A few weeks ago, Marcus Lindblom logged onto TwitchTV. He found someone playing Earthbound, and he watched them stream for a while. Every time they smiled in the right place or laughed at the right joke, he felt a jolt of vindication. Validation. Eighteen years later, he could finally see people enjoying his work.
In 1995, Earthbound was a dud. Critics panned it—"nauseatingly cheery," wrote one reviewer—and sales were disappointing thanks to a bizarre marketing campaign and graphics too cartoonish for many American gamers' tastes at the time.
When Lindblom, who spent a grueling four months writing the English text for almost all of the quirky role-playing game, saw the reviews and sales figures, he was crushed.
"It was pretty difficult in some ways for those of us that had been involved," Lindblom told me during a recent phone chat. "I guess the feeling at that time was—and this is not a lot different than today—graphics were a big important component to pushing forward the game industry. And a lot of people looked at Earthbound and considered the graphics to be fairly simplistic."
But over the past few years, something unlikely happened: People who had grown up with Earthbound began to tell their friends how charming it was. Buzz began to build. And gradually, Nintendo's quirky RPG became a cult classic.
On July 18, Nintendo re-released Earthbound in North America. For the first time in almost two decades, Lindblom could directly watch people enjoy what he'd done. It no longer felt like a failure.
Like many in the gaming industry, Marcus Lindblom accidentally fell into what would become a career-launching gig. Raised to a traditional, middle-class family—"It was almost an Earthboundy kind of upbringing," he told me—Lindblom got bored during his college days and dropped out, marrying a woman and moving to Japan for what they thought would be a few months. It turned into four years.
In 1990, Lindblom and his wife came back to America, and he went back to school. He took a job at a Nintendo call center because it fit into his schedule; he could get up at 4am and work for a few hours every day before class, a process he describes as energizing. He'd go into Nintendo's offices in Redmond, Washington, where he'd work customer service and field calls from people desperate to get through difficult chunks of Mario and Zelda games.
After finishing school, Lindblom moved over to Nintendo's game group, taking the all-purpose title of Software Analyst. Although Nintendo's development teams are all based in Japan, both then and today, their American headquarters plays an important role helping translate, polish, and produce games for Western shores. Lindblom would be part of that, working on games like Wario's Woods, and eventually, a niche little game called Mother 2, a low-priority RPG that never had quite as much clout as bigger titles, like Donkey Kong Country.
The first game, Mother, had come out for the NES in Japan back in 1989. Nintendo never brought it here, and to avoid confusion, they retitled its Super Nintendo successor from Mother 2 to Earthbound.
"When I was offered the Earthbound job, they also said yeah, this was a game that was going to be done on the NES," Lindblom said. "They actually showed me a bit of the old NES version—I had known that it had gotten translated and basically done, but it was so late in the life cycle of the NES, they decided to shelve it and go to just doing Earthbound for the Super Nintendo."
When Lindblom started, a Nintendo writer named Dan Owsen (still at the company today) had already written some 10% of the script, including some of the game's most iconic phrases, like "say fuzzy pickles," a mantra recited by the bearded photographer who intermittently descends from the sky in order to record your party's progress. But Owsen moved on to another game, so the bulk of the work was left to Lindblom and a Japanese writer named Masayuki Miura, whose role was to help Lindblom understand what was going on in the game.
They worked off of paper. A translator would go through the Japanese script and send Lindblom rough English translations, while Miura would help him understand the tone and message that Earthbound director Shigesato Itoi and crew were trying to convey in each scene.
"It was a large amount of work in a really short amount of time."
And Lindblom wrote. A lot. From jokes to combat messages to items and weapons, the amount of text in a role-playing game like Earthbound would boggle the mind of your average Hollywood scriptwriter.
"It was a large amount of work in a really short amount of time," he said. "I know in the middle of it I went through a stretch of about 30 days when I didn't take a day off, and I was doing something like 14 or 15 hours a day. It was just lots of grinding-out time with the text in the game."
