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Lufia packaging originally designed by Taito Japan in 1993

Lufia packaging originally designed by Taito Japan in 1993

In mid-April, 1993, Taito Japan decided to green light the North American localization of Lufia and the Fortress of Doom for SNES. I felt kind of a rush when I was told about the go-ahead. This was the first time in my life that I successfully championed a major release title for publishing. My intuition for selecting great games was validated. Little did I know that there was more going on below the surface. My Japanese managers congratulated me on being so tenacious. Then they informed me that I was responsible for localizing the game.

Having the responsibility of localizing Lufia was a double-edged sword.  Taito was making a big investment to publish this game in North America. I was now the point man between Taito America, Taito Japan, and Nintendo America for this game meeting all the development and submission requirements. If this game missed its deadlines, or if Nintendo failed to approve its submission, then my head was on the chopping block. I was also responsible for working with the Neverland team and the Taito QA team. Neverland was easy to work with. The Taito QA team were difficult – they didn’t like being told what to do by someone they viewed as an ‘outsider’. It was an eye-opening experience about international relations.

I won’t get into all the nitpicky development details. Taito America wanted Lufia and the Fortress of Doom ready for the 1993 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, which was held in mid-June. Nintendo wanted the beta evaluation EPROM set and full game documentation by early July. I had slightly less than two months to get the translations completed, documentation written, game packaging organized, and ‘cultural issues’ in the game revised. What were the cultural issues? Nintendo’s submission guidelines for SNES games were very strict. Games were prohibited from showing all kinds of things that could be construed as offensive. In Estpolis, the Sinistral Shrine originally displayed a Christian crucifix on the altar (no religious symbolism allowed). I’ll never forget how the Taito Japan team wondered why Americans would be so sensitive about a crucifix in a videogame. References to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, or sexual suggestiveness were taboo. Estpolis originally contained a tobacco reference, a few alcoholic references, and one particularly famous drug reference involving my favourite video game odd couple – Aguro and Jerin.

Here’s one of their famous ‘discussions’ starting at 02:50:

I really liked the character of Jerin – she was the precocious, stubborn sister to Aguro’s brave and stoic sense of duty. But man, could those two argue with each other! Jerin always managed to needle Aguro in the just the right place. Of course, she was also a bit of a brat. I’m sure the die-hard Lufia fans remember the famous exchange between them about that magical tonic to make Jerin’s hair grow. In the original Estpolis dialogue, it had nothing to do with hair. The potion was meant to make women’s breasts grow bigger. I still remember Jerin’s famous last words on the subject:

“Right. We’re not here to talk about breasts!”

My Australian translator Dianne and I snorted in laughter when we read that line. She was an awesome Japanese translator and a wonderful friend. We spent many hours reviewing the dialogue, changing names, and looking for cultural fixes. She was a joy to work with. I learned that there were quite a few Australians in Japan who were masterful Japanese translators.

My biggest challenge was rewriting the story of Lufia for a North American audience. It was a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, I needed to stay within the story guidelines of the original Estpolis. I couldn’t make wholesale story changes. Then there were the expectations of the North American audience, many of whom were fantasy RPG fans. The big advantage given to me by the game was having a text buffer for 112 ASCII characters. I could write the story of Lufia so it read like a real fantasy adventure. In 1993, this feature was something new and unique. I  was also responsible for reviewing the names of every item, every weapon, every spell, every town, and every special game location. By the time we finished translation, the complete rewrite document for Lufia was contained on 112 pages of 8.5″ X 11″ paper.

Of course, guess who was responsible for typing all the ASCII characters and saving several hundred text files for the game? I spent many long spring evenings getting everything completed.

Next Time – Lufia and the Fortress of Doom debuts at the Summer CES Show

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

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There are very few veterans in the videogame industry today who have been around as long as Don Mattrick. Don is pretty much responsible for launching the rise of Vancouver, Canada, as one of the world’s pre-eminent videogame development centres from 1999 to 2009. Back in the early 1980’s, he and his friend Jason Sember were a couple of gawky teenagers who created a hit arcade action title called Evolution. Don created Distinctive Software in 1983, which later would become Electronic Arts Canada in 1991. It’s accurate to say that EA Canada was the incubator that spawned other Vancouver game companies like Radical Entertainment, Barking Dog Studios, Relic Entertainment, Next Level Games, and many other small studios. Don remained at the helm of EA Canada until the fall of 2006, when he was hired by Microsoft to head up the Interactive Entertainment Division and overhaul the Xbox 360.

Today I learned that Don Mattrick left Microsoft and will take over as the new CEO of social game publisher Zynga. At first glance, it seems a bit puzzling to see the glorious Mr. Mattrick leave the Microsoft mothership to head up a failing social game company. What in the name of Master Chief would persuade him to do such a thing?

The answer: XBox One

Like all publicly traded companies, the shareholders expect Microsoft to generate a profit. When Don took over the Xbox division in early 2007, it was bleeding red ink. They were not making money off their software titles  for the then brand new Xbox 360 as expected. There is a fundamental principle in the videogame industry – software drives hardware. If you’re not providing gamers with enough must-have hit titles, your console sales will go down the tubes. When it comes to game software development, Don knows his stuff. He managed to turn the Xbox division around and grow it into a reasonably sucessful subsidiary of Microsoft’s business. But the problem with Microsoft is that at its heart, the company isn’t focused on designing and developing consumer technology products. It started as a computer software company that develops applications and system software – that’s where the majority of its profit centre comes from.

Several weeks ago at E3, Microsoft did a big launch of the XBox One – a machine that looks less like a videogame console and resembles something more like a big, black, oversized DVD player. It also has that creepy HAL 9000 style camera lens for its Kinect player.  If there’s one thing Don Mattrick loves, it’s being the centre of attention. He thrives on being the circus ringmaster. Or in this case, lead frat boy of the game geek fraternity. I’ve been to E3 five times, from 1995 to 2000. In the past 13 years since my last visit to Los Angeles, nothing has changed. It’s the same overblown, overhyped, overpromised medicine show attended by hard core adult male gamers who just want to blow stuff up and eviscerate other players in virtual space. The XBox One show featured overly confident game producer types who lacked any public speaking skills and were utterly wooden in their performances.

Watching Don and his travelling road show praise the Xbox One as the ultimate convergence in home entertainment reminded me of another great company that made the same promises. It was 1999, and the newly appointed President  of Sony Corporation, Noboyuki Idei, said that the new PlayStation Two would usher in a new era in home theatre, linking games, entertainment, and the Internet. It never happened. The embarassing thing about PS2 in Japan when it first appeared was that the Japanese were buying it as a cheap DVD player, not a game console. So here was Microsoft, 13 years later, touting the Xbox One as the convergence of home theatre, online, and television.

I was experiencing deja’ vu. Microsoft made the same mistake Sony did with the PS2. Gamers buy consoles to play games. That’s what it’s all about. A talking box that lets you wave your fingers to watch TV shows isn’t going to be a deal-breaking sales feature. It’s about the games. Period.

Microsoft announced that players had to check in online every 24 hours with their Xbox One to maintain an active connection. I raised an eyebrow. Then they announced that you wouldn’t be able to play with used games or ones provided by your  friends without the appropriate key. That’s when I felt a disturbance in the force. Microsoft was pulling a discrete NSA form of surveillance on the Xbox One gamer community to ferret out piracy. And there was one more thing – this vaunted hallelujah-talking-TV-game console would cost $499.00

Don Mattrick and Microsoft over-reached on trying to control the market for their new console. Sony was about to give them a total face-plant.

To be continued…

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

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Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum!, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum! with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.