Alongside the Lucas amiibo figure for Smash, at least in Japan, is a pleasant surprise: MOTHER 3 is finally coming to Virtual Console! At least, in Japan. But, while I appreciate having actual honest-to-goodness EarthBound merchandise I can actually buy in a US shop, I should also note that a VC release of MOTHER 3 basically means any hopes for a localization are dead in the water.
So, let's go over some basics about game economics here. When dealing with old software, a straight port like a Virtual Console release is generally considered the minimum amount of effort you can do to make obsolete software saleable and playable on modern hardware. Often times straight ports, even if they're gussied up by being called "HD Remixes" or whatever, wind up missing certain features that the originals had that were too time-consuming to preserve. And the reason why is simple: straight ports are usually made on the cheap with the intent of making a cheap buck and fattening up anemic next-gen console release schedules.
Straight ports make terrible choices to expand a game's language options. Localization is expensive, especially for Japanese companies that make games in a source language nobody's bilingual in. Don't get me wrong - Japanese is not a niche language. But most English speakers studying a foreign language (the kinds of people who are good candidates to translate things into English) are either choosing to study similar and comparatively easy European languages or more accessible languages from Asia like Mandarin or Korean.
The result is a country with a rich videogame culture, spanning the same AAA and indie tiers we see in the US, but who got pushed out of the market after 2006 in favor of mostly American-based productions written in English. English translations to almost any other language are going to be fairly economical, and America is a country whose political hegemony relies as much on cultural dominance as much as military power or capitalism. Japanese games simply don't get released outside of Japan nearly as much as they should be, instead focusing on keeping their far more lucrative domestic markets on lock.
When the Virtual Console originally launched I assumed that the ability to sell older titles on modern hardware would mean that those games would have a likelihood of seeing foreign-language translations. We could get games that never actually came out in the US... and while that did happen, it was mainly action or puzzle games that neither required nor recieved any localization assistance at all. The only translations necessary for those games were online shop metadata like product descriptions and manuals.
In retrospect, I should have understood one critical problem preventing that from happening: most games in that era were not designed to be translated at all. In fact, most games from that era are missing source code. The necessary code changes one would need to make in order to format text for a proportional-width font and increase limitations on text-string tables are fairly invasive. Most games - especially the text-heavy RPGs that we want - are not, so-to-speak, designed to best practices.
Here's an example: Say you have a table of enemy encounter names, and since you're a Japanese developer, you allocated eight characters per string. Eight characters is plenty for these sorts of things in a language with heavy usage of ideographic characters that can hold multiple syllables and extra nuances of meaning. But in English, eight characters gives us MS-DOS Filename Syndrome where everything is a horrible abbreviation.
For anything better than a crappy menu hack, these strings need to be at least double-width, and some might need to be even longer. Here's a consolidated list of every other bit of code that might impact:
- Control codes that reference an enemy name need to be adjusted to calculate memory addresses differently and additional memory may need to be present to store the copied name.
- Dialogue messages using the enemy control code need to be reformatted for longer possible names, especially if your game does not automatically wrap text.
- Battle screen user interfaces need to be adjusted to calculate memory addresses differently, additional memory allocated to store text to be rendered, and user interface windows need to be made physically wider to fit a longer name string.
All three of those things are going to be different parts of the same game's code, typically written by different programmers with different levels of experience. Just in the example of MOTHER 3, we actually don't even need to use conjecture. The professional translator who, alongside a team of other individuals, built the MOTHER 3 fan translation patch over several years, kept a detailed blog of all the horrible technical issues encountered when translating the game.
(My favorite problem was the fact that pretty much all of the outside-battle menu text used hardware sprites for text rendering, a simply unworkable solution for more than 60-80 characters on screen. Since this type of text rendering was too ingrained within the menu system to remove, they instead had to build a completely new bit of code that could render text into sprites on the fly. And even after all of the nasty bugs related to that were worked out, it still causes noticeable auditory glitches at the end of the naming screen as the game overshoots CPU budgets due to the excessive text rendering load.)
So, usually as a web developer, if I were to be handed a project in this state, I would recommend rebuilding it using more modern standards as soon as possible and tearing out the client's broken, buggy-ass website. And game developers typically think alongside the same lines. A translation of the original, obsolete software may be the more authentic route, but it's also very expensive with not much to show for it. Releasing an updated version means more consumer attention as people will consider buying the same game again if it's available in an updated format.
