Saturday, July 31, 2010

(Earth)Bound and Gagged: Censorship in the Mother Series

If you ever find yourself strolling around in the world of Earthbound, walking up and down on the same patch of grass and saying the same two lines of dialogue all day, you’d better hope you don’t get hurt, because you’re going to have a tough time finding a hospital. They’re there, but you’d never know which building to go to in a state of panic: All the red crosses that designate which buildings are hospitals don’t exist in the English version of the game. And if you’re Christian, you’d better hope you never die, because you won’t be allowed to have a crucifix on your grave. Well, at least there won’t be much to clean up though, because in Earthbound, you’re not allowed to bleed.

But why? What strange force stands between the citizens of Earthbound and these three seemingly unrelated aspects of life? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not Giygas who’s doing it, and it’s certainly not Master Belch. Give up?

It’s Nintendo of America, of course.

Especially in the days of the NES and SNES, the Big N was infamous for their super strict content guidelines that governed what could and could not be placed in a Nintendo approved video game. These restrictions were only imposed on games released in America and Europe; Japan had no such guidelines. This led to a problem: Many things that are perfectly acceptable in Japan – cartoony nudity, a splash of blood here and there, or some mild foul language, for example – could be seen as lewd, violent or otherwise inappropriate by persons living in the United States. So what’s a game developer to do when localizing a potentially offensive product?

For anyone releasing games on a Nintendo console from 1988 to the late ‘90s, this conundrum was only made worse thanks to Nintendo of America’s Video Game Content Guidelines. Nintendo was, and still is to some extent, highly protective of their squeaky clean, family entertainment image. The company refused to approve any game that came their way if it didn’t rigorously adhere to their regulations. “Nintendo of America's priority is to deliver high quality video game entertainment for our customers,” the policy states. “Nintendo is concerned that our products do not contain material that society as a whole deems unacceptable.”

The ten guidelines that followed expressly prohibited sexually suggestive or explicit content, extreme violence and graphic depictions of death, religious symbols or ideologies, profanity, drug or alcohol use, and anything else the company might deem “indecent.” Back when the NES was the only game in town, Nintendo’s word was law. They enforced their rules with extreme prejudice, and forced programmers to remove or alter anything that the Big N found unacceptable, lest the developer’s game go unreleased.

Regardless of the merits of Nintendo’s guidelines, the company usually stuck to them – even in their own programs. But for every justifiable cut, tweak or act of censorship, it seems that there were two or three more that make no sense. Inconsistency was a hallmark of Nintendo’s rules, and the Earthbound series was not spared from the censor’s unfocused knife. For example, there’s an enemy in Earthbound Zero called “Gang Zombie” who wears a hat, tie and suit jacket, as if he were a member of a Mafia-like organized crime ring. But in the original Japanese game, Mother, the Gang Zombie bled from his chest, as if he had been shot several times. So according to Nintendo’s guidelines, rotting corpses shambling about and attempting to devour preteen heroes is fine, but a bit of blood on their torn clothes is completely out of the question.

In Earthbound on the SNES, similarly contradictive edits were made. At one point early in the game, a father brings his two boys upstairs to punish them, and a sound effect, as if the children were being spanked, is played. However, in the Japanese version of the game, the effect sounds more “painful” and less comical. Odd edits like these were peppered throughout the series, removing bars but keeping the drunken people inside, taking away blood but not violence, cutting out cigarettes but mentioning strip joints, and more.

We’ll probably never have an official translation of the final game in the series, Mother 3, but it begs the question: Would Nintendo have doled out the same kind of wacky edits, or would the more liberal gaming climate of the late 2000s have spared a lot of questionable material from the cutting room floor? We’ll likely never know, so all I can say is this: Good luck finding a hospital if you need one and don’t have too much “expresso” at Jackie’s Café – those caffeine hangovers are a real bummer

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