You tried so hard… and failed.. Ahhh life.
– Azama, Hoshido Monk
Ah the RPG, a monolith of video games and games in general. No game genre will weave its mechanics into every nook and cranny of other video game genres today. And yet while Nintendo consoles of yore were the homes for these digital epics, looking at the recent censorship and localization controversies surrounding “Fire Emblem: Fates” and “Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE”, they’re the one genre Nintendo as a company gets the least. The Inverseman here with another editorial.
Rise of the RPG
To really understand where all this is coming from, you need to turn back time back to the SNES days. In the past, companies like the then fledgling Squaresoft had very little faith in their product overseas and were working from shoestring budgets. The infamous Ted Woolsey localizations come to mind, with their less than stellar and sometimes strange lines. Though since Woolsey had no translation team to fall back on, was forced to rewrite entire scripts, deal with character limits, adhere to censors, and doubled as the head of marketing while meeting tight deadlines, you develop an appreciation for how far we’ve come. This era of FF, Chrono Trigger, SMT, Breath of Fire, YS, and so on would be the seeds for a generation.
Soon enough at the close of the 90s, Japan’s anime industry would blossom to worldwide appeal and overtake the west. Pokémon would be a leading culprit for this movement as people went wild over anything Japanese: anime, games, manga, the whole enchilada. As for the gaming habits of the fledgling otaku? RPGs were a logical favorite with their emphasis on storytelling and immersion, akin to a good book or, pertinent in this case, a good anime. Everyone on both sides of the Pacific ate it up; Japan experienced a surge in popularity as suddenly everyone wanted their own spikey-haired protagonist. To name just a few Shenmue, Tales, Star Ocean, Xenogears, and already present giants like FF took their storytelling to the next level on increasingly more advanced hardware over the decade. By the time the PS2 era hit, that cobbling of silent text with polygons evolved into a fully voiced graphical spectacle, an anime you can play.
The reason I bring this history up is because of the crowd it espoused. Unlike the mascot platformer trend that came before the RPG boon or the FPS and MOBA fads that came after it, the RPG trend has a very special type of gamer that lies outside the casual-hardcore dichotomy. Fans of the Japanese RPG were likely anime fans, and anime fans had a lot to deal with in the late 90s to early 2000s. Unlike today, anime would take forever to translate and usually had questionable localization or simply never made it to our shores, leaving fans to do their own homework and learn the till now unseen truths, good and bad, behind the English versions of their favorite things. In fact, exposing the likes of 4Kids dubs via advances in the internet made nubile fans demand better, uncut, and more faithful translations and localizations. By the end of the era, just the thought of seeing “jelly-filled doughnuts” would elicit eye-rolls across the room. Needless to say, these fans would apply these high, and sometimes even misguided, standards to RPGs, and if you were a localizer, you knew your work would be held to that scrutiny. Though this is only one half of the story.
Meanwhile at Nintendo…
Now Nintendo’s role in the RPG fad slowly petered out over the years. The “playable anime” torch would be handed mostly over to Sony’s PS1, leaving a severe dearth of RPGs not named Pokémon or Paper Mario on the N64. Moving into the next generation of consoles, the PS2 well took over the RPG market, leaving only quietly hidden gems on the Gamecube. The GBA and DS would still command the handheld JRPG, but for better or for worse, you weren’t watching 30 minute cutscenes on anything Nintendo. Actually, RPG or not, if you wanted easy-to-develop-for technical prowess, you went to the PS2 and original Xbox. In comparison, the Gamecube looked like a toy, a “kids’ console”, no doubt reinforced by Nintendo’s historically stricter content standards and historically more difficult relationship with third parties.
The PS2 and original Xbox were able to market themselves as the richer “more mature” experiences, leading Nintendo into a small reevaluation of its identity towards the latter portion of the Gamecube’s life. More “mature” games like “Metroid Prime” were showcased with a hip “who are you?” ad campaign to play with the big boys, and it’s right here we see a small oddity, the fewest accounts of censorship. Perhaps it was to mimic Sony and Microsoft, but the Gamecube era into the Wii marked far fewer accounts of cut content relative our current era and the past SNES and N64 eras. In this blind spot “Fire Emblem” made its way west and modestly pitched up tent with very little interference bar logical removal of incest in “Sacred Stones”. Though relaxing the rules wasn’t really helping the Gamecube set up for the next generation, Nintendo seemed backed into a corner next console release; they wouldn’t play the graphics game so according to the rules they were set to lose. So Nintendo rewrote the rules entirely.
