A History on RPG Maker Earthbound-likes (and fan games) – Part One

Say fuzzy pickles

Baseball, newspapers, cars, asphalt. Just simply making your RPG set in contemporary times is immediately going to invite comparisons to HAL’s well known Mother series (alternatively named Earthbound). A light hearted touch is also required or else you just might veer into being a horror game like Parasite Eve. Of course Mother games don’t shy away from dark and trippy themes. Things like war and crime do exist in our current times, but it’s hard to really contextualize turn-based conflict in a neighborhood without a weird spin. Being Nintendo family friendly was also an incentive. A zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion, a cult, or SOMETHING needs to happen (Earthbound has all of this) That I think is why it’s so easy to steer into Shigesato Itoi’s wheelhouse when making something modern. Fantasy and Sci-fi are inherently absurd, typical ideal American dream suburbia is not (depending on who you ask). Though really just merely making your game quirky is enough to obtain the Earthbound label.

Things haven’t changed. There’s a certain indie game discourse around being tired of “Earthbound clones.” I uh, won’t go into it. Let’s just say the outlook and attitude surrounding it back then was about the same as comparing every platformer to Cave Story. It is hard to condense what exactly elicits everything that makes Earthbound, Earthbound. However with the early goings of the RPG Maker community there really weren’t that many EB-likes. A ton of fan-games sure, but it’s interesting to think about how the modular-ness of certain Squaresoft sprite rips had more effect on the setting (and by proxy the story) of many RPG Maker titles more so than the actual art-style. There is actually a dedicated website dedicated to providing Earthbound rips formatted for RM2K along with eventing tutorials. There were more templates and resources than there were actual fangames (and a lot of battle systems help threads on how to make rolling numbers). 

Early Earthbound Fangames (2000-2005)

So Starmen.net is probably going to be brought up a lot as it dates back to as far as 2000 and hosted many fanworks. The fan games and apps page has anything you could possibly imagine (there is an Earthbound Doom WAD for chrissakes). The site’s fangame forum has become something of a RPG Maker community of its own and some usernames caught my eye when researching for this article. The early game that sticks out is EarthBound Max (RM95) (2000). This is probably the earliest and most tangible RM incarnation resembling EB. It looks to be RPG Maker 95 based on the remaining screenshot. The Angelfire site for it is miraculously still up. Sadly the download isn’t recoverable due to the defunct third party hosting. All that remains is a story write up.

EarthBound Force (RM2K) (2001) – Was an Earthbound / Resident Evil crossover. This won’t be the only cross over we’ll get into. The screenshots that remain shows Future RTP being used. No download seems to be available.

EarthBound Revolution (RM2K) (2002) was another game that was sadly lost to the silicon of time. But there was quite a complimentary writeup by someone at Starmen.net praising its effort.

Earthbound: Ness’s Legacy (RM2K) (2002) Demo is fortunately still available as a download. It is a direct sequel to Earthbound although it is a game with Ness trapped inside of an RTP game nightmare more than anything. Using the FF9 battle theme for combat is certainly a choice. Curiously this is dedicated to the unreleased Earthbound 64, Mother 3 was often the alternate name for the game that was announced to be cancelled UNTIL…

Download (Google Drive)

Mother 3 and One Third (RM2K) (2004) Demo

This is a step up from the usual RTP game with Ness swapped for Alex. It uses the actual rips for chipsets and characters. Although I spoke too soon when Pokey asks if you want to fight and follows up with “Too bad bitch” if you say no. The author has apologized for swearing in a mainline Mother game, hopefully whoever actually makes Mother 4 does not repeat the same mistake.

Download (Google Drive)

What’s even more intriguing is that Starmen.net had various community focused games  Rescue Reidman (2002), Rescue Reidman 2 (2002), and 2015: A Starmen.Net Story (2003) are in-joke games that feature community members likely brainstormed in an IRC chat long ago. This was really common in the RPG Maker community at large but it’s nice to see the tradition carried out here. There was even a game called Earthbound Petition (2002) which was based on a petition Starmen.net created that had over 200,000 signatures to bring Mother 3 (Earthbound 64) to fruition after it had been cancelled. Mother 3’s development history was… complicated and even more-so the fan outcry for anything Earthbound related. The passionate desires of the fandom are so embedded in its history that not even fan games made in RPG Maker can avoid it.

