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Op-Ed: Americanizing Ace Attorney Was a Brilliant Idea

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Op-Ed: Americanizing Ace Attorney Was a Brilliant Idea

Anything you've ever liked in an Ace Attorney game is a result of its localization. Every clever joke, cute pun, and witty line of dialogue was a product of the localization team taking the original script and reworking it to fit an American audience. Sure, the localization team has no control over the mysteries they're handed, or any particularly offensive character designs, but other than those things, Phoenix Wright is pretty much all text. Which made it sort of a revelation to me which it came out. I'd played adventure games before, but never anything as visual novel-styled as Ace Attorney. My computer wasn't really up to snuff, and from my perspective, most of them were R-rated hentai games, which I was terrified of my parents catching me playing. But Ace Attorney was something different- it was well written. In fact, so well written that nothing about it really screamed "Japan" at me. I'd watched a bunch of anime at that point, so I was catching the art style, and the various seinen tropes it drops, but other than that, the first Ace Attorney doesn't seem really seem out of place in its Los Angeles setting. It’s a game about lawyers with wacky clients, a plot that could have easily been transposed onto a TV series, or movie, or book. But outside of that, every character had been renamed with a usually goofy, but never grating, pun, cultural references to Japan had been totally relocated, and characters cracked jokes based on American idioms and pop culture, but never in a way that felt like someone just checked a Wikipedia page and based their goofs off of that.

Cultrual differences: In Japan, that "Victory" text was in Japanese, and that ghost was a werewolf.

Cultrual differences: In Japan, that "Victory" text was in Japanese, and that ghost was a werewolf.

There’s a saying that the best localizations are the ones no one notices. That a light touch is best when it comes to bringing something over from another country. It makes sense, if you beat someone over the head with any Americanisms it’s going to seem pretty obvious that it wasn’t American in the first place. Ace Attorney 1 hits that sweet spot perfectly. It might as well have been an American-developed game from my perspective playing through it for the first time. There are some weird Japanese things left over, like the string of flags on one character’s souvenir stand, or a popular Tokusatsu show being filmed in an LA studio, but those just sort of make sense in the inherent weirdness of a world where magical spirit channelling exists and is totally admissible as evidence in court.

To be fair, some of those cultural references are uhh...uncomfortable.

To be fair, some of those cultural references are uhh...uncomfortable.

Just as an example, there’s a bit in the Japanese version of Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations where one character spills curry on a picture of the spirit channelling master. In Japanese, her orders are to put a “splendid end to the head of the house.” Being a kid, she misreads some of the Kanji involved, getting karei, or splendid, confused with kare, which means curry. She also gets indoh, which is the word for giving someone their funeral rites, as indo, which means India. So she spills Indian curry on the picture. Of course, that pun doesn’t make a lick of sense in English, but the localizers were stuck with the picture being covered in a brown foodstuff. Her orders in English are to “gravely roast the master,” so she dumps some gravy from the night’s roast on the picture instead. The event doesn’t change, but her misunderstanding makes sense to an English speaking audience. It’s a perfect crossover, and until someone pointed out that the gravely/gravy and roast/roast connection doesn’t exist in Japanese, I never noticed it. It’s the deft, light touch or a good localization. Sure, the fact that she mixed up those words is a little goofy, but it’s equally goofy in both languages, and makes perfect sense in the moment. There isn't really anything lost by changing the food items, other than a bunch of Americans not getting the joke, because curry isn't particularly popular here.

Of course, for a series that lives by its localization, it also dies by it too. So sometimes, when an Ace Attorney game falls flat, it’s probably the localization’s fault. Ace Attorney Investigations is a pretty boring game. It has hysterically simple cases that last forever because of dozens of filler interrogations you have to sit through before you can actually get your hands on the culprit, but that’s the fault of the game’s developers. The localizers instead have to shoulder the blame of the bottom of the barrel puns (the sports-loving Jacques Portsman, the victim known as Died Mann) and the monotony of Edgeworth, Gumshoe and sidekick Kay having exactly one joke each. Some of that might be attributed to the fact that because of the game’s core conceit, you aren’t really ever doing anything of purpose, just wandering around trying to find someone who will be arrested and eventually dragged to real court, but there’s certainly space for a localization to have spiced things up. It’s too light a touch for localization.

Just gotta something!

Just gotta something!

