Nocturnal Revelations: The Legacy of Shin Megami Tensei’s First Localization (Part 3)
It’s the third and final part of our extended look at Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne‘s localization! With the demons and demon races already examined, what could possibly be left, you ask? In fact, an assorted bounty remains: Characters, locations, story-specific terminology, and more—all concluding with a ‘Very Special Topic’ about what was probably the single most contentious localization decision Atlus USA has ever made. It’s too important to miss!
Like the previous sections, the following entries are graded into four categories:
- Localization Highlight (LH): An outstanding example, just as it sounds.
- Good (G): Something that’s perfectly passable but either doesn’t stand out or could be improved.
- Character Limit Victim (CLV): Subjects with tragically lengthy names.
- Error (E): Straight-up localization goofs.
Nocturne’s cast of characters—except for the following two exceptions—are directly transliterated from the source, so there’s really not much to say about them:
DEMI-FIEND: (LH) Admittedly, this article began with the sole intention of highlighting errors and omissions in Nocturne‘s localization. While such gaffes are always more noticeable, as I picked the localization apart I found that there were just as many humdingers as turkeys. “Demi-fiend” is one such humdinger.
It works because it evokes an inversion of the Japanese 人修羅 (hitoshura). The 人, of course, refers to his humanity, but 修羅 are the same kanji in the name of the Buddhist Asura/Ashura (阿修羅). In Buddhism, the Asura are ambivalent characters: at once protectors and actors of carnage. It’s probably easy to see, then, how a “Human-Asura” would make an appropriate Shin Megami Tensei protagonist.
The Asura reference is lost in the English “Demi-fiend,” but the localized name still implies the most important information: Our protagonist is no longer a mere human. Besides, copious narrative context picks up the slack of any remaining ambiguity. Of all the challenges presented by Nocturne‘s localization, I’d wager that the Demi-fiend’s name was one of the decisions most fretted over, so it’s to Atlus USA’s credit that the final choice is unique, memorable, and retains shades of the original meaning. A localization highlight if there ever was one!
CHIAKI HAYASAKA: (CLV) Chiaki is a poor character limit victim, but for a unique reason: The player can change the names of the Demi-fiend and his friends, each having a hard limit of 8 characters for either given name or surname. So, what was the nine-character Tachibana (橘) in the Japanese version became Hayasaka (likely kanji: 早坂) in the localization. And really, nothing of value was lost.
Much like its characters, Nocturne‘s locations are, by and large, districts of a real-world city that can only transliterate. Those that aren’t, like the following, proved to be a little more involved.
LABYRINTH OF AMALA/AMALA NETWORK: (E) As some have long suspected, “Amala” isn’t the correct translation of the Labyrinth—it’s “Amara.” How do we know this for sure? Nocturne‘s Demons Bible lists among an index of game-related terminology the word “Amaravati,” a Buddhist “realm of the deathless” (related etymologically of course is our friend Mara, whose name means “death“). In addition, sometimes you’ll see murmurings that the Labyrinth’s Kalpas should be spelled with a “c” rather than “k,” but the “k” spelling seems to be the predominant romanization.
CATHEDRAL OF SHADOWS: (G) It may be my favorite place in the whole series, but the Cathedral of Shadows is really a prime example of the possibilities of localization choices. Fans know that its Japanese name (邪教の館) approximately translates to “Mansion of Heresy,” a name that’s perhaps more honest with its defining occultisms. But would that really sound that good in English? I’d argue not. “Cathedral” is a lot grander sounding than “Mansion” or “Manor” or however you want to translate it, and, sure, maybe we lost the implications of heresy in the deal, but “Shadows” carries with it an appropriate air of mystery.
The only thing the Cathedral of Shadows name affected wouldn’t come into play until a decade later, when the first Shin Megami Tensei was released in English for iOS—its own final dungeon, the Cathedral, had to be renamed in order to prevent redundancy, hence it was dubbed the “Basilica.”
CANDLELABRUM: (E) Is this the only instance of actual censorship in Nocturne‘s entire localization? Indeed, the Fiends’ luminous accoutrements are not only shaped like Jewish menorahs, they are in fact called so in Japanese, メノラー. This is unfortunate, as the names of the Candlelabra—Beauty, Sovereignty, etc.—are references to the Sephirot of the Jewish Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. By placing the Candlelabra in each of the Labyrinth of Ama(r)a’s Kalpas, the Demi-fiend is participating in the creation of this sacred geometry.
