A brief survey of localiztions

Ever since the first text-based game came from Japan to American shores, those playing have wondered, “What did the original text say?”

…Well, I have, at least since I was old enough to tell the difference between “A winner is you” and real English. Hearing about and playing odd translations of games is a bit of a hobby of mine.

Thankfully, translations in general are getting much better. Voice acting is much, much better than it has been in the past, although it can still use some work. Let’s look at some localizations past and present as evidence.

Good Localizations

These games leave you with a good feel for spirit of the game. They rarely if ever have grammatical problems, and if there is any voice acting it is well-produced. The story has a feel that is consistent throughout the game. Some older games’ translations have been good, too, but here are two recent examples.

Clearly translated by a native English speaker.

Good Example #1. Dragon Quest VIII
First off, the choice of using an English (har har) translator in this case was a good one, which I felt added here and there to the feel of the game. Secondly, the translation is pretty much spotless (if not as readable if you aren’t familiar with some of the slang). Voice acting is just about the best I’ve heard, and even the worst voices don’t grate on the ears. All this combines to make the game read and sound as beautiful as it looks. To top it all off, we got voice acting while Japan didn’t! I bet it was re-released there afterwards, though.

Good Example #2. Suikoden V
Konami seems to have learned its lesson from its earlier games. While in other games I occasionally write down Engrish to throw at people, in this game I wrote down some of the quotes because they were such nicely-turned phrases – even including a couplet or two. The voice acting can be shaky, but is better produced than more high-profile games. “Sure, sometimes justice is just a little word. But sometimes justice is three feet of sharp steel smashing in your face!”

Bad Localizations

Any these things reach to “bad state” from “very bad state” the time the time. If we promote frequent spelling or the grammatical mistake, the characteristic which it possesses with end of the bad spectrum, is there or most problem, furthermore more “at last is babelfished” change in us. Here are some of the worse recent examples I could dig up. The translations for the games are some getting better but some remain bad state.

Bad Example #1. Suikoden II (“bad state”)
Although the main plotline was mostly well done, Suikoden II has many grammatical and spelling errors, from “I haven’t sharped in very long time” to spelling a character’s name very differently in one cut scene. Thankfully these errors are frequent rather than ubiquitous.

Bad Example #2. Wild Arms: Alter Code F (“bad state” / “very bad state”)
This one slides down the scale a bit further. Although it has its moments, the translation sometimes has gender confusion as well as singular/plural confusion. Awkward phrasing is common as well, and no, it’s not all Zed’s fault. In fact, the Japanese version had vocals in battle and in three different songs. They were cut out and replaced… with nothing, leaving songs with considerably less impact and battles relatively quiet.

Move over, Shakespeare.

Bad Example #3. Castle Shikigami II (“very bad state”)
This is just about as bad as it gets (I really hope). Zero Wing has a decent amount of Engrish, but I don’t think there’s more than the intro. This game has 20-30 lines of dialogue for each individual character and each pair of characters. And yet, despite having seen them all, I still have nearly no idea what happens in the plot. Voice Acting ranges from the character who confidently says lines that make no sense to some that sound as if the actor’s were mildly confused. Some even try to make it make sense by adding in key words, but fail. There are even a couple places in the game with the original Japanese text and voices. Thankfully, the localization seems to have been done deliberately poorly to keep the price tag at $10. “I wonder if the castle is testing us? Damn, I hate activities.”

Ugly Localizations

These games may have good translation or bad translation, but something major was changed story or presentation-wise to make them significantly different from the original. Here we have two recent examples and a handful of examples from previous years.

Ugly Example #1. Revelations: Persona
The first MegaTen game we got, despite being one of my favorite PSX RPGs, has some major issues with the localization. For whatever reason, it was decided to switch the setting from a Japanese town to an American one. This is all well and good, but several details make it tricky. For example, the school design is the Japanese standard, the “Malls” are the open-air roofed malls all over Japan, a Shinto shrine figures into the plot on more than one occasion, and the Pharmacy plays karaoke in Japanese. Even before learning the language or traveling to Japan, I knew there were issues with this game. In the sequel (well, the sequel’s sequel, the next one to see US shores) they had to reconcile this with the actual storyline. If the location and thematic changes weren’t enough, an alternate path through the game (the “Snow Queen Quest”) was not translated — probably due to its sheer difficulty or the risqué content involved.

Ugly Example #2. Devil Kings / Sengoku Basara
During my all-too-brief journey in Japan, the heavily-advertised Sengoku Basara was released. A Dynasty Warriors style game that’s even more exaggerated, it’s based on the historical events of Japan’s Sengoku period (same as Samurai Warriors)… in Japan. I still haven’t tried either version, but I do know that “Devil Kings” was completely redone, and characters’ names were changed to stuff like Q-ball, Puff, and Talon. This was a whole lot of work, including a ton of renaming and (if what I’ve heard is true) level and model redesign. I wonder if it sold any better for it?

Ugly Example #3. Nintendo of America’s S/NES Translation policies
NoA policies brought about pretty ugly translations for a while. Bionic Commando, for example — in the original, the enemy army you fought were essentially Nazis. In the US edition, all of the Nazi symbolism was completely removed, leaving the player quite confused (amused?) when the enemy’s goal is to resurrect their “dead leader” who happens to be a Hitler look-alike. In Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, all references to the priests being Christian were modified to be more generic, while all references to alcohol were changed to various flavors of “Cider.” A fan recently released a patch to change these references back. ( For another example, The NES gem known more widely as Crystalis was originally titled “God Slayer.” Thankfully Nintendo has since relaxed their policies.

Shady Localizations

Oh, Vic.

For lack of a better word, these are shady. Translation tends to be good, and the main story and presentation are consistent with the original. Extra “added” content (pop culture, jokes) that is not plot-related makes the quality questionable to some, although I enjoy them.

Shady Example #1. Nearly everything by Working Designs
Don’t get me wrong, I love these games (especially Lunar II). Translation quality feels much more natural than other RPGs, and plots are carried out excellently. Many people, however, are immediately turned off by the random pop culture references, ranging from Austin Powers to various commercials. I can understand how these would detract from the feel of the game (although they don’t for me), hence the category. It is true that sometimes the jokes are out of place, but it gives the games a light-hearted feel that is rare. “Don’t let the curve of a woman’s hip or the sparkle in her eye mislead you, soldier! Many men have made that mistake and damned their eternal souls in the process.”

Thankfully, as a whole, localizations are getting better. Localization groups are hiring talented voice teams rather than individuals, and translations at least seem to be staying closer to the original spirit of games. More games are being translated than ever before, too, so it’s a good time to be a gamer. Now if only Nintendo would send us Mother 3.

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17 years ago

castle shikigami 2 is worth buying for the translation alone.  it even adds replayability since you will want to get every possible dialogue option which means playing with every combination of characters.  really terrific.  not the best (or worst) shooter in the world, but its cheap and can provide hours of entertainment above and beyond the actual gameplay.

17 years ago

I completely agree. Castle Shikigami 2 would be much worse if they’d translated it into English.

17 years ago

Was the SNES version of Wolfenstein 3D modified? Like, did id take out the NAZI stuff? If they did, that would seriously change everything, and NoA should be spanked.