Ever since games have been sold from one country to another, there have always been changes made during the journey. The scope and reasoning behind adjustments to current games are being put under the microscope, however, it's important to remember that localisation isn't a one way street. It can be easy to think that Japan gets to play everything unaltered, but as games make their way to Japan from the West they often changed to be made more appealing, more marketable or sometimes simply more acceptable.
Whereas games heading west tend to be changed due to expressions of sexuality, depictions of alcohol or religious references, Japanese localisation tend to fall roughly into three categories.
These are generally small changes that often don’t even effect the game itself. Everyone knows about the angry transformation Kirby undergoes when he makes it overshores so it makes sense that the opposite also holds true with cuter aspects of artwork being emphasised. Characters are a huge business in Japan with many franchises being known more for their faces on t-shirts and notebooks than the TV shows or games from whence they came. As such, characters are sometimes made more prominent and even sometimes redrawn in an anime style.
One of the biggest examples of this change is the Xbox 360’s Crackdown changing it’s name to Riot Act with a complete boxart overhaul now drawn by Monkey Punch of Lupin III fame. Back in the Famicom days, this kind of treatment may have had a greater impact. As we struggled to make sense of a mass of blurred pixels, box and manual art helped nudge us in the right direction but as it was so abstract, this allowed different branches to lead us in different ways.
Next we have changes relating to excessive violence. To understand these changes let's take a little look at the rating system for games in Japan. America has ESRB, Europe has PEGI and Japan has CERO. Each game is graded by letter as to what age it is suitable with each title being measured against four areas of possible contention; violence, sexuality, antisocial behaviour and language. If a game is rated Z that means that it’s only suitable for those aged 18 and over but in receiving this rating they are also limited in the way it can be advertised. Each of these categories also has an upper limit which, if surpassed will not receive a CERO rating and not be sold in stores. What this means in practice is that many games cut or altered excessively violent content to even make it onto Japanese shelves.
Decapitations and dismemberment seem to be a particular point of contention with this seeing the chop in many games, especially in more recent generations where the graphical fidelity has improved. It’s also not exclusive to foreign games coming into Japan as several Metal Gear Solid games have either had content removed (Peace Walker) or blood changed colour (Metal Gear Rising) in their own domestic market.
The Gears of War games have had a particularly rocky time in Japan with some of the extra violent deaths being cut based on the console region meaning that even if you imported the American version, you weren’t going to see those heads popping. In more recent years, the Gears of War collection and Gears of War 4 were both axed for Japanese release due to the costs of localisation exceeding what would be recouped by the handful of Xbox One owners living there. For a console that struggles to make triple figures in weekly sales, it simply isn't worth Microsoft's time.
Finally we have games which are changed for culturally sensitive reasons. Fallout 3, for example, is a game that deals with the world after a nuclear fallout which, as you can probably imagine, is a sensitive issue for many Japanese people. It's not as if Japan can't or hasn't discussed nuclear issues in its media or even its games but some of the freedom granted to the player character to use these weapons for fun may have been a step too far. There were several changes made from the small, such as the “Fat man” nuclear catapult having its name changed, to side missions being significantly altered. One of the most infamous side quests in Fallout 3, deciding whether to blow up a nuclear bomb and destroy the city of Megaton, has had the element of choice removed. In the Japanese version, there is now no way to detonate the bomb and the man leading you astray is absent. Your only option is to defuse the bomb and become a hero.
A stranger consequence of localisation is that sometimes characters will grow an extra finger on their journies to the east, such as Abe from Abe's Oddesy. There are various different reasons behind this, but the long and short of it is that if you’re going to have humanoid characters in Japan, they need to have the right amount of fingers.
Five fingers? Oh...Freak show!
For a case study in how a game can go through all these and many more changes, it's interesting to take a look at this in depth report behind the Crash Bandicoot games. He's a character who has been made cuter, given an extra finger and even had a ‘violent’ death animation twigged due to the unfortunate coincidences with a notorious serial killer in Japan at the time. It’s amazing to see the lengths they went through to try and ensure the success of the game in Japan and judging by the sales figures, it worked.
Localisation is a tricky prospect. You want to make the game accessible to as many people as possible while respecting the original spirit and feel. This sometimes means concessions have be to made even to just get the thing released. It’s a fine balance, but without the hard work of these teams across the world, we would have a lot fewer games to enjoy.
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