something like that. I think he had to play one minute of EarthBound Beginnings. And so most of it was just him running through Duncan’s Factory as we like, try to, like point from the audience, like the directions that he should go to try and navigate the like, labyrinth that is that that dungeon?
Kelsey Lewin 22:02
I think this kind of illustrates really well, how much this has moved from video game to just cultural, like community and culture because someone is making a documentary who hadn’t played all of the games, because, you know, the, at a certain point, maybe the game becomes less important than the the culture around the game for a lot of these people.
Yeah, well, I think like, EarthBound just like as a series, all of those games hit like a really specific tone and a really specific vibe right away. So what I found is that there, there have been a lot of people that I’ve interacted with that have played maybe like the first few like maybe up to like Twoson in the Super Nintendo release, and then would just not play anymore, or never get around to finishing it, but would engage like as I was, like, really strong members of the community just because they got so into people talking about the game that like, they sort of built a bond with these people that led to the creation of more like fan content.
Frank Cifaldi 23:13
Wow, that’s fascinating.
Kelsey Lewin 23:16
I feel a little cold out right now too, because that’s exactly what I did. The first time I played EarthBound. I did eventually finish it. But the first time I made it, I think I made it farther than Twoson, but I definitely didn’t finish it the first time. But I still felt like I got it. Like I understood that this game is cool and why it’s cool. And
Kelsey Lewin 23:35
Interesting and funny and all of that stuff. So
yeah, I feel like I feel like that’s kind of the bottleneck for a lot of people. There’s like for Twoson Twoson is definitely the bottleneck for EarthBound initially trying to get people into it. That’s usually when they drop off. And then Duncan’s Factory’s a really big part of EarthBound. For NES that is just hard to get people past just because it’s a really gnarly place to navigate. But I think also the graveyard is the first like difficulty spike. And so I’ve seen a lot of people be like, yeah, and went to try and save Pippi and then I got destroyed by some zombies, and I never picked it up again.
Kelsey Lewin 24:14
Well, and the other part too, and you get you guys talk about this in the film a bunch too, but it really seems like a huge portion of the community did not come from actually playing you know any of the Mother games originally they came from Super Smash Bros.
Yes. I mean, I’ll This is a bit of a self call out is that like, all of these games, except for Mother 3 are older than me. So I also was like, Smash Bros was the first time I learned about Ness and like, I didn’t really make the connection of what EarthBound was until probably around around maybe the time that like Melee or or Brawl were out already. But yeah, like that. That was something that Even I got in that way.
Kelsey Lewin 25:03
And I think that that’s not uncommon, like just for not even just for Ness in Super Smash Bros. But I mean, I had never played Ice Climbers when Ice Climbers was in Super Smash Bros. So it’s not like, I think Nintendo does that pretty often, you know, reintroducing people to their old characters. And that’s the reason that some of these characters are at all relevant today.
Yeah, Mr. Game and Watch as you.
Frank Cifaldi 25:31
I’m the old one here…
Yeah, well, I mean
Frank Cifaldi 25:34
I mean, Ice climbers. I was like, Oh, yeah, those idiots. My cousin had that.
Yeah, I mean, I also know that like, a lot of the basis for like, my starting point, I think in the history of learning about this game was from the stuff that you wrote for Lost Levels.
Frank Cifaldi 25:54
Yeah. And and there’s actually a big part of the documentary about that. And actually, I do I do want to clear up. I’m not the author of that article.
Oh, yes. I sorry. I should have Yes, that is.
Frank Cifaldi 26:04
Yeah. So it was Jonathan Wirth who was sort of on my team. But yeah, for those who don’t know, I had a website sort of launched my career in a lot of weird ways called Lost Levels, that was specifically about unreleased games. And with a big focus on the NES, just because that’s kind of where the community came from, that we started this website with. And EarthBound is not something that we had specifically tracked down and preserved or anything like that. But we, we were always interested in this notion that people in the collector community had that the English version on the Internet was fake, that the prototype ROM was put together by a ROM hacker in the late 90s. And then sold in some sort of some sort of elaborate prank.
Frank Cifaldi 27:10
And then, you know, so we, we tracked down, actually, Phil Sandhop, who you interviewed for the film, we talked to him way back in 2004, or something like that. And he was able to confirm when we showed him screenshots and things like that, that that was definitely his work.
