For those who grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, video games and Japan can be seen as synonymous with one another. While video games were not a Japanese invention, it was only after the video game crash of 1983 in North America that the medium shifted east and found its new (or for many true) home in Japan. For over 20 years Japan remained at the center of the medium, but even though today its influence is not as all-encompassing as it once was, its early legacy still permeates the medium.
Mia Consalvo has provided a densely packed exploration of how Japan's video games have traveled to the West and what the Japanese industry has been doing in order to compete and remain relevant in response to the rise of the North American industry. Consalvo manages both to provide historical insights into the shifts that have taken place within the medium as well as explore the implications of the actions taken by Japanese publishers and developers in their efforts to remain on terms.
Even though the focus is on Japanese video games, Consalvo's book is primarily about how they arrived in the West and what state they were in when they did. Video games, like all media products, tend to go through some kind of cultural appropriation, and this is nothing new. For example, when the original Japanese film Gojira (1954) was brought to the United States and was dubbed into English, it was renamed Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). The same process also saw the removal of many of the political, social and antinuclear elements that were significant in the original film and helped define it. Furthermore, it also received new specially created footage, which introduced an American journalist as the embedded narrator.
Similar processes occur with video games that have come to the West, particularly during the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which itself was renamed and redesigned for the West from its original version, the Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom), in order to be more appealing and familiar to Westerners. Often at the behest of the Japanese publishers, video games had aspects of the story, character names or religious references changed or were removed. This was under the assumption that the Western market, in particular North America, would be reluctant to embrace something that was unfamiliar to them. However, due to the technical limitations of the time, the stories were very basic, making the changes less noticeable or impactful upon the experience. As the technical prowess of the medium grew exponentially, however, so too did the video games themselves, bringing with them new complications when it came to localizing. For some video games (particularly roleplaying games [RPGs]) the sheer amount of text, and later voiceover, made the process of localization, let alone translation, very difficult and also costly.
Consalvo identifies the implications that these additional costs have had and the subsequent reluctance to risk that have informed many Japanese publishers/developers at some point. In doing so she focuses on the response made by both specialist Western companies that have worked with smaller Japanese developers to bring their games to the West, as well as "ROM Hackers" who are fans who have worked unofficially to provide translations for games that have failed to leave Japan. The latter group is fascinating, as these people operate in a legally precarious position, as they are working with other company's intellectual property (IP) and nearly always without their permission or blessing. Yet the fan translators are persistent in their aims, and some, such as the Mother 3 translators at Starmen.net, state that if an official translation is ever released then they will remove their work from their site (which they did for their Mother 1 translation when it finally came to the West 26 years after it was released in Japan).
Such attitudes suggest the devotion and goodwill of fans, but also their commitment toward both Japanese...