Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Today I was poking around Atlus's site and found this blog post, written by a translator (it's about translating). While the article was a decent read, the song at the bottom of the page is worthy of a download if you possess the techno-acumen required.
"If Atlus had no translators, what would happen to your JRPG experience? It would be like swiss cheese without holes. Unicorns without horns. A digestive system with no poo. A cow without a moo."
Which is... pretty darn accurate. While Atlus itself is a heckuva large company (based in Tokyo) which develops a few notable titles, Atlus USA is only a localizer and publisher. But they are quite possibly my favorite localizing publishers in all of gaming. First off, they provide us with Atlus's flagship series, Shin Megami Tensei.

The SMT series has been around since 1992 - pictured at left is the latest installment in the core series, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne.

This was the title that made me sit up and take notice - and that was without ever playing it. I was sitting in a pharmacy one day, waiting for my ride to show up, and to pass the time I was leafing through a game magazine when I came across an ad for it. The art style was absolutely striking - I wished I could experience whatever secrets it held - but my RPG experience began and ended with Sierra's Quest for Glory series, so I filed the image away in the recesses of my brain and continued playing action games. Meanwhile, Nocturne catapulted Atlus into the major leagues of RPG producers. Shin Megami Tensei had always contained uniquely adult themes and mature narratives, but thanks to the extremely polished Nocturne they were finally getting recognized for it.

I wouldn't get my hands on the RPG that made me wish I played RPGs until last year.

They really do.

North America is the single largest gaming market in the world, so it's no surprise Atlus works hard to get our attention - what is surprising is just how far they're willing to go to add value to their releases. The SMT series, as well as most other titles Atlus publishes, are niche titles. The audiences for such unique titles are relatively small, even for a market the size of ours, and Atlus knows that its fans aren't Joe Casuals (pardon me).

People who know Atlus games are, if you'll excuse the term, a more hardcore breed of gamer. They pick up titles on the day they're released, they would balk at the thought of selling them to a used game store, and they are ravenous for the SMT franchise in particular.

In order to give these folks the biggest bang for their buck, in order to cater to that Ultimate Geek inside us who want to wallow in all things related to the games we love, Atlus tends to give you more than just a game, a case and an instruction book. In Nocturne's original release, it came with a soundtrack CD - a package that will cost between one and two hundred dollars for an untouched copy today, or a mere sixty bucks if you're willing to accept a used game. SMT titles retain their resale value better than a Honda.

In 2007, I was poking around various game-of-the-year lists, and an RPG kept popping up - Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. So much was said about it, the imagery was so striking, the experience seemed so hip that I resolved to finally get in to this whole "RPG thing", totally unaware that this title had any relation to the unforgettable advertisement I saw years before.

A great leap of faith and eighty dollars later, I had myself a copy of P3. Taking it home, I opened the thoughtfully included art book - ruining some of the story for myself in the process - and listened to the soundtrack CD. Even before playing the game (and investing countless hours in it), it was very clear that my eighty dollars had purchased more than a mere role playing game - it had bought me admission to an exclusive club. Atlus publishes games for people who love games.

Having been swayed to the side of an RPG gamer, I put in a pre-order for Persona 4 as soon as I could, and this is what I got in return:

Another soundtrack CD, a huge art book, and - incidentally - the game. For any other company, schwag like this would only serve as an excuse to increase the price by twenty or thirty bucks - but with Atlus and its core franchises, it's par for the course.

God, I love Odin Sphere.

When it's not cramming added value into its own games, Atlus USA goes even nichier and brings North America weird, unique, or otherwise notable titles from Japan. Tons of titles. I won't list them all here, but just for conversation's sake - Samurai Western is awesome and insane in equal measure - an all-action side story to the Way of the Samurai. Disgaea is the most hardcore of the hardcore strategy RPGs, featuring hundred-floor dungeons that exist merely to level up your sword, and Odin Sphere is... well, let's just say I love Odin Sphere and leave it at that. (Why didn't you localize Muramasa, Atlus?)

But even if you were to ignore all the great extras they package with their games, if you were to point out that lots of companies, in fact, localize Japanese titles, you would still be left with just how well Atlus localizes its titles - which brings us back to the translator and her translator song.

Take, for example, Demon's Souls (due out this October). A western-style action-RPG made by a Japanese developer, its difficulty has become the stuff of legend - a niche title if ever there were. The voice work in the game is already in English, and the text was already translated to English for its release to the Asian market beyond Japan. Naturally, Atlus is cleaning it up regardless.

Atlus doesn't just localize its titles, giving us literal translations which - to our North American ears - lose much of the dialogue's original intention. Instead, they spend untold hours on getting it right, so character is retained, the world remains lively and nothing is, so to speak, lost in the translation.

Persona 4, for example, is easily one of the funniest games I've ever played - and while a bit of well-timed slapstick is worth a chuckle in any language, I've no doubt it's Atlus's pitch-perfect translation and excellent voice talent that really made the difference. A significant difference, that allowed us to care for the characters, and invited us to lose ourselves in the world the game presented.

Really, the only downside to Atlus's high standard is the risk of becoming accustomed to it. They set the standard for how localizations should be done, and throw around free goodies like candy. For the regular price of the game, for example, you'll be able to pick up the freshly localized version of Demon's Souls along with an art book - which is great. But it makes it sting when any other publisher tries to squeeze an extra twenty out of you for what Atlus offers as a courtesy.

But David, why then is Atlus charging an extra $10 for a "deluxe edition" that comes with the art book and a strategy guide?

Well, that's a good counterpoint. On the one hand, Atlus didn't develop Demon's Souls, and has never released a strategy guide with any of its games - it's entirely possible that the guide wasn't done in-house or simply cost more than they anticipated. On the other hand - like I said - Atlus caters to the hardcore crowd.

We don't need no stinking strategy guides.


  1. Odin that game

    I really, really want to love it but the gameplay is so repetitive, the load times are so bad, and the environments are so samey I really can't in good conscience recommend that game to anyone except "people who love doing the same thing, over and over, for forty hours straight, two of which will probably be spent in loading screens"

    Although otoh if you were able to stomach Odin Sphere's gameplay Nier should be no problem to you

  2. Well, Odin Sphere entirely won me over with
    -its phenomenal art direction
    -fantastic animation
    -wonderful music
    -cheesy, ultra-melodramatic story
    -great voice work
    -deep crafting system
    -art direction
    -art direction
    -art direction.

    If you liked all that about Odin Sphere (except the crafting system) you may want to look into Muramasa: The Demon Blade on the Wii. It and Kirby are the only 2 Wii games I feel strongly positive about, and if I had to give up one for the other, I would drop Kirby in a heartbeat.

    Muramasa probably takes about 20% as long as Odin Sphere to finish, but it's got a ton of side-objectives, if you wish. Its combat is also much, much improved.