June 17, 2024

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How the greatest Japanese RPGs of the ‘90s came to the West

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When Sony’s first PlayStation console hit living rooms in 1994, it ushered in new ways for video game developers to tell stories: dazzling 3D graphics, pristine 2D sprite work, CD audio and vast troves of storage space thanks to ditching cartridges in favor of CDs. Gaming visionaries like Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii used those tools to level up the epic tales that hooked millions of players around the world on a once-niche genre: Japanese role-playing games, or JRPGs. These games were written in Japanese, and their worldwide success hinged on ensuring their stories — from plot beats to side quests, inside jokes and menu text — were just as enjoyable for players outside of Japan.

The PlayStation era also marked the genre’s move from niche to mainstream in the West thanks to the release of “Final Fantasy VII” in 1997, which sold over 3 million units in North America — far more than any other Japanese RPG at the time. Though many Western gamers are now familiar with Sakaguchi, Horii and other creative leads of these classic JRPGs, they’d never have experienced their work without the translators who revolutionized English games localization at the time.

Localization is the process of altering a video game to suit a foreign market. The bulk of the work consists of translating the script — which can be massive in JRPGs, games that often take 50 hours or more hours to complete — but also encompasses elements like the user interface, fonts, music and even gameplay. More than simply a function of business, localization is an art form, taking the original’s themes, texture and feel and turning them into something tangible and knowable for a new audience.

The early Japanese-to-English localizers responded to increasing technical challenges and timelines in the wake of “Final Fantasy VII’s” massive success. In the span of just a few years, Western localizers, using laughably rudimentary technology and techniques compared to the tools of today, redefined what it meant to translate and localize video games for Western audiences.

Many of the most notable game localizations in the ’90s came from Square Enix (which, back then, was two separate and competing companies: Square and Enix). Japanese RPG localizations underwent a tremendous transformation in the ’90s, representing the enormous leap in quality, execution and ambition that occurred in just a couple of years thanks to the efforts of people like localizer Richard Honeywood and his peers. As I spoke over Zoom with Honeywood from his apartment in Japan, he revealed with his trademark Australian charm and humor how games localization went from afterthought to cottage industry.

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The transformation began with some of Square’s most beloved 16-bit games like “Final Fantasy VI” and “Chrono Trigger.” These localizations by Ted Woolsey were, if not particularly sophisticated, at least quirky and eclectic, leading him to become a bit of a legend among JRPG fans. For “Final Fantasy VII,” however, Square moved on from Woolsey and brought in Michael Baskett — a film-subtitling translator. Despite smashing genre sales records in the West and earning rave reviews, “Final Fantasy VII” was dragged down by a localization that, even at the time, felt woefully inadequate. Baskett’s translation was clinical, sometimes unreadable, and literal to the point of hurting the narrative. Popular sentiment is that Baskett was single-handedly responsible for the localization, but Honeywood refuted that myth, saying he led a small team of freelancers.

“Michael was a really nice guy,” Honeywood said, “but he wasn’t a gamer.” One constant point made by Honeywood (and echoed by every other person I spoke with for this story) is that bad localizations are almost never the fault of the localizer’s talent or commitment. Rather, they almost always result from poor management, under-resourcing and slipshod timelines.

Baskett later left Square for academia, and Honeywood signed on to finish the work he’d begun on localizing “Xenogears,” the developer’s first release following the blockbuster success of “Final Fantasy VII.” He was left with two relatively green localizers — Yoshinobu “Nobby” Matsuno and Brian Bell — and a growing demand for high-quality translations. The title would go on to become one of the best-remembered localizations in his over 20-year career, which spans high-profile series like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Phoenix Wright.

The game’s writers, Soraya Saga and “Xenoblade Chronicles” creator Tetsuya Takahashi, had sky-high ambitions for “Xenogears.” They saw an opportunity for the JRPG genre to explore new themes, packing the game with religious allusions, commentary on Western culture and philosophical themes drawing from Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche. But “Xenogears” also presented a hell of an uphill battle for Honeywood, Nobby and Bell — so much so that Nobby left the project, fearing the response from religious groups in the West to the game’s scrutiny of religion, Honeywood said.

