Back before many Japanese publishers even considered having full-time localization staffs, Nintendo’s Treehouse was delivering high-quality translations like A Link to the Past and EarthBound. But it was actually the over-the-top, humor-filled translation of the Mario & Luigi series that really put the localization team on the map for most gamers.
With the latest installment, Bowser’s Inside Story, set for release today, Bitmob got the chance to talk to Nintendo senior localization manager Nate Bihldorff about the challenges of translating the series’ wacked-out humor, whether it’s possible to live up to previous games, and what Nate thinks about Bitmob co-founder Dan Hsu’s grudge against Advance Wars character Jake.
Bitmob: From a localization perspective, how did Bowser’s Inside Story differ from previous games you’ve worked on? What, if any, were the particular challenges with this project?
Nate Bihldorff: Well, all of the Mario RPGs differ from our other projects by the simple fact that they’re so humor-based. As such, this game presented the normal challenges of capturing the fun and hilarity of the Japanese game without baffling or alienating our audience.
Bitmob: Any time you’re localizing a Japanese game, there will always be jokes or plot points that get lost in translation, and sometimes you’ll have to get pretty creative to make sure the intent of the original text is translated correctly. Were there any jokes or plot points that were particularly difficult to translate in this game?
NB: There were a few — one that sticks out in my mind involved this section of the game where Bowser sneezes a lot. It’s actually a crucial part of the game — he sniffs certain flowers, and then Mario and Luigi play a minigame where they bounce pollen into his nasal membranes to make him sneeze, at which point Bowser’s mammoth sneezes cause all sorts of environmental destruction.
In any case, apparently there’s a Japanese superstition that when you sneeze, it means someone is talking about you. Bowser makes a number of references to this, and I just had to wipe all those out and replace them with stuff that would make sense to our audience — there was no way to salvage them without weighing down the dialogue.
Bitmob: The Mario & Luigi series has seen some of the Treehouse’s more memorable lines, such as the hilarious Fawful and the leetspeak-ing Hammer Bros. But with the fans expecting that level of creativity each time around, do you feel the need to “top yourselves” with something special like that with the new game?
NB: I think you’ll find that anyone worth their salt in a creative job will always want to top themselves, and it’s certainly true all the way up the ladder here, from the development team to our localization staff. The sad truth is that no matter how awesome or funny a game is, the audience gets inured to it — it’s like eating the best chocolate chip cookie of your life, then eating another one. It’s still good…but not quite as good. So you need to find new, even more delicious ingredients to stick in the next cookie. I’m hoping we’ve stuck enough in there to surprise every player out there.
Bitmob: The Mario & Luigi games give you the opportunity to go a little crazy with the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom. But even in a game like this, does everything have to be cleared with the developers in Japan — even Shigeru Miyamoto himself — or do you guys pretty much have free rein to take the dialogue wherever you need to take it?
NB: Obviously the developers are reading every word we write, and our number-one priority on this and every game is to preserve their vision while maximizing the enjoyment of our own audience.
That said, since I’ve worked with the developers on all three Mario & Luigi games, I think we’ve built a solid foundation of trust — they know that any changes I make will be for the ultimate good of the game, and that I would never insert anything that would compromise the quality of the series or the legacy of Mario.
Since we’re in such close communication throughout development, any issues that come up on either side of the pond get debated until both sides are happy.
Bitmob: Not to spoil the game for readers, but based on plot descriptions, we can expect Fawful’s return in Bowser’s Inside Story. Is there any pressure to make him live up to his previous incarnations, and how do you guys determine whether he meets those expectations, since I’m sure that you don’t want the message boards crying out that, “Fawful isn’t as funny in this game!” And since a lot of the same characters are returning, are you using the same core localization team as previous games?
NB: As I just mentioned, I worked on all three of the games in this series, and there’s always a nagging fear that a new iteration won’t live up to the last. As anyone who writes creatively knows, you never get comfortable — if you do, you’ll just get complacent, and staying hungry is what keeps the creative juices flowing. Fortunately, the source material is so inherently funny that I’d have to actively work to leech the funny out of it, so I’m pretty confident that even the most jaded message board gamer will find a smile or two in there…even if they don’t admit it.