That is something that is really funny about this process is that even now, when prototypes make it online, or like people post about how they have one, the immediate reaction, especially from like, the community, I found too, has been like, Oh, that’s not real. There can’t possibly be another one. You know, or like, I know Matt Alderman tried to sell his on eBay back like, in I think 2009. And he got his listing taken down because people were reporting it. And like, his account got hacked, I think and like a bunch of people on StarMen.net didn’t believe that it was real. Even the one that was like, found recently, we had to go through like, pretty. Like I actually met with Jacob Christopher in person, because like, I think our film covers, like the process of finding that prototype. But we basically verified it from our experiences on this film as legit and then he ended up still getting a lot of flack for it.
Kelsey Lewin 28:37
And the untold story is that another one came up recently because it walked right into my store.
Kelsey Lewin 28:46
And unfortunately will also walked out of my store, but I had someone come in who had no idea what they had, they had bought some stuff at a garage sale. A lot of it had like Nintendo barcodes on it that they would put on the copies that you know, belong to the sort of like Game Play Counselor area. And then there was a, you know, a prototype in with that the, the guy selling actually kind of thought was just garbage. He’s like, I don’t know what this just this, like, hacked up board. What is this thing? And it’s yet another copy of the English version of EarthBound. And unfortunately, he ended up selling it to someone else. But you know, when she posted up that she had that my head, you know, because I had been talking about it, too. I had people who were interested in buying it, they’re like, Well, do you know if it’s real? Is it you know, like, yeah, it’s, you know? Yes, of course it’s real.
Yeah, I think what am I like? I will say that I think one of my biggest regrets so far has been that like, our involvement with the film in that like prototype that Jacob found led to a pretty notable price hike from what I’ve understood of prototypes. I think like the highest I had seen prior to that sale was like 2000. And he ended up selling it for like, 8, 8 grand. So like, I think that there’s a weird now that like, there is a certain amount of like, demand for it now that there is like content about it. And it’s like, especially as a community has gotten more traction to that, like, people really, really want these things now.
Frank Cifaldi 30:40
Now, I think we should pause here and kind of backtrack on what it is we’re talking about. So there are physical copies of this game that never came out. That would be called the legit legitimate because they came from Nintendo’s office internally, like the ROMs were burned in their lab or whatever, there’s what like 6 now, Bones?
Oh god, there’s, I have a whole folder on my phone of photos of them, some of which have not been like, made public.
Frank Cifaldi 31:12
But there’s, we found there’s more than 6.
Frank Cifaldi 31:16
Okay, there’s quite a few,
there’s like, I think there’s something like 9 or 10. Now,
Frank Cifaldi 31:21
so that is probably the most common EPROM cartridge for the NES. So but, but I mean, these things, you know, that they’re things that were made internally at Nintendo for various reasons. I would suspect that some of them would be product focus groups, because they did a lot of that, at this time, they would bring in kids to sit down and actually play a game that hasn’t come out yet just to get their their feedback.
Frank Cifaldi 31:49
they could have been made to use, you know, as trade show demonstrations. The, the, what you refer to is the TK-69 Cart, cause that’s what it says on the label. I suspect and and and i think Phil Sandhop even kind of backs me up on this. This is something that was mailed from Nintendo of America, to Nintendo Canada,
Frank Cifaldi 32:14
To evaluate if maybe they wanted to manufacture some copies and sell locally over there. So like, these are things that were made internally for internal use, that just kind of leaked out for a variety of reasons, so actually, like a salesman sample, I think is another sort of documented use of an EarthBound cartridge. I think the you probably know the term jollyrancher was the guy who found a couple of them.
Yeah, he found two of them at a garage sale in the Hamptons.
Frank Cifaldi 32:44
Right. And and I think that garage sale was from someone who did like regional sales for Nintendo. So that’s something that he could have had to like, you know, show Walmart buyers or whatever what Nintendo had coming out. There’s a lot of reasons for these internal cartridges to exist. And, and Nintendo of America specifically was just kind of a little loose back in that in that time with security.
Yeah, I am, like with the jollyrancher ones, I know that those two prototypes were found in the same sale that like Powerfest was found on
Frank Cifaldi 33:19
And like this, there was like a Starfox Weekend jacket, and there was like a whole bunch of stuff there. I also know that like Matt Alderman actually, like has gone on record and said that like I think somebody stole a copy of like, Final Fantasy III out of someone’s car, at one point and that was around the time that like in the Super Nintendo era that they were like, really gonna lock down the security. And even then, like, I still like people were still able to take them home. There was like a sign in sign out checkout system.
