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A Look At The Religious Censorship in Nintendo of America's Games

John Markley | 23 Nov 2015 15:00
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Nintendo of America long had a policy of strictly restricting potentially offensive or controversial content in games released for its systems, often requiring changes in games ported from other platforms or localized from Japan. The best-known examples of these revolve around sex, violence, or drugs-removing or altering gruesome violence, covering up scantily dressed characters, excising sexual innuendos from dialogue, or populating taverns with customers eagerly guzzling "soda."

Less well-known was Nintendo of America's equally strict - well, sometimes - policy regarding religious content in games. These were laid out alongside Nintendo's rules for sex, violence, and the like in a set of guidelines originally written in 1988, which forbade

"symbols that are related to any type of racial, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic group, such as crosses, pentagrams, God, Gods (Roman mythological gods are acceptable), Satan, hell, Buddha;"

Like their other rules, this reflected Nintendo of America's desire to present avoid controversy that could hurt its family-friendly image. This policy frequently meant games had to be changed before NoA would authorize their release.

Often, this amounted to minor graphical changes. In many games, such as the Castlevania and Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) series, crosses were removed from tombstones, coffins, places of worship, and clothing or equipment. (Ankhs were sometimes substituted, the media clout of Osiris worshipers being fairly small nowadays.) This applied even to secular contexts, requiring removal of the Red Cross symbol from hospitals or healing items in games like Earthbound. Other symbols with religious or occult significance, like Stars of David and pentagrams, were also usually removed.

(Sometimes the change was arguably an improvement. When a member of your party died in the American Dragon Warrior III, their sprites in your party lineup became ghosts until they were revived, whereas in the original Dragon Quest III the hero would be followed by a train of apparently self-propelled coffins.)

Adventure of Link

This censorship was not consistent; some games had prominent crosses left intact. These were often minor games like 8 Eyes, where Nintendo's censors might have figured they could get away with slacking off that day. Not always, however - the American versions of The Legend of Zelda and Adventures of Link removed some references to Christianity but still had clearly visible crosses on tombstones and Link's shield, among other places- the latter even had a Cross as a usable item! The first Zelda predated NoA religious content guidelines, but it's not clear how Adventures of Link slipped through.

Sometimes the changes went a little deeper. Consider the beloved classic The Legend of Zelda: The Triforce of the Gods - which you probably know as A Link to the Past, because the word "god" fell afoul of Nintendo's policy. The evil wizard Agahnim was a priest in the Japanese version, a detail removed in America. Many games underwent similar changes in dialogue or story.

Gods were bowdlerized into "superbeings" or "immortals," churches became "sanctuaries" or "Houses of Healing," priests became "sages." Names from real-world demonology were altered- for instance, in Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, final boss Samael became "Sardius." Nintendo policy did include a specific exception for Classical mythology, which allowed games such as Athena and Battle of Olympus to use otherwise forbidden terms like "gods."

The Final Fantasy series provides interesting examples. In the original game, the spell Holy was renamed "Fade," and churches where fallen party members were revived in the original game were secularized into "Clinics." (Which was actually more intuitive if you were unacquainted with traditional D&Disms like "your parish priest can resurrect the dead.")

When Final Fantasy IV was released as Final Fantasy II in 1991, "pray" and "prayer" were changed to "wish." This lead to some odd scenes with characters gathered in the "Tower of Wishes," prostrating themselves reverently - or possibly doing rebound pushups, it's hard to tell with sprites that size - while the town's Elder exhorts them to "wish" for the world's salvation from evil. Several references to Hell were turned into "the Dark World." The Holy spell was re-renamed, becoming "White."

Interestingly, by the time Final Fantasy VI came over as III in 1994, Nintendo seems to have eased up a bit. The archvillian Kefka is served by a group called the "Cult of Kefka" and described as "like a god," while the game's backstory refers to three warring goddesses. On the other hand, "Holy" was apparently still too offensive for American audiences and was re-re-renamed "Pearl," while the "Pray" ability became "Health."

Religion figured so prominently in some games that localization was impossible. Atlus' Megami Tensei series is a conspicuous example. The entire series is permeated with gods, angels, and demons as both allies and antagonists. Religious references and symbols are everywhere. The original Famicom game revolves around the protagonist, a high school student, summoning demons to fight for him.

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