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posted on 2020-10-22 16:55:00 .
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Nintendo’s latest surprise announcement hinges on a different anniversary than the usual mascots like Mario, Link, and Pikachu: it’s for Fire Emblem, the turn-based strategy series that launched exclusively in Japan in 1990. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the game’s first 8-bit adventure is getting the re-release treatment, either as a basic digital version or with a deluxe, physical collection of booklets, maps, and more.
But there’s a funny thing about Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & The Blade of Light. This 8-bit re-release has some emulation-like tweaks and perks, but this is otherwise not a remake. Up until now, its text-filled Famicom version never got an official translation and release for Western audiences. And unlike the rare cases where Nintendo produced, then shelved, a translated version of a Japanese game, this first Fire Emblem game was never advertised or teased to Western fans.
In any other year, we might look at this delightful throwback to a classic, Japan-only Nintendo game and briefly give the whole thing a thumbs up. But 2020 has been a weird one for Nintendo, so I’m tempted to take a closer look and ask: is this a sign of more unearthed translations to come?
Making guesses about a cagey company
When FE:SD&TBL launches on Nintendo Switch on December 4, it will arrive during one of Nintendo’s slowest first-party stretches of game launches in history. Ever since the launch of Paper Mario: The Origami King in July, Nintendo has kept noticeably quiet about major new franchises or games for its mega-popular console. Instead, we’ve gotten the feature-thin emulation collection of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, along with the teasing of a Pikmin 3 re-release and another Koei-Tecmo conversion of Legend of Zelda characters in a musou-styled “Warriors” game.
Nintendo wasn’t part of this summer’s E3-like flurry of video presentations, with the developer eschewing its usual E3-timed Nintendo Direct full of announcements and buzz. Among other things, this means we still have no idea what’s happening with previously announced titles like the untitled Breath of the Wild sequel.
We’re left making assumptions about Nintendo’s game-launch schedule going forward (other than a Wii U port of Super Mario 3D World), thanks to the developer’s notoriously cagey reputation, and all of those assumptions are doubly complicated by the realities of the coronavirus’s impact among Japanese game developers. Has Nintendo been impacted in particular? We can’t say, though its light 2020 release schedule and reports of the Japanese game industry’s struggles with the pandemic don’t have us particularly optimistic.
A higher bar than an .IPS file
What Nintendo does have is a treasure trove of video games spanning roughly 40 years, including a significant number of Japanese-only hits and curios. Is today’s news a hint of more to come—to keep the pressure off its primary, locked-down studios?
This question hinges pretty largely on whether Nintendo already has other Japanese-only classics translated in its vaults, since translations from Japanese to English are a lot of work both technically and logistically. In this Fire Emblem game’s case, the version arriving on Nintendo Switch is (apparently) the original NES or Famicom version, not a remake or a recreation within another game engine. Even with original source code available, the process of plucking out original Japanese text and inserting a translation isn’t a simple copy-and-paste, since you need many more Roman characters to say the same things in English—or to match them with appropriate colloquialisms, instead of copying culturally sensitive phrases verbatim.
Ask anyone in the fan translation community and they’ll tell you that you must all but reprogram a classic game’s Japanese version to convert its text while fitting within classic-hardware limitations. For Nintendo, that process has to clear a higher bar of quality than an .IPS file downloaded from a community site.
The bizarre Famicom RPG Mother 1 is the only other comparable game from Nintendo. But even that one is different—its translation to English was loudly teased to Nintendo fans in an issue of Nintendo Power before vanishing. When it eventually launched on Wii U as Earthbound Beginnings, that version was already quite familiar to Nintendo diehards, since its ROM, produced by Nintendo’s development and translation teams, had leaked in the late 1990s and instantly became an underground emulation classic. Today’s news implies, but doesn’t confirm, that Nintendo had FE:SD&TBL translated and sitting in a vault somewhere, and the company isn’t saying either way.
The last time Nintendo re-released a Japan-only Fire Emblem game, arguably to capitalize on its characters’ Western popularity in the Smash Bros. series, it was a top-to-bottom 3D remake. That was a good indication that Nintendo was happy to dig up Japan-only fare for its Western fans, but it wasn’t followed by a wave of remakes. Similarly, Nintendo used the SNES Classic Edition as an opportunity to dig up an otherwise lost game: Star Fox 2, which had been announced, then shelved for all markets, and then leaked as a near-complete beta ROM.
Make mine Murasame
The trouble is that Nintendo doesn’t have a lot of unturned stones in its vault—and unlike a series like Fire Emblem, which revolves around medieval-era storytelling and accessible, turn-based combat, others are more tenuous in terms of Western accessibility.
We’d rank some of Nintendo’s text-heavy Japanese exclusives pretty low on a translation-priority list, with the likes of Famicom Tantei Club consisting almost entirely of menu-driven pages of text. There’s also a pair of NES-era classics that has eluded Western launch for decades. Devil World is a solid Pac-Man clone from the 1980s, but Nintendo held it back from 1980s Western audiences due to its use of Christian imagery like devils and crosses. While Nintendo has since eased up its rules about religious content on its consoles, Devil World continues to sit unreleased.
Meanwhile, Mysterious Murasame Castle, a Japanese-themed adventure game with considerable similarities to Legend of Zelda 1 in playstyle, has been teased many times by Nintendo over the years; Nintendoland on Wii U included a Murasame-themed mini-game, and Super Mario Maker 2 includes the game’s sprites and music. (If you made me place a bet on what Nintendo might launch next in this vein, make mine Murasame.)
We could really ramp up the wish list by begging for untranslated fan favorites that have emerged over the years. The absolutely bizarre Captain Rainbow, which includes cameos from many Nintendo characters, has been trapped on the Wii since its Japan-only launch in 2008. The same goes for Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, which launched on the Wii the same year and never saw its waggle-heavy horror land overseas. And my mention of Mother 1 was no accident, as Japan’s Mother 3 on GBA has long been at the top of fans’ wish lists for English translations (or, at least, official ones).
Putting the “joy” in Joy Mech Fight
Nintendo has multiple avenues to release this kind of content, and a few Japan-only games have already appeared on the company’s current English emulation collections via Nintendo Switch Online. It’s also very easy to access those collections in the Japanese Nintendo eShop with an American account and claim other games, particularly the likes of Joy Mech Fight on Famicom and Mario’s Super Picross on Super Famicom, though these are not translated to English. Worth noting, FE:SD&TBL will land differently than those as a separate $5.99 paid download available for a “limited time.” (Or pay more for a physical collection; while it includes a download code instead of a physical cartridge, it also includes a replica NES cart.)
Obviously, a Fire Emblem Famicom game from 1990 isn’t going to burn up the Nintendo sales charts and ease fans’ appetite for new content the way a Breath of the Wild sequel might. But it also was nowhere near my “Wild Nintendo Announcements” bingo card up until today, and for wishful Nintendo fans, that means the classic-translation sky is currently the limit.
Listing image by Nintendo
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