If you tell a non-interested observer that the release of a Super NES game on the Wii U caused a frenzy of excitement online, they may raise an eyebrow or, more likely, give you a quizzical look. Why would a game from so long ago be thrilling, when we have all of these highly cinematic HD experiences to enjoy?
Of course, being a gamer can be a complex business. Like any art form — music, literature, film — the old can be as captivating as the new, and certainly as enrapturing. EarthBound's release history is special, too, as it's developed a reputation and cool factor long after it first graced the market. A loud contingent of enthusiasts have been begging for a Virtual Console release since the concept was born on the Wii, and Nintendo finally delivered.
There will always be a debate whether Nintendo should have opted for an extensive build-up and marketing campaign for this release on the Wii U, and that's fair enough. Yet the manner in which it was revealed was thrilling. It was a Thursday and we were gearing up to do our weekly Nintendo Download update for the North American region; the email from Nintendo with the details typically arrives at the same time every week, except on that week it didn't. It just didn't arrive, and there was some head-scratching.
A delay to the Download update normally means something's gone wrong, or a surprise is afoot. As we waited eagle-eyed gamers spotted an EarthBound game page on the Nintendo of America website, while it was listed as a new release on the Wii U eShop in the UK. Frenzied rumour followed, and then Nintendo dropped Nintendo Direct mini videos straight onto YouTube, the end of which confirmed EarthBound for release that day. We then had the download update information, over three hours late, and it was confirmed that the classic RPG was available in both Europe and North America.
It was a day when Nintendo caused confusion, hype and delight as the hours passed, with EarthBound being everywhere on social network timelines. In terms of having a dramatic impact on a single day and grabbing attention, Nintendo succeeded — all with a Super NES game.
That's the power of video game culture to captivate gamers. For some added perspective one of our prominent retro experts — and huge EarthBound fan — Marcel Van Duyn describes just how rare and valuable a title it is. Let us know about your thoughts on the title and that release day in the comments below.
Marcel van Duyn
I was quite surprised when Nintendo announced EarthBound would be getting a Virtual Console release - since it never showed up on the Wii Virtual Console and there were all sorts of rumours floating around I'd pretty much passed it off as something that would never happen. But I'm very glad it did, as obtaining a cartridge has become a pretty expensive endeavour over the past few years.
Ever since Ness appeared in the original Super Smash Bros. (And all its incarnations since), more and more people became interested in what game he originated from. EarthBound sold relatively poorly in North America when it was first released, no doubt due to its unusual ad campaign, so not a whole lot of people had an idea of what exactly Ness's story was, and wanted to find out first-hand.
Despite its low sales, the original game is not particularly rare, but the sudden demand quickly drove the price up to almost unreasonable levels - just buying a loose cartridge will easily run you over $100 on eBay these days, and complete copies, which come in a large box and include a particularly cool strategy guide for the entire game, always exceed $500. I recently encountered a complete copy at a retro game fair with a price tag of €800!
Then, a few years into the Wii's life cycle, some rumours started popping up saying that it would be impossible to re-release the game in the west (or release for the first time, in Europe's case) due to copyright issues. The game contains a lot of references to real people and even clearly borrows certain segments of songs by bands such as The Beatles. That's not a very big deal in Japan, which is generally pretty lax on these kinds of things, but as you can get sued over the drop of a hat in the west, people assumed that this was one reason we wouldn't be seeing the game again, at least not without major changes in text and audio.
Fast forward a bit and suddenly, Nintendo has actually re-released the game! It actually did end up being slightly edited, but surprisingly, practically everything is intact - the only thing it ended up changing was the animations for a few PSI attacks, to reduce potential seizures. It also holds two distinctions - it's the first (and only) Wii U Virtual Console game that wasn't released on the Wii Virtual Console, and it's the only SNES game that costs $10. Not that you should complain about that, though, considering the cost of buying a cartridge!