Talking Point: Censoring Boingy Bits, Bums and Gore
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Won't somebody think of the children?
The past week has brought us a couple of stories around the localisation of Fire Emblem: Awakening that, depending on your viewpoint, may be considered either funny, quirky or a disheartening example of censorship. We had the Nintendo of Europe translation of one conversation remove a rather juvenile reference to "boingy bits" in preference of praising hair, and a further revelation that, perhaps bizarrely, a picture of a Tharja's derriere in a bikini was crudely covered, yet distinctly racier shots of Cordelia and Chrom stand, with the former struggling to preserve her modesty and the latter showing off his well-toned rear end in some fetching Fire Emblem-branded swimming trunks.
The first example can be debated, as there's confusion over whether the hair reference or the pre-pubescent (arguably) boingy bits remark is closer to the Japanese original, but the latter is cut and dried as it's all down to imagery. As the headline may have tipped you off, we don't intend to turn this into an academic thesis on sexualised representation in video games, as there are lots of places around the web to argue in endless circles on these issues; good debates to have, but they can often go off the deep end and abandon reasonable responses. What we're going to do is highlight some famous examples of localised safety blankets and point out just how inconsistent and confusing it all is.
One prime example is the opening to PlayStation title Soul Blade, in which there's a moment where a female character is clearly naked and a small amount of cleavage is visible, and later there's a moment where you see a woman's naked back as she stands up in water. In the tweaked Western intro the first part remains unchanged, yet for the latter she has clothes rendered into place. You can see a side-by-side in the video below.
In fact, it should surprise no-one that a number of changes like these typically involve covering up women, though naturally the age-rating plays a part. That said, the age classification isn't always the logical cause, as the Awakening example at the top of the article shows. Let's take Batman: Arkham City Armoured Edition, which prompted chuckles when its new "armour", part of the gimmick named in the title, covered up Catwoman's cleavage; we'll never know whether that was a conscious decision due to her appearance or genuinely a re-design for the armoured mechanic, but it didn't make the Wii U game's age rating lower than the Xbox 360 or PS3 versions. Regardless of the reasons, it gave a little ammunition to those that said Nintendo systems continue to encourage small — and arguably insignificant — steps to take the edge off mature games.
There are examples where that logic can be debunked, where controversial games have arrived on Nintendo consoles — and therefore been approved — with meaty M-ratings; Madworld springs to mind on Wii. Yet Nintendo has earned the overly-cautious reputation through some of its actions, it must be said. A famous example that is still vague and unresolved to this day is that of Final Fight on Super NES. Characters Poison and Roxy appeared in the game in Japan, but North American play testing by Nintendo — remember it was hands-on in scaling back mature themes in third-party games — suggested that hitting women wouldn't go down well with an audience; that didn't stop titles such as Streets of Rage 2 on the SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis. Capcom's Akira Yasuda actually pointed out that the characters were transgender — Nintendo's reaction was to still move to replace the characters with two male grunts.
That story is shrouded in rumour, but there are others where Nintendo systems have taken cautious approaches beyond those of competitors. One of these is the original Mortal Kombat on Super NES, where the excessive blood of the arcade release was removed in the West; on SEGA's system a code — which could be rapidly learned on the playground or in gaming magazines — enabled the blood and the brutal finishing moves. Even titles you may not think have been amended have seen tweaks to preserve the innocence of audiences or, potentially, to avoid risks of controversy. If you see the intro to the Japanese version of Super Castlevania IV, the title screen is dripping blood and the opening scene tombstone has a cross — both were removed in the West.
There are more recent examples, too, that also show inconsistencies between Western territories. No More Heroes was a gore-fest in North America, with red blood splattered across the screen and dismemberment there for all to see. Yet in Europe and Japan the game came with a lower rating and blood was replaced with black particles — ash, perhaps? — while limbs very much stayed with their bodies, even when dismemberment was implied. We can move beyond violence to consider games that are absent due to religious themes — The Binding of Isaac was rejected for a 3DS release, as it is undoubtedly adult in its approach to controversial ideas and references. It's been published on Steam for PC and a remake is destined for Sony's systems, while its fate on Nintendo's systems seems unlikely to be resolved.
To return to nudity, or oblique sexual references as highlighted in the Fire Emblem: Awakening examples, there are inconsistencies. A woman's bum seems to be out of bounds, but barely concealed breasts are apparently fine in the same game, while Chrom can proudly show off his swimmer's build without a mysterious curtain appearing on screen. Yet Cordelia's almost-revealing image isn't a sign of modern times, when you consider the classic ending to Metroid; Samus Aran is revealed as a woman — hooray for feminine heroism — but the only issue is that speed-runners are rewarded with an image of our hero in a bikini. We're pretty sure she could have been shown as a woman without stripping down to under-garments, but that was the approach taken. Modern Samus, in Metroid: Other M, at least wears a zero suit that's more sensible layering when battling monsters dressed in powerful armour. Despite that, the less said about Team Ninja's teenage-boy approach to designing Samus' physique, the better.
It's a funny old game world for us Nintendo fans, with Europeans being preserved from "boingy bits" or worldwide players avoiding a loss of innocence that a swim-suit bum can bring. We've been spared dripping blood and gore, sometimes in the name of family values and on other occasions to simply get a lower age rating at retail; as our Soul Blade example shows, Nintendo console games aren't the only ones to be censored. Some examples that we haven't even covered perhaps make sense — such as the removal of Nazi references in some titles such as Wolfenstein 3D — but it's all objective.
Inconsistency is really the word, though, and there are perhaps still examples of Nintendo playing the safety card rather than letting an M-rating do its work. Either way, it can all be a bit confusing, but great for pub quizzes. Wait, is it cool for us to say reference a pub?