America’s birthday is nearly upon us, and you know what that means: It’s time to loudly blow stuff up so that we can drown out the self-conscious voices in our heads that remind us how weird and bad America can be. In honor of All Of That, this week’s Splitscreen is about how games from other countries get changed to appeal to our delicate American sensibilities—and vice versa.
To kick off the episode, Ash Parrish, Mike Fahey, and I dig into the strangest instances of games being changed for the West, including the “vagina bones” controversy surrounding Tokyo Mirage Sessions back in 2016, Kirby’s angry eyebrows, the original Mega Man’s low-key terrifying box art, the profanity-inspired origin of Pac-Man’s name, Fire Emblem’s gay conversion therapy controversy, and that one time a Mario game almost included blackface.
Then we flip things around and discuss Western games that had to be reconfigured for international audiences. For example, you’d better believe that a whole lot of things pertaining to nukes changed in the Japanese version of Fallout 3, including the name of the weapon for the bomb America dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.
Lastly, inspired by a recently unearthed and extremely questionable Electronic Gaming Monthly review of the original Yakuza, we decide to take a crack at adapting the Japanese mobster game set in Tokyo into something egregiously and sacrilegiously American. Apologies in advance.
Get the MP3 here and check out an excerpt below.
Ash: When I think about things that have been changed to be made palatable for American audiences, the one thing that just comes to my mind—and it’s not necessarily strictly video games—is vagina bones. Who remembers vagina bones?
Nathan: Man, I didn’t even think about that for this episode. What a saga.
Fahey: Oh yeah, the vagina bones from Tokyo Mirage Sessions.
Ash: It’s a thing. I think it happened in Onechanbara, too. But anyway, for those of you who don’t know, god bless you. You have lived a charmed life, and I’m sorry I have to ruin that for you now. But “vagina bones” is a thing gamers made up—weebs had a hand in it too—where you see a woman, and she’s got V-cuts that I guess are supposed to be, like, pubic bones. They call them “vagina bones.” I don’t know why. But for localization from Japan to America, they’ll wipe that out so that the stomach is flat and there’s no depression where the hips meet. And people got all up in arms because they were like, “They took out her vagina bones!” And then everybody had the conversation of “What exactly is a vagina bone?” And that’s fun. That’s always what I think about when I think of localization for America.
Another thing I always think about is Pokémon, with the jelly donuts.
Nathan: Oh yeah, in the anime—when they were clearly onigiri, but characters were like, “We’ve got jelly donuts!”
Ash: I love the fact that when we get stuff that’s localized for America, it just makes it seem like Americans are totally fucking stupid. I guess to be fair, we are. But I don’t know that when I was however old I was when the first Pokémon series came out, that I would have looked at that and thought it was a jelly donut—or would have been completely bewildered if they actually called it what it was, which is a rice ball. Which sounds fucking tasty. A lot more so than a jelly donut; I don’t actually like jelly donuts.
Nathan: You’re reminding me of Yu-Gi-Oh, in which they would censor guns by having people point. In the original version, they’d be holding actual guns, but in the American version, there’d be a big, confrontational scene, and they’d just be pointing at someone for an extended period of time. It’s really funny to me because you’re taking a show made in Japan—where basically nobody has guns—and editing it for a country where basically everybody has guns, and your instinct is to remove the guns.
Ash: When you think of localization for an American audience, what comes to mind?
Nathan: I think there’s a lot of different little strands to the things I’ve been looking at, but my favorite is that they’ve gotta make it tougher and cooler. The best example of this is Kirby’s eyebrows, which have been a thing for about as long as Kirby has been a thing. The basic idea is that on the box art for all American Kirby games, they change almost nothing except that they give him little angry eyebrows. His eyebrows are always slanted down like he’s mad at someone. It’s so at odds with what the games are about. The character is this joyful little pink blob.
So as it turns out, GameSpot asked a Nintendo person about this back in 2014. The response was basically what you’d expect. They do it based on “feedback and insight” from the market. They said specifically that, “What we have heard is that strong, tough Kirby that’s really battling hard is a more appealing [side] of Kirby, so that’s what we feature in the U.S.” He’s gotta be strong and tough. That’s definitely what I think of when I think of Kirby.
Fahey: That’s why he has those really muscular feet.
Ash: Oh no.
Nathan: That’s the real American Kirby. If I can’t see his exposed, muscular feet, I don’t want anything to do with him.
Fahey: When I think about what they’ve changed for American audiences from Japan, I think of most of the RPGs released for the PS1 and PS2 that were 2D, and they decided that Americans wholeheartedly hated 2D and didn’t want any of them. So they just didn’t bring games over because they were 2D and not 3D. But that’s a whole other thing.
My favorite example is the friggin’ Mega Man box art. We have this giant-eyed, awesome robot character in the game, and they brought it over to America and said, “You know what? They want a schlub in a jumpsuit. This is what Americans identify with: a guy in a grungy jumpsuit. Maybe he has a gun.”
Nathan: His sleeves are really doing something. Whatever it is they’re doing, I’ve never seen it replicated in real life. They’re folded in a million different ways that kind of swirl in on each other.
Ash: He’s wearing sweatpants. On his arms.
Nathan: Well I mean, just because somebody is a robot super soldier doesn’t mean they can’t also be comfy.
Fahey: They make sweatshirts. They don’t have to be sweatpants on his arms!
Nathan: They’re sweatpants for arms, Fahey. Catch up.
Ash: Get equipped with: Sweatpants for arms.
For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also, if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at email@example.com if you have questions or to suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!