When it comes to media making the transition from country to country, games are without peer. More are localized into English and marketed as mainstream than either books or films. How many chart topping films or books originate in a non-English language? According to Metacritic, far fewer than those found amongst videogames. Without a doubt, localization plays an important role the modern game industry.
The localization industry started when Japanese companies began creating games with more complex and dialogue-heavy plots for systems like the Famicom, Mark III and MSX. But it was only with the 16-bit generation, on the SNES, TurboGrafx-CD and Sega CD, that localization really entered public awareness.
The genre at the frontline has always been the RPG. But Japanese companies were originally reluctant to release domestically-produced RPGs in the West. As Jeremy Blaustein recalls of Konami during the early 1990s, "Originally the perception was, 'RPGs will never be popular in America'. Common wisdom was that RPGs were for the Japanese and action games were for the West. I thought all along that was bullshit. The problem was one of translation; the players just weren't getting it, and if they got it they'd love it."
Plugging this hole required small publishers willing to take risks. The first of many was Working Designs, who published games for NEC's TurboGrafx systems and the Sega CD. Loved and hated for their methods, they brought over games that would have otherwise been ignored. With cartridge based games, the leader was developer and publisher Square, but they were more cautious about which RPGs saw release in the U.S.
When Final Fantasy IV eventually reached America, Square was disappointed with the sales. Ted Woolsey, formerly of Square, explains: "Back in the 1990s, Japanese developers were frustrated they weren't seeing acceptable sales in the U.S. At the time anime wasn't as popular, and it was thought that the look of Japanese games - combined with the fact that Americans didn't have earlier games as examples, as Japan did - would mean they wouldn't be familiar or satisfied with a game's content. To fix this, it was suggested that something similar to U.S. comics, including scatological humor and other familiar references, would resonate better."
Square's desire to cater specifically to U.S. audiences led to the development of Mystic Quest. It wasn't the success they'd wanted, and based on this disappointment, Square canceled the American release of Final Fantasy V, despite Woolsey nearly finishing the translation. In Square's view, the U.S. market simply wasn't ready. Later, Square again attempted to cater to the U.S. with Secret of Evermore.
When a foreign title does make the journey west, there is a huge amount of work to be done, as shown in Atlus' fascinating production diaries. There are also plenty of potential snags. In the 16-bit era, localizers ran up against challenges like non-contiguous text and a lack of ROM space. Woolsey remembers that for Secret of Mana, "Probably 40 percent or more of the text was nuked - there just wasn't space. Story elements, nuance and personality had to be stripped out. It was, in some ways, the hardest game I'd worked on. I loved that game, but am probably most dissatisfied with the result. Certainly tried my best, but that thing nearly killed me."
There are other challenges as well: One person trying to make hundreds of characters sound unique (as with Suikoden); dealing with dialect differences, because an Osakan style of speech can't necessarily be replaced with a Southern drawl; and doing a ton of background research. Blaustein recalls that "you could find the best translator and he will do a terrible job. Why? Because you have to do research, maybe in the field of dragons and knights, and if you care enough, you'll look into European history and find out how things reference each other. There's games where I had to go deep into the arcane issue of the five element theory, Chinese Yin Yang and Shintoism. One involved so much Chinese mythology, it was practically Chinese itself."