“NAKAMA”: (?) Puns may be one of a localizer’s ultimate frustrations, since they almost never translate 1:1, especially when dealing with languages as distant from each other as English and Japanese. And, for better or worse, puns are pervasive throughout the Japanese language since individual kanji can be read or pronounced in multiple ways. In the Japanese versions of SMT, no example of punning rears its head more often than the term “nakama.”
SMT takes 仲間, that is, “nakama” (a word indicating friendship), slices off the 間, and replaces it with 魔 (yes, MA, that irritatingly pervasive kanji) to form the punny compound “仲魔,” which denotes allied demons. Since there is no feasible way in English to create a portmanteau of “demon” and “friend” that doesn’t come off sounding like a cheese-tastic track title on a Ronnie James Dio B-side, Atlus USA made the only sensible choice available: Axing the pun. We’ve been getting along with pragmatic, functional terms like “demon ally” or just “demon” just fine, thank you very much.
MAGATAMA: (G) The magatama the Demi-fiend ingests are all named after various mythological concepts, though mostly Japanese ones that only need transliteration. Even what was probably the most problematic magatama, Geis, was translated with accuracy despite lacking any context from the Japanese that its name is Irish. The only other potentially questionable magatama, Adama, also seems to be correct: Adama is the name of an Ascended Master of the Lemurian city of Telos (as such, it doesn’t seem to be a reference to the biblical Adam).
The one noteworthy exception is the starter, Marogareh—turns out the “h” on the end is just there for flair. “Marogare” is a legitimate Japanese word that means “to aggregate everything,” like an accumulation of snot; it’s related to “marogu,” which means “round” and uses the same kanji for “yen” (円). “Marogare” is found in the beginning of the Japanese mythic document Nihon Shoki, where it is used in describing the chaos (渾沌, konton; pinyin: hundun) before the creation of the world; this chaos was egg-shaped, very similar to the creation story of Chinese myth. This is remarkably pertinent to the game’s themes and central imagery—and it’s only a name within a gameplay subsystem! Though this reference is one that was obviously lost in translation, it is proof positive of the care and craft that went into Nocturne‘s thematics; mention it the next time you see someone say the game is overrated or has no story!
CONCEPTION/VORTEX WORLD/GREAT WILL: (G) These three are all literal translations of 受胎, ボルテクス界, and 大いなる意思 respectively. Straightforward to understand, no complaints!
MAGATSUHI: (G) Was it right to leave this one untouched? Probably. All the English-speaking player needs to know about Magatsuhi is that parties in the Vortex World want it and will fight over its potency. Any translation of it may have potentially caused confusion: Magatsuhi refers to a kind of spiritual pollution or disorder, usually personified as the gods Izanagi created after he escaped the filth of the Japanese underworld. Though that context is helpful to know, keeping it in Japanese at least leaves the door open for curious parties to search for its exact meaning. Imagine the bewildered general reactions had the word been rendered rough Western cultural equivalent “Sin,” with all the connotations it implies, as the Reason characters articulate their need for these “transgressions” to call their sponsor gods and create their ideal worlds. So why would massive amounts of disorder be needed to create a new world, anyway? Well, the Vortex World is chaotic, you see…
YAHIRONO HIMOROGI: (G) I almost forgot about this one. Understandable, really, since the Yahirono Himorogi (ヤヒロノヒモロギ, kanji: 八尋の神籬) is both a mouthful and a typical MacGuffin. It serves to open the way to the Tower of Kagutsuchi, but its name rarely turns up in Nocturne‘s script. Even though it’s technically a key item, I can’t find fault with its transliteration as its infrequent appearance is nonetheless paired with sufficient plot justification (it contains massive amounts of Magatsuhi, so it’s desirable). A translation probably wouldn’t have provided much useful context for an English audience anyway as the rough meaning of the kanji is the undoubtedly allegorical “altar/shrine of great size/length.” I have no idea how that applies to the handheld, pyramidal Yahirono Himorogi, unless it’s referring to the scale of the Tower of Kagutsuchi it unlocks.