Kelsey Lewin 33:52
Yeah, I mean, that even says in the film is like, they know I checked it out, that’s still you know, on record somewhere, if they ever asked for it back.
Yeah. And I know a lot of the other ones too were like people that like like with Matt right, he went and tried to play through the game to like, find typos. And I’ve heard of like one or two other ones that were from the same process. So like there was a certain amount of these made for the sake of testing it to that like the side effect of that I think is that almost all of them have the what is effectively the final version ROM on it. But it’s also you know, it’s still kind of cool to see it in person, you know, like the physical cartridge with the like laser cut, opening and everything. So
Frank Cifaldi 34:42
yeah, I actually do have this distinct memory that that I almost feel kind of bad about during the making of this film. Where so you interviewed me and then we went and played Roo’s cartridge.
Frank Cifaldi 35:00
Which he had brought
Big LCD or like the big LED screen?
Frank Cifaldi 35:03
Yeah, yeah. And I think you had me on camera and you’re asking me like, so do you like feel anything? Because they’re like, that’s a real Earth Bound. in front of you. And I’m just like, no,
That sounds like, that sounds like something Evan would ask, like,
Frank Cifaldi 35:18
I think it was Even? Yeah. To me, to me, okay. Like, my perspective is that these, this isn’t something that was if it was like Itoi’s personal copy, right? Like, if it was something that had like a provenance of being related to the creation of this game that I love, then yeah, this physical object might have some meaning to me. But the reality is that when we’re looking at these, it’s like, there’s a lab somewhere in Nintendo, where a lab person burns ROMs off a server, because they need a copy of a game, you know, so like, to me, this is no different than, you know, someone burning a CDR of an album or something like it’s, it’s just like, it doesn’t hold…
Kelsey Lewin 36:01
It’s a little more cooler than that. But yeah.
Frank Cifaldi 36:04
Ehh, sort of.
Like I, I, I think I’ve also come around that way on it too. Because like,
Frank Cifaldi 36:09
it’s so that that’ll save you thousands of dollars if you do.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I remember like, Archon, who runs the Art of Nintendo Power, Twitter account, or whatever found a prototype of the like, Super Nintendo EarthBound. That was an earlier version than the final. It looked like I had like a rough draft, direct translation, rather than, like a, like full localization on it. And so a lot of like, the assets were still the original version, because they had, like, you know, the Red Cross logo and stuff like that, that they had to remove. But even then, I remember like going through, and like looking at that, and then being like, Oh, yeah, that’s pretty cool. Like, I didn’t really think too much about it being like this massive big thing. And I know that like Archon, like, excited about it and play through, I think most of it on stream, but like, yeah, it was, I definitely have sort of, not soured, but like, I’ve tempered my reactions quite a bit.
Frank Cifaldi 37:13
Well, and I think you’ve, you’ve had a similar if smaller experience, what both Kelsey and I have had, which is once you’ve handled in our case, thousands.
Frank Cifaldi 37:22
You know? is the physical object itself just loses meaning. It’s really, you know, the, the soul of it is, is the data that’s on there.
Kelsey Lewin 37:32
Yeah. And especially once you’ve seen source code, like, once you once you’ve been able to see source for any game, you realize what you can get off of a prototype is just, I mean, it’s barely scratching the surface of what the full story is there.
God, I would, I would want to see the source code for EarthBound so bad.
Frank Cifaldi 37:54
We we I mean, I guess I’m just gonna say this little bit early. We do have some pieces of Mother 2, that we’ll talk about soon. Yeah, I had Tomato look at them. It’s just from the localization process. So well, we’ll have an article on that on GameHistory.org. in the–
Ooh, that’s exciting.
Frank Cifaldi 38:08
–coming months. So yeah, I mean, let’s, you know, you set up to make this documentary you track down. I mean, we mentioned Phil Sandhop.
Frank Cifaldi 38:20
And you actually got to go to his house and speak to him, which is very cool.
Yeah. Well, we actually funny enough, we ended up actually like interviewing him at his workplace. Just like in a conference room. But yeah, it was very nice room.
Frank Cifaldi 38:36
It looked very homey.