It’s easy to forget that Mother 3’s release in Japan was in 2006 (2 years after the Nintendo DS released), the anticipation for this game and its translation is likely what spurred the second wave of EB-likes among RPG Maker users. Some argue that Mother 3 is very different in tone and themes than Mother 1 and 2. It was wild timing for a 2D sprite based RPG by Nintendo/HAL to be released during the early Xbox 360 days, but the perfect era to be getting into pixel art on an RPG hobbyist forum.

Homeland (RM2K3) (2006) Demo

Download Link (Mega)

Anyone hailing from the now defunct Gaming World would probably mention Homeland by Marcus, a game that stood out due to its very influence. This is as far as I can tell the first non-fan game that’s clearly derivative of EB. At first the EB formula is followed very closely. You name every relevant character to the bop of some music and get very ominous with the year declared “XX58” along with a narration that alludes to strange happenings. However what strays away from the formula is the writing. The jokes have a sort of cartoon sitcom edge to it. The Office is referenced. Your computer has a BSOD and is next to a “Playtinspehere 6” (I mean we’re almost there number-wise). My most vivid memory of playing this game back in 2006, is the rodent licking his nuts.

Thankfully it’s SFW

Looking back at Earthbound’s influences. A japanese developer set out to depict an endearing parody of America from their perspective with a vague time period smorgasbord of American culture. It’s set in the 90s yet some locales look straight out of a vintage Archie comic. The game is drenched in rockabilly / psychedelic aesthetics that emerged from the 60s-70s transition. The Runaway Five is similar to the Blues Brothers who play a song eerily similar to Changeling by The Doors. The Casey Bat has a 25% chance to hit in reference to the 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat.” An NPC calls you Rambo. The Starmen resembles Gort from 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still along with the title-screen evoking War of the Worlds. Even though The Beatles are British, there are a LOT of The Beatles references (and by proxy, Mother is named after a John Lennon song). In fact the entire soundtrack is a discography copyright mine field. Mr. T is in it.

You take all of those culture bombs and stuff them into an SNES cartridge and give it to a 90s kid and say: “Here, be influenced by this” That kid becomes a teenager in the mid 2000s setting out to depict an homage to a video game made by a Japanese developer doing an homage to American/western culture. Whatever gets retained and filtered depends on that teenager’s sensibilities. I’m fascinated by that chemistry. Even if it results in a rodent “licking his nuts”.

The chipset graphics by Shardicefire were pre-existing and what Marcus attributes to deciding to create the game. There are some Earthbound rips for the on map monsters. The charsets and some furniture seem custom. The battle backgrounds are where things get wild. As you know the default battle system is extremely limited when it comes to visuals. At first glance the background only has one static layer. If you look in the Terrain tab however, it lets you separate the battle background associated with it into 2 layers that can go into horizontal and vertical speeds. It gives just enough wiggle room to create your own designs to experiment but just enough limitation that you can’t do wild procedural generation. Just how we like our RPG Makers.

What stuck out to me was the composer for this game: Ragnar. GamingW was known for having a sizable music community. Ragnar in particular was a very experimental artist and had a keen interest in eccentric internet culture. The music really leans in the psychedelic aspects but it’ll even have unexpected vocal samples. There’s a lot of speed up and slow down or record skips mixing that feels like DJ club music. The most emblematic sound of EB to me is that crunchy sound chip white noise which the composer emulates quite well. Something about it really gives off Gaming World’s soul as the site started to gravitate towards weirder games (one of which we’ll get to later).

The game is quite difficult at first. As long as you know to get the second party member ASAP it becomes a little more tolerable. Class is cancelled and you’re stopped by a bully who… challenges you to a scavenger hunt of all things which means hunting down specific on-map monsters. I blazed through the end and it seemed to end on a cliffhanger with a mysterious government agent up to a nefarious plot.

