Localising Ace Attorney is a monumental task that often goes completely unrecognised, but hopefully, people playing the new, freshly-translated version of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles — a two-part prequel from 2015 that's due to release worldwide on the 27th July — will be able to appreciate just how much work went into it.
Recently, Janet Hsu, the localisation director on the Ace Attorney games who you may recognise from her localisation blogs, spoke to Polygon about the team's "quest" to bring the game to the West.
"The biggest hurdle for me is making sure that the puzzles and mysteries are solvable for a Western audience," said Hsu. "A number of the puzzles in Ace Attorney rely on Japanese wordplay or some nugget of common cultural knowledge that would completely stump those not familiar with those traditions or conventions."
An example is the stained karuta cards in Spirit of Justice, a type of playing card that Nintendo themselves made. Western players wouldn't have those references, and the case in which the cards are used as evidence is centred around rakugo theatre, another Japanese cultural event. The localisation of this particular case required characters to get a bit of a history lesson, but that actually worked perfectly with the series already being set in America for Western players. "It would’ve been odd to explain what rakugo is to a cast of Japanese characters," Hsu said, "but since the characters were American, it became a far more natural way to deliver that bit of cultural information to the player."
But if there's one thing that Ace Attorney is known for, it's the pun names — Deid Mann, Frank Sahwit, Pal Meraktis, and so on. But those names are all localised. Puns are notoriously one of the most difficult things to localise, because they rely on cultural and linguistic familiarity, which means that they have to be entirely embedded in the output language, while maintaining the spirit of the source language.
"We go through rounds and rounds of names together in search of the one that best reflects the original Japanese in tone and feel," says Hsu. Sometimes, to save time, they'll leave in a placeholder name just so they're not stuck at the first hurdle — but they normally end up with something good, and Hsu has some new favourites in the new releases: "Bif and his little twin brother, Tchikin Strogenov, will always bring a smile to my face." (Us too. "Bif Strogenov". Brilliant.)
As for the five-ish years it took to bring The Great Ace Attorney to its hungry fans in the West, Hsu notes that she was among the disappointed: "I wanted to share this amazing title with fans around the world. However, I held on to the hope that someday it might be localized."
The main hurdles with these particular games were that the localisation team had to deal with making Japanese culture and references accessible to a non-Japanese audience, but also that the game is set in the past, and localising text into an older version of English is hard.
Hsu had the motto, "authentic, yet accessible": Keep it historically and culturally accurate without alienating people. "This applies not just to Japanese cultural elements," says Hsu, "but also things like using more obscure Victorian Era-words or even hardcore Britishisms." On the other end of things, some normal words, like "backstab", were out of the question, because they hadn't even been invented at the time the game is set.
And then, when all the translation is done, there's also the matter of wrestling with the game itself. The original Japanese version of The Great Ace Attorney uses a custom scripting language which controls various things, like the speed of each line, how long pauses are, and the comedic timing of certain animations. "Because we couldn’t change or rearrange the characters’ animations," says Hsu, "we would first translate the game as naturally as possible and then adjust the translation as necessary, so that each animation could play out as they were meant to without causing any unintended bugs."
The full interview is on Polygon, and it's really interesting (as is anything to do with localisation), so we highly recommend checking it out for yourself — but now you know that the game took years to localise because it's really, really complicated.