“Deleted” Nintendo floppy recovered 26 years later, full of Earthbound secrets | Ars Technica

Enlarge / Amazing what can be found on decades-old disks full of “deleted” files.

The golden-age rebirth of console gaming, largely spurred by the NES’s mega-success, has remained a lucrative era for conservationists. There’s a whole community out there rushing to find documents, disks, and hard drives from the ’80s and ’90s before they’re savaged by time and bit rot. Yet sometimes, those old storage standards’ limitations can work out in game historians’ favor.

On Friday, the Video Game History Foundation announced its restoration of a single Nintendo-related, 3.5-inch floppy disk, as discovered by original translator Marcus Lindblom in 2018. The story sounds a lot like ones we’ve heard in the past, where someone from the gaming industry cleans out an attic or a storage unit only to find disks that they think are lost to time.

In Lindblom’s case, he thought the Earthbound disk he’d discovered was lost to his own younger stupidity. At one point he learned, after putting it into an older computer, that he’d deleted the disk’s contents to save other work on it. He donated the disk to VGHF with fingers crossed that they could work their magic, which they apparently did. As it turns out, only one small file had been saved to the disk after its “deletion,” thus leaving most of the original magnetic media untouched. Forensic recovery tools managed to recover every single disk sector, revealing the SNES RPG’s “complete” scripting files for English and Japanese text, along with related code for event triggers in the game.

“This should be no sweat!”

VGHF mocked up some of Earthbound‘s non-final text as discovered on a recovered floppy disk, to show how it might have looked in-game. Below, you’ll find an explanation for this inside joke about creator and lead writer Shigesato Itoi.
A gag about the original game, titled Mother, was deleted from the final game.
VGHF includes a few images showing how one quest would have revolved around finding an oil massage.
VGHF’s ROM hackers were able to nimbly mock up how this oil massage moment might have looked in the final game, if it hadn’t been deleted.
The character Poo originally had a power dubbed “Mantra,” though exactly how it would have worked isn’t clear.
This wacky bit of apologetic text was actually used as a placeholder by one of APE Team’s developers and was never meant for players to see.
It was a Nintendo game in the ’90s, so, no mentions of alcohol for its English-speaking fans.
The same went for this mildly sexualized mention of a woman’s looks.
The game’s non-final files hinted to what you could have discovered by tapping on various tombstones.

Longtime Mother/Earthbound series expert Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin, who famously as a free, fan-made patch for its Japan-only version, partnered with VGHF to parse the discoveries. His very long report on the findings is mostly wonky stuff for people who know the series like the back of their hand as opposed to a laundry list of shocking revelations.

Still, the findings include breadcrumbs to help fans understand how this text-heavy game was made and released, along with enough code-related discoveries to allow ROM hackers to recreate some of the unfinished scenes mentioned in the disk’s code and notes. (The disk doesn’t contain art, sprites, or textures, but the script contents are dense enough for VGHF’s ROM hackers to work with.)

In great news, some of the deleted stuff includes delightfully silly content in line with the series’ off-kilter sense of humor. Players would have originally faced off against a character who called himself “The Weakest Man in All of Twoson,” then bragged that he would win because “you’re just a kid, so this should be no sweat!” (Of course, players would win handily.)

Even weirder, the non-final script suggested that one of the game’s hallucination sequences would have been inspired by something different: instead of a “Magic Cake” item, players would have to find and receive an oil massage on the beach. As one non-player character (NPC) would have told players:

On the Carillion Beach is a lady named Jill who gives really interesting massages. Apparently, they even make you have nice dreams. REALLY nice dreams, you know? Doesn’t that sound great?

…yeah, I think I know why that one didn’t make the cut.

A word from Mr. Itoi

While Earthbound‘s final version had more fourth-wall-breaking content than was common for Nintendo at the time, the pre-final version hinted at even more. It contained multiple references to the NES-only, Japan-only game Mother (eventually released in the West as ), including a direct reference to the first game’s ending during the sequel’s final battle. One of the game’s billboards, which players could read by walking up and pressing the “A” button, originally had a joke about “someone who makes games even after the age of 45,” which Mandelin assumes refers to series creator and lead writer Shigesato Itoi, who turned 45 during Earthbound‘s development.

The newly discovered files also include developer notes that offer an explanation about the game’s occasional “coffee break” and “tea break” dumps of text. Mandelin points to one commented part of the non-final code in Japanese, with it roughly translating to: “A word from Mr. Itoi to the players.” Players can now assume that he was breaking the fourth wall to chat with his players, as opposed to attributing those passages to an in-game character.

Mandelin applies his savvy touch to the Japanese-to-English translation process to explain how certain pre-release jokes and wordplay would have worked and why they were likely deleted altogether from both releases’ retail versions. He also offers context about the files’ mentions of a Winter CES 1995 demo, which series fans had never seen proof of until these files’ discovery. Once again, VGHF’s ROM hackers do a fine job using newly discovered script elements to show us how that demo may have looked. (Mandelin also admits that he’s still not done digging through the newly discovered files, so we could see more wacky development errata in the future.)

For tons more on the newly discovered files, either head to VGHF’s lengthy blog post or stick around here and watch the non-profit’s 28-minute video on the discoveries, embedded below.

VGHF’s recovery of a lost Earthbound script disk.