A History of RPG Maker Earthbound-likes (Part Two)

We tend to be dismissive about fanworks or just about anything that “rips off” from existing properties. Yet I think the trick isn’t so much whether or not you’re heavily influenced, but where you get your influences from. Itoi is literally (and actually for emphasis) a boomer, he was 41 when development started on Earthbound and he was able to experience the transformation of a post-WW2 world along with being able to construct a JRPG with arguably the most known video game company in the world. The sensibilities that come from jiving through the 60s and 70s as a young adult is apparent in the Mother games. Yet I get the feeling that most fans might not care for The Beach Boys or John Lennon (Their parents maybe). It’s also important to make a distinction between influence and similarity. You could technically compare Earthbound to Dragon Quest in both gameplay and format. More abstractly the music that Itoi worships tends to inform the themes or whatever creative choices he makes (that leads to riding a yellow submarine for example). As media leap frogs influence to influence, the original meanings and ideas get obfuscated. I think about that a lot especially while playing these Earthbound fangames as each them tend to grab and discard different aspects of the Mother series.  

Cognitive Dissonance 2008 (Complete)

Main Site Download

Cognitive Dissonance is unlike any of the Earthbound fan games I’ve played so far. This isn’t just a compliment but also that it is a fangame of Mother 1 more so than 2 delving into the origins of Giygas. It was originally released in 2008 but got a massive overhaul and was completed by 2014. The intro of the game has you playing the villain from the first Mother game undergoing the final battle of Mother 1. You then assume the role of one of a Mook living on planet Saturn who then embarks on the usual universe saving stuff. You can get Mr. Saturn AND Starmen in your party. Not only that but it is a full game, rpgmaker wikia lists the game’s length as over 19 hours long. You also get to explore not just one planet but the entire solar system. The game also has a sizable following, it was featured in a Nitro Rad video garnering over 300k views. Which when you think about it, is impressive for an RPG Maker game that’s actually an RPG. Sure RM games aren’t a stranger to generating large cult followings, but other than LISA they tend to be in the horror/Yume-Nikki camp.

It’s safe to say that I will not be able to cover the entirety of this game in this article (check Nitro Rad’s review). What held me back was well – the usual suspects in an RM2K3 game: slow walk speed and agility problems(tm). You can easily hack in a walk speed changer but some battles have questionable balance. There are enemies that have the ability to increase their own speed, which means the ATB will exponentially go up slower depending on how many enemies are doing it. If you’re ignorant on how ATB speeds in RM2K3 work, messing with speed stats can result in poor battle flow. Thankfully you do have a free skill that slows them down, but it can only help so much (and isn’t very engaging to fight against the flaws of the engine instead of the actual enemies). Besides all of those issues the game does get more exciting once you get past the first chapter. This is all likely due to the game getting better as development went on (common for hobbyist development).

On a final note I will say this game has one of the better abstract/moving backgrounds of any RPG Maker game I’ve played. It really pushes it to another level of creativity. Most of the time it uses a mostly black foreground with cutouts to simulate the backdrop to be particles. It’s simple but you almost feel like the background is rotating or moving in ways that feel like an optical illusion. This is all just with X and Y scrolling and 2 images. The original Earthbound had palette cycling, much more flexible scrolling, oscillation, and transparency to work with. Yet even with such a limited engine there’s always ways to impress.

Battle with Starman (2008) (Video)

This is not a playable game at all but rather a battle animation demonstration made in the RM2K3 default battle system by Ranmaster. Earthbound’s influence isn’t just felt in games and fan-games but also what creators choose to use as a placeholder example. What made me add to this the article was this weirdly has a standard RPG character in the trippy background format, which well, why not? Does every EB inspired game need to be first person (other than not having to do as much animation). It is quite hard to get anything out of the RM2K3 DBS but this demo demonstrates enemy animations, limit breaks and generally smooth animations. Ranmaster lately has been doing animation work for Blindmind’s Beloved Rapture which is still in development.

