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Like any creative medium, games fail. A lot. Creatively, critically commercially, even morally, games that don't succeed seem to outnumber the ones that do sometimes. But, behind every failure is a story. Sometimes the budget ran out, sometimes development shifted suddenly halfway through, sometimes the market wasn't right for the game, sometimes the game just sort of sucks and no one can do anything about it.
But other times, a whole host of things go wrong and stop a game from succeeding in any number of ways. This month, in our look at failure within the industry, what causes it, and what goes wrong, we want to take a look at some of gaming's more interesting failures, commercial, critical and otherwise.
There's something about old English that gets RPG localizations going. Maybe it's the often medieval settings, or all the swords, or the fact that it's actually impossible to cast magic without sounding like a Ren Faire reject (seriously, try it sometime), but any game with a high fantasy air to it going to be scripted like an episode of Game of Thrones. What's interesting though is that this localization choice has been around almost since video game localization started. It's a thread that runs through Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and dozens of other RPGs from pretty much every era of gaming. And every time it's served a very specific purpose. What's really weird is that it never served the same purpose each time. It's a not-so-unique stylistic choice with a real variety of uniquely weird choices.
Probably the first game that went full-on Arthurian in America was Dragon Warrior (nee Quest). In Japan, Dragon Quest was one of the early Famicom days to break one million copies. Thing is, since the Famicom was so popular, and there were so few games to buy, pretty much every game sold a million copies. But then Dragon Quest 2 happened, and by the time of Dragon Quest 3, we were getting rumours in Nintendo Power that the Japanese national guard was deployed at game stores to keep kids from buying the game on a school day. So Nintendo was pretty keen on making it the same kind of sensation here as it was at home.
The problem was, Dragon Quest wasn't the grassroots success a lot of people sold it as. Part of that series' huge success can be attributed to the fact that it had promo art from Dragon Ball's Akira Toriyama. The Toriyama connection then got Dragon Quest comics into Shonen Jump, the suer-popular children's comics magazine that serialized Dragon Ball at the time, which in turn kept Dragon Quest on the brain for the millions of kids still looking for decent Famicom games. Toriyama wasn't the only talent that drummed up continued interest in the series either, composer Koichi Sugiyama was relatively popular for his work on anime like Gatchaman and Cyborg 009, and designer Yuji Horii was a writer known for his regular video games column in Shonen Jump, as well as his script for the Portopia Serial Murder Case, a beloved Japanese computer adventure game. Horii's writing was known for being charming and clever, and his games were always designed with the belief that no game should ever be too challenging for the ordinary player. Adventure games and RPGs weren't necessarily reflex based games, the skills required were purely mental, and could eventually be brute forced with enough patience.
That last bit was what Nintendo was banking on when it brought Dragon Quest over as Dragon Warrior, and gave it away for free with subscriptions to Nintendo Power. Dragon Quest worked for all ages, with gameplay simple enough for a kid, and dialogue charming enough to engage adults. But a literal translation of Horii's writing would have sapped the game of all its character, so the localizers elected to recast the game in faux-Shakespearean "thee"s and "thou"s. It was a way to keep the game cute and clever, without having to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the entire script- an efficiency measure, but one that stuck around in RPGs for a very long time.
Dragon Quest 2 and 3 held on to the old English style for a few more years within the Dragon Quest series, but 4 dropped it due to the more global nature of the plot and characters. Though, DQIV's DS port had an accent-filled localization, complete with completely incomprehensible Scottish accents for some of the cast. But that wasn't RPG localizers last chance to put Horii's dialogue in a time machine. Chrono Trigger's Frog speaks in the absolute most imprenetrable old English I've ever seen in a game. "Mayhaps a hidden door lurks night?" he croaks. "Let us search the environs." Meanwhile, the Japanese version opts for the much more reasonable "Yes, there's a secret passage somewhere in this room."
In fact, the choice to make Frog a cartoonish Shakespearean buffoon is super weird in light of his attitude in the Japanese version. Japanese Frog is a more boisterous knight, with a propensity to call enemy leader Magus a bastard, and a zeal for beating up monsters. As far as I can tell, the choice was to keep him more in line with Western expectations of what a medieval knight should sound like, though the DS port toned down his "hast"s and "dost"s considerable. Around the same time, Chrono Trigger's translator Ted Woolsley also worked on Final Fantasy 6, where he gave Cyan, the technologically-inept knight a more Shakespearean bent, though not nearly to the extent of Frog. In fact, Cyan's Japanese was similarly archaic, though more in line with how samurai and ninja would have spoken.
