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…
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.
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
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.
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)
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.