Ghosts of Aliens (2008) (Complete)

Archive Download

Long before Space Funeral and OFF commanded attention, this game very much broke the mold as far as venturing into the surreal aesthetics of RPG Maker. Like Homeland this also originated from Gaming World. Replaying this game I am reminded again of GamingW’s music scene. The tracks have an unpredictable aura as you don’t quite know what to expect with a mixture of twerpy dream pop vocal tracks and straight up 8bit. Yet there are some familiar songs, like an Onett remix for one of the towns. Some of the music was done by CBoryardee who made Barkley, Shut up and Jam: Gaiden. According to the creator Swordofkings128, the project started out as sort of a joke, but for whatever reason he kept at it and managed to complete it.

The game is closer to the original Mother more than anything as the main character’s sprite suspiciously looks like an edit along with the interiors. There is a lot of custom art that resembles sketchy pixel work where lines aren’t super defined. The colors sort of have an off kilter highly saturated MS-Paint aesthetic that is done quite well. The art-style feels ahead of its time, sure there might be quite a few indie games that look like this now but back in 2008 it was very uncommon for someone to go for the neo-retro NES look.

The story is that you’ve crash landed your spaceship and died. Like the title you float around as a ghost to retrieve your body, unlike the title though you are actually in living form for most of the game. Then again you aren’t the only alien. The plot is rather paper thin with a Final Fantasy wizard appearing everywhere telling you where to go. The NPCs are quite terse with some light humor, but some of them might be part of the background like a talking tree that ends up being the entrance to the dungeon. The game’s balance is all over the place, you have a skill that one shots most enemies at first but the boss can pretty much one shot you, but you can also poison the boss. There are hazards that send you to the game over screen, but you can save anywhere and save scum your way through it. I suspect the creator didn’t have time to balance it so they left behind enough solutions to make the game bearable. It’s one of those games where you just want to see the next area, the next character, or next music track. The gameplay itself, maybe not so much. Which is in line with what I’d say about the Mother games.

One interesting feature is being able to drive a car that crashes if you hit a wall, you then have to walk the rest of the way after that though. Party members will appear next to npcs talking to them when entering a house. So there’s a lot of unexpected events throughout the journey that makes the game worthwhile. Just be prepared for a gauntlet of bullshit to bypass. .The game is quite long, boasting a whopping 10 dungeons and various in-betweens, so there’s quite a lot to explore and get through. 

The Space Funeral creator cites this game as an inspiration and it shocks me to this day that this game didn’t get more attention. The game was completed by 2012 (Space Funeral was made in 2010, OFF’s english translation was in 2014) so it wasn’t like it missed the boat, but maybe it just didn’t go through the proper channels. The writing does have a little less content than Space Funeral / OFF though. As in there aren’t any crazy meanings to derive from it. Regardless, I think it deserves a retrospective.

Chromatose (2009) (Unreleased)

Webarchive Game Page

This game does not exist in any public playable form. It was a game project in collaboration with several members of the RMN community with the user Tardis (now goes by Finbeard) at the helm. It started out as an entry for the Release Something 10 event where you’re encouraged to release whatever you happen to be working on like a demo or screenshots. The Chromotose devs decided to go with the latter and release a game afterwards. Nothing came of the game aside from a gamepage and the usual screenshot hype, but I think it’s important to reflect the community’s then culture with what could have been.

The group that made the project were known as Team Cascade, or as I remember the “the lol detectives” A user geodude would make an alt account called the black cape and try to foil the misao awards and cause havoc in the forums of RMN. Members of team cascade would change their avatars to old timey characters.  I guess you’d call this forum LARPing.  It was… a different time back then.

I got in touch with Kevin Liu (formerly known as AznChipmunk) who miraculously has a very good memory about past events, and was the programmer of the battles/menu. Some would assume the super elaborate menu was a mockup, which was often a contention in the community. Basically users would post mockups and pass it off as screenshots, which in the RM community can turn into a usual school yard fight of “Your screenshots are fake” “No they’re not” “Oh yeah prove it” but surprisingly the menu was actually implemented in the game. The battle menu was able to power up and go through a turn order but short of having actual enemies. 

