Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Localization

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Ghostbusters released on almost every platform in the 80s, but if you picked up the NES version you would be greeted with an all-too-common error: the completion screen proudly exclaims “Conglaturation!!!”  Back in the late 80s I was a mere seven when playing NES games and improper spelling or verbage was something I shrugged off as not understanding.  I never assumed the game was wrong, I just assumed that I didn’t get it.  See, back in the 80s most games were lucky to get a decent translation, let alone a full localization, and it made playing many of the Japanese games difficult.  Nowadays it’s a completely different world – pioneers like Atlas and Square Enix have full-blown localization departments that are hellbent on creating the best possible experience for a specific regional audience.  It’s more than just a translation, it’s a retooling for another culture.

What is localization?

Localization is a generic term that doesn’t quite pertain to the video game definition, Webster’s is hardly a decent source in this particular case, but has been self-defined by the industry as “taking a product and making it linguistically and culturally appropriate to the target locale (country/region and language) where it will be used and sold”.¹²  As you can see, it’s a bit more than simply translating text, which anyone who is bilingual can attest is necessary when going from one language to another.  Not only that, things have to be made contextual because traditions of one land will usually not mesh with traditions of another.  A quick example using Japan and America – it’s cute and funny in Japan to name people after food but it comes off as awkward and not funny to American audiences.  You also may reference texts that are known by one audience but not to another.  These are all reasons why it’s best to localize a game for a specific audience instead of merely translating it, unfortunately that comes with it a much more expensive and arduous task.

It’s important to understand the necessary changes when localizing games and I feel that the most essential are:

  • Translation – adapting the dialogue to an acceptable quality on par with the original version and script
  • Adaptation – adjusting references, names, literature, setting, and possibly even score and sound effects to the local region
  • Gameplay – making appropriate tweaks to aspects of playing the game as they are necessary to the audience; often regarded in difficulty

These specific aspects are not the only things adapted for localization, but for the sake of a general overview, they will remain the focus for this article.  In addition, there will be an attempt to globalize discussion of region changes but most video games are localized for Japan, United States, and Europe.

Translation

This is the earliest and probably the most botched example of localization.  It is as old a practice as one can imagine and began its days as literal translations in the 80s.  Companies attempted little more than changing the script from Japanese to English.  For so many reasons, this created some weird meaning changes and translations as well as puzzling numbering systems.  Since it’s most fun to show off some of these errors, I’ll simply give some background to the most noticeable.

“I feel asleep!”Metal Gear (NES)

In Snake’s opening moments of Hideo Kojima’s first iteration to the series, he is taxed with sneaking up on a sleeping guard.  If you wait too long, though, the guard will wake up and instead of the obvious “I fell asleep!”, he will exclaim, “I feel asleep!”  Since I’m fairly certain sleep is not a state of emotion, we can assume this was an oversight.  Fortunately Kojima and his Konami team would learn their lesson and the Metal Gear series stands as one of the best regionalizations today.

“All your base are belong to us!” – Zero Wing (Mega Drive)

One of the most popular poor translations out there, I bet many Americans who mock this game can’t actually tell me what it is.  The reason being that Zero Wing never came out in America.  The Mega Drive version, released in both Japan and Europe, was poorly translated to english by Sega of Europe and included the infamous intro.  Unlike the ports on arcade, PC-Engine, and Mega Drive in Japan, the hilarious line, “All your base are belong to us,” is only found in the terribly translated European english version.  Other choice lines are, “somebody set up us the bomb,” and, “you have no chance to survive make your time”.  Due to region locks, this game is quite difficult to bring to the US thanks to it not working on the Genesis and the PAL and electric issues with the European Mega Drive in the US.  There’s always emulation, though.

Horrible translations like this can go on forever but it’s not limited to only the translation.  Names are often changed in the move from one region to another.  The Kunio-kun series, best known in Japan as Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari (literally “Downtown Hot-Blooded Story”) was rightfully changed to River City Ransom in the US.  Not only was the title changed, but the name of the main character was translated from Kunio and friend to Alex and Ryan.  Further installments in America would attempt to refer to Kunio as “Crash” for the game Crash ‘n the Boys: Street Challenge, but the names and title would only be utilized once.

The Final Fantasy series would also suffer one biggest renumbering of the series in America when Final Fantasy IV was released here as Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy VI was released as Final Fantasy III.  This is because we never got the NES version of Final Fantasy II or III and Final Fantasy V, originally releasing as Final Fantasy Extreme was also canceled in the US.  It wasn’t really much of an issue aside from those in the importing scene until Square Enix decided to re-release the titles in America for the Playstation and Gameboy Advance using the original Japanese numbering system.  It also explained why we had no idea why the fourth installment to the Final Fantasy series on Playstation was Final Fantasy VII.  It wasn’t just the names that changed – Square Enix changed difficulties, removed plenty of content, and changed the names of spells in Final Fantasy II in the US.  Thankfully Square Enix would focus on localization, leaning on the decent Ted Woolsey for the SNES era and moving on to the amazing Richard Honeywood in the Playstation era.  This great story was covered on 1up in this article.