The Wii was met with initial success unseen by nearly any other console to date, ushering in a new paradigm for Nintendo and video games in general, a mainstreamed video gaming. Logically, to best cater to the influx of parents, grandparents, and otherwise disinterested people suddenly waiting hours for a chance to get a Wii, Nintendo had to put on its “family friendly face” again. Gone was the “radical” “who are you?” image and here was “wii would like to play”. However, in-spite of the image makeover, this generation was still marked with little censorship; the PS2 and later PS3 were still serviceable homes for games that fell outside of 2006’s “casual revolution”. Nintendo’s mandate to force every early Wii game to have motion controls certainly sent the message loud and clear that they weren’t worth your time if you didn’t want to join their movement.
The Wii came and petered out, a flash in the pan by the time the decade turned. Nintendo’s plan for the Wii U seemed elementary; after hooking in a new generation of gamers with the Wii, evolve them with the Wii U, and join the “mature” gaming fight again with Microsoft and Sony this time with bolstered numbers. However, the Wii U launch would amount to a near complete flop. Marketing “Assassin’s Creed”, “Mass Effect”, and “Call of Duty” was a clear motion to the so-called “hardcore” crowd, but selling games they already purchased ported to inferior tech wasn’t even met with scorn, just apathy or going outright unnoticed. Meanwhile, the casual base Nintendo thought they converted into loyal video gamers figured the Wii U to be an expensive add-on and far too much commitment, unlike the surging free-to-play mobile gaming world. Nintendo’s casual base left for the App Store.
Thus came the final nail in the coffin in our present day. To Nintendo, the Wii U launch flop may have been interpreted as “stay the course”, try to win back the Wii adopters with even more family appeal. Adding fuel to the fire at the time were young vocal minorities claiming to be Nintendo’s target demographic. The false signal being sent to Nintendo was that both the “casual” and “hardcore” crowds didn’t like “mature Nintendo” but needed “family friendly Nintendo” if they were to stand a chance in this decade of gaming. So of course the western release of “Bravely Default” couldn’t have its belts and zippers; supposedly “nobody” wanted them, except the people that actually played the game.
Converging on Fire Emblem
These two stories, the story of the JRPG fad and the story of modern Nintendo, help explain where “Fire Emblem” is today. “Fire Emblem: Awakening” revived a dying series, and now Nintendo regards it as a flagship series, being the first in line with “Animal Crossing” to receive a mobile NX-compatible game. This extra attention is undoubtedly a wonderful thing, but it also carries its drawbacks. Nintendo now sees “Fire Emblem” as one of its crown jewels to showcase, but this isn’t the Nintendo of the early 2000s. This is the post-Wii Nintendo, doubling down on its “family-friendly” image, and they will certainly make sure when presenting this newfound jewel to represent them that it is “suitable for forward-thinking Western attitudes”. Removing functions from “Fates” and re-recording dialogue for “Tokyo Mirage Sessions” to match censored content was Nintendo’s questionable display of care for their new star, your archetypal meddlesome parent.
Beyond just censorship were criticisms of Nintendo’s localization quality. Now Nintendo also had very little direct first-party involvement with the RPG craze of the 90s and 2000s, and subsequently they had little contact with its niche audience. A loose translation with many liberties may work for a Mario game and the general audience that would purchase one. That type of gamer doesn’t mind the localization so long as it’s understandable and gives a witty chuckle. On the other hand, for the “otaku gamer” born from marrying the gaming and anime subcultures, throwing in ill-timed jokes during a serious moment in “Fates” will be seen as a slap to the face akin to the 4Kids “One Piece” dub. Meanwhile, opting out of subtitling the battle dialogue of “Tokyo Mirage Sessions” sent an image of laziness for such a character-driven game. It’s much like the difference between a person that drives cars and a foreign car enthusiast. Nintendo knows the average Joe who needs a car to get to work and might be “hardcore” enough for a Japanese Honda, but they fumble when figuring out anyone who knows more European manufacturers than Ferrari. In short, despite history, Nintendo is rather inexperienced with the RPG niche.
Had “Fire Emblem: Fates” and “Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE” been released ten years earlier, perhaps the worst we would have seen would have been a quiet release of “Fates” and Atlus having no interference with the “TMS” localization, but that’s mere speculation. What we do know is where Nintendo is now, the steps backwards they’ve taken, mistakes in communication, and possible rationales. If anything, at least we know “Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse” and definitely non-Nintendo platform “Persona 5” will get the treatment they deserve as works, so maybe it’ll be a wakeup call? Only time will tell. Join me next time when I try to romance the bespectacled redheaded team navigator.
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