Level Up! What Video Games Teach Us About Media Localization

Level 1: Start!

In 1986, you may have played a video game about a young hero named Rinku traveling through a magical land on an epic quest to save Zeruda-hime from the evil witch, Ganon, in a game called Zeruda no Densetsu on the Family Computer System, otherwise known as the Famicom, made by Nintendo.  If that doesn’t sound like something you have ever heard of, let’s try that again…

In 1986, you may have played a video game about a young hero named Link traveling through a magical land on an epic quest to save the Princess Zelda from the evil sorcerer, Ganon, in a game called Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System, otherwise known as the NES or “Nintendo”, made by Nintendo. 

Both of versions of this paragraph are correct. I simply localized the terms so you would understand them, or feel more “at home” with you. If you are familiar with the NES or its successor, the Super Nintendo, you may have seen localization quite heavily at work. Our previous example, from The Legend of Zelda, was one game that made very little changes in terms of localization even during the beginning period of home video game systems, and over the last few decades.

Sometimes, this early localization would go farther than the translation industry would even dare to go. If you remember the Mega Man series, the titular character, Mega Man has always been referred to as Rockman in Japan. This makes the other characters’ names in the game such as Roll, Beat, Bass, make much more sense. Former Capcom senior vice president Joseph Morici thought the title was “horrible”. The American localization, and around the rest of the world outside of Japan, came to know the character as Mega Man. Just by looking at the cover art for the American and Japanese versions of the game, you can tell that America’s sense of style in the mid-1980s differed heavily from Japan’s at the time.




The Import/Export Industry

From this period onwards, game localization was not quite as heavy handed, but fell more into the hands of the translation industry. This period of time was fairly tumultuous as many titles were translated well, whereas others fell short. Perhaps the most infamous mistranslation comes from Zero Wing for the Mega Drive system (better known as the Sega Genesis in America) as depicted in the image text below:

 Zero Wing All your Base

As time progressed, there were less issues in game translation and localization, with only the occasional name or two changed in a finished localized product. Changes in names thanks to pronunciation differences between languages was most frequent, though not a rule. Ask any fan of the Final Fantasy franchise whether the lead female role’s name is Aeris or Aerith. Thanks to the original Japanese being Aerisu, confusion persists even 21 years later. Naming conventions are fairly minor issues, but sometimes in localization whole character names need to be changed for them to be received at all by their target audience.

For instance, in translation of the popular Japanese animation Dragon Ball Z, which has been frequently adapted into video games (usually once a year) the character known as “Hercule” by American audiences is actually known as “Mr. Satan” by Japanese audiences. For the sake of the positive reception of the series, the name had to be changed for the obvious reason as to not incur the displeasure of religious communities in the United States. Traditionally, Japanese companies lack the same cultural sensitivity regarding religious significance.

Even further, sometimes localization of a product, such as a video game, has to have whole pieces of dialogue changed to make sense to the consumer.  If a pop culture reference appears somewhere in a video game’s dialogue that will only make sense to one audience, that dialogue may be changed to an equally relevant pop culture reference for the other audience.

Localized Means Made For You

That brings us to really the key question of localization, not the how, but why? If you look back to our Rockman example, it wasn’t about the core “message” it was about how that message was received. Even the box art is a clue: the American cover looks like an 80’s sci-fi Block Buster, while the Japanese cover looks like the famous animation Astro Boy. They reflect what was popular in those cultures at that time. Localization of entertainment or marketing may be the one specialization of translation where changing the message is acceptable. Entertainment exists to appeal to the receiver. The words in the message is secondary to the feeling the creators are trying to convey.

A perfect example of this is not so much a video game, but Disney films, especially in their music (which also frequently appear in Disney video games). In the movie Frozen, the world famous song from the film, “Let It Go” is not quite the same song. The meaning of the song’s whole is how the character Elsa is learning to accept herself for who she really is, but it differs depending on the language.

  •  In English, the character, Elsa sings: “Let it go, let it go! I will rise like the break of dawn”.
  •  In Japanese she sings the same part as, “I’m fine like this! I will grow to love myself.” 
  • In French, even more different, “Liberated and released, nothing will stop me anymore!”

Though the meaning of the song is overall the same, the message is changed to fit the music and language. To say, “Let it go” is an idiom in English, thus translated versions have to navigate around this. In some ways, it is more art than translation. If a film, video game, or piece of music is to be translated, it is being reshaped to speak to the audience, player, or listener in the same way as the original, but re-made for them. Entertainment is an experience, and to enjoy that experience the same way as the original audience, the new audience must be offered the same opportunity to engage with it. How else will an audience laugh, cry, or applaud? They must be given the chance to feel as they could feel it.

As we have quoted before, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” At Tone, we hope to be able to bring more than just a message, but actual meaning.





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