The story starred a character named Chess and his friend Lyle. Chess works for the post office until these mysterious alien invaders show up called Staticians. The humor behind it was that math and statistics were boring, therefore evil, replacing the color of the world with static mono-chromatic bleakness. Which is where the title of the game comes in. The main gimmick of the game is that you’d be collecting hats that would give various abilities in battle or for solving puzzles on the field. It wasn’t just Earthbound being an influence but also Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga.

“I think one of the problems with the project was that everyone worked at a different pace and then motivation for some people died out” Kevin Liu said. “When I started college all of the RPG Maker projects I was working on died off.”  Liu still had his own project Muse on his mind but shortly bowed out of the community in general as college got more busy. This is the usual for ambitious projects started by highschool kids. The team split and most people moved on to other things. However the leader of the project, Finbeard decided to keep doing the project under a different name and engine.

That later project too eventually came to a halt as pursuing comics and illustrations became a more primary creative outlet for Finbeard.

Mockups from the also cancelled POST*BUSTERS

Mother 2k3 (2009) (Cancelled)

Game Page and Download

Another cancelled project that came out with a demo in the same year as Chromotose’s announcement. This project would eventually be cancelled but it demonstrates full CBS/CMS functionality built to mimic many of Mother 3’s interactive quirks. The most notable is the rhythm mechanic where tapping to the beat while the attack is happening will score more hits. It even contains the rolling numbers (just with less polished animation). The released demo doesn’t contain much story so much as a tech showcase (and of course slow walk speed paired with large maps) but it certainly broke new ground on what to expect from a Mother RM fan-game.

Touhou Mother (2009) (Complete)

vgperson’s Translation Download

So this is one of the more unlikely crossovers. Touhou is a danmaku game by indie japanese developer ZUN that is then slapped together with Mother in this game. Yet when you think about it, both games have arguably been popularized by the internet culture at large. Translated into English by vgperson this is another chance to view the Japanese side of RPG Maker. I have not played a Touhou game since probably the time this came out but I do remember touhou dominating some IRC conversations. This game does require some knowledge of Touhou and Mother to grasp some of the story, (or rather the countless references and callbacks this game throws out there). Though this is not limited to just the two titular properties, an enemy for instance will throw a tarot card that is presented as a Yu-Gi-Oh card. Some sound effects were clearly ripped from Dragon Quest. Characters will break the fourth wall occasionally, so it very much feels like a shitposty pop culture reference heavy game yet with a lot of effort into it. This is emblematic of one particular Japanese RM community, where there’s a competitive spirit to see who can make the best “kusoge”. At the very least it certainly has the sensibilities of that subculture.

The gameplay itself is pretty straight forward. The battle system is custom made yet uses the interesting choice of using default event messages to describe what’s happening in the battle. It also has scrolling numbers (but no rhythm system). Yet it still uses the default menu for out of combat things, so it’s very much a default/custom hybrid where it makes sense. The combat itself is fairly basic and you can’t use items (maybe a missing feature due to the number of items acquired being impossible to track via conditional branches unless you use variables manually thus abandoning the DMS).

Compared to all the other games I covered I feel this has the best ratio of completeness/polish, it doesn’t excel at both components as much, but it feels well rounded. Considering the battles are custom however the backgrounds do feel a bit disappointing, it’s just a trippy pattern that just moves in one direction. The developers likely used parallaxes for them but could have easily used pictures which are unlimited with patches and can be rotated, transparent, tinted and sine waved. However maybe parallax backgrounds were just good enough to keep development rolling.

A lot of the dialogue is mostly the Touhou shrine maiden personalities bickering back and forth while they fight an alien invasion, so if you’re down for that then this will probably be the main draw. Again, this game appeals to a very specific set of people which makes it all the more intriguing as to why someone would go this far to make it. It’s really something that can only exist in the hobbyist RM community. Also this game has a sequel, so if this is your thing then there’s a lot of it.

