Shovel Knight Goes To Japan
July 30, 2016
The localization industry is a fascinating business. There's more to bringing a video game from one country to another than just running the text through Google Translate and then knocking off early for bowling and cheese fries. It's not enough to translate the script; localizers must tweak and tune all kinds of game elements to better fit the target market. Sometimes that means rewriting dialogue to change cultural references. Sometimes that involves altering graphical elements or sound effects to fit into a culture's frame of reference. Sometimes it even means that the developers had a little more time to work on the base game and can improve aspects of it that they felt still needed improvement. Today's modern games have the benefit of decades of localization best practices and history to fall back on, but during the Nintendo Entertainment System era, localizers did sort of just outright translate the script (often poorly!) and call it a day. Yacht Club Games recently brought its NES love letter Shovel Knight to Japan which meant that they needed to localize the game for that market. They split the difference between the modern and the 8-bit era with their process resulting in a Nintendo Famicom-type version of the game that is professionally altered, but keeps the 8-bit era localization effort intact. Check out how far they went with localization studio 8-4 to get it just right.
So when we went about localizing Shovel Knight, we wanted to recreate some of the fun differences you might find between regions. We even went through the process of trying to “reverse” localize it. That meant to us, asking what features Shovel Knight would have had if it started out as a Japanese game. We had a few rules in all our changes though: 1) We wanted the gameplay to remain consistent 2) We didn’t want any significant change that made you feel like you missed out by not playing the original version 3) We didn’t want to do something that was traditionally considered bad localization. To us that meant, no typos or bad English, and nothing that would diminish the quality of the game. We also didn’t want to change too much! In the end, we wanted create a great localization by today’s standards. But we had to add a little fun! So we made a few subtle changes here and there that we think really made a big difference!
Now that there's so much information out there about classic NES games and their Famicom counterparts, it's easy to see that, for instance, Nintendo was able to animate the water on the overworld map in the Japanese version of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link while it's static in the international versions. Likewise, Shovel Knight's Japanese version has animated grass. Just like when I learned about the Zelda II water, I found myself thinking "No fair! Japan has a better version!". That's how authentic this localization process is and I commend Yacht Club Games and 8-4 for their dedication to the craft. Of course, unlike the differences between Zelda II in which the international version has extra bosses, improved music, and other cosmetic upgrades compared to the Japanese original (so overall I did experience the best version of the game when I first played it), in the end I think that the differences in Shovel Knight do not detract from either version of the game. It doesn't feel like anything is missing that would notably impact the game which really is the right way to go about things. They really did follow their own rules. Bowling and cheese fries all around!