And now we turn our eyes back to MOTHER 3 again. Since Nintendo has finally announced the game is coming to Japanese Virtual Console, I can safely assume that a remake is not being planned at any stage. Generally, remake projects exclude the possibility of an equivalent Virtual Console release - why have two competing versions of the same product on your store? So in a sense, Nintendo releasing a Virtual Console version is an admission that a proper remake is not in the cards. Likewise, since Virtual Console is their desired format of re-release, localization isn't in the cards either.
And that strategy sort of unfortunately makes sense. Nintendo has actually lost a fair bit of money on the botched US release of this game. Contemporary reviews of the game at the time it came out in America are hard to find, but this video series Earthbound Central found would suggest that even critically this game was recieved poorly. And who could blame them? Earthbound looked like a launch title, and it was released during a time when SNES games looked far more impressive. It's only recently that the game's low fidelity has been reinterpreted as aping a retro aesthetic that didn't exist at the time of it's release. Or, in other terms, it's a 1995 mainstream Nintendo release of a game designed for 2015 indie sensibilities. Earthbound is effectively a proto-indie game, with a visible auteur at the helm from Earthbound Beginnings (MOTHER) all the way to MOTHER 3.
Even if we discount the botched US release, we also need to consider the series' troubled domestic history. Earthbound (MOTHER 2) almost didn't happen. The game was broken throughout most of it's development until a young Satoru Iwata wrote a new scripting system to address it's problems. It's sequel, MOTHER 3, was an inexperienced team working with new polygonal-rendering technology on a system intentionally designed to be difficult to develop for. The project was shuffled back and forth between N64 hardware peripherals until finally cancelled after completing just a hair over the first chapter. And when MOTHER 3 was actually released, well, fan reaction was surprisingly negative. In Japan, at least. American fans absolutely loved it, at least after we had to wait two years for the fan translation patch to be released so we could understand what's going on in it.
But in Japan, there's a rather vocal subset within the fan community that absolutely hates MOTHER 3. Itoi himself described the game as having "a different flavor" to the first two. Unlike those games, which focus on groups of four children saving contemporary America from the plans of evil aliens, MOTHER 3 is a mystery story set in a fantasy village in the literal middle of nowhere. Even environmental progression in this game is different: MOTHER 1 and 2 are "board-game" style RPGs where you progress from town to town while MOTHER 3 has a single hub town that evolves as the stakes of the plot ramp up. In fact, the only real, honest to goodness connections between EarthBound and MOTHER 3 are technically considered spoilers. Even for people who were following the game from the beginning, the amount of content outright cut as the project moved from N64 polygonal art to GBA sprite art gave Japanese players the feeling that the game was incomplete.
While I absolutely love MOTHER 3 for what it is, the tepid domestic reception means that there's no financial basis for continued work on the franchise. Itoi himself has long since left Nintendo and game development in general, and there's no hope of further action on the series without his input. Hell, the MOTHER series was originally passed up for Virtual Console distribution, ostensibly due to some kind of licensing concern. The only reason why we even got it on Wii U Virtual Console is because a dedicated fan just so happened to move to Japan and get a job working for Itoi's strange hyper-customizable planner company. If even getting Nintendo to slap a ROM file on their server was hard enough, anything that requires real work is downright impossible.
So what, you say? EarthBound isn't the badly marketed SNES game it was in 1995. The fanbase has grown! ... But to what extent? It's actually fairly difficult to determine how many people would go out and buy an English release of MOTHER 3. Keep in mind that most people who played Earthbound did so on unauthorized emulators with pirated ROM files. The actual EarthBound cartridge is fairly rare, and while we have Earthbound and it's prequel on Wii U Virtual Console, the Wii U is an ailing hardware platform that most people won't touch. I actually got into an argument with a friend about this topic and I outright couldn't find any solid or concrete evidence of the fanbase's growth over time. And I doubt Nintendo can either.
I understand that Mato offered the fan translation patch for free to Nintendo, and in an ideal world Nintendo would just take that offer and sell the fan translation to American players. However, this is Nintendo, a company morally and ethically opposed to modding projects like this. Even beyond that, they rarely sublicense out translation rights to third parties. XSEED getting the two remaining OpRainfall games was the kind of fluke spurred on mainly by GameStop demanding something to put on their Wii shelves that month.