Yeah. Well, it was it was like, we sat down and we interviewed him for like, 5 hours.
Frank Cifaldi 38:42
Oh, my God. Wow!
Yeah, it was it was intense. Like we had, I think we all went through like a good number of water bottles. And just like, you know, we tried to pour over like everything. Mostly just because you know, when you’re traveling to do an in person interview, you only have so much time. And I know that Phil was like sort of a wellspring of knowledge not just about like, EarthBound, but also about like, the early Nintendo Game Play Counselor days. And like, I know that like he told us a little bit about SimCity and which also was unreleased NES game.
Frank Cifaldi 39:21
But you didn’t you didn’t tell me what Phil said about SimCity!
Well, Phil, I think the thing that Phil said about SimCity was that it didn’t like the performance wasn’t great on it.
Frank Cifaldi 39:33
Oh, that’s true.
Frank Cifaldi 39:35
That is correct.
But I do remember Christian getting really, really excited about hearing about SimCity for any reason, you know,
Frank Cifaldi 39:44
Yeah. Christian of course being your producer, right?
Frank Cifaldi 39:49
On the movie and who ended up purchasing an authentic SimCity NES prototype cartridge?
Frank Cifaldi 39:56
Similar to these EarthBound ones we are talking about
Yeah. Which funny enough Like, I remember him. I remember him showing it to me as we were interviewing Jacob, about the prototype of EarthBound that we found during the course of the film. So like, yeah, that was one of those things that also happened around the same time. That was really, really funny coincidence, because I know SimCity in Nintendo Power was shown right next to EarthBound as like an upcoming title.
Frank Cifaldi 40:24
Yeah, it was kind of a transitional period for him. You know, we’re going into 1991. They’re They’re about to focus on the Super Nintendo. And, you know, they’ve got these two NES games that are a little bit strange for the system that they end up canceling for whatever reason.
Yeah. Yeah. It was really fascinating, though, like listening to Phil talk about all of that stuff. And like, especially, there’s a lot of stuff that we weren’t weren’t even able to necessarily fit in the film of like, I think we got his job interview process in there. I know, Kelsey, managed to get that really, really incredible shot of the job listing. Which thank you so much for
Kelsey Lewin 41:06
Oh, yeah, that was fun. I got to go to the University of Washington Library and use the microfiche machine. It was awesome.
Kelsey Lewin 41:13
You don’t get a lot of reasons to do that.
There was there was also like the process of like, being one of the original Nintendo Game Play Counselors, and like answering phone calls for people to give them tips on games and stuff like that.
Frank Cifaldi 41:27
Well, and before the show, you actually mentioned something that he told you guys about Metroid.
Yes, yeah. So we were talking about Metroid because he was mentioning that it was his favorite game. And so he took a lot of calls for that. And so he knew all of the ins and outs of like, you know, the like, the cool cheat codes and stuff like that. And I jokingly said, Justin Bailey? to which his eyes widened a little bit, and just like, and we’re gonna put this on the special features, too. But he was like, yeah, there’s a, you know, I got this call from a kid. And he was like, Yeah, I put my name in here. I just put my name in the password system. And suddenly, I saw Samus without her suit. And like, I had all of these missiles and like, so he went in, and he just, like, tried it over the phone with this kid. And sure enough, like Justin Bailey, worked as a code. And they ended up putting that later on, I think in like, what October 1991, I think was the issue of Nintendo Power. And nobody seemed to know, like, where it came from, but it I mean, yeah, it’s just it came from this kid that called in, and Phil picked it up. And like, God, it was fascinating.
Frank Cifaldi 42:46
So you know, in addition to going into how the game was localized, he talked to Phil, he talked to Matt Alderman who did testing on the game and had his own cartridge, we mentioned him a little bit earlier. You went kind of hardcore on just figuring out how the ROM got on the Internet. And you ended up finding, you know, not only the person who originally had this cartridge, but then you know, the person who was essentially responsible for, for digitizing that cartridge. And putting it on to the Internet.
Yeah, um, a lot of the like, a lot of the history for especially like, just this game in general, but like also in the film. It’s sort of following the TK-69 cartridge, the one that was sent up to Canada to see if they wanted to localize it. Basically, it ended up like at a secondhand store, and our guy picked it up and like, from there, there was just this like exchanging this like line of people who manage to have it and right in the middle there, Neo Demiforce, which was a team that like traditionally did localisations like fan localizations of games, ended up being able to dump it and make it work and then leaked it online, basically, for people to play. And so we really thought it was important to track down especially like that cartridge and like, follow its history. We ended up getting every single owner of that prototype with the exception of Kenny Brooks, who we’re still trying to find.
