Ecco the Dolphin – 2004 Developer Interview
This fascinating interview with Ecco the Dolphin localization producer Ryoichi Hasegawa looks at the localization process from the opposite perspective: localizing European and American games for the Japanese market. Hasegawa provides a unique look at the presumptions driving game localization then and now, in both Japan and the West. The interview was originally featured in the sega.jp meisaku series.
—You were hired at Sega to do localization, and I assume that was because you’re fluent in English?
Hasegawa: Yes, it was thanks to that. (laughs) When I joined, I took the TOEIC English Proficiency Exam, and I believe I scored a 935 on it, the top score at Sega. Although something sounds kind of pretentious when I say it like that. (laughs)
My last name is Hasegawa, and when I was studying abroad in America, my friends I had made at the arcade took those middle letters of my name and called me “Sega.” (Americans have a hard time pronouncing names with more than a few syllables.)
When I came back to Japan and interviewed with Sega, I told them this story. It seems like it did the trick, since they hired me. (laughs)
—What were the first titles you worked on?
Hasegawa: At first I was assigned to the development production division, where I assisted with translation on a variety of games. Then one day the Assistant Director approached me: “Hasegawa, would you like to try localizing this?” That game was Ecco the Dolphin. It had been developed by a Hungarian company, novotrade, originally for the European market.
In any event, I had never seen such beautiful graphics before, so I immediately asked to be given the job!
—Looking over the list of projects you’ve been a part of, I can see you’ve really localized a lot of games, for both Japanese and English markets. Which ones have been the most memorable for you?
Hasegawa: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of work other than Ecco, but I’d say one of the most memorable was the Genesis game Power Rangers, which was only sold in Europe.
It was the Christmas season, and Nintendo had just made waves with their release of Star Fox and its onboard FX chip, so Sega put out Power Rangers as a direct, head-on response.
It was extremely popular at the time and turned out to be a great success, selling over 1 million copies. The wonderful staff at the development company treated me to an amazing dinner in Asakusa as a thank-you, too. (laughs)
Night Trap, which was developed by the American company Digital Pictures, is another unforgettable game for me. The system felt fresh, and it had been banned in Germany for its “excessive” content (this news was picked up by a section of the media in Japan, too, and they described Night Trap as “a game where you chase around and try to capture women in their underwear.” Which of course was totally backwards! (laughs)). It was a game everyone was talking about. Around this time I also had my first work as director, and it was my chance to see all the amazing work the professionals here did (by the way, one of the research students here at the time is now a top level voice actor).
After Night Trap I did the localization for the Sega CD game Mansion of Hidden Souls (yumemi yakata no monogatari). Together with Night Trap, these two games were part of the new “virtual cinema” genre, and I have a lot of nostalgic memories about working on and marketing those games.
—What kind of work is “localization”?
Hasegawa: Most simply, it is translation. Taking games from overseas and translating them into Japanese. And sometimes I would do the opposite, translating Japanese games into English. But the truth is, that’s just plain translation—localization involves more. Localization includes a wide range of different work, including adjusting the difficulty, changing graphics for the different regions, and more.
One famous example is the woman on the Japanese cover of Phantasy Star IV. In the Japanese cover her image is a very cute girl, but when I saw the Western cover it’s like, “who’s this old lady?” From my sensibilities as a Japanese person, I can’t understand that change at all, but it was done to be more fitting for the Western market.
Similarly, the Western cover for Ecco shows him as macho, menacing looking dolphin that seems to be saying “I EAT MEAT!” (laughs) For the Japanese version we changed him to a cute-looking dolphin.
—It doesn’t seem like you tamper with the controls too often when you localize, do you?
Hasegawa: Yeah. Regarding controls, in Japan, action games especially are handled with great care. But many Western action games were bland, monotonous and somewhat plodding in their pacing.
However, even if you want to improve the key response when you localize, it’s very difficult to fix since the game was designed that way from the start. So very few games are drastically changed when they’re localized in Japan. Thankfully, Ecco the Dolphin didn’t have those kinds of control problems to begin with.
But Western-developed games, even those bland action games, were well-received by Japanese players at the time, who used to describe them as having an “American taste.” (laughs)
—Is there any other kind of work involved with localization?
Hasegawa: Well, maybe camera work, if you want to know about something that isn’t readily apparent. Western games have really dynamic, active camera movement, and some people even get dizzy or sick from it. When localizing we sometimes adjust the scroll speed, or taken other measures to help.
It’s also common to see graphics swapped out due to a different ethics/morals. For example, in the Japanese version of Final Fight CD you find sake bottles as power-ups, but they changed it to soda for the Western version. There’s also an image of a woman smoking beside the street, and they removed the cigarettes for the Western version. Then there’s the drag queen enemy. You can see her underboob when she dies, but in the Western version they gave her a longer t-shirt. (laughs) Any religious symbolism is also sure to get switched, like crosses or the Star of David.
