The topic of game localization has become something of a hot discussion over the last few years. Many gamers see trailers for Japanese games and then beg the publishers to bring them west, only to find that while the publisher gave in to the demand and released the game, it is not entirely the same. The image on the left is one such example. A character who was Japanese became African and his hat became a baseball cap, his name was also changed from Masao to Mark. He wasn’t the only character to be changed in the original Persona, but he was definitely one of the more extensive ones. And this was back in the 90's.
While many like to think that changes such as these are only a recent occurrence and like to point fingers at the rise of social justice movements, changes made during the localization process have been around for decades. In fact, one could argue that social justice movements have had little to no impact on how game localization is handled. They’ve certainly brought some things to developers attention, such as the topics of female protagonists, LGBT characters, and so on, but this has next to nothing to do with localization and more to do with games developed in the west. Changes made to Japanese games tend to stay consistent, at least these days: Ages get bumped up, skimpy outfits become less revealing or get changed entirely, bust sizes shrink every once in a while, and potentially controversial subject matter gets reeled in. Some jokes also get rewritten to make more sense for a western audience or so as to not offend certain groups. And then sometimes it might come down to a countries laws. The best example is Germany and the swastika that became synonymous with Nazi Germany. The symbol is banned in Germany and as a result any game featuring it risks being banned in Germany if they don’t remove it. Likewise, Australia has very strict guidelines on mature content, meaning a ton of games are in line to get banned if they don’t tone down their content dramatically. When you look at it like that, the minor alterations we get in the US are something to be grateful for.
Of course, when you look at it ONLY from the US perspective, and you’re a gamer who was excited for the game when it was only being released in Japan, it’s understandable that you’d get upset at any alterations made to the game. After all, you were completely happy with it the way it was, and many gamers, myself included, would be right there with you. In fact, it’s a safe assumption to make that the people who requested it be localized wanted it exactly the way it was. These are the people who are going to buy the game when it’s released. And if the developers/publishers were doing a straight localization job, that is exactly what you would get and sometimes it is. However, some publishers, such as Nintendo, take it a step farther.
While the internet loves to throw around the term censorship when it comes to these sorts of alterations, that isn’t exactly the correct term to use. The actual term you’re looking for is culturalization. It’s no big secret that Japan and the US are two very different countries when it comes to their cultures. What might be acceptable in one is not in another, or perhaps it’s more extreme in one than the other. Atlus’ Tokyo Mirage Sessions, a game created by combining Shin Megami Tensei with the Fire Emblem franchise, is one of the most recent examples of culturalization at work. As you can see in the above image, the original Japanese version is on the left and the US version on the right. The most noticeable difference is that the character is now wearing a pair of pants, covering up her entire lower body. Another character in the game had transparent parts of her outfit made opaque and her cleavage covered up. And the most extreme edit made was to change the premise of an entire chapter from accepting ones body and not being embarrassed by it to the character overcoming her shyness. It also went from being about a gravure photoshoot to a regular fashion shoot. If these changes were about progressivism, about social justice, I highly doubt that chapter would have been changed because body acceptance is one of their goals if I’m not mistaken. No, it all comes down to the fact that the US is a pretty sexually conservative place. Our media is plastered with sex, sure, but the popular phrase “Won’t someone think of the children?!” exists for a reason. Nintendo prides themselves on appearing family friendly, and these alterations are definitely in line with that by concealing adult themes and preventing the game from being rated M at the same time.
Culturalization is all about looking at the country you’re trying to sell something too and adjusting your product to fit that countries culture. It’s basically a fancy way of saying “we don’t want to step on anyone’s toes and we want to be respectful.” That’s certainly commendable, even if I don’t always agree with that sentiment. I say that because everything has a specific audience, an audience that mostly doesn’t have anything to do with where they’re from. Gamers are gamers, and gamers will like what they like and what they like can transcend national borders and ones own culture. The audience for a Japanese game typically consists of two groups: The Japanese who the game was originally intended for and developed with that culture in mind, and the western fans who have been following the game and don’t care that it’s a whacky Japanese game. That is what they want. And for all intents and purposes, that is the audience that will buy the game when it hits western shores. And so it’s not hard to see why people get ticked off when developers choose to try and cater to other audiences with the same product rather than the faithful fans who have been waiting oh so patiently for the exact same product. They still get that product, but it’s not entirely the same. Not all Japanese developers opt for this approach though.
The Dead or Alive series is definitely one that brings up discussions about how women are presented in video games. Being fighting games however, that tends to get drowned out. However, the Xtreme Beach Volleyball spin-off series doesn’t have that “screen” to cover it up. The developers know exactly what kind of game they’re making: A game where all the women are hot and wearing threadbare bikini’s and other revealing outfits while playing beach sports, with pretty amazing breast and butt physics, and the target audience is horny men. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there are a lot of men in the US and other countries that would also have no problem with this premise, and of course you could even include lesbians in that figure since they get to oggle women with no men in sight. Alas, the developers opted not to bring over the latest title in the series so as to avoid controversy surrounding its depiction of women. The effect of this news was mitigated by the fact that its Asian release(Yes, Asia and Japan are treated as two separate versions.) had English menu’s and subtitles and was available for purchase through Play-Asia, a large distributor of imported goods, as well as other retailers that stock imported games. While it’s a shame that they felt they couldn’t directly release the game in the US, it’s ultimately a good thing because those who want the game can still get it in an unaltered state.
In fact, let me just make this abundantly clear, a lot of the controversy that localization/culturalization creates could probably be avoided if they just included English subtitles and maybe English audio in the Japanese releases. That way if gamers aren’t satisfied with the product they get in their home market, they can pay extra to have the original, unedited version. All systems are now region free, except the 3DS, and what this means is that any game or movie can be played regardless of where you live. If someone in the US wants to play an imported Japanese game, it’ll work on the PS4 that they bought at Walmart. If someone wants to watch their imported Chinese films on their Xbox One, they can do that no problem.
At the end of the day, it isn’t about people wanting their virtual nudes, having some sort of political agenda, or anything like that. It’s about people wanting games as they were originally made regardless of content versus people who are more sensitive to, or cautious around, certain subject matter and working around it. And it’s something that wouldn’t even be a problem if alternative options were offered. Importing the Japanese version with English subtitles, or downloading an optional patch that reverts the content back to its original state for those that want it while the default release is more palatable to a wider audience than what it might have been intended for. Of course, in a perfect world we wouldn’t even need any of that and developers would just release games without worrying about the content or what rating it might receive, but the world isn’t perfect so we have to work with what we’re given.
As of right now, the only game I’m really keeping my eye on when it comes to this whole debate is Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The previous game, Xenoblade Chronicles X, was criticized by some players due to some content changes made during the localization process, namely the removal of the breast slider among other things. There were many theories as to exactly what was going on inside Nintendo of America’s localization department, but I prefer not to entertain a lot of them because they sound like conspiracy theories. What I do know is that the localization of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is being handled by Nintendo of Europe who also localized the original Xenoblade Chronicles. The game is also being localized while in development and scheduled for a simultaneous worldwide release. As a result, Monolith Soft is really only building one version of the game according to a recent interview, which means that the JP version, the NA version, and the EU version will be pretty much identical with no noticeable deviations. So the final game is what you get no matter where you are and as a result you can’t complain. Though, since the Switch is region free, you could import the JP version is you’re that paranoid about the content. However, considering the English E3 trailer retained Pyra’s skimpy red outfit, I highly doubt that’ll be changed by what I’m expecting to be a December release.