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, on the other hand, actually suffers from a very noticeable and problematic localization- it’s full of typos. There’s actually a tumblr dedicated to cataloguing some of the incredible spelling mistakes. Most of them are small ones, “any” instead of “an”, “statute” instead of “stature”, nothing that seems totally crazy. But then they spell one of the game’s primary locations three different ways and you realize they didn’t hire an editor. It makes the whole thing look amateurish for a high-profile release from a major publisher. It also totally destroys a lot of your immersion when you have to stop every few textboxes to gawk and marvel at the latest unbelievable error.

Vale/Vail/Veil/Village/Vermont/Vermillion

Vale/Vail/Veil/Village/Vermont/Vermillion

And while Ace Attorney 1 benefited from the westernised script, Dual Destinies stumbles over it. Where the Los Angeles setting made for a more welcoming atmosphere for a new player than Tokyo would have, Dual Destinies leaves players looking for semblances of American culture cold. The game features two Japanese villages that somehow relocated their entire populations from Japan to Southern California, brought over their ancient sealed demons, and somehow used their images to sell a popular wrestling show. All of that is crazy, especially the wrestling bit. 

Now, that isn't necessarily Dual Destinies' fault, considering they were stuck in LA to begin with, but they really could have done something about the incredibly problematic third case, which features a very Anime-styled legal academy, a prep-high school for law school, which is presumably what allows people in the Ace Attorney universe to pass the bar at 13. At the school, you run into a young man who was born female and lives life as a man. Of course, once you reveal this in court (which is kind of gross in and of itself), the character admits the truth by pulling out a pink high heel and staring at it longingly. You need to make them admit this because you need a reason for them to have stolen and worn a dress. Even though the proof is there, there is somehow no way they could have done it unless they were secretly actually a girl. Also, after the big reveal, the character becomes very stereotypically girly, teasing characters, doing over-dramatic fake faints, and putting their hands on their hips. It’s sort of crazy offensive, and the kind of thing that probably could have been worked around a little bit by the localizers. To be fair, I don’t know if it was worse in the Japanese version. This was, after all, the series that had an enormous, flamboyant French chef talk about how he was a “woman on the inside” and leave it treated as a hilaaaaarious joke.

He also smokes a feather, but that's not a Japan thing, it's an Ace Attorney thing.

He also smokes a feather, but that's not a Japan thing, it's an Ace Attorney thing.

Dual Destinies takes a pretty light approach to the whole localization thing outside of a handful of cultural references here and there. Prosecutor Simon Blackquill is a walking ball of Japanese cultural references that don't track unless you're familiar with a whole host of Japanese tropes. He's a samurai, but dresses more like court nobility, he calls everyone -dono at times, an antiquated Japanese honorific used to denote respect, the list goes on. To be fair, the localizers did a decent job of making him speak British English to reflect the more archaic Japanese he used, but there's no halfway here. he came off as strange, and sort of jarring. No one is going to argue that Dual Destinies is a well localized game. Part of that is partially because being stuck in LA renders a few of the cases and characters impossible to localize, but the rest of that burden sits on characters like Blackquill mixing Japanese and English tropes, along with the complete lack of editing in the game's script. 

Dual Destinies manages to have a localization that isn’t just offensive and confusing, but also completely unreadable at times. It sort of ruins the game, in the same way that Ace Attorney 1’s spectacular localization saved it from being “too Japanese” for a wider audience. It was a visual novel that didn’t really feel like one, and opened the floodgates for me personally. I really fell in love with the visual novel concept, all because Ace Attorney was so well written, and so well localized. I’m pretty sure Dual Destinies won’t accomplish the same for anyone. It might even scare them off of the genre as a whole, considering how little it tries to make things palatable to a western audience. Someone yells YOLO once, and I’m pretty sure that’s the sum total of the cultural references I caught. A good localization is very important, and in Ace Attorney’s case, it’s literally the difference between a good game and a bad one. In my case, and I’m pretty sure for many others as well, it’s the difference between being introduced to a new fantastic genre, or being chased even further away by typos and uncomfortable Japanese attitudes to sexuality.

But also the typos.

But also the typos.

Some might argue that Ace Attorney goes too far in its localization, that it erases the original Japanese intent by retrofitting the script to work in America. But the problem is that if it was left as a Japan-centric game it would have never found the popularity it did in the West. A good localization change things around to better suit the culture its being brought to, and in Ace Attorney’s case, that meant playing down the Japanese element to it, which was honestly not terribly important to its core plot. As the series went on, it got out of hand, sure, but there’s no denying that it was the best decision that localization team made at the time. Of course, some games need different localization choices. The Persona games wouldn't make any sense at all if they were westenrized to the same degree as Ace Attorney. In fact, that's often one of the major complaints people have with Persona 1. A good localization is one that takes both the needs of the game as well as the audience into account, and a bad localization is one that fails them.