Wooby RPG (2010) (Cancelled)

rpgmakerarchive page download

Started in 2006 this was a game made by Dookie, a username I kept seeing in Earthbound rips and credits of earlier fangames. You play as a very early gameboy version of Kirby, or maybe the mask of a certain minecraft youtuber. Though if anything it feels mostly like a Pac-Man RPG. Your name is Wooby, your sister is named Looby (and has a red bow on her head), the macguffin stolen from you is called a woob block, the town is called Woobton. It’s very much a universe where things are just the way they are because they are.

The game has a lot of Earthbound edits but it might not be noticeable if you haven’t played a lot of Earthbound (and becomes less apparent as the game goes on). Some of the gameplay takes on the form of the usual Mario RPG fare, you can jump and collect coins and even get coins by bumping your head into blocks. The battles have the trippy background but are still sideview and Wooby will occasionally unleash a limit break, so there’s a smattering of different visuals being used here.  Like Cognitive Dissonance this game has some great uses of the DBS backgrounds (maybe that should be a misao category). Every battle has two black bars that go over one of the layers, so the limitation that the author has to work with is that the foreground has to be static, but that doesn’t stop the creativity from displaying. I could have sworn some of the backgrounds were using the sine wave effect, but they really weren’t, it was just an effective use of cut-out and some magic.

Overall the game’s story is fairly simple and straightforward, you’re chasing a crocodile in a trench coat that stole your family’s precious Woob Block. But what I like is that the game feels like a huge adventure despite such a simple premise, there’s a lot of effort put into things you wouldn’t expect. Like when you enter a mansion there’s an overlay of a spider dangling from a web as you walk through the halls. The experience is simple but it’s not generic, which is how I’d describe Paper Mario or similar games. 

While the demo has quite a bit of content, the game was cancelled, likely because Dookie had grown as a developer over the years and moved onto other projects. Most relevant to the article is Eagleland, a game set in the Earthbound universe. It was posted on Starmen.net showing quite a few screenshots and video content, but no demo was ever released. What’s interesting to me is just how developed one of the city areas is. I cannot think of many RPG Maker games that attempt cities as large and detailed as this, it’s a sort of ambitious holy grail people don’t usually talk about. Given the constraints of RPG Maker, it is still entirely possible to make an open ended walkable environment with the size of a world map, yet it’s probably a nightmare to organize and maintain a level of quality. Of all the RM direct fan-games this is probably the most visually impressive and consistent. 

Once again the game was cancelled but it contributed to Dookie’s growth to pursue the now in development Kingdoms of the Dump. A game that’s made in Godot, a very different and more advanced engine than rm2k3, but I can see some of the Wooby DNA in there but also it has its own identity. The character designs and world building is a lot more developed, and personally I’m looking forward to this game. 

All the other RM Earthbound-likes

As much as I’d like to, I can’t cover them all. While it is definitely its own thing and even contributed to a minimalist genre, Yume-nikki is thought to have been influenced by the Mother series due to the similarities of the FC world and some graphics. By proxy that game has flooded into a whole mess of tributes and fangames. Undertale creator Tobyfox made a halloween themed Earthbound romhack and has stated that he dabbled with RM2000 before eventually settling on GameMaker, so there’s some loose connection there. There’s also LISA which also contains a large dedicated following. Omori is another similar popular instance, but I haven’t even begun to look into that. There’s just a lot to go through but I thought I’d cover the overlooked or the ones that never quite made it yet showed potential. 

If there’s any takeaway I can get from going through all of these games it’s that you can gain a lot just by making your game quirky or less serious, there’s a huge advantage to the looseness if you decide to suddenly contrast it with darker or surreal elements as these games tend to be. Though nowadays it is definitely a trend in the larger indie games, but I don’t really blame them. It also just plays well to the internet and the urban legend nature of having lore that can be interpreted and devoured by wiki archiving savvy people. The more traditional RPGs require the audience to buy into the world building on their own volition and I think for older people like me there’s an acquired taste that comes from growing up in a specific era. Though I would also argue in the amateur spirit of RPG Maker there’s no shortage of off beat writing and style, it’s just hard to market if there isn’t a baseball bat or trippy imagery to go off of. There’s probably like 10 articles I could write about what Earthbound means to people and how it has affected the RM scene and the audiences that keep it going. That does speak to the multiple angles to go at this type of content.

