Two new books look at Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto from two distinct angles, and the points at which they intersect illuminate one of the key paradoxes of Miyamoto’s tenure as Nintendo’s top game designer.
Shigeru Miyamoto, the first in a new series on game designers from Bloomsbury, is an overview of the creator of Super Mario et al that digs into the literature and into the games to paint a multi-faceted picture of Miyamoto as designer that’s accessible even to laypersons. Meanwhile, Legends of Localization: Book 1 is a detailed, nitty-gritty tooth-and-nail tearing apart of one of Miyamoto’s breakout classics, The Legend of Zelda, that exposes the game’s underpinnings by way of showing how the original Japanese version was localized into the American product that we outside Japan are best familiar with.
Although different in so many ways (the Bloomsbury book is a slim paperback by a media professor, the other a large-format, full-color, image-forward coffee table book by a professional game translator), the high-level overview of a life’s oeuvre and the dizzyingly deep dive into a single work each has a lot to say about the other, and shed some light on Shigeru Miyamoto’s odd relationship with narratives in videogames.
Donkey Kong, the first game directed by Miyamoto, is considered to be the first videogame that told a complete narrative story, using the elements on screen (as opposed to in an instruction manual) to set up a clear beginning, middle, and ending. In this way it was extremely influential, and yet immediately after revolutionizing game creation in this way, Miyamoto rejected this sort of approach; Super Mario Bros. a few years later was actually less narratively complex (in a traditional, linear storytelling sense) than Donkey Kong had been.
Shigeru Miyamoto author Jennifer DeWinter points this out, noting that Miyamoto quickly began to feel that such a story structure actually detracted from players’ enjoyment of a Mario game. In its place, DeWinter proposes that Miyamoto’s interest was in creating “spatial narratives”—stories told through a player’s exploration of a particular place that had been painstakingly crafted by Miyamoto and his team. Super Mario‘s story was delivered not with words or non-interactive cinematic scenes, but through the changing, increasingly menacing, landscapes and music and challenges that players found on their way, in their own time.
Hot on the heels of Super Mario Bros. came Legend of Zelda, with more advanced technology that allowed Miyamoto to create an even more varied landscape for its land of Hyrule, doing even more with spatial storytelling. While Zelda was inspired by role-playing games, it was a particularly Miyamoto take on them, with the text and story sequences whittled down to the absolute bare minimum and an action-oriented, object-oriented combat system replacing D20s and charisma stats.
As main character Link slowly makes his way through Hyrule, the world unfolds before him, transitioning slowly from relatively tranquil green fields and blue rivers to more oppressive graveyards, mountain ridges and concrete-gray dungeons. There is an epic adventure here, but it’s told through setting only, no matter how much a player might want to watch an elaborate movie-like scene starring Link.
DeWinter does not fail to take into account that Miyamoto is, first and foremost, a businessman looking to create best-selling consumer products. One benefit, in a global game industry, of spatial storytelling is that (generally speaking) the green fields of Hyrule don’t need to be “translated” for a worldwide audience to understand what they’re looking at. But bringing Zelda to America was not a simple turnkey task, as Clyde Mandelin ably shows us in Legends of Localization.
If you played the original Zelda for more than 10 seconds, you encountered a little old man living in a cave who gives you your first sword and says the famous line: “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” A simple translation task, surely? But Mandelin pulls it apart, spending a full two pages on it, showing how deep the rabbit hole goes.
The original Japanese translates to “It’s dangerous to go alone. I’ll give this to you.” Because in almost all circumstances it takes fewer Japanese characters to express an idea, the English version was cut down a little bit, and the polite “I’ll give this to you” becomes the slightly more abrupt “take this.” (What’s more, the old man speaks in a hiya-there-shonny old-man drawl, which would have been almost impossible to replicate.)
Moreover, in the Japanese version the characters’ dialogue appears to the upper right of the avatar, as if it were a comic-book speech bubble. Again, for space reasons, this wouldn’t work in English. Mandelin also takes this opportunity to point out that the English localization team—we have no idea who this was, and may never know, since it was most likely anonymous employees in Nintendo’s Japan office—had the foresight to add in an apostrophe character, which allowed them to use contractions like “It’s.”
That’s how much is hidden in one simple line translation, and Mandelin goes into as much depth throughout the book on any number of elements from Zelda, occasionally breaking out sidebars that show similar problems being resolved in more modern game titles. In fact, that’s one of the most interesting takeaways from Legends of Localization, the fact that the problems shown in microcosm in Legend of Zelda are the very same issues encountered by game localizers today. By showing how these problems were creatively resolved (sometimes well, sometimes inexplicably badly) by Zelda‘s localizers, Mandelin begins to chart out a guidebook for the craft of localization even as it is practiced today.
Both books deliver far more scrutiny than Shigeru Miyamoto could have possibly imagined, toiling away in relative obscurity in the 1980s, would ever have been applied to his creative process. Read them back to back and you’ll find that the two disparate approaches complement each other quite well.