Frank Cifaldi 44:29
Ah, we left him a seat at the initial screening that we had a Portland Retro like we we sent him we sent him mail. We have not heard back and I don’t think at this point that we ever will but god I’m so I’m still miffed about that.
Frank Cifaldi 44:49
Well, what’s frustrating is that Kenny commented on your crowdfunding campaign.
Oh, yeah. No, he sent us a message on Kickstarter and was like, Why haven’t you interviewed me yet. And then we replied almost immediately, and then we never heard back.
Frank Cifaldi 45:05
Kelsey Lewin 45:07
So why haven’t you interviewed him?
Well… Just a man in the shadows that disappeared. I mean, Thankfully though, like, the story there is like, we had the person who owned it prior to Kenny. And after Kenny. And also, we had Steve, from Neo Demiforce who like, basically, like, we pretty much built our story around Kenny’s ownership of the prototype without actually interviewing Kenny. Because basically, all he did was like, flip it. Right? He just bought it. And then he sold it for more later, and he charged money for them to dump it.
Frank Cifaldi 45:48
Yeah. And that’s actually, for me anyway. And hopefully other people. That is an interesting moment in history, because I don’t know, I believe that EarthBound is the first time that an unreleased game was identified as having, you know, value.
Frank Cifaldi 46:13
And then arrangements were made. And negotiations, I should say, even were made to sort of liberate the data from the cartridge off of the original artifact to the detriment of its value. This is the first time that there was a like crowdfunding campaign.
Frank Cifaldi 46:37
Something like this. This is the first time that I know of, that the owner of a cartridge was exchanged the data from their cartridge for money, which is something that you know, as a part of my story, even where a lot of unreleased games that are on the Internet, essentially, money was exchanged with a collector to copy their cartridge without selling the cartridge. And it it all kind of goes back to, to this mysterious Kenny Brooks who we can’t find.
Yeah, I mean, I like I’ve even gone as far as to like, we looked up some of the old like rec.games.video.classic newsgroup posts, which thankfully, I think are still available via Google Groups. So I was able to like sift through all of these posts from like, back in the late 90s, of like, ebonding, from StarMen.net posting, like, Hey, we’re trying to raise money for this or like, please get in contact with us so that we can, you know, dump the prototype or like people arguing about whether or not it had value or like whether or not it was real.
Frank Cifaldi 47:57
It is the same argument that you will read. Whenever a prototype comes up, you will read the same argument in like Facebook comments now.
Yeah. Well, I mean, I think I’d like it should be noted that it is absolutely possible to make a fake prototype.
Frank Cifaldi 48:13
Oh, absolutely. I could do it.
It’s those. Yeah, I mean, I could I could do it.
Frank Cifaldi 48:17
Yeah, this at this point, you and I could make a fake EarthBound very easily.
Yeah. Um, and like, I that is kind of like a somewhat legitimate fear. But like, when it comes to the data, it really is just a matter of like, Oh, I have a physical copy that is made using an EPROM board that has EPROMs on it. And like, that is what makes it cool. Because usually that data unless it’s like, specifically, actively different is not really going to hold much more value than a digital ROM.
Frank Cifaldi 48:51
Yeah, and it’s, I don’t know, for me reflecting on this film, as I’m watching it. I’m just like, thank God, that someone got this one early.
Kelsey Lewin 49:05
Frank Cifaldi 49:05
Kelsey Lewin 49:06
The amount of money that gets exchanged for the same concept these days.
Frank Cifaldi 49:10
Kelsey Lewin 49:10
Is we’re not talking, you know, $400 anymore, which by the way, at that time was ridiculous. Because–
Frank Cifaldi 49:17
Yeah, that’s what Kenny charge to dump the ROM. $400.
Kelsey Lewin 49:19
Well, yeah. And then he sold it for $1,000.
Frank Cifaldi 49:23
So he bought it for $125. Yes. And he ended up making $1,400 in revenue so like, you know, [$1,275] in profit, not bad, not bad.