Demo pretty much ends there. It’s a crude EB with a slight edge to it A purist would say it doesn’t even come close to matching the exact tone of the writing aside from a few miscellaneous NPCs. Yet I feel drawn to what exactly gets portrayed or even observed in the comedic musings of the writing. It’s something you don’t get by default in a fantasy setting. The parents seem straight out of Daria yapping about work and coffee. The mother is at least a step up from the usual RTP mom. There’s nothing super clairvoyant in the exact outlook on the education system or bullies, but the direction seems to just be: exaggerate society a little and it makes for a good RPG backdrop. Which I think it sufficiently does.

But what if I told you this wasn’t even the first Earthbound clone to come out in the year 2006? 6 months before there was in fact (shocker) an Earthbound Fangame.

Earthbound Memories (RM2K3) (2006)

Download Link (Mega)

This is a nice treat since the download was thought to be lost until recovered in 2021. So just in time for this article. This game is surprisingly hefty, with a whopping 96 maps and yet it is still a demo. The author was once a maintainer for the RMXP EarthBound Starter Kit and a moderator on Starmen.net. 

The intro is surprisingly good. Maybe my brain has been battered by all the first draft Earthbound-but-RTP games but I feel like this is the turning point of the RM scene where the majority started paying attention to things like tone and direction. The game opens up with an In-Media-Res with you the hero invading the starman base. It has a credit sequence that you can walk through as the names pop up. There’s a very visionary aspect to how everything is paced, the sound effects are lifted directly from the game, but even something as simple as a pause or prompt has that Nintendo feel. The battle scenes have a sort of Phantasy Star over the shoulder view rather than first person. The 2 Layered scrolling backgrounds are used to decent effect and the PSI effects are pretty faithful.

You descend deep into an elevator with human NPCs saying vague and non-decrepit things. You make your way through a strange sewer of madness that evokes the last dungeon of Earthbound. You then fight a Starwoman? I guess? At the end it turns out it was all a dream by a grown up Paula. 

At first I thought she’d be the main character but it turns out the game basically follows the exact  plot beats as the original. The title of the game in the application window is “Earthbound 2” after all. Aside from the events clearly having transpired since the first game, Onett is pretty much recreated. I ask myself how imperative is this? If I had to say anything about fanworks, I often question why they need to feel like remakes. Sure Mother 2 often feels like a remake to Mother 1 but they still deviate quite a bit in terms of production values and story. There’s at least some kind of evolution. Maybe it’s enough for some authors to simply recreate what they love and edit from there.

Disclaimer: The game asks you what your favourite game is

After reaching the meteor and descending down to a basement the demo ends quite shortly. The demo does let you wander around in the remaining maps that lack story content but contain wide empty spaces and NPCs to talk to. There’s a neat little debug room with a CBS demo (within a demo with a DBS). People were really dedicated to recreating the battle system despite RM’s DBS being quite fine for the job. The urge to have those rolling slot machine numbers for the character status is hard to resist I suppose. One detail I really like is that there’s a photo album in your room of all the photos taken in the previous game.

Overall it’s a neat demo, and the intro is the most impressive part. I wish the game maintained that endgame tone. I don’t mean that it needs to be so edgy that Pokey calls you a bitch, but I think the biggest potential fangames have is to go all out on one or two aspects of something existing. The world building is done for you for the most part, the trick is what to do with all of that and harness it into something different. The game in the next article of this series might just do that.

This became a much bigger article than I intended, but it’s fun to see how the Mother series has affected the RPG Maker culture at large, as even non-EB clones tend to reflect those sensibilities. I’ll also be getting into the games that didn’t even make it past a demo and the wild battle system templates. So stay tuned for part two.

Starmen.net

Starmen.net Fangames (Archive)

PSI-RPG2K (Earthbound Resources and Tutorials)

Finding Forever Eden

Author: Nerow_Alexangelos / Rowen
Released: January-November 2006
Engine: RPG Maker 2003

The title of this game probably says more about its development than getting an idea of what the story could be about (zing, still got it kids). It barely got past the status of being a notable proof of concept demo and always seemed to be re-iterated on over and over. The last incarnation of this game doesn’t even have the same title (on RMN it’s known as Ghosts of the Arcanum), at some point the author was compelled enough to share the history of the game’s development through screenshots. Through the several UI changes, the swapping of ideas and scenarios, it’s hard to remember which of these screenshots represent what I remember of this game.