So, sometimes it's a character thing. Other times though, it's a space thing. Etrian Odyssey II doesn't feature too many archaicisms, but it does refer to almost every shield in the game as an aspis, which technically isn't old English, but we'll accept ancient Greek for our purposes because it never comes up. Etrian Odyssey limits weapon names to 10 characters, including spaces. In Japanese, ten characters might as well be a sentence, but in English, it barely gets across two words. The word "shield" plus the space before it eats up seven characters, leaving only three to describe what kind of shield it is. Meanwhile "aspis" is only six characters with the space, leaving a roomy whole four letters for an adjective. Archaic speech patterns might not always be known for their efficiency, but sometimes out-of-use words are just what a smart localization needs.
Sometimes though it's just weird and crazy annoying. In what the localizers say was an attempt to evoke the high fantasy grandeur of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, Capcom's Dragon's Dogma is packed to the rafters with strange, out-of-use, and archaic terminology. For example, the fire sell is called "Ingle", an older English word for a fireplace, while the ice spell, "Frazil" is named after a needle-like ice formation. It can get confusing, especially when characters heap on the archaic grammar, but it allows for some clever workarounds. Since your character can be male or female, characters address you as "Ser", a gender neutral version of sir and lady that, while not necessarily an old word, definitely looks and sounds like one. Iit fits in seamlessly with the localization and cuts back on voice acting work without raising any more eyebrows than the rest of the script.
In a similar sense, the Ivalice series of Final Fantasy games use old English to set the tone of the world. It's a little different than Dragon Quest's attempts to inject some much needed character into boring RPG text though. The Ivalice games span hundreds of thousands of years in the timeline of a fictional world, and the specific choices made in localization over the years really reflects that. Final Fantasy XII is chronologically the first game in the Ivalice timeline, but takes place during the world's golden age. There's a distinct olde English flavour to everything, but it's more Victorian than Elizabethan, in fact, the game's bestiary text was styled after a Victorian handbook on medicinal herbs. One of the cleverer localization choices made by Ivalice series translator Alexander O. Smith, as well as frequent partner Joseph Reeder, was to recast the antagonistic empire's characters as British, and have the friendly rebels speak in American accents. Sure, it's not exactly what the Japanese writers had in mind, but it very quickly gets across the idea that the rebels are on your side, and the empire isn't.
Meanwhile, it was a calculated difference from Smith. he also translated the chronologically final game in the Ivalcie series, Vagrant Story, which still has that archaic flavour, but is distinctly more modern in places. "All because of this religious freedom! Too much freedom, too many gods. Let those cultist cur-dogs run loose, and they will bite you. Gods! While our Parliament cowers..." is a lot more readable to a modern audience than Shakespeare. In between there's also the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games, which Smith worked on, but those have a much more modern take, most likely because they were aimed at younger audience who might not have been able to pick up on the purple prose. Put together with Square Enix's updated translation of Final Fantasy Tactics for the PSP (the middle game in the Ivalice series) and the changing speech patterns give a really strong sense that there's one world grounding all these stories, but it's shifting, ever so slightly.
Basically, old English isn't quite the cheap and easy localization tool that Dragon Warrior would lead you to believe. It's a shorthand for the middle ages, sure, but it can also build a world, set a mood, save some space, or even just make a frog sound like he stepped out of someone's horrible Shakespeare fanfic. Truly the finest use of language.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
About 20 hours into Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, the game stopped me to teach me how to use a skill I’ve been using since the beginning of the game. Then, it added a minor wrinkle to this ability, and stopped to teach me how to use that. Then, in the next room, it stopped me to talk about it one more time. This was 20 hours in, very close to the end of the game. I almost threw my 3DS across the room when in the very next room, the game stopped to teach me how to use this ability AGAIN.
Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is not a bad game In fact, half of it is an excellent game. The other half of it is one of the most infuriating RPGs I’ve ever had the displeasure of sitting back and reading. Dream Team is not a half bad game; it’s a half good one.
Dream Team is the fourth Mario game in the Mario and Luigi series of RPGs, one of two series spun out of Squaresoft’s Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars. The Paper Mario series plays a little more like a Mario game, with a sidescrolling perspective in the overworld, and a very minor use of stats. The Mario and Luigi games are slightly more traditional in their RPG-ness, other than the fact that, like Mario RPG and Paper Mario, the game uses properly timed button presses during attacks to make them stronger. It’s a fantastic marriage of Mario’s action game roots to an RPG battle system, and turns the usual slog through turn-based battles into an exciting game of reading enemy tells, finding the timing to counterattack, and then perfecting the timing on your own attacks.
This part of Dream Team, the combat half of the game, is spectacular. The game is loaded with plenty of interesting, challenging enemy attack patterns to learn, and boss fights start becoming a serious challenge pretty quickly. I found myself dying on bosses multiple times, just because they get so tricky. Fortunately, dying lets you just restart the current battle instead of having to go back to the title screen, which makes the challenge fun rather than brutally frustrating.
