Nintendo Localization – What Happens in the Treehouse, Stays in the Treehouse

Nintendo’s best kept secret is at their US headquarters. The Treehouse – an elite, tight-knit group responsible for localizing some of the franchise’s greatest titles – is located here in a high-security office. The only people that can step foot in these fabled rooms is the video game localization team which encompasses English translators – as well as French, Spanish and Portuguese for all of the North American market – the audio-visual department, product management and the quality assurance team. All of this security is to protect projects from leaks, company secrets and to maintain the Nintendo mystique. Nintendo has a reputation to uphold and wants to ensure that every single game that leaves its doors is polished, perfect, and with all the touches that you expect from them. It’s that level of intensity that makes Nintendo’s games such high quality – so the Treehouse remains a secret.

Many of the people in the Treehouse are responsible for founding the group over a decade ago. Before the Treehouse there wasn’t much in the way of video game translation or localization, hence why many games from this era tended to come off a bit weird at times, such as the notoriously baffling, “10th Enemy Has the Bomb” from the first Legend of Zelda. Luckily Nintendo never had a case of “All your base are belong to us”, but until the Treehouse came along there was no formal process to localizing games.

We have Donkey Kong Country to thank for that – in the early 90’s this game was put to the desk of a few writers at Nintendo of America and – due to the confidential nature of the game’s visuals – the localization became very secretive. This was also around the time that Nintendo Power was in full swing and making commotion about the quality of some of Nintendo’s translations. Through a series of fortunate events, several of the magazine’s writers were repurposed to the Treehouse with the promise that all the translation and copywriting would be done by real writers – which in turn became their founding principle.

Fans can rely on Nintendo to produce high-quality translations, culturally relevant jokes, and to administer an overall creative touch that applies to the audience they’re targeting. Translation is not a direct Japanese-to-English process – it’s a whole new writing endeavor. That’s why it can take over a year to complete a text heavy game. So why is localization important to Nintendo?  It’s because their fans expect nothing less from them.

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As one of the forefathers of gaming, Nintendo achieves an international feel to the games it distributes. Last year when releasing Pokemon X and Y they completed a task that they had never done before – a seven-in-one localization, meaning that they simultaneously released the game in all locations with all the languages available[i]. Now any player, no matter where they live, can choose from seven languages they want to use in the game. Not only that, but each language had to be localized to include slang, idioms, and cultural differences. Not a simple feat, but it was an undertaking that may have further simplified the process – the whole operation went faster than any similar localization project in the past.

Localization can be time consuming when you consider how many languages a game is offered in, and it isn’t just proofreading a simple translation. For Nintendo localization to truly shine and become that product that we didn’t even realize wasn’t originally in English (or whichever language we play in) it takes creativity, passion and time. The smallest details and turn of phrase have to be considered and even changed to reflect the game’s end market. Years of successful games have shown Nintendo that taking these small steps is what makes the difference to their audience. The fact that the Treehouse team pours over game text to translate and localize lines that some players may never see shows the dedication and passion Nintendo has for giving its end products that extra spiffy finishing touch.

What’s an article on Nintendo’s localization without Mother 3? Just to catch up readers who might not be up to speed with their Nintendo glory days – what US readers will know as Earthbound is actually part of the Mother series – Mother 2. The original Mother game was released on the NES, and the third counterpart for the GBA. Any of us who have played Earthbound (aka Mother 2) might wonder why you wouldn’t want to bring another installment of that to the US. In fact, Mother 3 has a huge cult following complete with fan English translations – translations that they have even offered to the bigwigs at Nintendo – free of charge. You would think that everything is in place for an awesome game (except maybe that the GBA is out of date), but Nintendo simply won’t bring it to western shores. Except it’s not that simple… Mother 3’s storyline starts out in a really grim and tragic fashion (I won’t spoil it for you) and not to mention that there’s a certain cross-dressing race of ancient… I’m not even sure if I can explain that because it would skyrocket this article into R rated status. As you can see, a lot of factors play into which games make the cut at Nintendo, but it comes down to whether the ends justify the means. Video game translation can be a lengthy and expensive process.

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