My mind conjures up a haze of a saturated maps with a semi advanced DBS showing off potential features. There’s a deliberate noir-like tone enhanced by the charsets dressed in garbs that would fit in The Matrix. That’s probably apparent in all 4 of the demos, but it does beg the question of how one compartmentalizes game releases. The creator of Arafell likely wishes to bury the 2005 demo in favor of the newer refined commercial 2016 release. That’s 11 years of conjuring what Arafell was eventually going to be before the full release finally concluded it. There’s a similar discourse on how a certain popular TV show based on a set of fantasy novels should have ended. But what if the media in question never ends, and what if it’s split in multiple re-attempts?

The first demo named Finding Forever Eden – Intro contains a whopping 2 maps that feature a cut-scene introducing the game with a voice over followed by a slow text crawl (that’s still faster than l i t t l e m o n e y) explaining the lore of the game with terms that would make for good metal band names like “Celestial” which refer to angelic beings tied to the titular “Forever Eden”. I won’t go to much into the story as it kind of is what you’d expect from an RPG lore dump, but there is something about it that focuses a lot on biblical interest and spiritual connections.

The second demo released in around March 2006 simply titled “Finding Forever Eden”, features a battle training area complete with a scrolling abstract white grid background. A mysterious character tells you about how battles work and you’re thrown into a fight with 6 beings known as “Glitched Shado” there’s not a whole lot to the fight really as they have really large HP pools that can be dispatched with a strong AOE. But then the fight just resets again. The load file does have a NPC reference to the game Eldritch, a game made by Legion which is cemented in ancient forum history.

Onto Finding Forever Eden 4.0 (May 1st 2006), though not quite the 4th game in the series it was common for many RM creators to never have a consistent way of numbering versions. We can at least assume it came before 9.0 though. The title screen no longer features a hand drawn anime character and leads into a rather abstract menu backed up by the signature white grid. There are many menu options and seperate story cutscenes. Much of the dialogue is rather hard to understand. As evident by the music, it feels like being thrusted in the middle of a Kingdom Hearts cutscene with no context for what’s going on. There’s a dream sequence that resembles the beggining of KH too, but there’s a more mature slant to the world that gives this game its own voice. It steers clear of any common RPG terms like “Potion” or “Magic” and instead has a lot of abstract replacements for what you’d typically see in most other fantasy affairs (for example the poison status is called “Impurity”).

The battles are slightly improved this time around, featuring a context command that allows you to perform moves in specific situations. For instance in a battle surrounded by two enemies you can jump up in the air to let the enemy hit the other. It’s not complex to use at all, but it does add a cinematic flair to the combat filled with black robed figures. It concludes with more monologues from a mysterious robed figure, and our amnesic hero is left with a lot of questions before a Coming Soon message appears. In my own way, I too want answers. None of the demos really resemble what I remember of this game, and yet the game’s themes is very bent on memories and illuminating the truth in darkness. I certainly don’t remember this much story, so it’s still a treat. Perhaps 9.0 will shed some light.

This is the first shot I see and it basically confirms what I remember. A foresty cabin area with a combat demonstration. By now the aesthetics of the text boxes have become a muted black with a thick white border. What’s also apparent are the custom symbols that became widespread when hacking into the RPG_RT became common knowledge at this point. To be able to witness the subtle UI color differences between builds is an exercise of realizing how re-iteration is sometimes a slow gradual process.

The funny thing about the schizophrenic nature of the story in the 4.0 demo is that it’s analogous to how much the story-line and presentation keeps changing ever so slightly in development. The main character Rowen is subjected to dream-like sequences with the drive to find out why he is in the situations he is in. There’s a large focus on memories and anthology style of story telling where details are obfuscated in favor of ramblings about light and darkness. It’s not to say that the development having setbacks is some kind of avant garde way of making this more than it is, it’s just that the tendency to wander in ideas seems to correlate with the game’s unwillingness to sum up anything concrete.

