Patrick Hope: Remembering a localization company
This may come as a shock, but video games used to have really poor translations when they were brought over from Japan.
But even in the dark age of localizations, there were a couple of bright lights. One was the team at Square headed by Ted Woolsey, which translated some of the best and most influential RPGs ever and taught us about spoony bards and sons of submariners. The other was the original niche localization company, Working Designs.
Working Designs was founded in 1986 to bring over Japanese games that wouldn’t otherwise get releases in America. As most major releases were picked up by other publishers, Working Designs almost always localized obscure games, focusing on the shoot-em-up, role-playing games and strategy genres.
The company also preferred to work on disc-based consoles, resulting in their staying away from Nintendo completely and instead working with Sega, Sony, and NEC, makers of the TurboGrafx-16 and Turbo CD systems. All in all, when Working Designs closed its doors in 2005, it had released 29 games in North America, with its best known products including the cult classic Lunar series of RPGs, Zelda clone Alundra, and the first American entries in the Arc the Land and Growlanser strategy series.
As noted previously, one of the ways in which the Working Designs games stood out was in their translations. A Working Designs translation was always incredibly well-done, with few to no grammatical mistakes or instances of awkward phrasing and most famously, a healthy dose of humor. In one early scene in traditional RPG Albert Odyssey for the Sega Saturn, the protagonist is presented with the choice of giving a drunk some money for some hot info. A regular game would present the choices as “yes” or “no.” Albert Odyssey presents your options as “Give him the money” or “Give him the finger.”
Action RPG Popful Mail for the Sega CD features villains named Nuts Cracker and Muttonhead. The character of Bonaire in Alundra is made into a laidback surfer dude. The first Lunar game has a Bill Clinton joke. Even today these translations stand as a testament to what a localization team can do when it collectively wants to try to make a game’s experience special.
Just a great script that was clearly worked for the American audience would have been enough, but Working Designs went the extra mile in preparing its games, adding production values largely unheard of in Western games at the time. English voice acting? Done. Including the full-length animated cutscenes included in games like Magic Knight Rayearth on the Saturn and Popful Mail and voicing them in English? Done. Including full production numbers, translating them and then having someone sing them in English, which happens in Lunar and Magic Knight Rayearth? Done. We take things like voice acting and cutscenes for granted in today’s gaming world, but this was cutting edge in the mid ‘90s when Working Designs doing it. These inclusions all added up to making playing a Working Designs game a memorable experience.
Finally, Working Designs was known for its really nice packaging and early forays into collector’s editions. While there are more collector’s editions today than you can shake a stick at, the inclusions of soundtrack CDs, hardcover manuals, and other goodies into the PS1 versions of both Lunar games and the Arc the Lad Collection were extremely novel.
Even on games without collector’s editions, Working Designs never skimped on its manuals and packaging, giving us high-quality, informative manuals that not only ran through all of the game’s mechanics, but even a note from the company’s president on the last page of every one that discussed the changes the company made from the Japanese version. This was going beyond the call of duty in informing the player and again helped contribute to a special experience.
When Working Designs closed its doors in 2005, it was a sad day for its dedicated fanbase. In an interview conducted with Edge Magazine in December of that year, Working Designs President Victor Ireland lamented that with how corporate gaming had gotten at that point, he didn’t see how, now that his company had shut down, a lot of obscure Japanese games would get pushed forward to new audiences in the West.
Luckily, companies like Xseed and Aksys have picked up the mantle and America gets its fair share of quirky Japanese RPGs, fighters, RPGs and strategy games, complete with great, sometimes humorous, translations and bulky collector’s editions. In 2010, Xseed even released the PSP port of Lunar.
At the end of every single Working Designs manual, Ireland thanked the fans, saying “we are nothing without you.” While fan support wasn’t enough to keep Working Designs afloat, it did show there is indeed a market for the niche titles the company originally brought over, paving the way for today’s publishers.
Working Designs was ahead of its time and any gamer that enjoys those niche genres definitely owes them a debt of gratitude.