With EarthBound's arrival on the Wii U Virtual Console last week, many gamers can finally gain an insight into why the SNES title has accumulated such a vocal fan-base, despite its modest Western sales — it didn't even reach Europe — when it was originally released. It's a game lauded for its charm, quirkiness and unique style, with a new audience now taking it in.
Of course, bringing the game to North America in the mid-'90s required some skillful translation and localization work, in order to take the game and prepare its visuals and — most notably — Shigesato Itoi's extensive text for a new audience. One key figure for that was the writer Marcus Lindblom, the man who translated and adjusted the original text in just six months; a feat that must have been a substantial challenge.
Speaking to Wired, Lindblom explained that handling cultural differences was rather unique with Earthbound, as it was supposed to be set in the U.S. anyway.
The biggest challenge we had in a lot of ways was how to handle the cultural references.
The thing that’s really weird about Earthbound is that I was trying to translate someone’s view of what the U.S. is like from the outside — someone who, obviously, isn’t American. I had to take an outsider’s view of the U.S. and turn it into something everybody here would play and understand. That was one of the more difficult things to do.
The other thing we did try to do — and we weren’t always 100 percent successful — was tone down a lot of the references to intellectual property. I didn’t really do anything with the music. The music was actually already pretty much done. But when it came to visual or textual references, we did definitely look at it and say “Okay, the artwork on the truck looks a little bit too much like the Coca-Cola logo, we need to change that.”
Then we had to take out the red crosses on the hospitals because we knew that was sort of questionable even at that time. They could come and say, you know, because there’s the actual organization The Red Cross who uses that as their symbol.
Lindblom outlines some notable — and humorous — examples of where he had to adjust references to suit the audience that the North American release was targeting. Here's what he said when asked about alcohol references being switched up for coffee.
Well, it was quirkier, right? The one really great thing, for me, about working on the game was when they approached me about working on it, they did say “Don’t worry about making things a little strange.” Because, you know, the game is based on some pretty strange things.
It gave me a lot of license to be as weird as I wanted to be and I certainly took advantage of that in a lot of places. But I also wanted to stay as close to the original Japanese work as possible.
So I had three goals: Stay true to Mr. Itoi’s writing because, well, it is great writing with a fantastic story and there’s just a lot of heart and a lot of great things in there. At the same time, I didn’t want to have a really disjointed, confusing story because, you know, I had seen a lot of bad translation work that just didn’t work well at all. Then the last thing was I really did want to keep the game in that goofy, quirky sort of vein as much as I could while staying true to the first two things.
Luckily, I guess I must have achieved something with it because most people seem to respond well to the work.
It wasn’t easy, though. We had to go back and forth and figure out what would be the best thing to do in some of the stranger situations in the game.
For example, you know the part in the game where there’s an iron pencil and eraser statue blocking your path and you need to get an item called the “pencil eraser” and the “eraser eraser” to progress? In the original Japanese version the pencil was an octopus and the eraser was a Japanese kokeshi doll.
So those two objects, I knew just wouldn’t play in the U.S. I mean I couldn’t do an octopus because people here don’t really care about octopi (laughs). Whereas they’re really important in Japan and they’re this… You know there’s a group of people in Japan where octopus and sealife is a big deal in their life and culture.
Then the kokeshi doll was more of a play on words in Japanese because the word keshi means to erase. So Mr. Itoi did this clever pun in the Japanese game where you get an item called the kokeshi keshi.
So when I was trying to figure out how to handle that, the guy from Japan was like, “I have no idea what you want to do here. You can make it weird if you want.”
Then I said “Well, there needs to be something that’s an eraser,” and I thought “Well if the item is called the ‘pencil eraser’ then it’s kind of funny if there’s just a big metal pencil.” So that worked and then the next thing was like, okay let’s just call it the “eraser eraser.” Which ended up playing off the kokeshi keshi idea.
It worked out but that was one of those cases where I had to come up with something odd that didn’t really have all that much to do with the original Japanese.
Lindblom gives various intriguing examples, and also highlights how he managed to incorporate his daughter's name, Nico, into the game. That touch of humanity is, it seems, an indication for the approach of the whole game.
It’s a game that’s meant to be played all the way through. There are times when I think our modern life is pretty cynical and it’s an existence in which it’s easy to forget about the good things.
I think if you approach EarthBound with an open mind, you’ll find that it’s really a glass half full kind of game. That was the way I wrote it and that was the way I wanted people to take it. It’s meant to be a positive thing about always progressing, always getting better, always moving forward towards an ultimate goal. Which, happens to be saving the world in this case.
But I really hope people go into it with an open, easygoing attitude and don’t try to prove wrong the 18 years of hype they may have been subjected to. We were at a pretty early point in game development, but I think it’s a good game that’s aged well.
Let us know what you think of these examples of EarthBound localization in the comments below, and we recommend checking out the full interview.