A brief overview of localization

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

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One of the most critical parts of bringing a game over is localization. Translation is the act of rendering one language into another. Localization is making sure the new words actually make sense in the new culture and it fits the physical constraints of the game..

Let’s start off at the basics. When a game is programmed, not only must all the data fit on the format, but the format must be able to appear on the screen. The same must hold true when the game is transplanted to another culture. Japanese can fit a lot on the screen since they use characters rather than letters. But this can be worked around.

The first thing to be done in localization is translation. Almost everything in the script must be translated literally. Then the localizers look at two things. 1) Does the translation fit in the new culture and 2) does it fit on the screen.

Believe or not, the second question is actually very important. If the name breaks the text boxes, then it must be changed. This is one of the reasons why “Cayenne” was renamed “Cyan” in Final Fantasy VI and why magic for a long time was listed as “X 1” “X 2” ect.

Localizers start looking at the meanings of names and items. For some things, there is no alternate equivalent. If you ever watched the Pokemon anime, you’ll notice rice things with a black center pop up often as snacks. These are rice cakes. While they are very popular in Japan, there is no US equivalent and so they were renamed to… pretty much everything.

For something that is a bit more consistent, look at the Ace Attorney series. The original takes place in Japan. It has a film lot, spirit mediums, and in later games you can drive or use the train to get to remote mountain areas. So the perfect place for the US version is…California. The thing is? It really is. California is known for it’s movie and television industry, the people can be a bit unique so someone going around in medium get up wouldn’t get too many funny looks, and there are mountains within driving distance. (I’m not sure about the train, but it takes place in the future anyway.) Except for a few things- like the very Japanese focus of the “Hero of Hero” awards and design of the Kurain Channelling buildings- the weird parts would be weird in any language… like how Redd White dresses and talks.

So, while Ace Attorney has had an extraordinarily good localization (which is why it takes so long for the new games to come over and probably why AAI2 isn’t coming over at all) other games have had issues.

“All your base are belong to us” from Zero Wing is the ur example. It is a horrible localization. While it makes sense, especially in context, it is still nowhere near grammatically correct. Due to the rocky localization relationship early on in video games, that can be excused. But what about later games?

Tales of Phantasia is notorious for it’s translation and localization. It had the possibility of being very great but it had problems… like mixing up Kangarro and Ragnarock. For those that are unaware, Ragnarock is basically Nordic mythology’s Armageddon. Everything ends with Ragnarock. No form of life exists. It is pure oblivion. Kangaroos are marsupials who live in the Australian outback and the females carry the young in pouches on their stomachs. There should not be that big of a mix up.

Not all bad localization is a bad thing. “Spoony Bard” is a classic line brought about by Nintendo’s language policies at the time. (the original line called Edward a ‘bastard’. Yeah, that wasn’t going to get by in the SNES days.) But in these days a game can live and die by it’s localization. A “Tales of Phantasia” localization can kill a game, no matter how good it’s gameplay, story, and characters are.

Localizations give a story life. It is what makes us fall in love with the game. Let’s hope that we get more Ace Attorney quality localizations in the future.




  • This is quite informative.  I knew there were a lot of hurdles in localization, and the language difference resulted in the Japanese having more space.  But it had honestly not dawned on me that there would be a problem with the length of the text, aside from the memory limits in the days of yor.  Very interesting.

    Also, why has no mention of Carpe Fulgar been made?  They are absolutely dedicated to making great localizations.  They have localized Recettear, Chantelise, and Fortune Summoners, all with absolutely excellent translations.