TW: I think back in the 90s JP software companies were frustrated that they weren't seeing acceptable sales volumes for key franchises in the world's largest ‘potential’ market for games, the US. Europe was, of course, a consideration as well, and the thought was ‘nail the US, and localize for EUR to find success there afterwards’.
At the time, anime wasn't as well-adopted/popular as it is today, and it was thought that the look/feel of JP games, combined with the fact that, especially for role playing games, users didn't have a dozen or so great franchises to play and train on as they did in JP (Mother, FF 1-3, Dragon Quest, etc). For role playing games, the hypothesis was that US gamers were not meeting with familiar or satisfying story, character or visual elements. To fix this, it was suggested that something more along the lines of US comics, including scatological humor and other ‘familiar’ references and art would resonate better with US customers.
Unfortunately, in your two examples above, the games that were created and shipped paled in comparison with FF2, partly due to the fact that the dev teams were smaller and didn’t have the resources and training/experience that the FF teams did. Mystic Quest was developed by Square’s Osaka team, which had done GameBoy titles previously. The Evermore team had some smart and experienced folks, but that was the first title they every worked on together...sort of hard to hit your fist RPG out of the ballpark!
These days there are still titles that wouldn’t work well in this market for a variety of reasons (too expensive to localize, not built for localization, cultural ‘miss,’ etc.), but I wouldn’t think there would be much concern about wheth3er or not US or Euro audiences can ‘get’ how to play RPGs. These are not a mainstream genre, which I’m personally glad about, as I still like these the best and spend too much time on them...
TW: I have always been a huge fan of Japanese design and the arts, ever since I first saw the JP woodblock prints decorating the hallways of my grandparents house when I was young (they had a dozen or so original Hiroshige prints some of which were a tad on the eerie side). Like most fans of that aesthetic, I have always enjoyed navigating through the environments/worlds created in JP developers and designers.
So yes, I think there can be a distinct style/design sense that informs many JP titles, especially some of the 16-bit games. There are references, visuals and story elements, to things non-JP gamers aren’t familiar with, and which seem exotic or particularly fresh, but which, as in the case of a kappa, kasa obake, oni, etc., are really just a part of the pantheon in JP, and pretty familiar there. So if you like this aura/flavor, you’ll come to expect more of this, and many folks are disappointed by games that don’t contain this. I’m also a big fan of the Halo and Gears of War series, for example, and don’t feel these are missing anything!
JS: You were responsible for the west getting to enjoy many still-loved classics, all of which have since been re-released. Their content is arguably timeless - are there any specific examples of things you regret having had to remove? Speaking as a fan, was much lost in Secret of Mana?
TW: Yes, probably 40% or more of the screen text was nuked...there just wasn’t space in the ROM. That means lots of story elements, nuance, personality, etc. also had to be stripped out. It was hard to do that, especially after I’d finished a translation, and then was told it was way over. At some point, due to time constraints, I just had to turn away from the screen text and focus on my English translation. I had to pare down from that. There is a lot I wish I could have done, but to be honest, I’m just glad those games are being rereleased, even with updated/edited screen text...they are great experiences, and a new generation of gamers can enjoy them. That is all good.
SOM was, in some ways, the hardest. I was over there for over a month, and the screen text was still being modified quite a bit every day. Things I translated often got ‘edited’ and when I read them the next day, I realized I needed to go back and change them again to make them grammatical. I loved that game, but am probably most dissatisfied with the final result. Certainly tried my best, but that thing nearly killed me (though I did love being in Japan with my family for that length of time...that was a gift!)
4) You were quoted as saying several years ago: In a perfect world, we would take the beautiful graphics we get from Japan and completely dump all of the code that stipulates when an event has to happen and how it occurs. We would go back in and tailor it to the audience here. We’re accustomed to the structure these classics now have, but I’m fascinated by the idea of them being "remixed" during localisation. Were you referring purely to difficulty, or rather the gameplay/story structure? Would you still want to do it?
Sometimes I think they games could have had a more natural feel (if such could be the case in a 16-bit game) if there had been more focus on rescripting/building events to unroll in a way that supported the localized language. For example, in many games I also had to insert symbols indicating animations or other events, and for the most part left them ‘as is.’ Sometimes this worked, sometimes it seemed a bit forced as this was to emphasize some interjection or event in the Japanese version.
JS: You were quoted as saying: "The need for a strong beginning, middle and end is not so much in Japan, because they have a different background for stories." Are the Japanese less questioning of their narratives? What are the differences in expectations between Japan and the USA? One localiser stated that some things were left unexplained by the Japanese writers and he was forced to fill in this material.
TW: Not sure what I was referring to specifically, but some Japanese writers I like most link themes, ideas, images together in narratives in ways that are less plot or story driven, and more suggestive or lyrical/musical. I don’t want to stereotype here, as there are all kinds of writers practicing their craft in JP and writing in all kinds of ways! But there are times where a translator, without access to footnotes, needs to pad a bit to get a point across.
For example, some central themes in RPGs, such as filial piety, duty and obedience to teachers/elders/authority don’t play quite as well outside of Japan and need some additional verbiage to explain, in some cases. I can’t really remember specifics but generally recall reworking some themes in games to map better to expectations of non-Japanese players. Perhaps this is what I was alluding to?
JS: Some fans, a bit worryingly, can be intensely angry and threatening individuals, yet I found one head of a localisation company who went on record to say he'd apparently been sent large quantities of women's underwear in the post from fans. What are some of the more extreme fan reactions you've encountered with your work?
TW: The fans have been the most unexpected, and fascinating part of this for me. I really appreciated the mostly favorable and supportive emails, letters and other messages. I used to receive all kind of mail. Illustrations, illustrated objects, scripts for games, photos, random stuff. I even had to unlist my phone and address because curious folks started calling me with questions ("hey, did this person really die?" "Hey, where's FF5, etc etc." (I never received the underwear--that person must rock!).