Early on, Honeywood watched a dub of the game’s opening anime sequence, which had been overseen by Baskett before his departure. In it, a generational starship is attacked and destroyed by an otherworldly being, leading to the awakening of a mysterious woman on an alien planet. “Xenogears” was one of the first JRPGs to feature voice acting, so Honeywood knew it was essential to get it right for Western audiences. He noticed immediately that the voice flaps (the character’s voice acting lining up with their mouth moving) didn’t match, but, according to Honeywood, “that was the least of the problems.”

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The team had a ton of questions, but “there was no real chain of command to the people who knew the answers,” he explained. And for a game as long and complex as “Xenogears,” one wrong guess could have major repercussions 50 hours of gameplay later. Under Baskett, the team figured “Xenogears” was a typical science fiction action story, Honeywood said, so their version of the anime opening called the ship’s assailants “aliens.” Honeywood saw it differently.

“That’s God attacking them, not aliens,” Honeywood told them after watching the dubbed video. “Read the script. The ship was carrying God, and now God’s attacking them. It’s very vague, but that’s what they’re hinting at in the rest of the game.”

Without direct access to the original creative team, Honeywood was left to make inferences and guesses — some of which, like whether the anime opening foreshadowed the game’s ending or was a complete non-sequitur, could drastically alter the shape of the story. This became an artistic balance between understanding and catalyzing the author’s original vision, while also producing something that was palatable and enjoyable for a Western audience. The end result was a sprawling English script that was far from perfect, but remarkable for its ambition and creative fidelity, and several steps up from “Final Fantasy VII.”

Though “Xenogears” showed improvement, Honeywood knew his team needed to grow to meet the demand for well-translated Japanese RPGs. Square alone released about 25 games for the Super NES, many of which weren’t translated or released in the West — including heavy-hitters like “Live A Live,” “Treasure of the Rudras” and “Trials of Mana” — and a whopping 40-plus for the PlayStation, most of which were released in English. But there was no blueprint to follow, no map showing the way. So they just started making it up, Honeywood said:

“Do we hire translators in the U.S., but we have no one to train them? Could we train them remotely? Or do we hire people in Japan? We decided to split the difference and hire in both offices and tried to make them not rivals.”

Among the hires was young American localizer Alexander O. Smith. In the midst of completing a classical Japanese literature Ph.D. program, Smith came across a job posting at Square’s California office, and with his future stretching before him, he decided to leave the program early with a master’s and started polishing his resume. While he’d been a gamer for a long time, Smith’s experience with JRPGs was limited, so he borrowed a PlayStation from a friend and rented “Final Fantasy VII.”

“And I said, ‘Oh, I could do better than this,’” he laughed, speaking to The Post via Zoom. He blamed the arrogance on the vagaries of youth, but it also changed his life — and games localization.

Nowadays, localization often happens in parallel to game development. It’s integrated into the Japanese workflow and leans on handcrafted tools, searchable spreadsheet apps like Microsoft Excel, story bibles and access to the original Japanese creative teams to help solve translation questions. But, back then? Smith was handed little more than a copy of the Japanese game.

Smith worked at Square’s California office localizing JRPGs for a brief stint before moving to Japan to join Honeywood’s team in early 1999. His first project was “Final Fantasy VIII,” the follow-up to the very game he’d first criticized. It was a sparse operation. He described the horror show of having to use GameShark devices and VHS recordings to revisit important narrative moments and translating Japanese text directly from their CRT monitor into a flat text file. But despite all the challenges, “Final Fantasy VIII” released in North America on Sept. 9, 1999, with a localization markedly more polished than its predecessor.

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“It was still the dark ages,” said Smith, saying that in the late ’90s there was little understanding among the Japanese creators of what went on in the “black box” of the localization team. “It mostly came down to inexperience and ignorance on the part of the Japanese development teams. The people coordinating the localizations just didn’t know what we needed.”

