Why did Nintendo quash a book about EarthBound’s development?
When Marcus Lindblom decided to write a book about his old memories of translating a much-loved game from Nintendo, he figured it would be something that the fans would appreciate.
After all, few gaming communities are as passionate and active as those who follow EarthBound, the game that Lindblom translated from Shigesato Itoi’s Japanese original, produced by current Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata, almost 20 years ago.
In recent years, Lindblom has been welcomed by the still-active EarthBound fan-base, as he has come forward to share stories about his time working on the game. This interest has intensified with the re-release of EarthBound on Wii U, which has sold well in the console’s download store.
Lindblom planned to return the favor by writing a book and launching a Kickstarter that might just about cover production costs. He sent a note to an old pal at Nintendo, “as a professional courtesy” just to let the company know about his plans, just to check in and make sure there would be no problem.
There was a problem. Nintendo did not want this book published.
Although no reason was given for Nintendo’s lack of enthusiasm for the project, Lindblom was gently reminded that, as a former employee of the company, he had signed an NDA. Legally, a book about his time at the company might be unwelcome. Reluctantly, he acceded to Nintendo’s request.
In agreeing to talk to Games4Life, Lindblom is keen to stress that, even though he is disappointed, he doesn’t want to come off as someone who is angry with Nintendo.
“I owe a lot to Nintendo,” he told Games4Life. “They gave me my start in the game business. I don’t want to do anything that makes them seem bad. I wanted to just write about the fun bits in the game that I think the fans would enjoy. But I have no desire to rock the boat with Nintendo at all.”
Not everyone is quite so understanding of the company’s desire to squash a piece of warm nostalgia.
Reid Young runs a company called Fangamer that sells game-related geek-chic clothing and memorabilia. The firm grew out of a dedicated community of EarthBound fans.
“Marcus is a great guy and I am sure they [Nintendo] appreciate his cooperation, but from the perspective of an Earthbound fan it’s really disappointing,” he said. “A lot of this comes from the culture of an old corporation. They have their own way of doing things. It’s like that story about how no-one is allowed to die at Disneyland. They don’t want anyone to see behind the curtain.”
When it comes to reputation, Nintendo is one of the most ferociously diligent organizations in the entertainment business. Press access is always strictly controlled. Interviews with key executives are notoriously scripted and bland. Case in point; the company declined to comment for this article.
It’s interesting though, that even warm and fuzzy memories of such an old game should trigger the firm’s ultra-defensive reflexes.
Lindblom (above) joined Nintendo in 1990 and began working on the EarthBound translation in late 1994. He had lived in Japan for four years and was trusted as a solid producer who understood Nintendo games.
Playing EarthBound (Mother 2: Gyiyg Strikes Back in Japan) he admired the game’s originality and its wit. Both he and Nintendo understood that it required a detailed translation. The RPG is set in small-town USA but is written from the perspective of an outsider. Many of Itoi’s jokes would seem idiosyncratic to an American audience.
Lindblom was given the freedom to rewrite as required. In those days, localization was handled by one person working with a contact at HQ, instead of the departments and hierarchies that are the norm today.
“When I did the localization I went in and gave it some American flavor and humor because that is what the developers wanted,” he said. “They didn’t just want a straight translation. There were a lot of things that were not easy to translate and so I had freedom to put in weird American humor to flavor things and it worked out pretty well. All these years later people still find it charming which is nice.”
Lindblom left Nintendo in 1996 and has spent the intervening years working as a producer for various companies, including Midway, EA and THQ. Five years ago he and some friends set up Partly Cloudy Games, which has mostly been involved in contract work for the likes of Microsoft and is currently working on an RTS for Facebook, called The Robot Apocalypse.
Over the years, he thought occasionally about the work he had done on EarthBound. He’d visit the fan sites and he’d watch as they sent yet another petition to Nintendo for a sequel or for a re-release on a new console.
“I realized there was a large and vocal fan community,” he said. “About a year and a half ago I went to PAX and I kind of walked up to the Fangamer booth and said that I had worked on the game. They were really surprised. They wanted to hear about my work on the game.”
With Nintendo finally deciding to re-release EarthBound for Wii U (a Wii version had been mooted for years, but never appeared) interest in his work increased, and he was interviewed by reporters and invited to appear on podcasts and at an EarthBound fan convention. “A number of people asked me if I would ever consider writing a book about the game and the process I had gone through,” he said. “A lot of EarthBound fans are huge localization fans as well.”
Lindblom said that he felt like the fans deserved to hear the full story. EarthBound, the way it was brought to the U.S, its commercial failure and the ongoing devotion of its fanbase, is an interesting story, at least to a particular subset of the gaming audience.
“I was never going to make money from the book. I just wanted to pay for the cost of publication,” he explained. “It was just something for the fan community. They seemed so dedicated after all these years. I thought that, in a way, I owed them something.”
It is not often that a game translator can command an audience, most particularly for a cultish game from the mid-1990s. “There were a lot of little things I thought they might appreciate hearing about like why a certain character might say something in the game or why something was named the way it was or whatever,” he said. “That was my original intention. Just to give the fans some insight into the way the game was localized.”
He rejects the idea that Nintendo has something to hide in the story of the translation. While it is true that some games from that period contained dialog or graphics that might seem questionable today, he does not believe EarthBound features anything controversial. The most likely explanation, is that Nintendo is just being Nintendo, which means no-one gets to see how the sausages are made.
“It isn’t anything that I can speculate on,” he said. “All I will say is I was the one who went and talked to Nintendo because I thought I might as well see if I can get their blessing. I asked them and they came back and said we’d rather you didn’t.”
He plans to continue talking to fans, for as long as they seem interested, but the book is shelved for good. “My goal was always to honor the game and the fans and Itoi’s writing,” he said. “I am going to honor Nintendo’s wishes that I don’t put something down into a book, but I know that the fan community is owed some tidbits of information and I will continue to do that and to talk about it.”