The Games that Weren’t: EarthBound 64

March 14, 2012

A new game is released to market with a great soundtrack, superb writing and localization, a great visual aesthetic and sharp graphics and garners a slew of sterling reviews. It proceeds to fail miserably in sales, dooming this promising series to an early and undeserved death. It’s a tale that gamers are all too familiar with. Too many notable games have fallen into this hole and never recovered. For a while it looked as if EarthBound was going to avoid this fate as, despite its lackluster sales for the Super Nintendo in 1995, a sequel was shortly in development for Nintendo’s new 3D system, the Nintendo 64. 

What It Was: EarthBound 64, the sequel to SNES cult favorite EarthBound

What Happened: Nintendo 64DD failed to reach market, GBA rework not localized

Why We Wanted It: EarthBound was a genre-defining title and we need more of those

In 1997, after a couple years of development, Nintendo announced that EarthBound 64 would be a launch title for the Nintendo 64 Disc Drive, rather than a standard N64 title. Looking back, this is the first indication that its release might be in jeopardy. The U.S. was largely tired of console add-ons, thanks to the wide array of peripherals sold and then abandoned by Sega. A few years later, Nintendo realized the Disc Drive was going to be a failure and moved EarthBound 64’s development back to the N64. Production was quite far along, with a playable version of it even being shown at Space World in 1999. Sadly, that was the last anyone would ever see of it. It was given release date after release date and hit delay after delay. The writing was on the wall when Nintendo didn’t show it at E3 in 2000 at all, and it was officially canceled in August of that year.

It was an unexpected and ignominious end for EarthBound 64, as over the years EarthBound (known as Mother 2 in Japan, as the NES original never made it Stateside) had garnered a fairly significant and vocal fanbase. It often found at or near the top of the various Most Wanted lists that magazines ran periodically, including Nintendo’s own Nintendo Power. EarthBound 64 would likely have been one of the largest and most advanced titles for the N64. The developers for it often stated that it would be a 40-to-60 hour game for experienced gamers, while IGN and other outlets stated that it had a great soundtrack, intuitive controls, and smooth graphics.

Continuing in the footsteps of its predecessor, EarthBound 64 was planned to be a quirky title with plenty of personality and memorable characters. Set 200 years after EarthBound, it would have taken place on an island chain called the Nowhere Islands over 12 chapters spanning 10 years. The story would have followed a collection of 10 playable characters over the years as they dealt with the unusually named Pig Army as they attempted to enslave all of humanity. While there wasn’t really a single main character, a boy named Lucas was often referred to as perhaps the central figure in the plot.

Perhaps overambitious plans are to blame for the failure of EarthBound 64. Battle was to take place similarly to in EarthBound, with the addition of a music-based combo system. By ‘strumming’ the analog stick to the beat of the background music, a character could string attacks together for more damage. It was planned to have an internal clock that would change the in game time in sync with that of the player’s. Multiple paths through the world were also planned, so that each player could potentially interact with the game world in unique ways. They even planned on allowing for customizable characters. In the end, it just took too long and too much money to develop, and with less than a year left before the GameCube would launch, Nintendo pulled the plug and it was never to be seen again in that form.

When Nintendo adapted the two Mother games for a re-release on the Game Boy Advance in 2003, they also decided to bring back the ideas from EarthBound 64 for a GBA sequel. The team was initially resistant to the idea, as EarthBound 64 was much too large and grandiose for the GBA to fully convey or use. Eventually they realized that it could work and that this would be their last chance to let it see the light of day. Completely new graphics were created, giving it a look much closer to that of EarthBound a decade earlier. The scope of the story was cut, and portions of it rewritten. It is set around 1,000 years after EarthBound, takes place over just 3 years and is only 8 chapters long. It also has fewer playable characters, though the overarching story and endings remained the same. Pretty much all the ambitious gameplay ideas were scrapped as well, except for the combo system. It was adapted to allow for up to 16 attacks to be chained, if you timed button presses along with the tempo of the background enemy. Most enemies had their own beat to match, and when an enemy was put to sleep the beat became more evident, allowing for easier combos. It was released in Japan in 2006 to a great reception, but never made it across the Pacific.