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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

What’s in a name?

When it comes to videogames, the title is literally everything. It must stick inside the player’s head and stay there for eternity 🙂  The title becomes the brand, leading to franchises, sequels, merchandising, and maybe possibly stuffed animals! When I worked at Taito Software in North Vancouver from 1988 to 1990, my American boss Alan Fetzer taught me that videogame titles could only be a maximum of four syllables – no more. Just think about some of the most well-known videogame franchises in the world:

Mario – Zelda – Metroid – Sonic – FIFA – Halo – Call of Duty

Need for Speed – Warcraft – Diablo – Gears of War

 Metal Gear – Kirby – Pokemon – Angry Birds

I think you get the idea. A successful videogame name is short, sweet, and creates an image that stays with you for a long time.

I had the privilege of creating several titles for published videogames. I can tell you that dreaming up the name for a videogame isn’t easy. There is so much riding on it. A great name that grabs people’s attention creates buzz. A terrible name will hang around your neck like the proverbial millstone. A ton of money gets spent on videogame promotion – it’s critical to have a great sounding title. However, what matters more than anything else is the gameplay.

The first videogame title I created was for the Japanese sequel to The Legend of Kage (pronounced KAGE, not CAGE) for NES, which Taito released in 1987. Some of you might remember the flying ninja who madly rotated his blade like a lawnmower. Taito Japan created an awesome sequel which had four stages and sixteen levels, with beautiful cinematic sequences.. Taito Software decided to release a North American version. I was asked to submit a set of possible titles in 24 hours. I grabbed several sheets of paper and brainstormed 48 different names. From this list, the title Demon Sword was chosen. Later on, I created the titles Wrath of the Black Manta, The Flintstones – The Treasure of Sierra Madrock, and The Jetsons – Invasion of the Planet Pirates.

So, how did Lufia and The Fortress of Doom get chosen? Well, the story goes something like this. It was definitely the burning question with Taito Japan about what to call this game for the North American market. My managers agreed that the Japanese title Estpolis was out of the question. I didn’t like the title; I knew American videogamers wouldn’t get it, either. I was asked to come up with a name. The way I looked at it was that the entire adventure wasn’t about the player – it had nothing to do with you being Maxim’s descendant. That was different for an SNES rpg at the time. The story was ultimately about this young girl named Lufia and her connection to the Sinistrals. I put it to Taito Japan that we simply call the game Lufia. I felt that the name could stand alone by itself and would be instantly recognizable. I believed the title could be the start of a successful series (was I prescient, dear Lufia fans? 🙂 ) I received the green light to call the game Lufia. Ultimately,Taito America was responsible for approving the name because it was their product. I sent a fax with my recommendation.

Taito America didn’t like Lufia.

To be specific, they thought the name by itself wouldn’t resonate with North American videogamers. I argued that there was already a precedent with Nintendo games like Mario, Metroid, and Zelda. They countered that those games were already well-established Nintendo titles; Lufia was completely unknown to the market. Taito America told me they would reply in a few days. It actually took a full week before they offered their solution.

They wanted to call the game – Lufia and the Fortress of Doom.

My first reaction was that I wanted to gag. Taito Japan was aghast. I recognized immediately that the subtitle was a clear adaptation of the movie title Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  In 1989, Taito Software released the NES title Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The rationale for the subtitle from the American perspective was that the story revolved around the Sinistrals and the Doom Fortress, although I strongly suspected they didn’t play deeply enough into the game to understand the story of Lufia. Taito America felt it would resonate better with the American audience that simply calling it Lufia.

The Japanese taught me that there are times when you must compromise to achieve a larger goal. I succeeded in naming the game Lufia, and we added the subtitle to get Taito America’s buy-in for publishing it. Looking back, I think it was a worthwhile bargain.

Next time – The race to the 1993 Summer Consumer Electronics Show

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

If there is one fault Japanese videogame publishers have to this day, it’s the myth that they know videogames better than anyone else. Because of their historical success with coin-operated arcade titles, followed by the Nintendo and Sega and Playstation videogame consoles, Japanese business managers in videogame companies like to think that the reason for their success is their all-knowing expertise. This myth goes along with another one that still exists – that Japanese videogamers are inherently better than North American players. I had to contend with this mythology as the sole non-Japanese employee at the Taito R&D facility. On the one hand, as a Taito employee from North America, I was an immense asset to the development team. On the other, I was viewed as an outsider. In any case, I had to prove myself in what were challenging circumstances.

The following weekend in mid-March, I headed out for the world famous Akihabara electronic district in northeast Tokyo – what was then six square blocks of consumer electronic madness in over 430 stores. Standing there on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of packed crowds, I couldn’t believe I was really there. But indeed I was. My mission was clear – find a videogame shop that sold imported titles from the United States. It took about a half hour of searching, but eventually I discovered a second floor store up a narrow flight of stairs. It was full of titles from around the world for different platforms. I quickly snatched up copies of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and and Final Fantasy II. They weren’t cheap either – about 9,000 yen ($90) each. When I bought them, I suddenly realized that I was going to need some kind of converter for my Japanese Super Famicom in my apartment. Japanese titles were cased in oval packages. USA titles didn’t fit the Super Famicom. So I spent another 4,000 yen on a converter made by Hudson ($40). My gamble was already proving to be expensive.

I still have my Japanese Super Famicom and a small library of Japanese games. I also have my Super NES and about 35 titles.