After “Final Fantasy VIII” wrapped, Smith left Honeywood’s team and began an understudy with a localizer named Sho Endo. Despite his profession, Endo had never set foot in the United States or taken any formal language classes. Instead, he’d learned English by listening to NHK “Let’s Learn English” broadcasts. Smith couldn’t believe it, calling Endo a “genius,” and saying, “His English was the best of anybody I’ve ever met.”

Smith joined Endo on “Vagrant Story,” the latest title from “Final Fantasy Tactics” creator Yasumi Matsuno. Their first task was a translation of the game’s Star Wars-style opening scroll. “They want it done in a way that feels ‘biblical,’” Endo told Smith.

“Oh, my god, what have I gotten myself into?” Smith remembers thinking. He questioned his decision to move to Japan to translate video games. “I was literally making more money at grad school,” he said, raising the issue of an industry that still undervalued the experience and effort required to localize games.

Still, Smith recognized an opportunity to take an active role in “Vagrant Story’s” localization and started pulling strings to get on the game full time. “I think it was the pseudo-medieval setting of the game that spoke to me in a way that the sci-fi/fantasy of the more recent Final Fantasy titles hadn’t,” he told USgamer in a 2017 interview, “the storytelling was so on point.”

Given just a few months to complete the project, Smith joined editor Rich Amtower, writer Amanda Jun Katsurada, who was in charge of menus, items and similar ephemera, and unofficial team member Brian Bell, who provided expertise from the sidelines.

“Vagrant Story” is one of the PlayStation’s most graphically impressive titles, but it’s not the impressive technical elements that stand out the most — it’s Smith’s esoteric localization, littered with poetic language and liberal use of faux-Elizabethan flair.

Rewinding all the way back to the original “Dragon Quest” reveals an early JRPG tradition of using faux-medieval English. The practice was dropped early on, but thanks to Smith’s background in classical Japanese literature and Amtower’s master’s in Middle English, the team was “overpowered,” and went for it. They turned out an English script that sizzled with personality, adding a new voice to the ambitious source material.

“During the dark ages [of localization],” Smith said, “I’m picturing a guy alone in a room, just cranking out words. No matter how good a writer you are, you’re not going to produce your best material under those circumstances.” With a string of Western hits on their hands, Square was beginning to recognize the value of high-quality localizations, leading to newfound collaboration between the Japanese creators and Western localizers. “Suddenly you’re giving people more time, and eventually paying people better.” Funny enough, Smith said, localizers started turning in better work when they weren’t starving and exhausted.

“When ‘Vagrant Story’ came out, I made sure that [Square leadership] knew people appreciated the localization,” Smith said. Even several years after “Final Fantasy VII’s” success and the subsequent upgrade in quality of localizations coming from companies like Square and their contemporaries like Working Designs and Atlus, a lot of the Japanese companies still had no idea whether their English localizations were good or bad. So he buttered up his superiors by sending them articles and online feedback detailing the overwhelmingly positive response to “Vagrant Story.”

“It was very self-serving,” Smith laughed, but he also believes it helped drive the growing realization that his department needed more resources and attention.

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To demonstrate the work process, Smith took a moment to dig out some old files on his computer containing “Vagrant Story’s” original script and his final localization. He recited a few lines in Japanese, translated them on the fly as literally as possible, then closed out with the version in the final game. It was like watching a comic book colorist fill in the penciller’s art. The underlying art remained true to Matsuno’s vision, but Smith livened it with a color, depth and vibrancy lacking in the literal translation.

“Localization is the practice of finding the best version of the original work in a new language,” he said. “It’s about being inspired to create something that hopefully works the same way as the original — but for a new audience.”

Along with his contemporaries like Honeywood, he recognized the potential for localizations to not just help fans play Japanese games, but to enjoy them on the same emotional level as native Japanese speakers. It’s a big, amorphous goal, he admitted, but said it can also get “very granular” once you start digging into a script and asking questions. What did the original audience feel when they saw this scene? How did it hit when they heard this line?