The frustrating part of the game is everything else. From the presentation to the dialog to the puzzles to the overworld, nothing else about this game works the way you’d hope it should. While the game has gorgeous spritework (I found myself obsessing over the tiny animation details, like Mario adjusting his cap after landing from a particularly high jump in battle), that level of detail isn’t matched by the music. There’s only one battle theme, one boss theme, and one tune for each area, and you hear them a lot. It gets incredibly grating very quickly.
You can’t turn to the dialog to keep you entertained though, because while the localization staff tried their hardest to pump the exposition-laden script full of jokes, they just couldn’t keep up with amount of chattiness in this game. Characters rarely talk for a long period of time, but they do take a page out of Final Fantasy 13’s book and give you some exposition before making you walk across the room for another five minutes of their lecture on the history of this island you don’t care about.
I don’t think there’s a single room where the game doesn’t wrest control of the camera away from you to highlight the solution to that room’s puzzle, and then has one of your two Navi-like companions pop out to wonder if what the camera just focused in on is the solution to a puzzle. And then when you solve this puzzle in 30 seconds because the answer was spelled out for you, they will fly out of Mario’s back pocket again to comment on how that WAS the solution and boy they’re sure proud you figured out that brain-buster.
It’s a toothless exercise in going through the motions, exacerbated by the fact that it never just shuts the hell up and lets you enjoy the combat. Other than backtracking, there are no 10 minutes of playtime in this game that go uninterrupted by some NPC who will heavy-handedly reveal the solution to a puzzle, give you some exposition, then maybe manage to crack one cute joke.
The localization staff deserves some real recognition for managing to punch up this script as much as they did. They tried to make as many jokes as they possibly could, but the sheer amount of text in this game must have overwhelmed them. It’s a real shame, because the game’s predecessor, 2010’s Bowser’s Inside Story, managed to have a consistently punchy script all the way through. Mario and Luigi only had one tagalong “helper” to chat up tutorials, Bowser rampaged through exposition because he just wanted to break stuff, and the game’s villain, Fawful, spouted incomprehensible gibberish most of the time. It was great.
Boswer’s Inside Story had the same structure as Dream Team too, with half the game taking place in a sidescrolling, platformer-lite world, and the other taking place in a more traditional, top down overworld. In this game however, instead of Mario and Luigi spelunking inside Bowser’s internal organs for the sidescrolling portions, Mario delves into the dreams of his ever-forgotten younger brother. In these dream worlds, Mario fights alone, with Luigi’s many dream selves acting as afterimages that power up his attacks. The battles also let you move up and down or face left and right with the circle pad when dodging certain attacks, which adds an appreciated level of extra depth to the combat.
But again, the combat is great. If it weren’t for the fact that playing as Bowser in the previous game was so fun, Dream Team would have the best combat in the series. It’s the constant hand holding and exposition that drives me up a wall. It almost feels like a reaction to last year’s Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which refused to hold your hand so much that it never even hinted at the solutions to the increasingly obtuse puzzles. Sticker Star hated holding your hand; it wanted nothing to do with it. Dream Team loves your hand, and wants to hold it so tight and never let go. It wants to take your hand and lead it to this item box, which it will make you stand under and show you how the A button makes you jump, 25 hours into the game.
I can understand tutorials in games, they aren’t a big deal most of the time. Ten hours into Dream Team, I thought I was finally seeing the end of them. That’s a long time for a game, but the combat was so good that I was willing to accept it. And then they didn’t stop. They never stopped. Ever. Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is a half good game. The combat is the good half, everything else is the bad half. It’s a testament to how great the combat is that I want to recommend the game at all, but unless you’re jonesing for a new Mario and Luigi fix, I don’t know if anyone can make it past the constant hand-holding, exposition and tutorials. If you need to play it though, do yourself a favour and maybe do something else when everyone’s talking, you won’t miss much.
Going into E3 this year, I had a fairly good idea of what Square Enix planned to do with its Final Fantasy series. Versus XIII was a joke. They promised it for the first PS3's first E3, back when charging $600 for that monolith seemed like a good idea. So I expected the branding change. What I did not expect was a game that looks absolutely incredible to play, or at least watch someone play. You'll see what I mean in the video.
It's an incredibly pretty game but I have to wonder how much agency the player has in the gameplay. It appears linear with a limited ability to interact. There are three options in the menu: Warp, Attack and Linkform. Warp pulls you right next to the enemy, attack makes Noctis strike and I have no idea what Linkform does. I have to assume it's the crazy looking combo attacks done with multiple characters. The swords to the right of the menu is a mystery. It could be an array of weapons at your disposal at a given time, allowing you to switch on the fly to suit the opponent. That would definitely be a departure for Final Fantasy for sure. In any case, I'm definitely interested to see what Final Fantasy XV becomes and whether it'll be an interactive movie or an role playing game on PS4 and Xbox One.