Like all great media, video games transcend the restriction of language. Thanks to standardized interfaces, albeit complicated and vast, one can easily pick up a game in any language and navigate it. Whether or not you absorb the key gameplay concepts or the story, however, still comes down to understanding the written or spoken words. This is especially true of retro video games since a majority were born in Japan and then exported to various countries and languages (the most common being English). Unfortunately the process of translating a game requires more care than simply asking what a word or written symbol converts to in another language. Localization is a more appropriate term for what video game translation is really all about. Clyde “Mato” Mandelin has actually done it and continues to document various changes and localization between video games in Japanese and English in his wonderful Legends of Localization site. He recently took the next step and published his first hardcover book, Legends of Localization Book 1: The Legend of Zelda, which does a few things I never thought possible. For one, it taught me a bunch of stuff about The Legend of Zelda that I never knew.
There are games that require an official localization to play – if one isn’t available a “fan translation” is sometimes made to offer an update patch for the original in-game text. The Legend of Zelda (or Zelda no Densetsu: The Hyrule Fantasy as it’s known in Japan) is really not one of those games. Sure, if you’ve never played it before there will be some stop gaps, but for the most part this title can easily be enjoyed by previous players or anyone following a guide. Besides, as Mandelin dissects in his book, there are some cryptic and downright misleading tips regardless of which version you play. That’s why I was so disenchanted when I first heard about this book. The Legend of Zelda is so overdone, it doesn’t really need a localization, and I wasn’t really interested in the subtle differences. At the same time, it’s a perfect subject for his first book because it is so instantly recognizable and I’m betting a vast majority of gamers from the 80s – not to mention the rabid Zelda fan base – will cling instantly to this work. Despite my wish for the ultimate elitist dissection of another overdone title like Resident Evil (or Bio Hazard), I went into Mandelin’s Legends of Localization Book 1 with an open mind and was handsomely rewarded. Not that he needs any validation from me, but Mandelin is a skilled writer and translator that not only captures but also conveys the information of blatant and subtle differences in the many versions of The Legend of Zelda that I couldn’t put it down. At no time in the meaty 200+ pages of this hardcover book did I feel redundancy or padding, but he’s not scared to reference an earlier concept as it becomes relevant in a later chapter. He also doesn’t feel the need to get too obtuse or long-winded about the difficult task of localization as a whole and examples of why he’s so skilled at it. Sure, the subject is tackled as it must be, but he gets in, gets out, and tackles key subjects within a handful of pages.
While the written words in his book contain the strongest amount of learning, Mandelin also acknowledges that we are in a multimedia world. His layouts are the stuff of classic game magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly or Diehard Gamefan but with the knowledge base of an Internet age reader. Even onlookers were fascinated to see how impressed I was that a book was so full of useful information when on the surface it had more pictures than a kids book. Not only was the layout aesthetically pleasing, but it was necessary in the common event that the book has to dabble in visual or subtle differences only a screenshot can provide. It’s not just game shots either, you’ll see photos of products, packaging, and manuals you may have never found in the wild. He even has a section about video game sounds and music. Yes, he dissects sound in a book. If you have a phone or computer handy you can experience the full interactive version, otherwise you’ll be looking at wave forms that do a good enough job of explaining his points. The cover is thick, feels somewhat like leather, and looks refined. It also comes with a classy laminate dust jacket sleeve that ads some gaming pizzazz if you don’t want to look too pretentious. I had no problem finding a place on the shelf and I didn’t have to resort to the “video game books” section. Each page is printed in high quality ink, the photos come out just as if off the screen, and the pages are thick and rugged. It’s a true high quality book at a great price, which is what we should expect from work of this caliber but so often not the case. I’m betting that Fan Gamer, the site that provides the book as well as a slew of other high quality products, is somewhat to thank for the build quality. Ultimately the presentation proves as strong as the content in what is now one of my favorite books in my collection.
The Legend of Zelda seemed to have no secrets and my impression was that whatever an overzealous translator could nitpick out of the differences would lack much substance. That is until I found out it was penned by Clyde “Mato” Mandelin whom I’d been reading for years. I not only stand corrected by this excellent book but also excited to see that if so much content and information few of us were aware of can come of this title, what about others (games and authors)? Mandelin announces at the end of Book 1 that Book 2 will be Earthbound (or Mother 2), but from there he’s left a handful of games that he could see tackling next and even includes a postcard where you can vote on your favorite. This is just one of many ways Mandelin involves and thanks his audience for their interest in his work. If you study localization, like The Legend of Zelda, or even if you don’t think you care about either, I recommend looking into this book. It’s well written, insightful, and tackles a subject we are all familiar with but few of us know up close. It’s also competitively priced, something I rarely see for fan projects these days.
The reviewer purchased this book from Fan Gamer for an initial price of $29.00 before shipping. Alternatively you can purchase a combo that also includes Mandelin’s “Passport to The Legend of Zelda” that teaches you the basics to Japanese via a playthrough of the Japanese version. This combo is found at the same link and costs $35.00 rather than purchasing the Passport for $9.00 alone. Full disclosure my wife purchased the combo as a gift to me, so I received both. Out of respect for Mandelin and Fan Gamer’s excellent work, we chose to include product shots from the Fan Gamer site so as not to give away any content not intended to be captured.