“When you start thinking about it from that perspective,” Smith said, “it provides answers to a lot of questions debated endlessly by the fan base.”

By 2007, Honeywood was managing a team of nearly 40 people spread across various projects. Localization was finally being taken seriously by developers and suits. But the path to get there was fraught with challenges that extended beyond striking the balance between literal translation and voice-y localization. From the moment he started working at Square in 1997, he faced regular resistance as the first White guy in the office.

“I remember the prejudice I was getting from people that didn’t know me,” he said. “People got off the elevator because they were too scared to ride with me.”

In one such instance, Honeywood remembers hearing his Japanese colleagues say, “I can’t believe we’ve hired foreigners at our company.” They didn’t consider that the fluent foreigner understood every word.

By the time Smith — the second White foreigner hired after Honeywood — arrived at the Tokyo office in 1999, he said he didn’t experience the level of prejudice. “At least not that I noticed,” he said. “Perhaps Richard paved the way for me, or attitudes, in general, had changed by the time I joined? I did startle a cleaning lady into yelping and fleeing from me when I walked around a corner, but I am rather tall.”

When he began working at Square in his early 20s, Honeywood catalyzed the dismissal into motivation, setting out on a quest to win over his Japanese co-workers. By that time, though, the teams he wanted to impress brimmed with creators of multiple hit games. Even at his young age, Honeywood came to Square already seasoned at Nintendo, where he’d worked directly with legends like Shigeru Miyamoto and Satoru Iwata, which prepared him to win over the famously challenging creator of Final Fantasy, “King” Hironobu Sakaguchi. Through tenacity, belief in his work and the growing popularity of Japanese RPGs in the West, he won over the biggest names in the genre.

“These are famous people now,” Honeywood laughed, “but they were famous back then, too.”

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Juggling creative decisions with visionary game makers was fraught with potential conflict. A few years later, after the major Square Enix merger, Honeywood was working on Nintendo DS remakes of Dragon Quest’s Zenithia trilogy (consisting of Dragon Quest IV, V and VI). He presented series creator Yuji Horii with a ledger of proposed name changes, leading to an argument over the name of a horse — and almost sank the franchise in the process.

“He wanted to call the horse Elizabeth,” Honeywood said. “After the Queen.” Honeywood objected, suggesting a more traditional horse name like Mary Lou instead. “Horii-san just jumped up and down,” Honeywood laughed, “like frothing at the mouth. ‘You cannot change this!’”

Honeywood didn’t understand why Horii was so connected to the name and pushed back. Horii explained it was because the horse turned into a Pegasus at the end of the game.

“I said, ‘Horii-san, that’s the next game. That’s like [Dragon Quest V] or [VI], and we’re still translating [IV] at this point. We’re not even discussing the same thing.”

“I don’t care,” Honeywood recalled Horii saying. “You have to keep it.”

Frazzled, he did just that.

Afterward, he was pulled aside by the Dragon Quest team. “Don’t upset him,” they told Honeywood. “We don’t want to lose him over something like that.”

Dumbfounded, Honeywood replied, “You really think that he would give up working on Dragon Quest games with Enix over a horse’s name?”

Honeywood learned from every experience, tweaking his process and trying never to make the same mistake twice. The more Honeywood and his team worked with creators, the better they were able to find a balance between the creator’s intent and a new audience’s expectations, and the more the Japanese creators started to trust his gut for localization choices. The most salient example, perhaps, is the addition of voice acting to the Dragon Quest series — something Horii once adamantly refused — because Honeywood pushed for it in the Western release of “Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King.”

Games localization existed long before Honeywood and Smith joined Square, but, just as the gaming industry grew throughout the ’90s, so did the appreciation and understanding of how to create vivid experiences for gamers across languages and cultures. They created modern JRPG localization through their understanding that localizations were an accessibility tool, a creative blending of disciplines, and an artistic platform that acted as a conduit for the emotional bridge between a game’s creator and a brand new audience.