EarthBound’s 25th Anniversary Makes us Pine for Classic Instruction Books

EarthBound’s 25th Anniversary Makes us Pine for Classic Instruction Books

Earthbound's player guide is a great example of the effort publishers expended trying to make the West fall in love with RPGs.

It's the year 2019 (in case you haven't noticed), and RPGs are cool and popular. Longtime fans of the genre know this wasn't always the case in the west, where RPGs struggled to be relevant for years. Developers and publishers tried all kinds of tricks and promotions in hopes of making localized RPGs as popular as their Japanese counterparts. It didn't work, but the small cluster of RPG fans who already enjoyed the genre benefitted from the attempt.

Eventually, Final Fantasy 7's enormous popularity helped pave a path that let RPGs into Western homes. But before Final Fantasy 7's 1997 release, Nintendo made one last desperate push to put RPGs in the hands of SNES owners. EarthBound, which celebrates it 25th anniversary today, shipped with a player's guide that walked you through the game by means of fake newspaper articles and travel brochures.

EarthBound ultimately failed to initially make an impression on North Americans. But looking back at it now from an enlightened future where EarthBound is rightfully appreciated as one of the best RPGs ever made, its companion guide is regarded as a special piece of literature for a special RPG.

If you want an EarthBound player's guide of your own, you can expect to dish out a lot of money on eBay. Luckily, there's a free alternative: Nintendo uploaded the full guide as a clean pdf, same as it uploaded pdfs of all the games on the SNES Classic. You can look at the guide for yourself and appreciate its cleverness. The "newspaper" for each town summarizes what you can expect in the walkthrough that follows, which is presented as a combination tourist pamphlet/shopping guide. The guide makes excellent overall use of EarthBound's unique clay character models, and even adds stock photos that are supposed to illustrate the towns' culture. EarthBound's player guide is practically inseparable from the game itself, which inspired Fangamer to construct a similar "handbook" for Mother 3.

You want how much for a sandwich?! | Nintendo

EarthBound probably had the best player's guide of any RPG released on consoles of the era consoles, but it wasn't the first to offer a guide. Before RPGs hit mainstream popularity, you could practically count on getting some kind of guide with the experience. Sometimes you got an extra-fat instruction booklet that walked you through the game's opening moments. That was the case with the booklet for Secret of Mana, which illustrated and explained nearly every weapon, spell, and piece of armor. The booklet's tone was also amusing; it carried a sort of awe for the game's heroes and spoke of them as legends in the making.

Of course, Randi, Primm, and Popoi are legendary heroes, but their dialogue and the dialogue of the characters around them speaks of their young age. By contrast, the instruction booklet narrates Randi's destiny as if he's an anonymous hero in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The booklet is overall an interesting look back at how console JRPGs in the '80s and early '90s were localized to fit the West's idea of sword and sorcery at the time.

"Stop talking to me like I'm 30, I only learned how to tie my shoes last year." | Square Enix/Nintendo

The player's guide that accompanied Dragon Warrior 3 for the NES is another great example of a JRPG being westernized. In an age where Dragon Ball Z is highly relevant in Western pop culture, it's funny to look back at how thoroughly the booklets, boxes, and guides for the Dragon Warrior games scrubbed away Akira Toriyama's influence. Scrub they did, and what's more, they re-designed Toriyama's characters despite retaining the manga-ka's poses, weapons, and clothing. It makes for a unique East-meets-West aesthetic that existed for a brief, specific snapshot in time.

I'm glad modern JRPGs are finally popular and are largely being localized in a manner that retains their original flavor, but I also miss their first fumbling attempts to come westward. Publishers did whatever they could to ease us into the genre, which resulted in a golden age for supplementary "literature" like EarthBound's unique player guide. Now instruction booklets are history, let alone free bound-and-illustrated walkthroughs. I can't help but feel a little sad for what's been lost, and what the current rising generation of gamers will never know.

Heroes heroes everywhere, and not a single spiked coif. Square Enix/Source

Admittedly, for all my huffing about how "only '90s kids remember," it's not like we treated those booklets and guides with the respect they deserved. My NES booklets never met a box of crayons they didn't hate.

Major Game Releases: August 26 to August 30

Fare thee well, summer! Here are the major releases for the week of August 26 to August 30. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.

  • Control [August 27, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC] - Control is Remedy's latest game, and if Mike's review is anything to go by, it's got those weird quirks and engaging storytelling that make Remedy's games so engrossing.
  • Astral Chain [August 30, Switch] - Platinum's Nintendo-exclusive action game is here, and it's uh, off the chain. Check out our review!
  • The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan [August 30, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC] - This third-person horror game from Bandai Namco puts a group of people on a sunken cursed ghost ship. Unsurprisingly, the ship is stuffed full of secrets, lies, and mildew-covered things that want to suck out your brains.

News and Notes

(Banner image via Legends of Localization)

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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