Japanese games: by popular demand

A squeaky wheel gets the grease, so they say, and it appears that a noisy gamer gets the game…

Pandora's Tower

There are few fans as dedicated to their chosen object of affection as videogamers. You only have to take a glance at some of the forum posts and comment threads around the net to realise that. They’re not afraid to voice their affront, to point fingers of angry blame, and to rail against systems they think have wronged them somehow. Sometimes that ire can be negative, but there are occasions when disgruntled gamers have banded together to try and accomplish something positive.

Take a look at Operation Rainfall, a fan led initiative to get Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower localised and released in English speaking territories. This is a story of fan-power gone right, of a group of like minded individuals setting their sights on something and achieving it. It’s about the Internet’s ability to foster community, and how relevant the JRPG remains in the western world. Above and beyond all of that, though, it’s a story about passion, and turning that passion into action.

A local game, for local people

Localising a game for a different market isn’t a cheap operation, and in turbulent financial times it’s not a surprise that there are games that don’t make the leap from East to West. Back in the 16-bit era, things were, in a way, easier. Before the advent of CDs, and with them voice artists, all you had to translate was writing. But, as internet memes will tell you, that wasn’t always the smoothest of operations. There are plenty of Japanese words that don’t have direct English translations, and the two languages are very different in plenty of other aspects too. Even massive series like Final Fantasy weren’t planned for Western release, only receiving them some years after their Japanese début. Back then, JRPGs were a little niche everywhere but their home country. Sure, a few made it through to mainstream Western recognition, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Or at least they were, until the release of Final Fantasy VII.

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Final Fantasy VII was released worldwide on January 31 1997. It was a smash hit, and since then has sold more than 10 million copies. This was a JRPG with a simultaneous launch that broke records everywhere it went. And whilst it cemented Square’s reputation as purveyors of the finest RPGs that Japan had to offer, it also made a generation sit up and take notice of a genre that had nearly passed them by. Interest flared in older Square titles, and games that would have sold millions in Japan but never made it anywhere else suddenly started gracing the front covers of Western game magazines. The era of the JRPG had arrived in the West, and gamers clamoured for more. The problem was, whilst Square could afford a simultaneous launch, other publishers weren’t so sure it was the right way to go.

After the fact

And so we had to wait. Sometimes for years, sometimes in vain, but always waiting. The Final Fantasy series kept up its simultaneous launch schedule, but other games we had to read about and dream about as they sold by the bucket load in another country. Some titles became like fables, stories we’d whisper to one another in the hush of night to try to comfort and convince ourselves. The advent of DVDs made localising a game even more fraught with trouble, as huge swathes of dialogue would have to be re-recorded or subtitled in a different language. And localisation isn’t just about the words. Take a look at The Last Story, which isn’t just translated into English, it’s transformed. Accents and in-jokes are every bit as important as the words being spoken correctly.

Hungry for more

Yet still the appetite for the JRPG was there, unsullied by the large gaps between delicious morsels. This seemed to galvanise devotees, changing them from mere fans to evangelists, willing to sing the praises of obscure old Enix titles to anyone who would even feign interest. And things looked like they were changing. More and more titles started to appear, with the likes of Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey from Mistwalker giving us feasts of intriguing ideas and new worlds to explore. But what about the games that slipped through, the classics that we in the West never got a chance to experience. Why weren’t they making it over here? In simple terms, money and fear of losing it. What was to be done? In simple terms, make a lot of noise. A LOT OF NOISE.

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The banging of drums

And that’s exactly what Operation Rainfall did. Starting on the IGN forums as a group of people with an agenda and not much else, it soon developed into a fully fledged fan army, waving the flag for JRPGs in the West, and letting it be known that there was still an audience, still a market, for the product. It wasn’t easy, but it made all the difference, and proved to wary publishers that there was money to be made from foreign markets. And these aren’t half-arsed releases like some companies have been guilty of in the past, Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower are all brilliant examples of how to handle moving a game from one territory to another. There are none of the “All your base are belong to us” bloopers of previous generations, just universally playable games that bear the irrepressible hallmark of Japanese quality.

So, when you head down to your local interactive digital entertainment emporium this weekend to pick up your sparkling new copy of Pandora’s Tower, tell people about how gamers can band together to do some good, and say a little thank you to the good men and women of Operation Rainfall. And to the translators, voice artists, and the army of other people who’ve been involved in reshaping and refining it for your sensitive Western eyes and ears. A lot of work has gone into getting that game onto that shiny plastic disc, and if this was the old days you’d have had to travel half way across the world and learned a new language just to be able to play it.

Pandora’s Tower is on sale now.