While these days it's not that hard finding violent, mature titles on Nintendo consoles, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that wasn't the case. And when you did find them, well, some "changes" had been made.
As anyone around in and gaming during the time can probably remember, it was a strange era for the Kyoto-based giant. On the one hand, it was enjoying global dominance with its Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which was seeing a breadth and quality of games few systems in history can match.
Yet on the other, and as we'll show with some examples, it was a company struggling with the fact global dominance meant being exposed to the global market. And in some places on the globe, people like their video games to have blood. And Nazis.
In 1993, the two biggest franchises on the planet were Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Both fighting game series were making appearances on the Super Nintendo and its rival console, the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, and while the SNES version of Street Fighter II Turbo was widely seen as the superior version, the same cannot be said of the SNES version of Mortal Kombat.
While it featured what most would call "better" graphics and sound (a relative thing), it was missing something. Something vital for a Mortal Kombat game: blood.
Fearing for its reputation as a "kids friendly" console, Nintendo had censored the game's notorious levels of violence. Splashes of red blood - which were featured in the Genesis version - were replaced with sweat, and Mortal Kombat's defining "fatality" special moves were toned down so they no longer featured gore.
It remains as one of the most defining moments in any "console war" scenario, as while the majority of multiplatform titles at least try and remain equal in terms of features, this gave Sega a clear advantage: if you wanted the real Mortal Kombat, you had to get the Genesis version.
While it sounds slightly farcical, it was actually policy for Nintendo of America, set in stone with its developers and third-party publishers by the following decree:
Nintendo of America's priority is to deliver high quality video game entertainment for our customers. When those customers are children, parental involvement in their game playing is recommended. Nintendo is concerned that our products do not contain material that society as a whole deems unacceptable.
Consequently, since 1988 we have consistently tested the content of all games developed for Nintendo systems against our evolving game standards. As our business has matured, we have adapted our guidelines to meet the concerns of the members of our target age group and their parents. Although we realize that definitions of social, cultural and political views are highly subjective, we will continue to provide consumers with entertainment that reflects the acceptable norms of society.
The following Game Content Guidelines are presented for assistance in the development of authorized game paks (i.e., both Nintendo and licensee game paks) by defining the type of content and themes inconsistent with Nintendo's corporate and marketing philosophy. Although exceptions may be made to preserve the content of a game, Nintendo will not approve games for the NES, Game Boy or Super NES systems (i.e., audio-visual work, packaging, and instruction manuals) which:
- include sexually suggestive or explicit content including rape and/or nudity; (1)
- contain language or depiction which specifically denigrates members of either sex; (2)
- depict random, gratuitous, and/or excessive violence; (3)
- depict graphic illustration of death; (4)
- depict domestic violence and/or abuse; (5)
- depict excessive force in a sports game beyond what is inherent in actual contact sports; (6)
- reflect ethnic, religious, nationalistic, or sexual stereotypes of language; this includes symbols that are related to any type of racial, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic group, such as crosses, pentagrams, God, Gods (Roman mythological gods are acceptable), Satan, hell, Buddha (7)
- use profanity or obscenity in any form or incorporate language or gestures that could be offensive by prevailing public standards and tastes; (8)
- incorporate or encourage the use of illegal drugs, smoking materials, and/or alcohol (Nintendo does not allow a beer or cigarette ad to be placed on an arena, stadium or playing field wall, or fence in a sports game); (9)
- include subliminal political messages or overt political statements (10)
As such, Mortal Kombat had been far from the only title to suffer from this kind of censorship at the hands of Nintendo. The American versions of titles like Shadowrun and Final Fantasy had to remove all mention of bars. Bionic Commando was full of swastikas that had be edited. Super Castlevania IV also suffered at the hand of the censor's knife, with crosses present in the Japanese version removed from the American edition's tombstones (a fate shared by, of all games, Ducktales), exposed breasts on statues covered up and even the word "dracula" (or "dracura" as it was in the game) smudged out.
Nintendo's crusade against all things adult and mature would reach its ridiculous peak, though, with the 1993 release of Wolfenstein 3D. The classic PC shooter, which has you fighting your way through a castle full of Nazis, was edited so much by Nintendo of America that it may as well have been a different game.
All depictions of the swastika from the PC version were removed. And there were a lot of them. All blood in the game was, like with Mortal Kombat, replaced with sweat. Your opponents now shout in poorly-recorded English instead of the German shouts of the original. What would have been the most ridiculous change of all - turning the game's German Shepard attack dogs into giant mutant rats - is actually eclipsed by the decision to give all portraits of Adolf Hitler in the game a shave, so that his trademark "toothbrush" moustache is no longer visible.
This SNES port was a laughing stock, and coupled with the fact the console really couldn't do the PC game's technology justice led to it being a sales failure for Nintendo, developers id and its publisher, Imagineer.
While Nintendo believed its motives were sound, the public - and especially their fans - had by now grown sick of the company's meddling. Former Nintendo of America boss Howard Lincoln said of the time "Instead of getting a lot of letters back from parents praising our position, we got a huge amount of criticism — not only by gamers, but even by parents saying that we had set ourselves up to be censors."
By the next year, with the release of Mortal Kombat II, Nintendo had backed down from its conservative family-friendly policy, and the blood and gore was back in full effect. From then on, it would be the ESRB, parents and mature consumers themselves who would decide what was appropriate content for a video game, not the overbearing concerns of a platform holder.
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.