The screenshots section on RMN tells a story that the game’s development started as early as RM95. The game also went through some unreleased progress on the author’s youtube channel. Some time in 2016 the author asked about engine recommendations. One day it might return in some form, but at this point it’s not really about remarking on the shoulda couldas or hoping that this game would be released, but to at least derive some admiration for what made the tiny snippets of this project so memorable. It’s not that the demo has any compelling gameplay or moments, but that the shell of what it wants to be can lead to a pretty cool set of ideas. The Matrix meets Kingdom Hearts is a rough way to sum it up, but I can’t think of any other media that tries to attempt that either. Only in a strange niche part of the RPG Maker community could a thing like this appear in the void.

For more thoughts on the game I’m doing an experimental commentary video over the demo gameplay footage. Let me know what you think of the format:

One correction, the intro demo actually came before the first battle demo

Download (All 4 Demos)
Ghosts of Arcanum Game Page
Youtube Development Footage
Youtube Playthrough (Commentary)
Youtube Playthrough (Gameplay Only)

Crossbone

Created by: Daniel Olsén
Released: August 2003
Engine: RM2000

It’s got pirates, robots, explosions and an old man who talks to birds! What more could you want? Back in the Gaming Ground Zero days I would occasionally browse the main site. There was no way to know of an upcoming game release or anything, no notifications or popups. You’d just go through your daily sites and hope to see an update. Games weren’t user submitted on GGZ you see, they were often approved and placed by the webmaster. One early morning, I happened across a game called Crossbone with only a couple of sentences and a title screen to go by. That was the thing about GGZ, you never really knew what you were going to get. Yet the games from that site were always a step above most RM games due to the curated nature of the members and the community.

Replaying this for the first time in 15 years, I realize this game still has a lot of heart. While the battles are a bit rough (enemies are sometimes higher HP than they need to be), the sequences are just so imaginatively crafted. A lot of the scenes often take a page out of a Final Fantasy’s idea of comedic relief. Where nameless henchmen have just as much personality as the main characters. A lot of the events play out like a Saturday-morning cartoon with a pint of seriousness. You play as Breeze, an anchor wielding (swords aren’t cool enough for him) freelancer who always has trouble following him wherever he goes. After getting entangled with some pirates he gets knocked out by a wave caused by an unknown being. This spirals into further crazy adventures.

“I was planning to pack so much into that game that it would have been unwieldy. I did learn a lot about being creative within limitations thinking back on it, even if it creeps up on me from time to time. Now my problem is usually the opposite, I tend to over-plan so I end up exhausted before I even begin haha.”

Daniel Olsén

The art is comprised mostly of original art overlayed on an RTP chipset framework. For example you might see the standard RTP ship tilset, but covered in metallic tiles made by the author himself. A lot of the scenes are accompanied by drawings that act as comic book panels of sorts. They give a really good cinematic emphasis in the flashbacks and important segments. I could talk about the individual aspects of this game, but it really comes down to it feeling like an adventure. I think RPGs always have that problem of sometimes starting out with hometown + chores or like fighting rats in a sewer dungeon. Crossbone just says screw that, you’re fighting a robot with an anchor in the first 6 minutes. There’s a sequence where this old man summons a giant owl god thing with a sword to fight this giant bug thing. There’s another section where a ship you’re on gets raided by dragon people using a slime infested coral reef that stops the ship from moving, but like, it can also turn into a mech? AND A UNICORN LOOKING BOAT ALSO TURNS INTO A MECH TO STOP IT.

“The ship battle sequence for Crossbone is made by the creator of Mog’s Adventure, in return I created the maps and such for the final dungeon of that game. A lot of the non-sprite art in the game is embarrassing looking back since I tended to draw the heads before the body so the proportions came out all janky. But it is what it is and every experience is valuable for the future. After Crossbone I went to college, I experience various things and worked as a freelance illustrators for a few years.”

Daniel Olsén
The dungeon in Mog’s Adventure that Daniel worked on

The author Daniel Olsén still works on game projects from time to time. His passion for fiction and art has never faded and mostly does art and comics. It’s easy to see the connection between how bombastic and theatrical Crossbone was and his current artwork. Although that can take a lot of effort and time, sometimes leaving an impression is worth it in the end. It certainly added to the surprise of browsing through RPG Maker games all those years ago.

Check out Daniel Olsén’s portfolio!

Estimated Length : 2 hours or so

Download Here (Archive)
GGZ Archive and History
Youtube Playthrough (Chapter 1)