Monday, September 20, 2010

USA Bound: The Resurrection of a Classic

When I was in college, I took a copyediting course that required participants to write one newspaper article per week. Most people wrote about how great the Starsky and Hutch movie is or long editorials on why being a waitress is difficult. I, on the other hand, was writing about how to prevent alien abductions through the judicious use of salt, people becoming so obsessed with the card game UNO that they stopped going to class, and of course, Earthbound.

The following is a feature story about the birth of Earthbound Zero. Although most of the quotes here are taken verbatim from text files and web sites, some of them are modified or reconstructed to make the story flow better. This is essentially what Steve Demeter (who's now super famous for his iPhone app Trism) said or wrote, but it is not exact, nor did I actually interview him. The idea was just to write an article in the newspaper style; it didn’t have to be completely true. That being said, all the FACTS within the article, such as names and dates, are correct to the best of my knowledge.

So read on, and learn the story behind this lost classic!

*      *      *

Steven Demeter, known on the internet as “Demi,” sits at his cluttered desk. He stares at his computer screen, a small, triumphant grin on his face. The phenomenon he was instrumental in creating has stretched across cyberspace, thriving first in remote corners of the Internet, and later, on mainstream web sites. He knows that hundreds of people are playing the game he brought to the public, the game that wasn’t supposed to exist. As Demi sits back, hands behind his head, he knows that classic video game fans everywhere are playing Earthbound Zero.

“I’ve told this story so many times to so many people already, one last time won't hurt,” Demi said. In May of 1989, Nintendo of Japan published a game called MOTHER for the Japanese equivalent to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The quirky game, starring a psychic young boy and his wacky friends, quickly became a bestseller. Nintendo had planned to translate and release the game in the United States in the spring or winter of 1991, but for reasons Nintendo never officially revealed to the public, it was canceled before distribution.

Most gamers forgot about the cancellation as time went on, especially after the summer of 1995, when the United States received an English translation of MOTHER 2 (called Earthbound in the U.S.). Thus, when a fully-translated English prototype copy of MOTHER appeared for auction on the newsgroup in January of 1998, the Internet gaming community let out a collective gasp of disbelief.

Demi, a skilled hacker, had planned for nearly a year on doing an unofficial translation of MOTHER. Using a computer program that emulates the inner workings of a real NES, people can play copied games, existing as pure code, on their computer. This allowed Demi to obtain and translate any available NES game he chose. His translation group, Neo Demiforce, had already translated several Japanese language games into English in the past, including the legendary Final Fantasy II.

When he heard of the English MOTHER prototype, Demi became very excited. “This was indeed very cool to hear. A prototype,” mused Demi, “is the holy grail as far as unofficial hacking and translating goes.” He made up his mind to obtain and copy the rare game, then release it to the public. By then, however, the prototype had already been sold to a private NES memorabilia collector for the relatively small sum of $125. The seller, Greg Mariotti, would reveal neither where he obtained the prototype cartridge, nor who had purchased it from him. The Neo Demiforce was out of luck.

But thankfully for the classic gaming community, things are not always what they seem.

A screen shot from the NES Earth Bound Prototype

“This is where the story takes a weird turn,” said Demi. “After a month or so, we finally managed to find out the e-mail address of the guy who bought the prototype cartridge.” However, the new owner, NES collector Kenny Brooks, was reluctant to allow the game to be copied through a process called “dumping,” fearing that the value of the original cartridge would decrease dramatically if it were widely available for download.

“A deal was struck for $400; $200 up front, and another $200 after we finished dumping the game,” explained Demi. After he copied it, the cartridge was to be sent back to Brooks.

Ninten, MOTHER
There was a slight problem: Demi and his associates couldn’t spare so much money in such a short amount of time. However, Earthbound fans are an unusually dedicated bunch. Within days of posting the request on their web site, funds began trickling in. Soon, Neo Demiforce had enough cash to pay for the game. “It made me feel good to see the players stick together like that,” said Demi, adding, “It proves that we’re more than just gamers, we’re a real community.”

In an ironic contrast to the weeks of waiting leading up to it, receiving and copying the prototype went strikingly fast.

“The cash was mailed on 4/22/98, the buyer sent the game on 4/25, and the game was copied, hacked, and released on 4/27,” said Demi. “Once we had the money, things went so fast it made my head spin.” A few minor alterations had to be made to the game’s code to get it working properly on the popular emulators of the time, but thanks to the skilled hacking of several dedicated programmers, it was all completed in a matter of days.

Reactions on the Internet were swift. Earthbound fans jumped at the chance to play the prequel, christened Earthbound Zero by Neo Demiforce to avoid confusion with the English MOTHER 2 translation, and the game quickly appeared on countless web sites for download. News of Earthbound Zero even appeared in several well known video game magazines, including Gamepro and Electronic Gaming Monthly.

Thanks to a hacker’s desire to bring a special game to fans and the unprecedented support from the gaming community, Earthbound Zero has gone from obscure legend to magnificent reality.

“To all of you who helped, just let me say thanks,” said Demi. “Thank you so much for having the guts to invest in something as shaky as this and helping not only the Earthbound series to live on, but also the universal trust of people like us.”

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