Somewhat fittingly, I decided to make my first real post about a rather well-known localization change in one of the most popular games of its era. The only way you won’t have played this game (in at least one of its many forms) is because you’re some kind of limbless invertebrate, or a piece of Dairylea, or five years old, or made entirely of up quarks. I’m going to tell you in a minute what this game is, but first, let me tell you a story; the story of when I first found this big little variation.
Jurassic Park was in the cinemas; the Chicago Bulls were all over that shit; and Nirvana were in the hit parade. There I am flicking through a copy of my older brother’s SuperPlay magazine round Dad’s shop. Me and my little bro weren’t allowed to play on the SNES unless our older brother, whose console it was anyway, was there to make sure we didn’t start stabbing each other in the eyes with RCA cables. We had to make do with the mag. (He actually caught us having a cheeky covert go on UN Squadron once, but it was only that one time, honest!)
Turning each page listlessly, longing glare in my tear-heavy, sapphire eyes, I wait intently until my brother comes back and I can start pestering him. I flip the page to the pro tips segment. “Oooh!” I think, “My brother’s got this game.” Scanning over the words, but taking particular interest in the pictures, I notice what I can only assume to be a typo. But that can’t be a typo because I’m sure I’m looking at a screenshot, and that’s not his name on the version our brother has! Utterly confused by this I probably went off and start playing Batman on the Gameboy. This is the extent to which I can remember that moment in my life. That memory occupies the part of my brain where “remember to flush” is supposed be.
The game in question is Street Fighter II, and the particular character whose “wrong” name I saw was Balrog. Of course, I knew the character as Balrog, but the screenshot I cast my eyes upon was, as it turns out, of the Japanese version and written just below the health gauge was the familiar moniker “M. Bison”. So what the fnurk is going on?
As I later came to learn, this was not the only name change that was made with this game. The original eight heroes retained the same names, as did one of the bosses, Sagat, as he appeared in the original Street Fighter. The three remaining bosses’ names, however, were rotated. In the Japanese release, Vega, Balrog and M. Bison were renamed M. Bison, Vega and Balrog respectively for the overseas release. Just thinking about those characters – no, friends – with alternate names is like sucking a dog’s arsehole! Totally
Shedding light on the situation is an interview with former and current composers from Capcom, Isao Abe (阿部功) and Mitsuhiko Takano (高野充彦). If you want to find out more about the history of Street Fighter, then give the interview a look. Provided you can read Japanese, it’s rather interesting. I’d actually like to have a go at translating this interview. I’ve never translated anything before, so this might be a suitable place to start!
Concerning localization, however, there’s one passage in particular that really gives us two big chunks of information. It comes from Takano and he starts by stating the obvious – why they couldn’t go with M.Bison as the boxer. Clearly this name would have been quickly, and correctly, linked to a certain world champion professional pugilist, seeing as the character was modelled on said boxer. The names were switched to avoid any image rights violations. In other words, they didn’t think they could afford to get Don Kinged.
Takano continues by explaining what they did with everyone’s favourite fighting Spaniard and, of course, the last boss. He says that the creators thought the Japanese would find the name Vega “cool” because it is the name of a prominent star (known as kotoza alpha (琴座α), i.e. sitting harp, or lyre, in Japanese – Vega is in the constellation Lyra). The overseas marketing guy, on the other claw, had a different idea, believing the name to be “ladylike”, which it is, so that was assigned to the Catalan heartthrob. The snippet I refer to is on the second page of the archived interview transcript, which can be found here.
Originally I wanted to delve a bit deeper into why “Vega” sounds feminine, but after a very useful discussion with a friend I decided to drop it. To do what I initially intended would have required me to look into the semantics of the word. Semantics being something I know almost nothing about, this would probably have lead to some misguided conclusions sparking internet-wide ridicule for a decade. A bit like going out of my own nice, safe, warm field and straying into Crazy Old Farmer McTootlepiss’s field, or his bed with his wife and donkey and then he comes in all drunk on moonshine and starts shooting at me with his blunderbuss again.
Anyone who's seen The Fellowship of the Ring will understand why Balrog suits the boxer, and we’ve already determined that Vega sounds a bit girly, so is fitting for the clawed one, which leaves the last boss with M.Bison. The overfiends at Capcom must have made the decision not to completely change the name to something new, and I think it they got it right. The bison is a muscular, potent beast, perfect for the figurehead of an evil multinational crime syndicate.
I’ve been trying to conceive a world where the names weren’t swapped but changed entirely, however, I can’t get past the fact that I’ve grown up with this character literally ruining my life at times, and the association between name and image is too strong for me to picture anything else. Which leaves us with one of life’s great mysteries – if it’s not “Mike”, what does the “M” stand for now? Apparently, there is no answer, and as kids we often used to speculate on what it might be. Master. Mister. Marvin. I heard he went x-directory, so it looks like we’ll never know.