Which can I guess nowadays is not as bad as like Jacob’s cuz Jacob bought it at a garage sale for $5. I still feel bad for that lady. Like. Yeah, but it’s, I think ended up making like, yeah, like an 8 grand profit. or close to it.
Kelsey Lewin 49:47
Yeah, I mean, it’s different to buy something at a garage sale, and then sell it. Then to Have something and charge someone for the data?
Kelsey Lewin 50:04
Those are two totally separate things. But yeah, I mean, to Frank’s point, it’s nice that this happened when that data was determined to be worth $400. Because…
Kelsey Lewin 50:14
I mean, I cannot even imagine what it cause people would crowdfund up to any amount if we were just finding this now, you know?
Frank Cifaldi 50:23
You were there. You know what I went through with SimCity?
Kelsey Lewin 50:26
Frank Cifaldi 50:27
God, I remember the SimCity like, especially because that all happened like at once.
Frank Cifaldi 50:34
Yeah, it was kind of at the same time. It’s a was a weird show.
Kelsey Lewin 50:37
There’s been someone floating around on Twitter, it’s I think it’s kind of over now. Because I think, you know, cooler heads have sort of prevailed over the enthusiasts, but there was someone trying to charge something like $15,000 to dump the data on a Super Mario Kart prototype.
I hate that, I hate that so much.
Kelsey Lewin 50:58
Yeah. And I think, you know, the people who have kind of been around this community for a while had to be like, no, that is the most ridiculous amount of money I’ve ever heard of nothing is worth that.
Yeah. Well, if the because we were talking about like, do you think that EarthBound Beginnings would have come out? Had the ROM not leaked online? And I think absolutely not. Like I think Nintendo has made money off of that leak.
Frank Cifaldi 51:20
I think they literally put the ROM from the Internet, but I’m famous for saying stuff like that.
Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, there are no, there’s no difference, like in the data at all.
Frank Cifaldi 51:28
We also know, we also know from there. I don’t know if we’ve had a chance to discuss this or not, but but there we know from some of those data leaks, the checksums of the final ROMs. And so we know that the version of EarthBound that’s on the Internet that appears to be on probably all of these cartridges is actually the final ROM that was in a state where they were ready to manufacture it.
Yeah. Yep. I think that there’s like, there was this question, right of like, whether or not it would come out if the leak hadn’t happened. And I do still think absolutely not. But I also think that had that prototype not been scooped up early, also, that it wouldn’t have released. And then also, it would have been exclusive to those prototypes.
Frank Cifaldi 52:19
No, I would have figured it out. But it would have been awful.
Frank Cifaldi 52:22
Yeah, Oh I would have gotten it.
I’m just like, imagining what those would have. Like costs,
Frank Cifaldi 52:32
it would have been a SimCity.
Kelsey Lewin 52:34
There would’ve been a couple SimCitys.
Frank Cifaldi 52:37
Kelsey Lewin 52:37
I think. I mean, it depends. Cuz, you know, it’s hard to say what the other community would look like.
Yeah, well, I mean, the Mother communities trajectory, like it definitely like rallying to try and get that release for the Game Boy Color was something that like really brought people together for a while. But I still think that like Mother 3 was the big push for the community too so like, Who knows? Honestly.
Frank Cifaldi 53:05
Yeah. And that’s, that’s an interesting thing to talk about for a second is that this is a series with 3 games and a gigantic fan community. And essentially, only the middle of the 3 games was properly released in English.
Yeah, which for any series, other than this, I think would be, like, a bizarre occurrence. Especially if there’s like continuity between them. Which like for Mother as a series, there is like, you know, the antagonists kind of transition throughout the series, but like this, I think this series was interesting in the sense that you could release the sequel just as the first game in a series. And I don’t think anyone would have noticed.
Frank Cifaldi 53:52
Yeah, and it’s kind of like Final Fantasy. they skipped two of them, right? Yeah. from 1 to 4, and no one noticed, because it’s not, you know, great continuity. So just want to make sure we cover while we still got time that you traveled to Japan for a couple interesting interviews in this documentary.