The resulting script is funny, clever, and evocative. While it might not have been appreciated when the game was first released, Earthbound's writing has since been praised by fans and critics alike. Writer Clyde Mandelin, who regularly analyzes Japanese-to-English localization on his website, called Earthbound's script "top-notch for its time."
Assuming that the originally-translated text was as raw as it seemed, Mandelin wrote, "then NOA’s editors were absolutely INCREDIBLE at the job, like a million times more than I imagined before. To be able to go from that kind of raw translation to sensible, well-polished English is amazing."
Lindblom says he considers Earthbound to be his finest accomplishment.
"While it was a lot of work, it was probably the best project I ever worked on in a lot of ways," Lindblom said. "Just because it was really satisfying to know that I got to put things that were important for me just on a personal level, or things that I thought were interesting and funny. And to find out later that thankfully it translated to a decent number of people."
The Mystery Of BH Pirkle
Ask an Earthbound fan what he or she likes most about the game, and you'll probably hear something about that feeling of innocence, that sense of whimsical adventure, that humor and charm and wonder around every corner of the game's beautiful 2D maps.
In the hands of a less competent writer, things might have turned out differently. Beautiful, poignant moments of Earthbound's story—like, for example, the Mr. Saturn coffee break—might not have been nearly as effective.
But it was tough, Lindblom said. To hear him describe the process is to wince at how difficult it must have been.
"In terms of the text alone, one of the biggest challenges was working in a large text file that was, for lack of a better phrase, kind of like free-form jazz," Lindblom said. "Oftentimes, it was really difficult to know where lines appeared in the game, what may have come before or after, and what special context was needed to really know how to phrase things best in English.
"Two things saved me. First and foremost, I had a fantastic co-translation director in Masayuki Miura. He was able to let me know context, answer questions about the finer points of the game situation, and always make sure that I understood how lines fit into the overall game story. The second thing that really made a difference was the overall tone of the game. Because it was written with the goal of being quirky and goofy, I was able to really get away with lines that, on their own, would have been looked at as pretty odd. That latitude, which I was encouraged to explore, allowed me to keep everything in that 'I can't imagine what I may run across next' style, and get away with it."
"I really can't believe I called Pokey's mom Lardna."
The humor works, to be sure. Instead of the elves and orcs of your typical fantasy game, monsters in Earthbound have names like "New Age Retro Hippie" and "Unassuming Local Guy." Characters frequently snark and break the fourth wall. There are silly puns all over the place.
I asked if Lindblom has a favorite bit of writing. "I really can't believe I called Pokey's mom Lardna," he said. "It's just the most ridiculous thing to have picked."
Lindblom also scattered little easter eggs throughout the game. He named a character after his daughter Nico, for example. And he threw in little secrets wherever he could.
"One of the default names for Paula, if you go through those, is my wife," Lindblom said. "One of the default names for Ness is my other daughter's name, though I didn't know we'd have her at the time—when we named her, I had forgotten what I had put in for the default names. So in a weirdly prophetic way, I had put the name Lane in as a default name, and this is what we named my daughter a few years later."
He also put in some easter eggs that people have actually been able to figure out. "There has been a theory that the Onett mayor, BH Pirkle, has some hidden meaning in the initials," Lindblom said. "The Japanese meaning of the initials refers to the character as 'bald' in a hidden way. In English, BH does in fact stand for 'Bald Head,' as has been put forth by some fans. This, by the way, was a suggestion by Miura-san that I thought was a fun little thing to put in. So the true credit goes to him."
"Inside Nintendo, I kind of don’t know that they ever really understood that the game had as big a grassroots following as it did."
Over the past two decades, Earthbound fans have developed their own sort of lore, coming up with theories to explain puzzling questions. For example, fans guessed that Nintendo's reluctance to re-release the game in North America—at least until last month—was because of music licensing issues. Earthbound samples segments from The Beatles and Chuck Berry, among other artists.
But Lindblom says that never even came up when they were working on the game.
