Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Nintendo, Sega and the World Outside Japan and North America - Accommodating Non-English Speakers

Early on, most video games did not need to be translated because the amount of text used in these games was very limited.  Some games, like RPGs, were an exception but by and large most games from the pre-crash era used English when they needed to convey information in the written form.  Even games made by Japanese companies, unless the game was for a Japanese game like Go, Mahjong or Shogi, English was the norm for the simple text messages.  

When console games were large enough to hold a significant amount of text and able totell a story, then for the games that were developed in Japan most or all of the game would tend to use Japanese text.  When these games were released in North America the Japanese text would be translated into English, generally with some simplification for 8-bit and 16-bit console titles.  But when tongues other than English had to be accommodated, things got interesting.

For the Nintendo Entertainment System, which was dominant in the USA but not in Europe, relatively few titles ever got a translation into a language other than English.  Nintendo offered none for its first party games, the closest it came was Kirby's Adventure from second party developer H.A.L. Laboratory.  Of the languages which did see official translations, France and Germany tended to get a translation, then followed by Spain, Sweden and Italy.  

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Japanese, USA
Europe, Italy

Two translations stand out from the NES era.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got an Italian release as Teenage Mutant "Ninja" Turtles, not Teenage Mutant "Hero" Turtles.  Apparently the U.K.'s moral panic over the use of "Ninja" in children's TV programming was not all-pervasive in Europe.  Usually "Hero" would be used so the distributor of a Turtles product would be able to sell its product anywhere in Europe.  Even more strangely, Italy was consolidated with the U.K. and Australia as a PAL-A country for NES lockout chip purposes, so the temptation to use "Hero" must have been present.  The Italian release itself is in English.  While the Japanese release's first screen uses the TMNT name for its licensing text, the game itself did not use the official title.  The title as shown on the Japanese title screen is Gekikame Ninja Den, which is a rough translation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Later Japanese releases of the games would use the English logo and text for the franchise and sometimes have Katakana which would approximate the phonetic sounds of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Japanese speakers.

Kirby's Adventure
Japanese, English
French/Canadian, German

Kirby's Adventure got a French PAL release, but it was also released in French in Canada, an NTSC country for the Francophone population of Quebec.  The script between these two French versions appears identical, presumably whatever differences there were between European French and Canadian French were not accommodated.  They probably would have been fairly minor anyway because the text of the game is not particularly sophisticated.  

When Sega released its Master System, the Master System was much more popular in Europe than in North America and Sega beat Nintendo in the 8-bit console market in Europe.  Despite having many more Master System games in the PAL regions compared to the NTSC regions, fewer games had translations.  When a game was made available with support for some language other than English, often it would have the ability to select from two, three or even more languages depending on how much space the text took up.  

Phantasy Star
Japanese, USA
Portugese, Korean

The Master System was hugely popular in Brazil, which did see quite a few translations and localizations.  Unusually, Phantasy Star was translated into Portuguese for Brazil and was also translated into Korean as well for the South Korean market.  RPGs were not big sellers outside the USA in the 8-bit era and console RPGs almost never saw releases outside the USA, so this kind of treatment is very rare.  The Master System's successor was equally popular in Brazil, so Phantasy Star II & III also got Portuguese translations.  Korea also appears to have embraced the 16-bit Sega console as well although the 16-bit Phantasy Stars were not among the translated titles.

Moving on to the 8-bit handhelds, the Game Boy had a 9-year reign as the dominant handheld console in every country where it was sold.  Despite this prolificacy, translations were still few and far between.  Most Game Boy games did not overburden the player with walls of text, but during the monochrome era, there were few translations and those that were translated usually only supported one language.  Games released during the Game Boy Color years were usually large enough to accommodate multiple languages on one cartridge.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
Japanese, English
French/Canadian, German

Nintendo started to open up its properties a little to the non-English speaking world during this time. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening got French and German translations and a French language version was available in Canada.  For some reason The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX did not get a French release in Canada.  But Zelda was singular among Nintendo's first party titles to see a release outside NTSC countries and have a significant amount of text.

While Pokemon is generally thought of as a Nintendo franchise, it is co-owned by Game Freak and Creatures, Inc.  Nonetheless, the popularity of the game has mandated translations for the "big four" (France, Germany, Spain and Italy) for every canonical game in the series.  Gold and Silver added Korean translations.

Super Metroid
English, Japanese Subtitles
French Subtitles, German Subtitles

Like the NES and the Game Boy, the SNES had one title released in French for the Canadian market, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  For text-lite games like Super Metroid, Yoshi's Island and the Donkey Kong Country series, Nintendo permitted multiple language support.  Super Metroid is also unique for this time period in that it contains both Japanese and English text.  While some NTSC games use the same ROM data for Japan and the USA, it is almost unheard of to be able to see Japanese text in a game released in the USA.  Weirdly, the PAL release of Super Metroid requires the player to view French or German subtitles for the introduction.  

The Genesis/Mega Drive had a curious way of localizing some games.  The language and sometimes the title of the game displayed would depend on the console in which the game was run.  Streets of Rage would show "Streets of Rage" when played on a USA Genesis or European Mega Drive, but would show as "Bare Knuckle" when played on a Japanese Mega Drive.  Bare Knuckle II and PAL Streets of Rage II share a ROM, but the NTSC Streets of Rage II is unique because they redid some of Blaze's sprites to make her jump kick less revealing.  For one ROM you could get all three major regions, and some games were able to support two regions this way, but as games became larger this became more rare.  

For the last major cartridge era, Game Boy Advance games often had multiple language support, even for USA releases.  Sometimes the Europrean versions of the games would be double the size of the USA or Japanese releases due to the size burden of supporting multiple languages.  Final Fantasy V and VI Advance are examples of this.  Similarly the European version of Paper Mario, one of the few RPGs for the N64, is 25% large for the European release due to its support for the "big four."

Before we conclude, we must give a mention to the Nintendo iQue Player, This was a console Nintendo manufactured exclusively for the mainland Chinese market.  This controller and console in one was unique by Nintendo's standards but impressive given that it contained a complete N64 inside the chunky thing.  Games were downloaded via kiosk and written to memory cards, but there was a way to download games online to the card as well.  14 games were translated into Chinese, with voices also being in the Chinese language, but the system was not quite the success Nintendo hoped for.  However, this console was already well out of date when the system was released in 2006 and came in the midst of China's 10-year ban on video game consoles from 2000-2015.  Nintendo did release some of its regular handheld consoles and games under the iQue brand and with the assistance of the local distributor iQue, Ltd until 2018.


  1. The discussion of French-Canadian releases is very interesting. Canadian laws on bilingual packaging are confusing, even for us Canadians.

    From the Atari 2600 onward through the PS 2, I have seen a handful of games released with seperate French-language manuals. It is not uncommon to see a PS 2 RPG with an extra French-language manual shrink-wrapped onto the case. Nevermind that the game is completely unplayable without an adequate knowledge of English.

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