Adaptation

School systems worldwide are very different depending on where you grew up, which explains why a Japanese student would stare at you blindly in the face if you referred to “freshman year” but we have no idea what “high school grade 2-A” is (aside: this refers to the year and the class – second year, A class).  In order to keep things consistent, it may be necessary to adapt a video game to its specific audience.  This can definitely be in what they say – you may make a reference to the popular book Journey to the West to instead be a Shakespeare or even a bible reference.

Furthermore, Japan deals heavily with the concept of heaven and hell, which makes angels and devils a common theme in games.  In America we aren’t so fond of demonic or devil themes and symbols, so they are usually changed in the US version.  There may even be simple changes like the removal of shoe slots in a classroom for an American game (the Japanese remove their shoes in class).  We’re also quite puritanical from a sexual standpoint and thus simple changes are made in the interest of preserving a lack of sexuality.  Birdo, the egg-spewing boss in Super Mario Bros. 2, is described as a cross-dresser in the Japanese manual and the names of bosses Damnd and Sodom were changed in many US versions of Final Fight.  Some of these themes still slip through the cracks, though, like the sex scene in Golgo 13 on NES and whatever happens to your character with those homosexual wrestlers in Final Fantasy VII.

One of the best companies at doing an adaptation rather than a translation of its games is Atlus, known best for the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series.  Starting in 1991 Atlus brought a slew of great titles to America and has eventually managed to re-release most of its catalog over here.  In the Playstation era Atlus releases are cherished collector’s items including Ogre BattlePersona, Persona 2 (only half of the game in America, the second part Innocent Sin was just released on PSP this year) and many more.  Ironically some decisions, like location, were kept intact to adjust to the fans of the series, dubbed the audience, for authenticity.  This is one of those rare instances where you actually choose not to regionalize a location or aspect because the fans understand its foreign roots and expect some things to remain intact.  It also explains why Atlas decided to try to keep the suicide aspects of Persona 3 intact in the United States, which ended up getting approved for an “M” rating by the ESRB.

Gameplay

There are so many obscure examples of this that I will merely graze over the most apparent and obvious of the bunch.  From the Nintendo era on the most common change is difficulty.  For whatever reason most NES games were made easier for American audiences, games like Super Mario Bros. 2, known in America as Lost Levels, were adapted to make the game less frustrating to our audience.  This doesn’t make the Japanese the more hardcore gaming crowd, not by far, especially when you consider games like Ninja Gaiden 3 and X-Men on arcade are far more difficult in America.  I think it mostly stems from the fact that US games were released months, sometimes years, later than the Japanese counterpart and in that time tweaks were made to the game, some for better and some for worse.  In the case of X-Men it also comes to the compulsive behavior of the player – Americans were more eager to pump quarters into an unfair game than the Japanese, who had more options in an arcade.  Even as recently as Halo, which was made significantly easier in Japan due to the lack of popularity of first-person shooters in Japan, provides examples of tweaking difficulty.

Popular culture can have a great effect as well.  In Japan there will be no lack of board/card game ports that are cultural staples like Mahjong, Pachinko, and Go.  These games, for obvious reasons, rarely made their way to the United States and other countries because they are not familiar to that audience.  As a result, you would not only have to teach a gamer the interface, but also the rules of the game.  It makes the game more than a simple simulation, it also requires it to be an artificial teacher.  With the translation issues already mentioned in this article, it’s not hard to imagine why instructions and teachers for games like this would be avoided completely.  The same can be said for all regions – in Europe there are plenty of exclusive soccer (called football) titles and we have our fair share of football (called American football) and baseball titles.

Recreating Pangea

In short, localization is much more than simply translating text, it’s about adapting a game for a specific locale and keeping in tradition with all the customs of the area.  Having a player simply cook and eat bacon could spell commercial suicide in some areas and the practice is far from perfected even today.  Whether it’s the fact that no one understands why the puzzles in Catherine could be viewed as addicting or the “No Russian” mission in Modern Warfare 2, localization is a practice that has no rule set.  At the same time, we’ve come a long way from “all your base are belong to us,” and as a fan of many genres and types from across the globe I couldn’t be more thankful.  If it weren’t for strong talent and dedicated individuals we would never have enjoyed gems like Earthbound and Final Fantasy IX as they were intended.  For some of those forgotten classics, like Policenauts by Hideo Kojima, we have the amazing talent of those that localize for free via Internet patches.  Good or bad, localization allows us to enjoy titles we would have otherwise never known existed.

¹ Miguel Bernal Merino's article on the Translation of Video Games: http://www.jostrans.org/issue06/art_bernal.php
² Bernal references Esselink for his definition of localization: Esselink, B. 2000. A Practical Guide to Localization. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 27, 2011 at 1:01 pm

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