"We did sit down with our legal department and we were pretty certain that there weren't going to be any issues with a lot of this stuff because we were kind of protected to some degree by the parody clause you get," Lindblom said. "I think it was more just the fact that inside Nintendo, I kind of don’t know that they ever really understood that the game had as big a grassroots following as it did, so I think that they just—it was easy for them to say, 'We can make half a million maybe if we released it or something, but we can make half a million selling plush toys, so why bother?'"
Lindblom also shot down the infamous "abortion theory" that has been floating around the web for a while now. It alleges that Giygas, the game's main baddie, is actually a fetus that you are forced to abort at the end of the game.
"I think that this is a great instance of people reading in stuff that was probably never really intended," Lindblom said. "There’s certainly nothing wrong with people doing that kind of thing. In reality, as far as we were ever concerned, nothing like that ever came up."
One theory that is most definitely true: censorship. Nintendo had strict rules for bringing games to U.S. shores back in the 90s, which meant that Lindblom had to change a few things—and ask Earthbound's Japanese artists and programmers to change a few more. Alcohol was replaced by coffee, red crosses were removed from hospitals, and Ness was given pajamas for his dreamy sojourn through the mystical world of Magicant.
"If I had my choice I would've left Ness naked in Magicant," Lindblom said. "Because I thought that was kind of awesome."
A Legacy, Brought Back To Life
After Earthbound, Lindblom worked on a couple of other games at Nintendo, and then he made his way to a few other studios. He worked at EA and Vivendi, and now he runs a company called Carried Away Games, where he and his team are working on games for iOS and Android.
But he's still most proud of what he helped create in 1995. He's been talking to gaming reporters about his work on Earthbound, and he spends a lot of time tweeting and retweeting articles about the old RPG. He says he's amazed at how public perception has evolved over the years.
"There’s a lot of times in—it’s happened to me at times in my career where I’ll work on something and the things that I know went into the game don’t get noticed by reviewers," Lindblom said. "I always had this feeling that people take a quick look and it’s sort of cursory, and then there are people who buy the game that actually pay attention to a lot more stuff because they’ve put more money into the game... in the case of Earthbound, there’s a lot of things that people are noticing today and comment on today that kind of got blown off when the game got released."
"Like what?" I asked.
"The rolling HP meter," Lindblom said, referring to Earthbound's battles, during which your characters' health points are on a meter that gradually rolls down when they're damaged. If you're quick enough, you can actually prevent a character from dying, even if he or she has been hit for all of their health.
"There a lot of people who say, 'Well, I don't understand why things like this aren't in any other RPG afterwards.'"
"There a lot of people who say, 'Well, I don't understand why things like this aren't in any other RPG afterwards,'" Lindblom said. "Even just how at some point enemies run away from you, things like that, that really I think were pretty revolutionary for the day in terms of roleplaying games, and then just kind of got ignored later on."
In 1995, Lindblom couldn't watch people enjoy what he'd done. He couldn't get direct feedback on the Internet. All he could do was read the magazine reviews, crushed, wondering why people didn't seem to appreciate all the work he had put into Earthbound.
"Years ago, I only ever got to see what a reviewer thought of the game," Lindblom said. "Today, it’s fantastic because whether it’s Twitter, and people posting things they like about the game, or it’s TwitchTV, it’s nice to know that people laugh when I sort of hoped they would, or they smile at the stuff that I hoped would make them smile. That's what really makes this worthwhile, all these years later. Whereas 18 years ago it was kind of frustrating and disappointing."
There's a happy ending here: Earthbound is a success—Nintendo recently sent out a press release declaring that the game has been a top-seller on the Wii U's Virtual Console.
People love it. When I asked Kotaku readers who are playing Earthbound for the first time what they think of the game, the response was overwhelmingly positive. For good reason.
"I am really happy that the game has done as well as it has," said Lindblom. "Also because to me the game itself I think is a very positive-at-its-heart kind of game. Lots of things are in the game that are meant purely to entertain, to get people to enjoy the game and that kind of thing... There are times when I wonder how cynical the younger generation is, so it’s heartening for me when I see people respond to Earthbound like this."