Giving Thanks: Two New Books on a Cult Classic Embody Gaming's Rich Culture

20 years ago, no one cared about SNES RPG EarthBound. Now it's a cottage industry, emblematic of the medium's continued maturation.

Tomorrow, of course, will be Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S. (home of the award-winning website USgamer). The idea behind Thanksgiving is to celebrate all the good in your life, be it your health, your family, your job, your friends, or whatever else may happen to bring you joy, comfort, and a roof and three squares.

For most of my life, Thanksgiving and video games have always been tied inextricably together. Maybe that's because I'm a nerd, I don't know; but ever since I was a kid, this holiday more than any other has been a chance for me to spend time with my family... and with an interesting digital distraction. My grandparents used to supervise a college dormitory as the live-in "parents" for several hundred young college men, and every Thanksgiving they'd host a lunch for the 20 or so kids who couldn't afford to travel to spend the holiday with their own families. Our whole family would come over for a huge Thanksgiving buffet, and it was a heartfelt experience.

The lunches took place in the dorm lobby, where about half a dozen slightly out-of-fashion arcade games were set up; this was the mid ’80s, so it tended to be things like Pac-Man, Galaga, Joust, Zaxxon, and Donkey Kong. Some years, the amusement vendor would put the cabinets on free play for the holiday, so I'd gorge myself on both food and video games for Thanksgiving. Three decades later, the sight of a Tempest arcade machine still gives me synesthetic flashes of roasted turkey, chocolate pie, and Cowboys Vs. Indians NFL matches. Funnily enough, the one cabinet that never went into free mode for us was Donkey Kong, despite the fact that the game had several sequels by that point; I guess Nintendo was trying to train us to regard their products as premium even back then.

Eventually, my grandparents moved away from the dorm and I bought my own Nintendo Entertainment System. The tradition remained, though, and Thanksgiving invariably involved video games — like the year my father headed out to before daylight the morning after Christmas and came home with a copy of Maniac Mansion and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II. I had asked him to find one or the other if either had been released yet; it turned out both were in stock and on sale for a low enough price that the money I sent with him covered both. Or the year I oscillated back and forth between Donkey Kong Country and Final Fantasy III. Even after I joined the gaming press and found myself suddenly inundated with the mandatory need to fill my life with games, Thanksgiving game experiences still stood out — like the year I took the new, unloved DS system no one else cared about home with me and played the European import of The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap on it the whole way. Or the time I had a bunch of coworkers over for a turkey that refused to cook in our lousy oven, so we sat around and played Odin Sphere on my stunning new 32" 1080i HDTV to fill time (the game's obsession with cooking and food graphics making the wait all the more painful).

This year, though, I don't think it'll be games that I remember so much as game ephemera. Sure, I'll play some games over the coming weekend — I've promised to put together a video on quirky Famicom Disk System platformer Bio-Miracle Bokutte Upa, so there's at least that in the works! — but instead, I'll be reading about the medium rather than engaging in it directly. Our friends at Fangamer have just sent over not one but two books about their favorite game: Nintendo's Super NES RPG EarthBound. Normally, I'd review these books, but I work with Fangamer via Retronauts; our president-elect may not have any problem with conflicts of interest, but I prefer to avoid them. But I'm certainly happy to dive into these volumes in the coming days.

The fact that these two volumes even exist strikes me as something of a miracle. Two decades ago, EarthBound was that game in the huge box whose graphics all the magazines panned, and that you could pick up at K-Mart on clearance because no one wanted it. Ten years ago, it had become a cult favorite (thanks in large part to the Starmen.net community that served as the incubator for Fangamer) that had begun to grow impossibly expensive due to its growing word of mouth and Nintendo's seeming disinterest in republishing it in the U.S. Today, you can buy EarthBound for about ten bucks on both Wii U and New 3DS, and even the infamous unreleased U.S. prototype for the original NES game (now called EarthBound Beginnings) has been made a commercially available product. You can buy amiibo figurines of two different characters from the series, too. All that's missing is the official release for a localized version of the third and final entry in the franchise, Mother 3, that has been teased by well-informed sources.

It's been a long and often bizarre trip for EarthBound in America, but in a lot of ways the series's journey stands as an emblem of the power of fandom and grassroots action in a world connected by the Internet. That it's Nintendo, of all companies — an entity that operates by its own rules and almost never appears to allow others' requests, demands, or expectations determine its actions — that has taken such decisive steps to appease the small but vocal EarthBound fan base... well, that's even more extraordinary. Not only has the company turned a blind eye to fan works like these latest books (all while shutting down fan games based on its properties, and now seemingly unleashing cease-and-desists against pornographic depictions of its characters), but they've made a clear and active effort to bring EarthBound to a larger audience.

Anyway, the books in question look excellent. The first, Fangamer's EarthBound Handbook, came into existence by way of a Kickstarter campaign that also included a supplemental "zine" of fan works. The second book, Clyde Mandelin's Legends of Localization: EarthBound, is by far the volume I'm most excited for. Mandelin's first Legends of Localization book debuted about a year and offered the most incisive and detailed look at the original The Legend of Zelda I've ever seen, breaking down the particulars of the game vis-a-vis its Japanese-to-English localization. Given how much more text EarthBound contained than Zelda for NES, and how idiomatic its content was, this promises to be an absolutely fascinating read...

....provided you're into the philosophical and technical details of how a 20-year old cult video game was adapted from one country to another, that is. I doubt we'll ever see Legends of Localization books at GameStop — that would cut into their all-important Funko Pop sales, after all — but the thing is, we don't need to. They're out there, just waiting for an appreciative audience to find them. And I'm definitely grateful this year that gaming as a medium has evolved to the point that fascinating, informative, and extremely specific products like this can exist to serve people like me. And you, maybe! But definitely me. So thank you for that, video-game-related cottage industries.

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