Perhaps the most flattering thing is when people, usually younger than i am (tho these days that's mostly everyone) tell me that playing one of the games I worked on or translated got them into the games biz, or otherwise woke them up to the power of story telling through videogames. That's pretty cool, and I have to applaud the folks at Square, and people who worked with me on games, as that is where the attention should be directed! This is an amazing industry and I've never regretted nuking my phd studies to make the job shift. Too many interesting folks working in this biz. It's never been dull.
TW: People often used to call with suggestions, observations, or on a rare occaison, to razz me and hang up the phone (ah, kids). They asked about Shadow in FFVI, they wondered about who married whom, whether characters stayed dead, etc. Certainly made me realize how powerful the stories were, and that they were connecting.
I've been amazed at the fan translation area, as well, with folks translating entire ROMs. Some of these have been quite good, done by very sharp people who clearly know Japanese well and how to write. Some have been almost comical. I recall one site, with some fairly vocal contributors, who were advocating translating JP using the JP grammar (Subject, object, verb). They claimed to have the most faithful translations, but when you read them they sounded as odd as you would expect (sort of a lot of Yoda speak). A translation of a work of art (game, literature) can never be exact. Too bad, but if you really want to savor JP, you need to play a game (or read a book) in the original.
One guy, Clyde Mandelin (AKA "Tomato") who is referenced in the article at the below location on Gamasutra has done some great work, though he is both a fan and pro translator.
I have (probably rightly so in some cases) been trashed over the years on some sights where fans get up in arms about changes to the game, changes in the text, etc. Would have been nice to have had the space to do a proper and complete localization of the games, items and monsters, but...that wasn't the reality.
JS: I also wanted to ask if you were ever contacted regarding re-translations or re-releases of games you'd previously localised?
TW: I've been pinged by quite a few folks in the industry. Most of them (kindly...) tell me they miss my stuff in the new translations. I'm just glad some of these have been cleaned up and that they are available to play for a new generations. Those games were and still are a hoot to play.
VI: Yes. I've played the PC98, Super Fami and Turbo Duo versions. Didn't know about the cel version until you told me, actually!
JS: Did you at any time consider localising either the Super Famicom or Turbo Duo versions which were released in Japan?
VI: The Turbo one was contemplated, but the Duo was such a mess in the US, and it was actually inferior to the MEGA CD version, so the US got the best version anyway.
JS: Please tell me a little about this "sister sonic" rumour I keep reading about regarding the US release. Is it true Sega wanted to remake the game as a Sonic spin-off?
VI: I believe it is true because that is what I was told by the head of the Consumer Soft division at SEGA of Japan. We were working on Vay at the time, and the company that was doing that title (SIMS, an acronym for the last names of the company partners) was part-owned by him. He was in the building, and we got along quite well, so he decided to show me some games in-progress. Popful Mail had just been rejected as Sister Sonic at that point, according to him. He offered it to us. That deal led directly to Dragon Force and Iron Storm.
JS: Is it true that during the localisation, you upped the difficulty of the Japanese game?
VI: Yes. The Japanese one was far too easy, and there was no real challenge or strategy to any of the bosses. In Japan you buy a game and you own it. In the US (especially at the time) return policies were extremely liberal. To leave the game as-was, would be to guarantee that a substantial portion of the games would be "extended rentals" at our expense.
JS: What kind of feedback have you received regarding PM?
VI: Actually, it's one we get the most compliments on, and one of my personal favorites. The tone of the game demanded a WD-style localization, and we went all out.
JS: How accurate is the translation?
VI: Pretty accurate for the main characters, as I remember. I do know that we changed the name of Blackey to Slick. Blackey didn't fit the character look at all, and Slick tied in with the way he was always trying to be a smooth operator, yet getting into enormous trouble. Mail, Tatto, and Gaw were the same (though Gaw may have been Gau). The minor characters were definitely changed. There was no "Clabberdeen Clotchsnyffer Leetzelwiffle Poopiewouffen von Venuncio Kraken Lichter Rachetface the 14th, Feudal Lord of Odorburg" in the Japanese version.
VI: It was a big project at the time. I tried dual-directors (me and Dean), but that was a trial in and of itself. There were probably 20 actors, two directors, and the sound engineer. I did the writing also.
JS: Do you have any funny/interesting stories from when you localised it?
VI: The Nuts Cracker "I think-a knocked something loose-a in-a my head...boomba, I think-a I'm dead" line was sampled for a song one of the employees in the studio was working on. There were so many great lines in that game. Some still crack me up. Oh, and the guy who voiced Slick was Ashley Angel. He did LUNAR later, then moved on to the boy-band O-Town in the US. I believe he released a solo album.
JS: Was there ever any talk of Sega (or anyone else) using your localised version to release it in England?
VI: Yes. It was discussed on and off. The only game we did of SEGA's that actually made it was Dragon Force, and that was thanks mostly to the stellar efforts of an awesome guy that worked for SEGA Europe by the name of Mark Maslowicz (who is at Microsoft now).
JS: How well did it sell?
VI: Horribly. Shortly before Popful Mail was released, SEGA of America was kind enough to announce the discontinuation of the SEGA CD straight to the press. We found out about it there. Retailers were loathe to stock SEGA CD titles at any depth after that announcement. We sold far less than 20,000 copies, a fraction of what we normally sold on an RPG title. Of course, the upside was that once word got out about how great it was years later, the price has stayed quite steady on Ebay! It really is the best of all Popful Mail versions, and one of the best games on the SEGA CD.
JS: Does Working Designs have the rights to rerelease PM on a modern platform?