“REASON” & REASON NAMES: (LH) It may seem odd that the term “Reason” was translated, but the individual Reasons, Shijima, Yosuga, and Musubi, were left as-is. This is likely due to how much context is given in the game for each.
“Reason” was probably rendered in English because, while Hikawa and Hijiri DO in fact make some off-hand comments that its usage is synonymic with “ideology,” the word’s ubiquity in the script, even before Hikawa and Hijiri remark, assumes the player will intuit its meaning from itself. Imagine the alternative, with a script that used “Kotowari,” a transliteration of the Japanese word (コトワリ, 理り)—it wouldn’t have sounded nearly as natural and may have required rewriting lines for additional context.
On the other hand, Shijima (黙), Yosuga (縁), and Musubi (結) are each explained during their respective characters’ Reason monologues and even Kagutsuchi’s own comments before the final battle. They still could have been translated, sure, but, compared to “Reason,” there wasn’t the immediate need to infer meaning, and their relative infrequency paired with sufficient elucidation meant these Japanese words would be able to stand on their own as “-isms.”
MA-: (CLV) A commonly known omission in SMT localizations is that the “Ma-” prefix for target-all skills is meant to be “Maha-,” meaning “great” in Sanskrit. But with lengthy skill names like “Mahabufudyne,” there was no way they’d fit within Nocturne‘s stringent character limits. Heck, they probably wouldn’t always work within the slightly more generous modern restrictions, either!
MEGIDOLAON: (G) There’s no skill in the English version of Nocturne that’s longer than 12 total characters, including spaces, with the exception of Metatron’s “Fire of Sinai,” which is 13 including both spaces. However, with variable-width fonts, precise letter counts don’t always matter; Fire of Sinai’s three ultra-skinny letter “i’s” allow it to fit. It would be a waste of time to review every single skill in the game, so let’s just look at one of the longest or, rather, widest. What’s a localizer to do when presented with a skill family like メギド/メギドラ/メギドラオン that contains a mixture of a known word and elements that, by all lack of evidence, appear original? The possibilities included:
- Megiddo; Megiddola; Megiddolaon.
- Megido; Megidora; Megidoraon.
- Megiddo; Megiddora; Megiddoraon.
- Megido; Megidola; Megidolaon.
It may be obvious that this skill family refers to the biblical Megiddo and who knows what a -raon/-laon is supposed to be, but the combination of character restrictions and widths probably made the choices easy for Atlus USA. “Megiddoraon” would be quite the wide load; spelling it “Megidolaon,” on the other hand, effectively cuts off an entire character’s worth of space, possibly just enough to make it work (since I can’t say I know exactly what the limits were). And if the ultimate skill in the sequence has to cut off the extra d of the biblical name, so will the initial skill, just for consistency.
GAEA RAGE: (G) This is a skill that got the Kirby Angry Eyes treatment. Its Japanese form is 地母の晩餐, meaning “Earth/Mother Goddess’ Dinner.” But that doesn’t sound quite so badass even if it does imply something sanguine! Most skill names definitely fall on the “art” end of the “art-science” localization spectrum so this hardly matters so long as it provides enough appropriate context for this, one of the Demi-fiend’s signature moves—and it does! (Plus, using “Gaea” as a short hand for the “earth mother” compound was a nice touch.)
FREIKUGEL: (LH) One of the best localized terms in all of Nocturne. So good, it possibly exceeds the meaning of the original phrase, 至高の魔弾, which means, roughly, “supreme magic bullet.” How is it better than an ultimate enchanted projectile? Because the localizers chose to reference a very specific magic bullet: Indeed, the “Freikugel” (“free bullet”) hails from the German legend of the Freischütz, a marksman who is given six Freikugeln by the devil. The six bullets of the Freischütz never miss their mark, but his Faustian deal of course includes a clause that gives the devil control of a seventh bullet. Extremely appropriate for a skill whose use is punctuated more often than not by piercing Lucifer right through his heart!