Bitmob: On a similar note, Super Paper Mario featured one of the Treehouse’s most famous pieces of dialogue in recent memory: “I like going on message boards and complaining about games I’ve never played!” Was this a direct response to fan criticism, or was it a more lighthearted line that players have made too big a deal of? After all, some players felt like it was attacking the core, nerdy audience!
NB: That line was in the Japanese! I wish we could take credit for it, but that was all [developer] Intelligent Systems — as you might imagine, the phenomenon of the message-board complainer is not unique to America. It was definitely meant to be completely lighthearted, so I feel bad if anyone took it too seriously — the character of Francis was intended to be the very acme of video game/anime nerdiness, so we obviously turned the volume up as far as we could with his lines. Believe me, we have no illusions about our own nerdiness over here, and poking fun at ourselves is a time-honored pastime.
Bitmob: While your localizations receive a lot of praise, you do have your share of critics who feel that the Treehouse takes too many liberties with translations. Trace Memory is a specific example where the protagonist’s attitude was changed from the original Japanese, as it was felt she needed to be more skeptical in the North American version.
How would you respond to those who criticize Treehouse localizations as straying too far from the original Japanese and becoming too “Americanized”?
NB: Not having worked on Trace Memory or having the benefit of playing it in Japanese, I can’t really speak to those specific criticisms, but we always try to strike a balance between honoring the developer’s original intent and making the game work for our market.
As with anything in entertainment, the results will resonate with some people and not work for others. We obviously hope that everyone will love the finished product, but thinking that our work will please 100% of the population isn’t realistic. Hopefully we bring more smiles than frowns, though.
Bitmob: Bitmob co-founder Dan Hsu, despite being a huge fan of the Advance Wars franchise, has been highly critical of the series’ seemingly endless chatter and over-the-top characters — particularly laid-back Jake in Dual Strike. Obviously, games like Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario rely on their humor to appeal to players, but since most play Advance Wars for the strategy, not the plot, is there any concern that you’re devoting too many resources to the localization in a case like that?
Ah yes, Jake, the lightning rod. We’ve produced many characters over the years that are simultaneously loved and hated — you’ll find that Jake actually has a large and vocal fan club to match Dan’s Down with Jake Club — and that’s just the nature of the business. As far as devoting localization resources, it’s a non-issue — it’s not like we decided to add a bunch of lines. All the chatter is already there in the Japanese, and it’s our responsibility to take the developer’s game and translate all of it.
Occasionally we can trim a bit here and there, but by and large, we work with what we’ve got and try to make it the best we can. I’ll make sure to pass on Dan’s request for much more Jake dialogue to the developer, don’t worry.
Bitmob: I always enjoy checking out the differences in how various companies do localization, and sometimes — particularly in the case of you guys and Atlus — I take away lessons that I can use on my own projects. Do you ever play any other company’s games to get a sense of how they do localization, or do you try to stick with what works for you guys?
NB: I play other company’s games just because I like games, but it’s impossible to turn off a localizer’s eye when I do so. I find flaws, of course, but I also find much to admire, and constantly take away lessons for my own work. As with all things in life, you shouldn’t ever believe you’ve learned all there is to learn — that sort of arrogance only leads to stagnation.
Bitmob: I’ve done some localization work myself over the years, and one thing that helps is that when I look over a character’s description, I try to relate them to people I know in real life or famous people, since I like to “become” a character when I write the dialogue and get inside their head. Do you guys ever take similar inspiration? For example, is Shaquille O’Neal the perfect personality match for one of Bowser’s henchmen? And if so, anything in particular we should keep an eye out for in Bowser’s Inside Story?
NB: That’s interesting — I guess I don’t take many cues from real life for this series, just because the characters are larger than life, and I want them to resonate with as many people as possible. If I do anything, I take caricatures and try to blow them up even bigger, so people will say, oh yeah, that guy’s a hippie, or those guys are frat boys, or that dude loves picking fights. There’s often not a lot of dialogue there to paint the character’s personality, so we have to maximize the impact with a minimum of text.