—Why is there even a need to localize games in the first place?
Hasegawa: To understand the language of course, but also as I explained, to adjust graphics according to the preferences of the Japanese, American, and European markets. They’re all very different.
In addition, the difficulty is something we also have to change sometimes. At the time, Japanese players often said “Western games are too difficult.” But the truth is, it’s not just that they were difficult—the problem is with the Japanese player’s perception of the concept of “exploration.”
Hasegawa: In America and Europe, players find it fun to have almost no hints or information, and just wander about and explore: “I tried that, and I tried this, but I still don’t know what to do… ah! maybe this will work? That did it, yes!” It gives them a sense of achievement. Exploration itself is treated as an aspect of gameplay.
I think it’s related to the fact that Western players think games that are hard to finish are a better use of their money, so if they finish a game right away after buying it, they’ll be angry. (laughs)
However, in Japan, the same kind of “exploration” without hints or direction will cause many players to throw the game away in frustration. “There’s no clues, no hints, nothing! What the hell am I supposed to do?” Then they might look at a guidebook or faq online, find the answer, and think “what! there’s no way I could have figured that out!” And eventually, they abandon the game. (laughs)
In Japan, “exploration” is a cause of stress. So when localizing for Japan, we often have to change the way hints are given, or add navigation for the players.
—What do you think the appeal of Ecco was?
Hasegawa: First and foremost, I think it was the quality of the graphics, which towered above other games at the time. It looks amazing displayed on a monitor in RGB, but even with normal component its stunning!
Graphic artists in those days employed all these special techniques to craft beautiful graphics. For instance, they’d take light blue and pink (I think?) pixels, and when those colors bled into each other on a CRT monitor it would create a nice color for flesh and skin.
But the graphics of Ecco really stood out for their beauty. In the beginning of the game you see a large Octopus, and when I saw that I immediately sent a fax to the developers novotrade praising them: “The graphics for this Octopus are the best I’ve ever seen in a game! It’s so wonderful… as someone who is Japanese, it looks totally delicious to me!”
They sent a reply fax right away saying “That was the best compliment we’ve ever received!” (laughs)
—The graphics really were amazing. (laughs)
Hasegawa: Another reason for Ecco’s success was Ecco’s movement. Just gliding through the wide open ocean is fun. In the first section it’s fun just to eat the fish and poke your tail out of the water, as if it were some dolphin show. It’s also satisfying trying to see how high you can jump out of the water.
I think the key to a character action game is to make controlling the character itself enjoyable, and I think that’s definitely something Ecco has. It was a special and new feeling, the enjoyment of moving a dolphin around at your behest.
—The wild story in Ecco was also really fun.
Hasegawa: In the American version, they didn’t really pursue the story aspects of Ecco, and instead focused on the pure, unadorned experience of the graphics and action. So there’s a lot of whacky, funny situations, like the a dolphin going into space. (laughs)
This also meant that the text in the English version was very blunt. “MEET THE WHALE IN THE NORTH SEA” … “ORCAS ARE DANGEROUS”… terse lines like that. (laughs)
The English version only had two lines of space, so the hints were somewhat abstract, and you couldn’t have any thorough explanation or guidance. I hate mechanical translations, and I’m always striving to make my translations feel organic, something with a real pulse. Therefore I don’t usually just translate things directly, but instead add a little something story-wise, or adding some explanation for the rules etc. I end up adding a lot of extra information.
One simple example would be the huge whale’s lines. To make him sound more like a wise elder, I added “~ja yo”1 to his speech, giving him more character than he had in the English version. We also adjusted the program for increased text length, allowing for 7 lines of text instead of 2.
—Do you have a favorite line?
Hasegawa: I changed the English “EAT FISH TO RESTORE YOUR HEALTH” to “kozakana wa oishii” (“Fish are delicious”). I think this is my masterpiece. (laughs)
—By the way, didn’t Ecco the Dolphin receive high praise from a real conservation society somewhere?
Hasegawa: That would be the Royal British Marine Life Conservation Society. Ecco is a game where you eat fish after fish, battle with sharks, and in the end go into outer space… so Ed Annunziata, the main designer, sent a copy of Ecco to the Royal British Marine Conservation Society in an attempt to get some negative press. He probably thought it would stir up some controversy with them or something, “We’ve never seen such a cruel game!” (laughs)
However, the moment they saw the graphics and the introduction, it was like, “Oh, you rescue your family after a storm and solve puzzles… what a peaceful game! Isn’t this wonderful!” Of course, they weren’t wrong about that, but. (laughs) Thanks to all that they actually sent us a real invitation to join the society.