A good localization also won’t put in a “this is Sparta” reference, but we’ll let Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations slide. It was 2007, we were all making mistakes.


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The Primer- Great Localizations

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The Primer- Great Localizations

When it comes to figuring out what goes into a great localization, there's a lot of time spent thinking about games that really nailed the transition from one region to another. And also games that totally dropped the ball. Sometimes games dunk that ball though. Other times someone gets hit in the face by an errant pass. Occasionally the ref calls a time out and has to analyze what just happened because the ball was floating in the air gloriously, before crashing back down to the court in a flaming wreck.

What this tortured metaphor is trying to get at is an introduction to just a few of the most impressive game localizations of all time.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

The thing about the Ace Attorney games is that all at once, they manage to be some of the best examples of how to do a Japanese-to-English localization, while also showing exactly what goes wrong when you play it fast and loose with localization. One one hand, they’re loaded to the brim with clever puns, mostly subtle references to american pop culture, and charming dialogue. On the other, it’s actually impossible to believe the series could possible take place in Los Angeles.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is either the most amazing series of typos ever, or an incredibly detailed post-modern comedy bit.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is either the most amazing series of typos ever, or an incredibly detailed post-modern comedy bit.

To be fair, the series isn't exactly batting a thousand. Between goofy nonsense that doesn’t register as a pun until you think about it and get disappointed (see: Glen Elg, the palindromic homicide victim), and the grammatical catastrophe that is Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, there are a lot of missteps in what’s usually considered to be a shining exemplar of good localization. It says a lot that, for a time, the biggest meme to come out of Ace Attorney was making fun of the one major error in the second game. Well, that and people constantly yelling objection for no damn reason.

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It takes a lot to take a game, especially one as text heavy as Ace Attorney, from one culture to another. The first game in the series did an impressive job of balancing the whole “it takes place in america” thing with the rest of the factors in the plot. To be fair, not too much about that first game was very Japan-centric. The Steel Samurai read as a Power Rangers/Super Sentai-esque kids show in both regions. Sure, it was weird that the Fey clan ran a mystical spirit channelling village somewhere in the mountains of Orange County, but it didn’t ever take me out of the suspension of disbelief required to believe that the world’s most incompetent lawyer was an undefeated defense attorney. But, the part in Ace Attorney Dual Destinies where an entire Japanese village relocated to America and took their ancient chained-up demons with them so they could use them in wrestling TV shows pretty much snapped my disbelief over its knee. It was a smart choice to set the first game in LA. It made it feel closer to home for North American players, and really let the writers play with pop culture references that wouldn’t really fly if the game was set in Japan. Unfortunately, it made the rest of the games stick out like a traditional Japanese shrine in the middle of LA. It was one smart short term choice, that ate into the suspension of disbelief more and more with each game going forward. At this point, I’m half-expecting the upcoming Meiji-era Japan game to be set in the Wild West when it comes over stateside.

Actually, samurai in cowboy hats sounds rad. Sign me up for that.

Pokemon Red/Blue

Pocket Monsters: Lizard Dude Version

Pocket Monsters: Lizard Dude Version

The impressive thing about Pokemon’s localization isn’t really in its script. “I like shorts” isn’t exactly Dickens. No, the cool thing is all the work that went into it that most people miss. It’s the names. Pokemon names to be specific, Charmander to get really particular, actually. See, in Japan, Charmander is called Hitokage, which literally the word for salamander in Japanese. That itself is sort of a pun, because it means fire lizard, but a straight translation would still render that as either salamander or fire lizard. And then what do we make out of Lizardo and Lizardon, Charmeleon and Charizard’s Japanese equivalents? Fire Lizard Jr., Fire Lizard and Fire Lizard Sr.? Lil’ Fire Lizard to Big Fire Lizard? Nintendo’s trick was to flip the script and go with what localization always tries to do at its best, preserving the original intent without sticking to the literal script. Charmander works. It says fire and lizard and salamander all at once, perfectly preserving the Hitokage pun without just calling it “Salamander”.

