They're the people in the shadows. You don't know their names, but you know their words. They localizers, the folks that take games not only from another language, but also another culture and open them up for another audience. "Good translation is tough to quantify," says Tokyo-based localizer Matt Alt. "If it's well done, it sort of disappears. Ideally the person playing the game doesn't even realize they're reading something that wasn't originally written in their native tongue." He runs AltJapan along with his wife (and company president!) Hiroko Yoda out of a small second story office on Tokyo's westside. And with 99.999 percent of the games AltJapan works on that's true. Well, save for one: Ninja Gaiden II.
Since the PlayStation 1 era, the AltJapan team has been working on big AAA titles — games you've probably played. Games like Dragon Warrior VII, Shenmue 2, Monster Hunter, Final Fantasy XI, Dragon Quest VIII and most recently Ninja Gaiden II. Like we said, big famous games that were made by big famous Japanese game designers. "One of the big misconceptions about working in localization is that you have constant face-to-face contact with the game designers and directors," says Alt. "In reality, many times you have very little contact with the people who made the game outside of sporadic emails. The dev team is busy with their own work, trying to make their own milestones. So I can count the times I've met directors of projects we've worked on on one hand. If your deepest desire is to simply speak with star video game directors and designers, you're probably better off going into journalism!" Though, for Ninja Gaiden II, AltJapan was doing more than mere translating.
"I needed a sounding board," says Tokyo based localizer and former Team Ninja member Andrew Szymanski. "So it was great having Matt and Hiroko." Andrew, who joined Tecmo after college and recently left the company last September, did an excellent job localizing the first Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox, but felt it was somewhat stilted. If game development is a group effort, why should localization be solitary? He was able to convince Tecmo and Microsoft to let him bring in Matt and Hiroko for the NGII localization.
It was a reunion of sorts as the trio had previously worked on Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword and Dead or Alive Xtreme 2. "One of the things that helped me convince the higher ups," recalls Andrew, "was that Matt and Hiroko both are authors and write books together." Both are best known for titles like Yokai Attack! or Hello, Please!. "For localization, your skill at writing English is actually more important than your Japanese," says Matt. If you don't know a Japanese word, you can always look it up or ask someone. But if you can't string together a sentence, you can always, no wait, you're screwed.
Team Ninja knew Ninja Gaiden II wasn't aimed strictly at the Japanese market. "The main target for Ninja Gaiden II was the West," says Andrew. "The market is global, and Japan is more global than ever before." And since it's a game targeted for a Western audience, it needed to be written in a Western language: English. The game's story was conceived by Ninja Gaiden II's director Hiroaki Matsui in highly detailed, manga-like stories boards.
But where did former Team Ninja lead ninja Tomonobu Itagaki factor in? According to Andrew: "Itagaki-san's main responsibilities are, of course, overseeing the development of the whole game, but he is often focused on combat design, enemy AI, level design, and other key gameplay elements. He trusts Matsui-san implicitly for art and story direction, and thus we mainly worked with Matsui-san to develop the dialogue, worldview, and key story points. He also relies on my judgement when it comes to the localization and the entire English version of the game as a whole, so it was great having the freedom and support to bring on Matt and Hiroko and create an English script that we were all proud of. It goes without saying that Itagaki-san has final say over everything that goes into the retail game, and it was a tremendously satisfying feeling to hear his words of praise when it came to our finished voiceovers and other localized assets. It was great seeing him say ‘Submit, or die!' in English as he watched the cutscenes!"
At work and after work over bottomless beers, Matsui gave Andrew very vivid instructions of how he envisioned Ninja Gaiden II's story and world. "These Team Ninja guys live and breathe this stuff," says Andrew. "So much stuff happens outside the office because they're always thinking about whatever they're working on." Andrew then typed up a rough English draft. Andrew then reconvened with Hiroko and Matt to punch up the first draft — which was also in English. Meaning? That the script Team Ninja was working from was in English and all the motion capture and voice acting was in English.
Even though it was being written in English, the trio were striving to make sure it stayed in line of what a ninja would actually say. Explains Andrew, "The question we always asked ourselves was ‘Is this ninjy?'" Basically, would a ninja actually say this. Continuing, he adds, "So I ninja would never say ‘I am going to kill you.' Instead, a ninja would says, ‘You will be the bloostains on my blade.' That's ninjy." Andrew, Matt and Hiroko weren't simply pulling out a dictionary and digging through to find words that "match", but rather, entrenching themselves in the game from head to toe and back and again. "The first rule of localization," says Andrew, "is to integrate localization into the development process." But this wasn't *just* localization — Ninja Gaiden II was something else entirely, somewhere between translation, collaboration and straight-up writing.
Ninja Gaiden II is the game as Team Ninja conceived it — no compromises. "It turned out exactly the way we wanted," says Andrew. Team Ninja's plan, the original impetus, was to create a throw-back — you know, a spiritual successor to something you would've played on the Nintendo Entertainment System. "This is a game where ninjas fight dinosaurs," says Andy. "If you can't have fun with that, where can you?"
"The hardest projects I've worked on have been the ones where the client doesn't appreciate the value of a good translation." says Hiroko. "Or ones where the contribution of a native Japanese speaker to the English version isn't appreciated, which happened more often in the early days. The easiest ones are the projects where the dev team welcomes us in as part of the process, because the closer the you can work with the people who designed the game, the smoother the whole process goes."
No matter how good your localization skills are, nothing can compare to working directly with the team that made the game to ensure that their vision makes it to gamers outside Japan. That's exactly what happened with Ninja Gaiden II. If any of the localizers had questions about what the developers originally intended, then Hiroko and Matt could immediately turn to Andrew. If Matt or Andrew had any questions about the intricacies of Japanese culture or nuances, they could refer to Hiroko. "It's so rare that a native Japanese speaker confronts an English speaker about their English translation," says Matt. "I'm not talking about errors, necessarily, but more like nuance." You know, the stuff between the lines, not on the page. The ninjy.