Interview: On Localizing Retro Game Challenge

How could a DS game based on a weird Japanese-only retro video game TV show work in the West? Xseed's Mike Engler talks with Gamasutra about bringing the unique Retro Game Challenge Stateside -- and why localizing the title was such a challenge.
[How could a DS game based on a weird Japanese-only retro video game TV show work in the West? Xseed's Mike Engler talks with Gamasutra about bringing the unique Retro Game Challenge Stateside -- and why localizing the DS game was an "absolute nightmare" at times.] When Game Center CX was released for the Nintendo DS in Japan towards the end of 2007, it caught the interest of Western retro fans. Based on a Japanese television show about classic games, the DS title featured a childhood version of Shinya Arino, the show’s presenter, as he played and attempted to complete challenges on a variety of games along with a friend. All of the games contained within were inspired by popular and easily recognized 8-bit titles (shooters, platformers, an RPG, and so on). Throughout the course of the main game, Arino would read fictional gaming magazines and chat with his friend about the things they were experiencing, such as being able to play an arcade shooter at home. It seemed like the perfect nostalgia trip, rich in gaming history, culture, and esoteric in-jokes -- it also seemed like one of those titles which would never be brought to the West. It was presumably too much work to localize, compounded by there not being enough awareness of the source material (though the show did go on to receive limited cinema preview screenings in America, renamed Retro Game Master). Well, sometimes the retro stars align and a quirky, niche title such as Game Center CX makes it over. Now renamed Retro Game Challenge, the game was released this week courtesy of Xseed Games. Gamasutra caught up with the publisher's localization specialist Mike Engler to talk about the changes and evolutions needed to make its Western release possible: Can you give a little background on the localization of RGC -- most people never dreamed it would be localized. Mike Engler: The original idea for doing the game came from the head of the marketing commandos, Ken Berry. He saw the game and thought it’d be something fun to do and started doing what, at the time, seemed like an unwholesome amount of research for a game that we’d never have a chance at since it’s a Namco Bandai title. Namco, as a rule, doesn’t license their titles to anyone, so the odds of it coming over here were really, really, really low as they had no intention of bringing it over themselves. However, due to a freak hiccup in the space-time continuum and a series of randomly connected events that I can’t reveal on pain of death, it somehow dropped onto our laps. The team for this project was but a mere 3.5 people; myself; Kenji Hosoi,the leader of the Localization Menagerie; and Doh Whang, translator and office conscience; and Kunio Sato, trusty intern and media room inmate. The game was actually done over a fairly long period of time, as there was no pressure in terms of release date. The initial translations and re-writes were done over a couple of months and then put aside as we didn’t have character limits and other technical information needed to do the final revisions, which were a nightmare. In terms of research, there wasn’t much that needed to be done. Everyone in the office is knowledgeable about gaming both past and present. I still have my old NES and occasionally fire it up when I start feeling nostalgic -- The Guardian Legend is one of the best games ever released, by the way. There wasn’t all that much voice acting in the game, so redoing it wasn’t that much of a chore, about a half-day to get through all of the lines. The hardest part was deciding on the voice to replace the original Arino. There was a lot of discussion as to who to use and what direction to take, but in the end we’re confident that we made the right choice. What were your goals when localizing RGC? ME: The main goal was to somehow retain the humor and historical accuracy of the original game, which was a more difficult task than you might imagine. For those not in the know, the game is based on a Japanese TV show called Game Center CX, in which the main character, Shinya Arino, has to play through a series of old-school games. In addition, he will sometimes interview people involved in whatever game he happens to be playing. In the game, Arino is the main character as well, and a lot of the humor of the game was based on knowledge of the show as well as knowing a bit about Japanese 1980s gaming culture. The challenge, of course, was to somehow keep the game interesting while at the same time trying to remove as many of the references to the show as possible. Also, fandom in Japan was much more intense with developers, designers, and pro gamers treated like rock stars, something that didn’t happen in America until much later, so trying to convey how important these people were in terms of gaming culture took a little effort. In addition, lining up the timeline of Japanese 1980s gaming to the American timeline was also an exercise in occasional frustration, as games weren’t always released within the same timeframe and gaming trends didn’t always correspond. Can you give examples of cultural things which were particularly difficult to localize. Did you have to rewrite the in-game magazines from scratch? ME: Oddly enough, cultural differences weren’t really a problem. Luckily, most of American gaming at the time was tied to Japanese gaming, albeit with a serious time lag. As for the magazines, the hardest part was cutting down the content after we got the character limits while still having everything make sense. A lot of jokes and references got left on the cutting room floor. I also had to resist the urge to write eeverything in Engrish, although there are a few bits and pieces of incomprehensible gibberish hidden throughout the game. The only cultural references to get the editorial axe were the horrible and untranslatable Japanese puns that infected parts of the dialogue, which I immediately replaced with even worse puns and painful 1980s references. The contents of the magazines themselves really didn’t change too much. I mainly changed names more than anything, especially the game names used in the weekly sales chart included in the game. I also changed a few of the developer, publisher and game designer names, not so much to anglicize them, but more to include names that those in the know would recognize. The vast majority of the Japanese text survived revision simply because everything in the game is very insular. Using the magazines as an example, since most of the text is directly related to the games within the game, there was no way and no need to do any major re-writing. Was there a need to alter the game structurally, in terms of difficulty level or game challenges, or to make it more relevant to a US audience? ME: The basic game remained unchanged, as adding any of the above would have required extensive reprogramming, and to be quite honest, just getting English text into the game was a Herculean task. According to the development team, the game wasn’t made to be localized, so they didn’t take into account things like changing graphics files or switching out text when doing the initial coding. In addition, getting the final text character limits took a lot of trial and error, which made my job as the principle editor an absolute nightmare -- a nightmare that continued on throughout the QA process. As for changing the game to make it more relevant to the American audience, there simply wasn’t any need to. All of the game genres represented in Retro Game Challenge are a part -- or should be a part -- of every gamer’s lexicon and can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone, regardless of whether they were gamers back in the day or not. Hardware manufacturers and other groups can make publishing games difficult. Did Xseed have any trouble with bringing RGC out? ME: None at all, really. Outside of the usual industry-related hoops to jump through, there wasn’t any real drama to speak of. There have been unsubstantiated reports of RGC being brought over to Europe. Would a European publisher sub-license the Xseed localization or do it from scratch? A large draw of RGC is understanding the cultural references -- surely it would require re-imagining to keep it relevant? ME: There are no plans for Retro Game Challenge to be released in PAL territories that we are aware of. We asked Namco when we first started the project, and they clearly said “No.” If they are discussing it directly with a European publisher, then we here at Xseed are completely out of the loop. As for the game being re-imagined, as I said previously, there were far fewer changes made than you might think. But as for your point regarding localization, I’d recommend that whoever does it, do everything on their own as there are a number of marked differences between Europe and America gaming during the 1980s, most notably the fact that while Nintendo owned America, Sega seemingly ruled Europe. I’m also fairly certain that a lot of the in-jokes and references would fall flat outside of the US. If people buy enough copies, will you bring over the sequel? ME: If this one sells, of course we’d love to release the sequel. To paraphrase a wellspring of 1980s wisdom, Indiana Jones, “[Order it]! Do it! DO IT NOW!"

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