This article became way longer than I expected and I probably won’t do another giant game compilation any time soon. However it was nice to shotgun through some small things that might have not gotten an article of their own, so I might revisit this format later on. 

NigSek: A Monster’s Tail

Created by: SovanJedi
Released: November 2001 (First full release)
Engine: RM2000

Naturally, RPG Maker became quite the conduit for making fan-games of existing JRPG franchises, sometimes even non-RPGs would be made into fan-games. These games would top the download charts just for having “DBZ” or “Final Fantasy” in the title. Nigsek – A Monsters Tail doesn’t even bother wearing the IP on its name. It’s a sequel to another fan-game called The Legend of Zelda: Angels Four (made in RM95). Not only that but it’s the only RM game that I remember that used FMVs. Heck, you don’t even play as Link and there’s Pokemon in it for some reason.

The premise is that having saved Hyrule along with your friends, you were granted a peaceful limbo to dwell in. Before the existential thoughts can manifest, the balance of Hyrule gets disrupted. Link has disappeared from Hyrulian history, and your goal is to travel back and time and figure out why it happened. To complicate this further, you’re split into two halves. It’s full of weird mind bending aspects you would never expect a Zelda fan-game to broach. The writing is introspective and explores the fate and relationships between characters, but it also has a child-like wonder to it.

Nigsek pretty much breaks every fan-game convention on the list. Despite having more reason to use rips from existing Zelda games it has mostly originally made graphics. These graphics render large sprawling maps that aim to recreate a lot of the locales that you’d find in Ocarina of Time. But what about those dang FMVs? The seldom used “Play Movie” event command displays the author’s custom made CGI videos that look straight out of a PS1 game studio experimenting with 3D for the first time. These renders also match with the facesets, some chipset segments and battle scenes. More than simply just the author flexing his production values, the cinematics give a certain feel to the world and important situations.

This homage really interacts with the lore and ethos of Zelda, given that it came out before Wind Waker, there’s an interesting context from what material was available back in 2001. Having said all of that, there are some weird issues with the game though. Following in the footsteps of Majora’s Mask there’s a huge day/night cycle that governs the flow of the game. Meaning you’ll be returning to a lot of places based on a running clock, multiple events happen in the same location which rely on the author’s management of events to run smoothly. It’s not hard to see why this would lead to a lot of errors. It also says something about the ambition of the game since it’s also complete. With all that in mind, this game is such a crazy anomaly on so many levels, so it’s worth checking out, just be wary of the bugs.

The creator continues to make games and art in the game industry to this very day. Check out his portfolio here.

Update: The creator saw the article! And made a recreation of the above screenshot.

2001 Misao Awards
Best Graphics:
Nigsek

Best Character:
Nigsek (Nigsek)

Most Innovative Feature:
FMVs in Nigsek

Greatest Risk that Succeeded:
Nigsek’s use of FMVs

Download Here (RMN Page)

(Youtube Sample Playthrough)

Tetris

Created by: JKB Productions
Released: June 2001
Engine: RM2000

Okay so we’ve all been enamored with the battle royale Tetris that came out of nowhere on the Switch recently. But hold up, alright, stay with me here, what about, Tetris, but made in RPG Maker? You might be asking: “Why would someone make that…” and I would counter with “Why the hell would someone not?” If you ventured into any game engine or a site with games on it, there would invariably be some kind of Pong or Tetris clone posted somewhere. It’s a neat way to get accustomed to programming or working with whatever new tool you come across. Obviously RPG Maker 2000 has its strengths and weaknesses, with quite a few limitations going for it. It’s not that strange to put a newly found engine to the test.