Yeah, yeah. Um, so around the time that like, the prototype was first being found here in Portland. And I was like, running around trying to verify like its legitimacy and all that, like, I ended up we were thinking about other things that we could do to really add some extra like cool content. And one of the things that we really wanted to do was to try and meet with Keiichi Suzuki, the composer for the first few games. And he ended up replying to us. And I woke up at like, 3 in the morning or something like that was when I got it in my inbox. And so yeah, we ended up going to Japan to interview him about the process of composing music for the game. Which was really cool because he got to play some of like, his demos from the original recordings of it like before it was put into the computer as chiptune. And there was like, all I think like the vocals for that. There’s one he released it as a as a The Lost Suzuki Tapes: Volume 2, which has a version of All That I Needed Was You which was on the soundtrack for Mother where he is singing the vocals in English.
Frank Cifaldi 55:36
And the this is this is on an album that is commercially available in case your a Mother fan.
Frank Cifaldi 55:41
And didn’t know, this actually I believe that he’s got Mother tracks on two compilations of his
Yes, The Lost Suzuki Tapes: Volume 1 & Volume 2 have Mother tracks, although I think Volume 1 just has the 8 melodies on it, if I recall?
Frank Cifaldi 55:55
And the 8 melodies. It’s also in Volume 2, so you can grab it there. What I will say though, is that the fascinating thing with the All That I Needed Was You demo was that those vocals ended up being used on the Mother Music Revisited album that he just released a couple months ago. As like the primary vocal track for the new version of All That I Needed Was You. Which I don’t think a lot of people have figured out but it’s mostly just from hearing it. And then comparing it with the other version. I was like, these are the same. You just took your vocals from like 1988 and threw them on here.
Frank Cifaldi 56:34
And that, you know, the the fact that they were vocals was actually, I mean, it’s kind of an interesting, weird part of the original Mother is that they produced a soundtrack album with vocalists, I believe in the UK.
Frank Cifaldi 56:50
And and I suspect it’s because they’re like, well, we’re making a game about, you know, America. So there should be like, English lyrics being sung by native English speakers.
Yeah. Yeah. And I know that there’s like, there have also been a lot of like, trying to find some of those vocalists like I know, Catherine Warwick. People were trying to find for like, years who did like I would say a majority of the like, really iconic vocals on some of the more popular tracks. And I like I’ve since I know I fairly certain I know, like how to contact her. I just have never gotten a response back.
Frank Cifaldi 57:31
Films done. You’re done.
Films done. It’s over. Yeah.
Frank Cifaldi 57:35
There’s no more discussing this game. You’re done, Bones.
Yeah. That’s actually very helpful to hear that back. Because like, I have gone as far as to like, work with Mother Forever, which is a Mother like EarthBound archival website, to like, try and keep up to date with the prototypes. And like, I just need to take a breather. I just need a break.
Frank Cifaldi 58:01
Well, luckily, you you you work in a medium that has an endpoint, it is the release of the film.
Frank Cifaldi 58:08
You don’t have like a YouTube channel that you should update or whatever you’ve you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.
Yes. And we’ve managed to like, end up getting it shown in like, a formal theater and like, it has a rating from the MPAA, which is really cool. And like, Yeah, no, it’s very exciting. I think at this point, all we need to do is pretty much just finished the special features, and then make those like Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVDs and just shipped them off. Like, we’re really getting to the end there. which is exciting.
Frank Cifaldi 58:43
So in the meantime, where can people find out more about the movie, and I think even stream it right now. Right?
Yeah, um, so we currently have the film up on Vimeo. It’s on Vimeo On Demand, you can buy or rent. And that also like, you can find that stuff at either our website MotherToEarth.com. Or our Twitter account @MotherToEarthMV. We’re also on Facebook and Instagram, but we don’t really use those super often comparatively.
Frank Cifaldi 59:16
Yeah, um, but also at the MotherToEarth.com that has our store where you can pre order either, you know, physical copies, or some of our merch that we made for the sake of the Kickstarter and stuff like that, too. So. Yeah.
Frank Cifaldi 59:36
Oh, bones. Thank you so much for joining us on the Video Game History Hour. It’s been a privilege.
Yeah, it’s been really fun. Thank you for having me.
Kelsey Lewin 59:45
Thanks for listening to the Video Game History Hour brought to buy the Video Game History Foundation. If you have questions or comments for the show, you can find us on Twitter @GameHistoryHour or email us at Podcast@GameHistory.org Did you know The Video Game History Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and that all of your contributions are tax deductible? You can support this podcast and all of our other work on Patreon or at GameHistory.org/Donate. This episode of the Video Game History Hour was produced by Robin Kunimune and edited by Michael Carrell. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.