If I may get ahead of myself here a bit, Freikugel was retranslated as “Riot Gun” in Strange Journey and remained so until Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse‘s localization…well, one of its two Freikugels, anyway. Yes, Apocalypse actually has two different, identically-named (in Japanese, at least) “supreme magic bullet” skills: one for the normal Gun element and the other for an Almighty version used by the Demi-fiend in the DLC. Only the latter is called Freikugel, as the former retains the name Riot Gun. Hey, at least they recognized the original localization would be too iconic for the Demi-fiend’s skillset to omit! Baby steps.
LIFE STONE: (LH) Almost all of Nocturne‘s consumable items are directly translated, leaving little to remark about them. The ubiquitous Life Stones, however, are noteworthy if only because in Japanese they are yet another term written with the “魔,””MA,” kanji, as 魔石. Though you probably already understand the implication at this point, its translation would be “magic stone” or “demon stone.” For such a minor healing item, I stand 100% behind the decision to make its name more immediately descriptive for players, rather than a name like “Demon Stone” which sounds unfortunately like an affliction of Abaddon‘s gallbladder.
Now, I’ve saved the most important localization choice for last:
SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI (LH, E): 1996 saw Atlus USA’s first attempt to import anything Megami Tensei (let’s ignore Jack Bros. like we usually do) with the infamous Revelations: Persona, a notable example of what happens when mere translation is prioritized over localization, Mark’s whole race change notwithstanding. As emblazoned on the cover, “Revelations” was likely intended to be the adapted franchise title for Shin Megami Tensei outside of Japan. But, as evidenced by the whitewashed content of the game, this period preceding the Final Fantasy VII JRPG boom was judged by Atlus USA at the time as not a particularly bullish one for overtly Japanese content in games; a transliterated Japanese series title was probably out of the question, hence “Revelations.” This was a short-lived idea, as its name would be carried by only one additional game: 1999’s Game Boy Color release Revelations: The Demon Slayer; it was dropped by the time of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment‘s English release the following year.
By Nocturne‘s release in 2004, however, the games industry had shifted and the Japanese video game scene was still vibrant both domestically and in North America. A pertinent barometer of the Eastern zeitgeist in 2004 was July’s Xbox-exclusive Sudeki: a Western-developed title that aped the JRPG look. Another sign of Japanese industry bounty could be found in the harvest of a new frickin’ Gradius game: September’s Gradius V, the final main series Gradius game ever released and one of my favorite game associations of that fall season. But perhaps no examples are more telling than a certain cult hit that rolled up into our lives only a week after Gradius V: Katamari Damacy, its Japanese title fully intact on American soil.
All of this is just to say that Fall ’04’s favorable environment meant it made tons of sense to transliterate “Shin Megami Tensei” when Nocturne released that October. Besides, Nocturne’s appeal at the time was to a more niche segment of “hardcore” JRPG players, the ones who were hungry for something different compared to its more easily digested contemporaries like Final Fantasy X-2 or Tales of Symphonia (I know I was at the time).
To generalize further, the market to whom a game like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne would be catering to would have probably been more savvy in regards to Japanese language and culture than the average gamer (i.e., making them huge nerds, like me); it was unnecessary to mention “Goddesses” or “Reincarnation” when in fact it was probably more appealing to that segment that the title was left in Japanese. But even if you hadn’t taken a college Japanese course by that semester, the Internet of 2004 was a vastly different beast than 1996’s, as final generation, encyclopedic fansites like Hardcore Gaming 101 had emerged to aggregate information about niche Japanese series, like Shin Megami Tensei, in a comprehensive manner never before seen on the English-speaking web.
But 2016 isn’t 2004—further, 2004 may have been the actual final year of “traditional” modes and economies of console gaming before 2005 brought with it the Xbox 360 and a new online-enabled console generation that upturned the industry by its end, especially in Japan, where mobile would emerge as the dominant gaming platform. What this meant for Atlus can be summed up thus: Personas 3 and 4 saved their hides and would be the Megami Tensei franchise’s establishing titles in the West.
On the latter point, this was in spite of Atlus USA’s early insistence to label all Megami Tensei titles with the “Shin Megami Tensei” name; “Persona 3″ and “Persona 4″ essentially lived as subtitles. But how many people do you know actually called those games Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 or Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4? Probably no one, and that’s exactly my point: “Persona” is an existing English word that’s compact, catchy, and conveys important information about the series—a built-in nominal advantage that would be more of a boon for its self-image or marketing than anything “Shin Megami Tensei” could bring.
