Earthbound, Shigesato Itoi's sweet SNES role-playing game about a young psychic boy traveling '50s-style American towns to defeat aliens, is the canonical missing game from Virtual Console. Everyone can think of a few games they'd like to see on the Wii service, but Earthbound is the most notable absence.
Originally released on SNES in 1995, it went somewhat unnoticed. It slowly developed a reputation as a cult classic, and the scarce copies made for North America climbed in value, to the point that obtaining a legal copy became prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, it gained dedicated fans, probably in part through emulation, and so when Nintendo announced official, legal emulation in the form of the Wii Virtual Console, an internet-savvy, passionate fanbase was already in place to start clamoring for it.
And yet, after years and years of clamoring, it never happened in the lifespan of the Wii.
"We were told EarthBound was scheduled/ready to release in summer 2007, but it got held up by [Nintendo of America's] legal department," Reid Young, founder of game memorabilia/apparel site Fangamer told me, "mostly due to copyright concerns relating to music samples (EarthBound made frequent references/samples from the Beatles, The Who, Chuck Berry, etc)." In 2009, Young posted an article on the Earthbound fansite Starmen.net detailing the whole trajectory of the planned, and canceled, re-release, based on anonymous sources.
"Nintendo of America's lawyers wanted changes, whereas [Nintendo Co., Ltd.] wasn't willing to budge, so it came to a stalemate," Young told me. "This is why the game was withheld from Smash Bros Brawl 'Masterpieces' and shelved for the last 6 years; apparently even Hip Tanaka (the musician responsible for EarthBound's music) was aware of the issues and didn't feel comfortable discussing them."
Speaking to Kotaku last week, Nintendo of America Director of Product Marketing Bill Trinen said he was not "aware" of any legal issues holding the release back, and said that "they're taking the original game and putting it on Wii U," with no known alterations to the soundtrack or anything else." That means that either the legal issues were resolved behind the scenes – so far behind the scenes that Trinen didn't know about the resolution – or that there was another, still unknown, reason not to release the game, whether it was some kind of legal issue or that Nintendo just didn't want to.
Young has a few theories as to what factors made Nintendo especially motivated to release Earthbound
now, and – unsurprisingly – they're all related to direct appeals to Japan. First, "The outpouring of support it received on the Mother 2
Miiverse, which is as direct (and public) a forum as we've ever had for communicating with Nintendo." Second, Earthbound
creator Shigesato Itoi has been hearing from foreign fans. "In addition to Twitter and the Miiverse allowing non-Japanese fans to interact with him directly, Lindsay Nelson spoke to Itoi
about the masses of neglected Earthbound
fans overseas while she was in Japan working on his Techo project
Finally, "The Wii U needs all the help it can get," Young notes. This is the reason I personally think is most likely to be the deciding factor. With one relatively cheap ROM dump, Nintendo can sell Wii U systems to some lapsed fans, and turn them into powerful ambassadors for the platform. It's not the typical "blue ocean" strategy of Nintendo; rather, it's a direct appeal to the hardest of the hardcore, the Nintendo fans who typically don't need any convincing to buy a new console, but for whatever reason, held off on the Wii U.
For an example of just how active the Earthbound
community is, Young told me that Fangamer and Starmen.net plan to hold a "far more ambitious" version of their annual Earthbound Fanfest
this year, an event that combines streamed gameplay with fanart, music, contests, and other activities. Now imagine these people being fans of a game that other people can purchase
While it might sound cynical to call this out as a desperate move to save the Wii U, I'm personally feeling far from cynical about it. Whatever the reason, the result is Earthbound
on Virtual Console. For all I talk about experiencing forgotten games for the first time through console download services, I can admit that the primary purpose of those services is satisfying nostalgia. And the nostalgia angle means it's perfectly okay
to let emotions lead over logic, and to think of an 18-year-old game as a system seller.