—Regarding the difficulty of Ecco, what changes did you make for the Japanese localization?
Hasegawa: Due to the volume of work we had, we couldn’t make any changes to the maps or anything like that. But we did adjust the damage multipliers, increase the number of spots where you can refill air, and decrease the number of enemies. For example, there’s one stage in shark-infested waters, and you have to get through it by defeating and evading all these sharks. We reduced the number of sharks there by about 2/3.
As we were making all these adjustments to the damage parameters, one of the main programmers, Laszlo Mero (an incredibly intelligent person who was also an International Mathematics Olympiad winner), created a routine that automatically adjusted the difficulty across all the versions. For example, if something did 1 damage in the American version, it would automatically do 1/3 of that in the Japanese version. That made it very easy to adjust the difficulty. So as you can see, the text wasn’t the only thing we adjusted in the Japanese version. For players who thought it was way too easy to clear, I recommend they try the Western version if they have the chance.
By the way, there’s actually a secret about the Japanese cover. The cover illustration shows him with five stars on his head, but the text says “atama ni nanatsu no hanten o motsu iruka” (“the dolphin with the seven stars on his head”). You only see that text on the early version; later printings corrected it.
—Really? Is the illustration different too on those early covers? Oh, I see, they’re the same.
Hasegawa: Yeah, the illustration is the same in both printings. Only the text is different. The instruction booklets both say 5, by the way.
—And 5 is the correct number, right?
Hasegawa: That’s right.
—Why do you think the earlier printing wrote 7 then?
Hasegawa: Hmm, I don’t know the exact reason, but maybe the person who designed the cover was a big Hokuto no Ken fan? (laughs)2
—Changing the subject, how well did Ecco the Dolphin sell?
Hasegawa: It sold over 500,000 copies in Europe and America. In Japan I believe it sold about 70,000. It was a time when people were really interested in spiral art, dolphin therapy, and other new age stuff. Thanks to that perhaps, Ecco was taken up by the media as part of the broader “dolphin movement.”
—Yeah, I remember back when Ecco was released, there was a lot of attention on “healing” and dolphins.
Hasegawa: Nowadays we call that stuff “iyashi.”3 John C. Lilly and Betsy A. Smith were two of the really famous scientists from that movement. They researched the healing power and intelligence of dolphins, and they researched the question of dolphin-human communication. There were lots of whalesong CDs being sold back then. I bet a lot of people remember that period.
People were saying things like “Human society is falling apart, and we no longer know ourselves. Let us learn what the dolphins have to teach us” and “Humans need to stop living lives of material extravagance, and listen to the dolphins.” It was a worldwide movement, people seeking answers from dolphins and whales.
So in a way, I don’t think Ecco’s crazy story seemed all that weird to people then. Rather than the science fiction elements, I think people were vaguely searching for something spiritual in dolphins.
—Finally, if you could sum it all up, what was Ecco the Dolphin to you, Hasegawa?
Hasegawa: Ecco the Dolphin… actually, I should say here, for the longest time I was pronouncing it “Ekko”, not “Eko-“.4 That’s how it was written in our planning materials too. We all called it “ekko” in our department, and when the company finally decided to called it “eko-” instead, it was a big shock. (laughs) “What! Ekko is way cooler! What the !$?% is ‘eko-‘ supposed to be?!” There were lots of complaints like that. (laughs)
Now I’m used to “Eko-“, but at the time it personally made me really uncomfortable to pronounce it that way. Although everyone at meetings was saying “eko-“, I alone continued to call it “ekko.” (laughs) It sounds cuter, doesn’t it? A dolphin’s echo. A dolphin’s echo. A dolphin’s echo….
But leaving that aside, to me Ecco the Dolphin was a starting point in my career. It set me on my path as a game creator. I think I’m very lucky to have had Ecco as the first project I was in charge of. And even now some of the senior employees at Sega still call me “Iruka-kun.” (laughs)5
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This is a way of ending sentences particular to old people in Japan.↩
Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star is the “nanatsu no kizu no otoko”, the man with the seven scars.↩
Iyashi simply means healing, but is also used generally to refer to new age/homeopathic/”natural” medicine trends in Japan today.↩
This is actually stranger than I thought at first. Both “ekko” and “eko-” are possible romanizations of “echo” in English. I’m not sure what “ekko” corresponds to exactly, since romanizations like “Echo Island” etc use “eko-” in Japanese. “eko-” is a little closer to “ecology” as well. It’s unclear to me why Sega chose “eko-“, and Hasegawa’s preference may just be personal attachment.↩
Iruka means dolphin.↩