Changes like that actually led to a few problems down the line. The longer english names often hit the character limit, leaving Gyarados without his former English title of Skullkraken, and forced the designers to change the status screen orientation for foreign versions of Gold and Silver. Longer names meant they wouldn’t fit in the Japanese version’s vertically oriented menus, forcing a horizontal flip. Some people say that the best localizations are the ones no one notices. A light touch. Pokemon, the first games at least, are probably the lightest touch I’ve seen in a game while still being an enormous amount of work. Charmander is clever, but 151 of those critters is crazy. By now, renaming Pokemon is a science, but in 1998? It was a new frontier. You try to come up with 150 cute puns that kids will get but not get bored of?

I’ll start: Skullkraken.

SKULLKRAKEN

SKULLKRAKEN

Mother 3

If you say so...

If you say so...

Mother 3 is another one of those “look how impressive this text-heavy game’s localization is” kind of games. It’s funny, clever, charming, the puns work, and it all manages to be poignant rather than tripping over the language barrier. Part of that has to do with the script’s pre-existing qualities. Shigesato Itoi, the creator of the Mother/Earthbound series, is a well-regarded and respected writer over in Japan. But, the rest of it comes from a superb english localization courtesy of some folks from the internet.

Mother 3 never came out in America, reportedly because it was a late-period GBA game that would have required a lot of effort, leaving it in the same Japan-only vault as the first Rhythm Heaven game from the same time. Realizing they wouldn’t be be able to play the game unless they did it themselves, Earthbound fans banded together and worked for years on their own translation of the game. Earthbound fans have a reputation for being a bit crazy in their love for the series. Considering Americans only ever got one game out of three in any official capacity, it’s not hard to see their love for the series as a little out there, but it led to possibly the best fan translation of all time, so I’d call it a win.

All of Mother's official art is done with clay figurines, appreciate it, because it'll never happen again.

All of Mother's official art is done with clay figurines, appreciate it, because it'll never happen again.

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One of the really neat things about the localization is that they also launched some merchandise to go along with it. The team released a hardcover guidebook with a full game walkthrough, which came with a keychain. That guide was also the first major release out of Fangamer.net, another product of the Earthbound fan community, which now produces stuff like Earthbound-themed vinyl figures. Also, in a rare look into the localization process, the lead on the project has a series of articles detailing his translation choices throughout the two years of localization work. It’s a worthwhile read, and it’s still amazing that a small group of people could turn out a translation at Nintendo Treehouse quality. I'll be the thousandth person to say that Nintendo should just use their translation in a digital release, but they really should. Unless a player already knew, they'd never guess it wasn't an official job.

Final Fantasy Tactics

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There’s a pig in FFT that has an attack called “nose bracelet”. The dancer class uses the skill “wiznaibus”. The boar enemy classification is listed as “wildbow”. The best part comes early on in the game, when a character is reading something out loud, so you can’t control how fast the text scrolls. In the second sentence, he says “little money”, which takes longer to scroll for each letter than the rest of the text does combined.

 

L

     i

          t

               t

                    l

                         e

                              m

                                   o

                                        n

                                             e

                                                  y

 

Really, it speaks for itself.

Really, it speaks for itself.

If the rest of these games on this primer were great examples of how good localization looks when it’s done right, then the original Playstation version of Final Fantasy Tactics is a crash course on what can go wrong. Back then, Sony was handling Squaresoft’s english translations internally, and they polished the game’s script to a dull brown mess. Nose bracelet is supposed to be oink, which is odd, because bracelet was supposed to be “breath” every other time it appeared in the game. Why else would a dragon have a fire bracelet? Dancers who fight dance “with knives” or “wizu naibusu”, not wiznaibu. The boar is a wild boar, not a particular misbehaved bow. The little money thing seems to be a programming error that cropped up during localization, because there’s nothing like it in the Japanese version.

Whatever you say, lady.

Whatever you say, lady.

The fairly complicated plot, full of political machinations, backstabbing and demonic usurpation of the church is had to follow in the much more coherent PSP remake, so it goes without saying that it makes no damn sense in a version of the game where they manage to misspell Malboro, one of the series’ classic enemies, as Morbol. It’s an impressively terrible translation, which is doubly as terrible because it’s such a great game. Comparing it to the PSP remake, War of the Lions, makes it look like the amateur job it probably was. Fortunately, we all have that version now, so there’s no need to have a death cold about it anymore.

No, I don’t know what that one was supposed to be either.

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