"A winner is you,” proclaimed a broken English translation of Nintendo’s 1986 video game "Pro Wrestling." The company’s "Ghostbusters" game from the same era included a similar misspelled exclamation, “Conglaturation!!!”
Since video games first began crossing borders, mistranslations like these have inspired many laughs and even perpetuated for decades in pop culture.
In 2010, the video game distributor Level Up Games told Brazil’s O Globo newspaper a game localized into Portuguese typically earns 15 times more revenue in Brazil than the same game would without localization. With such revenue growth, it is no surprise that companies in the $60 billion global video game industry want to reach beyond their own country’s borders.
Naturally, sometimes a mistake or two will slip through in localized versions. On rare occasion, and with a little luck, publicity of these errors can aid in quick recovery or even greater publicity for the game than it would have received otherwise.
The Japanese video game developer Taoplan declared bankruptcy in 1994, but has probably grown more popular since then, thanks to the perpetually popular repetition of its horribly translated game “Zero Wing.” The 1991 game’s flash introduction included broken English lines like “All your base are belong to us,” “Somebody set up us the bomb” and “For great justice,” all of which became popular Internet memes (self-replicating ideas that spread like viruses).
The entire dialogue from Zero Wing’s introduction is as follows:
“In A.D. 2101 war was beginning.
“Captain: What happen?
“Mechanic: Somebody set up us the bomb.
“Operator: We get signal.
“Operator: Main screen turn on.
“Captain: It's you!!
“CATS: How are you gentlemen!! All your base are belong to us. You are on the way to destruction.
“Captain: What you say!!
“CATS: You have no chance to survive make your time. Ha ha ha ha ....
“Captain: Take off every 'ZIG'!! You know what you doing. Move 'ZIG.' For great justice.”
This meme, “all your base are belong to us,” has appeared all over the world. A decade ago, various websites were hacked and replaced with the phrase or its abbreviation, AYBABTU. YouTube has used the phrase as a placeholder when shutting down the site for maintenance, rephrasing it as “all your video are belong to us” and causing some to mistakenly think the site was hacked.
This meme was so popular that Adobe used it to showcase a little humor when it acquired Omniture, a Utah-based tech company that had become well known for its unique hiring billboards. A billboard following the acquisition stated, “Omniture & Adobe. All Your Base Are Belong to Us.” Unfortunately for Taoplan, it went out of business before it could trademark the phrase and really capitalize on this accidental fame.
However, other cultural gaffes are no laughing matter, and publicity surrounding more sensitive blunders can be very costly.
After a Muslim linguist “went ballistic” over a game evaluation prior to launch, Tom Edwards, former head of Microsoft’s geopolitical product strategy team, recommended the company destroy 75,000 copies of a game that used chanting of the Quran in its soundtrack. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned in this column, some senior managers thought no one would notice and rejected the recommendation. In the end, the Saudi Arabian government saw the original game, banned it and demanded an apology.
Other countries will also ban or censor games with certain elements that may be deemed offensive. Author, attorney and writer Mathew McCurley recently wrote an informative article for the World of Warcraft community at Joystiq.com with great examples of video game elements that could create legal roadblocks for games in Germany, China and Australia. These localization misdeeds range from showing alcohol use to displaying skeletons on screen.
Still, not all video game translation errors are terribly damaging. When "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" was released in 2009, it set numerous world records for video game sales. Unfortunately, the game also received negative publicity for some frustrating mistranslations.
“At the center of the issues is the ‘No Russian’ scene, in which (the character) Vladimir Makarov is supposed to tell the player ‘Remember, no Russian,’” explains gamer website 1up.com. “In the story, this is a straight-forward message: as a Russian nationalist, he doesn’t want his men speaking Russian as they kill civilians. But in Japanese, it was apparently translated to, ‘Kill them; they are Russians.’”
As a result, many Japanese players were shooting the wrong characters, making it “game over.” Fortunately, "Modern Warfare 2" was very highly anticipated, so all the publicity and Internet chatter enabled confused Japanese players to quickly identify the problem and adjust accordingly. If only big publicity could help everyone recover so quickly from such translation errors.
If a video game developer takes the risk of releasing a poorly localized game, it may skate by with minimal problems that players resolve on their own, or the errors may become the next big Internet meme. Sometimes any publicity is good publicity.
However, a worst-case scenario could carry huge costs for offending entire countries. As with most exports, global video game success will come more surely when developers and distributors consult with international experts, leaving everyone to say, “conglaturation, a winner is you.”