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. 

Solar Tear

Created by: Mr. Nemo
Released: June 2009
Engine: RM2003

Solar Tear was a game I had my eye on for a long time. It was sandwiched between the GamingW to RMN era, when the communities were shifting (though it did first appear in GamingW around 2004). A demo for Solar Tear was debuted for the Release Something! VII event which was a traditional community driven effort to get people out of the Screenshot Topics, chin up, introduce your game to everyone, and actually expose it to the world to get some feedback. Though the events slowly turned into a deadline date for everyone’s demos (hell, even an excuse to game jam a full game), it was originally intended to have games release “as is” or even just random snippets. They didn’t have to have a carefully molded cliffhanger, some tie in to the next chapter or even some bombastic intro. Aside from making sure the “Start Event” was in the right spot and things lined up, the work in progress clunky-ness was the whole point.

Now I played Solar Tear back in its 2008 release (apparently there was also a 2004 demo). I recall not liking it very much despite enjoying the setting and vibe. Playing it now I can see why this game was the ultimate monkey’s paw. Your rpgmaker cyberpunk dream game is released, but it has every recipe for being a bad experience. Slow walk speed, slow ATB bar, a status effect christmas, needing to know monster weaknesses ahead of time, really bad economy balance, skills that don’t seem that useful, and somewhat obtuse puzzles. The author doesn’t need to hear this, he acknowledged the faults of this project long ago. Still, if you open up the editor and cheat some of the problems out, it’s still a neat slum romp experience.

So hypothetically: what if the author never released this demo and just kept going towards the full game? He would likely not have found these problems sooner, or knew that these were problems. There would have been so much more to lose if the author had held back on the release. I’m glad that wasn’t the case. But it’s interesting to think about in the grand scheme of things, what we tried to encourage and discourage in the community. The perfectionist mentalities were rampant, but so were the expectations and the standards. It’s sometimes hard to release with so much pressure on the line. In any case I was glad I got to experience this cyberpunk landscape once more. Luckily the game is still being made after all these years. It’s under a different name and likely a revised scenario, but the same appeal of the game is there for me. Like every sucker who hinges their hype on someone’s spare-time-motivation, I’m still waiting.

Estimated length: 2 Hours

Download Here (Release Something VIII Demo)
Arbiter: Prototype (Current Game Page)
Original release thread (Archive)

Youtube Sample Playthrough