Like many beloved niche titles, EarthBound — known as Mother 2 in Japan — was ahead of its time. The game’s cutesy graphics and unabashed weirdness belied its dark and meaningful storyline. At a glance, it’s no great surprise that it initially failed to find an audience.
But when you look closer, you’ll find that EarthBound had everything it needed to be a success. A dedicated localization team ensured that every offbeat cultural reference was translated perfectly. Moreover, it had an impressive marketing budget, with ads for the game appearing in most major gaming magazines.
Unlike most obscure gems, EarthBound was favorite of Nintendo superstar Shigeru Miyamoto. Prior to the game’s release, he had never completed a single RPG on his own. EarthBound managed to suck him in early on, motivating him to play it from start to finish. “Normally, game characters are treated as though they’re just parodies of people.” Miyamoto told Weekly Famitsu. “[In EarthBound], the characters are handled so well, and it made a great impression on me.”
Miyamoto was convinced that North American gamers would love EarthBound as much as he did. He believed the game could sell millions of copies and made sure it had the budget to pull it off. Nintendo sunk $2 million into advertising, sending out mailers and placing numerous ads in major gaming magazines. According to early PR statements, their plan was to target a teen and young adult audience.
Somewhere along the way, things went terribly wrong.
Instead of focusing on EarthBound‘s sci-fi storyline or engaging combat system, advertisements focused entirely on “rude smells.” Using the tagline “This game stinks,” the ads cheekily warned gamers of the olfactory nightmares that awaited them.
The ads might look bizarre today, but at the time they were released, they almost made sense. Back in the 90s, disgusting humor was de rigueur. You couldn’t watch a cartoon without seeing a burp joke or a gag about boogers. Popular games weren’t afraid to be gross — Earthworm Jim had a level in which you bungee jumped using a string of snot.
But the issues with EarthBound‘s marketing went beyond tastelessness. The crude ads had almost nothing to do with the game itself. You might encounter the occasional burping or farting enemy, but stinky baddies and bathroom humor played no significant role in EarthBound. In fact, lines like “pesky toilet fly” were actually edited out of the game. Any kid who went in expecting Boogerman would be sorely disappointed.
And while the EarthBound‘s ads may have caught the eye of a few belch-loving kids, they would have had a less pleasant effect on their nose. In true 90s fashion, the ads employed scratch and sniff technology. With the lift of a tab, gamers could enjoy the scents of farts, stale pizza, and more.
The problem was that those smells didn’t always stay contained. If a tab was lifted or jostled, the entire magazine turned rancid. If aromas were unleashed before the magazine was delivered, they could infect the entire mailbox.
EarthBound was always a tough sell. It retailed at $69.95 — in line with other games of the time, but still pretty spendy. Even in 1995, its graphics looked dated, and its quirky charm could be offputting. Once it became known as the game that stunk up Nintendo Power, its fate was sealed.
It was never going to sell millions of copies, but with a better ad campaign, EarthBound could have been a modest hit. It didn’t have the flashy graphics of Donkey Kong Country or the mass appeal of a Mario title, but it did have something special. Shigesato Itoi, the game’s creator, set out to make a title that anyone could enjoy, saying the game was for “adults, children, and even your older sister.” He understood that the RPG genre could reach audiences traditional games couldn’t. “An RPG is the only kind of game you can put down when you want to get something to eat or go to the bathroom,” Itoi told Nintendo Power. “You can even drop it for months, then come back to the game and keep going.”
The aftereffects of EarthBound‘s failure can still be felt today. Nintendo refuses to release Mother 3 in the west, going so far as to mock the fans who repeatedly ask for it. Although Nintendo hasn’t shied away from controversial ad campaigns, they have been more cautious with their marketing, rarely putting their money behind lesser-known titles.
Under ordinary circumstances, that might have been the end of EarthBound‘s story. Thankfully, nothing about this game has never been ordinary. In 1999, EarthBound‘s star, Ness, appeared in a little game called Super Smash Bros., which handily sold over 5 million copies. Ness has appeared in every Smash title since, making the star of a little-known SNES title into a household name. Thanks to Nintendo’s Smash Bros. amiibo line, North American gamers can even buy official EarthBound merchandise.
Of course, amiibo shortages mean that few, if any, will ever see Ness on store shelves. Only those who successfully managed to pre-order — or are willing to pay upwards of $40 on eBay — can enjoy his amiibo figure. Once again, EarthBound is being limited to the most diehard of fans.
And that, more than the game or any of its advertisments, is what really stinks.