Thing is though, I didn’t expect the presentation to be so extreme. The title screen opens up to a sped up sparkman stage.midi with a mish-mash of backgrounds from different sources, one in particular being a CGI South Park background. When you hit New Game, the Konami logo jingle plays while displaying the JKB Porductions logo instead. This made me burst into laughter. The sincerity of an RM author rolling out the red carpet for their little mini game project really gets to me. Each background you choose in the game offers its own music, my favorite in particular is the cgi purple mountain-scape background that plays a Black Sabbath midi.

So how does the actual Tetris hold up? Unsurprisingly the game uses individual events to display the tetris blocks and moves them downwards. Event movement is VERY finicky to put it mildly. Since it’s tile based, events are technically on the tile they’re moving to. This can create problems in terms of detecting when a piece needs to stop and feels very delayed and bleh to snap together. Not only that, but you have to wait for the entire piece to reveal itself before you can move it. Suffice to say you won’t be T-spinning your way into high-score chain land. All in all though, it is still playable and very much Tetris. There’s a glitch that sometimes happens where the individual event blocks slide off, which gets me thinking on how this was evented and put together.

The real question though, is it THE Tetris? Very likely not. The aesthetics are somewhat charming though, and it feels in the vein of CD-i Tetris and how it’s more interesting to look into the background/music choices than the actual programming. This is the only Tetris that I know of that has the South Park “Uncle Fucka” song.

Estimated length: ???

Download Here
Author’s Website (Archive) (Portuguese)

Youtube Playthrough

Redmoon Saga

Created By: Axis / Fallon
Release Date: August 2000
Engine: RM2000

After the RPG Maker 2000 english translation was released, a few of the first submitted games were probably really bad. Although mainstream JRPGs and the RM95 catalogue existed to take notes from, RPG Making software on the internet was only starting to gain momentum. A Blurred Line is one of the earlier games considered a classic even to this day, but what notables came before? Aside from the Don’s Adventures sample game, what games stood out from the rest in such an early time period? Redmoon Saga is considered one of them. Created 2 months after the RPGMaker 2000 translation had been released, clocking in at around 1 hour squeezed into 15 maps, this demo managed to impress people at the time.

From the moment I opened this game in RM2k,just looking through the maps, I could already tell that the author really had given some time and effort to his game. I didn’t get disappointed when I first started to play either, a cool title screen and an amazing intro was what I first got to notice. I think this author was the first to use the fog effect for the RM2k, and the first time a saw it was just blown away. That kind of eye-candy is what shows the real power of RM2k

Punk84’s Review, circa 2001

Although the majority of it is RTP, there was effort to make it feel less default. Even the chipset colors was altered to give the towns a vivid look. Aside from a few novelty firsts (such as the fog effect mentioned by Punk84) you won’t really get too much out of this game ultimately. MY GOD are the random battles relentless, they’re even in places that have puzzles or story events. Your characters don’t seem to learn any skills so the combat and progression is really lacking. Despite that, the game accomplishes a lot with the small stuff. The name/dialogue is properly formatted, spelling errors are kept to a minimum, the maps are quite elaborate, and the story’s flow is pretty straight forward. It avoids a lot of common beginner faults and shows what the engine was meant for.

The story is a little generic, starting with an in-media-res where you fight the villain and lose. Surprise! It was all a dream and you wake up out of bed. Even if the cliches are in full force, there is some demonstration of scene direction. For instance there is flash-back scene that happens in the same room that you trigger it in. Transparent past characters appear in the room to show a lapse in time. Flashback writing was common place in just about any RPG, but this game does take a step further into presenting that. The oddest part in the game is when our hero extorts a key from an NPC in order to gain access to the dungeon. He’s a total asshole about it and even his friend tries to reign him in. There’s no prior context to prelude this and it’s kind of just moved on from.

At the end of the day, sometimes it’s not about making the best game ever. It’s just enough to cross over whatever the current standards are in order to show others how it’s done. Creative works often evolve from each other, and it’s pretty easy to observe that in early RM.

Estimated length: 1 Hour or so

Download (Queen’s Court)
Download Mirror (Monkey Productions)
Punk84’s Review (Archive)
GamingW Article mentioning Redmoon Saga (Archive)

Youtube 1 Hour Play-through