I arrived home at my apartment in Hamadayama, a small town in western Tokyo located in Suginami (“Cedar Wave”) Ward, and started playing Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. To my disappointment, I polished off the game in just over two hours. It was a short plot, with chunky characters, a clunky combat system, and not very challenging monsters. But that was the point of this Square title. They claimed it was made for beginners who were not used to the Final Fantasy series. I thought it was a rushed title to fill their quota for North American releases. On Sunday, I started playing Final Fantasy II and realised how similar it was to the original NES version of Dragon Warrior, only with slightly better screen scrolling, music, and sound. The combat system was a step up. I took the game at a slightly slower pace, but I managed to finish it within two days. After playing the two games, I wrote up a report and met with my managers. Once again, I emphasized how much better Estpolis looked and played than the Final Fantasy titles. I gave them direct examples about combat, graphics, music, sound, and player interface. I pointed out the difference between Square’s limited text and our ability to tell a proper adventure story. I said they had something unique on their hands; we had a great opportunity to release something special.

Taito Japan was nervous about releasing an rpg videogame overseas because the company was not known for roleplaying titles. The last Taito rpg title sold in North America before Lufia and the Fortress of Doom was Dungeon Magic for the NES (another title I still own with my original NES). That game barely broke even, so I understood why Taito wasn’t keen about a SNES rpg. However, in a rare moment of opportunity, I was asked to talk with Taito America and see what they thought. Several of the key Taito America staff were good friends of mine, so they were excited to hear I’d found something interesting because they were looking for one more title to fill the product release schedule. My Taito America counterpart Larry Stalmah asked me to send him an EPROM set so he could play the game. I transmitted the game code over a dial up network to Taito America. He got back to me one day later and said he wanted to release a North American version. Larry would take care of convincing Taito Japan’s directors about getting approval for localizing the title.

Now I had an ally at Taito America.

Next time – How we decided on the title ‘Lufia and the Fortress of Doom

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

The Doctor has been thinking about pixels. Those tiny sparkling lights that dance and weave all over your screen. They pirouette, shimmer, and twirl in my dreams, carrying me far away across the digital sea.

Why is the Doctor thinking about pixels, you may ask?

This week I received an extraordinary video that made me wax nostalgic about all the great titles I was lucky enough to be involved with over my two decades as a game developer:

I love how this video incorporates famous video games into the narrative. What amazed me was that I have some direct connections with three of them. Space Invaders was created by Toshihiro Nishikado of Taito Corporation. I was extremely fortunate to know this man and work with him as an associate producer during my time with Taito in Japan. He was a very quiet sort of guy who smoked alot, but he understood game development very well. We once had a heated discussion over the quality of fighting combo game play for the Super Nintendo title Sonic Blastman 2. But that was the rarity. He was actually very accommodating and provided me with the opportunity to champion the development of Lufia & The Fortress of Doom for Europe and North America. I also visited Nintendo of Japan in Kyoto on several occasions, where I met Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Donkey Kong, Mario, Metroid, and Zelda. I first experienced the legendary Donkey Kong arcade game beside the butcher counter at a small grocery store at the Cadboro Bay Village in Victoria, BC in 1981. It’s fair to say that my long affinity with video games started in that shop.

Tetris was created by Alexi Pajitnov. I’ll never forget how I met him at the 1989 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. I was demonstrating Taito’s arcade conversion of Puzznic for the Nintendo Entertainment System. A bearded gentleman walked up and started asking questions about the game. I passed over the joypad and invited him to play. After a few minutes, I looked at his CES identity badge and realized who it was. We spent the next ten minutes having a long conversation about Puzznic and the history of Tetris.

During my time at Taito , I worked on many different versions of Arkanoid. I worked on conversions for the Amiga, Apple II, Atari ST, Commodore 64, and IBM. I’m most proud of Arkanoid DOH it Again for the Super Nintendo. When I first arrived in Japan, I was asked by my Japanese managers to help re-design it. Because I knew the game and its lore inside out, I set to work in trying to recreate the arcade experience. We even managed to incorporate a level construction set and some nice cinematics into the final product. Nintendo of America wanted to give the game an eight page spread for its magazine Nintendo Power. Only exceptional titles received that much coverage.

Since I saw Froggie jumping his way through the streets of New York City, what better way to end this story than with Buckner & Garcia’s take on Konami’s swampy arcade classic.

Go Froggie go! You gotta’ keep on hoppin’ til’ you get to the top!

Doctor Arkanoid

You Twitter kids get off of my lawn! Darned I-Pod huggin’ text monkeys!

What does Twitter have to do with video games you may ask? Well, I suspect that I might indirectly be responsible for this latest information technology mocha latte’ du jour that is all the rage across the blogosphere and the media. In 1993, I was in Japan working on the Super Nintendo fantasy role playing game Lufia & The Fortress of Doom (known in Japan as ‘Estpolis‘). The game program code allowed me to write English story text in four lines of 28 characters per line, for a total of 112 characters (you Twitter kids are so spoiled with your whopping 140 characters!). Is it a co-incidence that Twitter was developed by 20 somethings who would have been children when Lufia came out?

Yes! I confess! I deliberately planted the seeds of Twitter into impressionable young minds, knowing that one day my plans of world domination through mindless text messaging would succeed!

(Insert maniacal evil laughter into this conversation)

Alright, perhaps I’m stretching the truth a ‘little’ bit, but you can’t deny the popularity of Twitter these days. That’s why I thought I’d share with you a brilliant satire about this latest fad.

Honestly, what’s next? Monkeys texting each other? Wait a minute….

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.