And so the choice to transliterate “Shin Megami Tensei,” I feel, has become something of a weight around the series’ neck outside of Japan. While SMT is at this point an established series in many regions (making any name change impossible or just plain stupid to implement), it remains merely a cult property. And while the game’s content may always relegate it to cult status (that’s not really the question here) I don’t think the series, with its incorporation of global cultures and universal mythological themes, is reaching every corner of its potential audience—and I can’t help but think that its name, impenetrable to all but the already converted, has something to do with that. To the unacquainted, the name has the potential to typecast the series as something it might not be; this “first impression,” via the title, will be influenced by these players’ opinions of “Japaneseness” rather than the series’ genre or content.
And if you were to sum up the general attitudes towards Japanese games today, you might be lacking for a better word than “polarized,” with sentiment that’s either more critical or more fervent than it’s ever been before, forming largely isolated “camps” around the types of games the country still produces. For example, the anime and manga lovers for whom Japan remains a Mecca are still buying up the niche games from niche developers (talking about the likes of Idea Factory, NIS, etc. here, not Atlus) that North American publishers have seemingly had to rely on as the import pickings have gotten slimmer, while other long-time Japanese game players who may abhor the anime direction have gravitated almost exclusively towards the universally praised Souls series as a sort of last bastion of creativity that echoes so many classic series now lost.
But somewhere in the middle is SMT, a series I think would appeal to more players on the Souls side, but with a name and modern art style closer to those of the niche anime games. These potential players I’m talking about are not you or me—the more involved types who would write or read large articles about a particular game’s localization—but just your regular Joe or Jane Blow gamer that doesn’t often engage with online communities.
For example, just the other day I was having a phone conversation with my occasional-gamer cousin and introduced the Shin Megami Tensei name to him; by the end, even though he was interested to find out more, he misremembered and mispronounced the title. It’s not exactly a name that’s conducive to brand awareness. I also noticed this around the time of Strange Journey‘s release when I experienced difficulty convincing some people to try the game. Their apprehensions were based on preconceived notions that the game would be “too Japanese” and thus unappealing to them—and this for what is probably the least “Japanese,” most specifically Western-targeted SMT game in the series, one I consider a great introduction to the series’ cross-cultural mythological themes and enjoyable by anyone interested in that subject. Sadly, history would prove me wrong on that point.
While most of the evidence for my claim is anecdotal (“What’s a ‘Shin Megummy Ten-sigh?'” says the Gamestop employee, et al), better proof is found in Atlus USA’s post breaking down the process behind localizing Shin Megami Tensei IV: Final‘s subtitle as “Apocalypse.” Basically, the title “Shin Megami Tensei IV: Final” was seen as unmarketable: One, for being uninformative to new players and two, as potentially confusing even for those returning from SMT IV (and even with the change, such an ontological question about Apocalypse is still asked on its Amazon page). “Apocalypse” at least tells you something about the game’s content! So, by logical extension, couldn’t the same be said of “Shin Megami Tensei” itself? Unless unfamiliar players are willing to do some homework beforehand (something I’d argue is an invalid assumption, since this is an entertainment product—research usually follows initial investment), the name is gobbledygook.
Though the Bard’s Juliet did famously decry the capriciousness of nomenclature, clearly Shakespeare never worked in localization. A Shin Megami Tensei series by any other name (Revelations? Megaten?) could have possibly sold more sweetly, though it’s impossible to know for certain. No matter on which platforms Shin Megami Tensei appears in the future, we will have to live with what was the absolute correct decision in 2004 for the rest of the series’ duration outside of Japan, where its success will wax and wane based on word of mouth and the current sentiment of Japanese media.
Special thanks to the following individuals for helping me get this 2-years-overdue project off and running:
- Dijeh, for timely and timeless translation assistance
- Soren, for suggestions, proofing, and helping me find suitable images
- Rising Force, for checking something specific for me
- “Some furniture,” for suggestions
- [email protected] for suggestions and proofing
- Reggy and Persona Central for offering and hosting