EarthBound Beginnings (found English translation of Japanese RPG; 1990)
Title screen of the 1990 English translation.
Date found: 15 Jan '98 (prototype) / 14 Jun '15 (final build)
Found by: Greg Mariotti/Nintendo
EarthBound Beginnings is the official English title given to the 1989 Famicom title MOTHER, created by Shigesato Itoi and produced and published by Nintendo. The game underwent heavy localization in 1990 and was slated for commercial release the following year, but was abruptly cancelled due to its commercial impracticality. The complete English ROM was eventually discovered in 1998 and circulated online for nearly twenty years before eventually seeing an official international release on the Wii U Virtual Console in 2015. Due to its turbulent history and considerable popularity, the game is considered one of the most notable cancelled video games to date.
On July 27th, 1989, the Japanese video game company Nintendo released an RPG titled MOTHER for their Family Computer System, a.k.a. The Famicom. Created by Japanese celebrity Shigesato Itoi, the game became a large hit due to a combination of Itoi's own fame and the game's unconventional aesthetic elements. Among the latter, the game featured a modern setting instead of a medieval or futuristic one and featured areas seamlessly put together in full rather than utilizing a traditional overworld. The game's popularity in Japan spawned two more sequels on the Super Famicom and Game Boy Advance. It also motivated Nintendo of America to localize the game for American audiences on the Famicom's overseas counterpart, the Nintendo Entertainment System. Under the direction of Phil Sandhop, the localization team went into extensive detail to modify the game to be both child-friendly and understandable to an American audience in the same vein that it would be a Japanese one.
However, in 1991, the project was abandoned after being declared commercially nonviable by Nintendo of America. Due to the game's size and scope, the physical cartridge would require an unusually high amount of on-board memory and a save battery, which in combination with the planned inclusion of a strategy guide (as opposed to a traditional manual) would've made the game abnormally expensive. Additionally, the RPG genre lacked popularity in North America at the time, and the game would've been overshadowed anyways by the impending American release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the overseas variant of the Super Famicom. By the time the project was cancelled, the localization work was completely finished and would've been ready for release that year, even featuring some publicity in gaming magazines such as Nintendo Power.
Finding of the Cartridge
On January 15th, 1998, a man named Greg Mariotti published a sale offer on the forum site rec.games.video.classic, offering a prototype cartridge of the English translation. The cartridge was purchased by classic game collector Kenny Brooks, who then sold it to Steve Demeter, leader of the fan translation group "Demiforce," for $400. Demeter circulated the cartridge's ROM on the internet twice, the second instance occurring after he had modified the game's data to remove an anti-piracy code. Once online, the English prototype was found to contain a plethora of changes from the Japanese version. Among others, the game removed or changed violent, sexual, and copyright-infringing content and altered some areas of the game to make navigation easier.
Despite its cancellation, the localization project was not in vain: according to Sandhop, the project motivated Nintendo of Japan to design games with an international audience in mind, to minimize localization efforts in the future. Nintendo would even go out of their way to sometimes pre-localize a game after its Japanese release before sending it to their international divisions. Eventually, the English ROM was re-translated into Japanese and re-released on the GBA as part of the Japan-only compilation cart MOTHER 1+2.
Release on the Wii U's Virtual Console
As for the English-language version of the 1990 ROM, its eventual release is a more complicated story. While its intended 1991 release never saw fruition, the game's sequel, MOTHER 2, saw a 1995 American release as EarthBound on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Despite its success in Japan, the game was a critical and commercial failure in America, apparently due to a combination of negative, poorly-done reviews, a significantly higher price tag than other SNES titles (mainly due to being packaged with a full-fledged strategy guide in place of an instruction manual) and a sarcastic, misleading ad campaign that over-emphasized the game's minute amounts of toilet humor (it should be noted, however, that these kinds of misleadingly vulgar advertisements were standard for Nintendo's American marketing, being made as a response to the aggressive, "edgy" style of advertisements used by commercial rival SEGA to appeal to teenagers). Because the American release flopped, Nintendo has been notoriously hesitant about giving the MOTHER trilogy international exposure, with the Japan-only status of MOTHER 3 being the most prolific example.
However, the company's stance began to change after the Virtual Console re-release of MOTHER 2 on March 20th, 2013. Following an immense outcry from Western fans on the game's Miiverse page, EarthBound finally saw an overseas re-release on July 18th, 2013, to immense critical and commercial acclaim, a reception that directly contradicted the game's overseas failure in 1995. With the MOTHER trilogy having proved its popularity, Nintendo of America finally gave the first game in the series an official release as EarthBound Beginnings for the Wii U's Virtual Console on June 14th, 2015, slightly over a month short of the game's 26th anniversary.