Findings Concerning the Chrono Trigger SNES Release

Chrono Trigger was released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) at the end of the console’s lifespan, showcasing the very best of what the technology had to offer. Just a year before, in 1994, a historical change altered the video game localization landscape the beginning of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and its enforcement of age-assigned ratings for video games. This organization was created by the Entertainment Software Association (then known as the Interactive Digital Software Association), and at the time of Chrono Trigger’s debut, branded the experience as a “K-A” (Kids to Adults) title a rating category that has since been revised as an “E” (Everyone) rating by the ESRB.
Even before this judgement, Nintendo of America dominated the North American video game market, establishing a set of policies and guidelines during the eighties and nineties that, in large part, shaped the industry standard for “family friendly” titles. This series of regulations including the censorship of explicit language and sexuality ultimately stripped localized games of original cultural material. Oftentimes, the most excessive and arduous revisions occurred during localization of an imported Japanese title; Nintendo of Japan never exercised such content regulations (except for rigid exclusion of nudity and sex), and only as recently as 2002 have Japanese video games been subjected to the Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO).
In the end, it was Nintendo of America’s set of strict guidelines that made the largest impact on Chrono Trigger’s localization and release in the North American region:1
Nintendo of America’s Video Game Content Guidelines (circa 1994)

Nintendo of America’s priority is to deliver high quality video game entertainment for our customers. When those customers are children, parental involvement in their game playing is recommended. Nintendo is concerned that our products do not contain material that society as a whole deems unacceptable.

Consequently, since 1988 we have consistently tested the content of all games developed for Nintendo systems against our evolving game standards. As our business has matured, we have adapted our guidelines to meet the concerns of the members of our target age group and their parents. Although we realize that definitions of social, cultural and political views are highly subjective, we will continue to provide consumers with entertainment that reflects the acceptable norms of society.

The following Game Content Guidelines are presented for assistance in the development of authorized game paks (i.e., both Nintendo and licensee game paks) by defining the type of content and themes inconsistent with Nintendo’s corporate and marketing philosophy. Although exceptions may be made to preserve the content of a game, Nintendo will not approve games for the NES, Game Boy or Super NES systems (i.e., audio-visual work, packaging, and instruction manuals) which:

• include sexually suggestive or explicit content including rape and/or nudity; (1)

• contain language or depiction which specifically denigrates members of either sex; (2)

• depict random, gratuitous, and/or excessive violence; (3)

• depict graphic illustration of death; (4)

• depict domestic violence and/or abuse; (5)

• depict excessive force in a sports game beyond what is inherent in actual contact sports; (6)

• reflect ethnic, religious, nationalistic, or sexual stereotypes of language; this includes symbols that are related to any type of racial, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic group, such as crosses, pentagrams, God, Gods (Roman mythological gods are acceptable), Satan, hell, Buddha; (7)

• use profanity or obscenity in any form or incorporate language or gestures that could be offensive by prevailing public standards and tastes; (8)

• incorporate or encourage the use of illegal drugs, smoking materials, and/or alcohol (Nintendo does not allow a beer or cigarette ad to be placed on an arena, stadium or playing field wall, or fence in a sports game); (9)

• include subliminal political messages or overt political statements (10)

Following these rules, video game translator Ted Woolsey conceptualized an English script for Chrono Trigger in less than two months relying upon marketing materials and localized commercials as a means of gaining more context.2 Looking back on the experience, Woolsey muses that:
"it would have been great to have two months, two and a half months to really work on that stuff. I think at the time, as one Japanese person explained to me, they were toys for kids and chill out; let's get this thing out the door. When in fact they were really art objects, cinematic stories for adults. These role playing games skewed older."2
Unfortunately, the practice of video game localization was still in its infancy, and was almost exclusively a rushed and under-budgeted process. Coupling this with a restricted amount of processing capacity to house textual content featured in consoles at the time and the fact that any language that utilizes a non-Western alphabet creates more issues with user-interface design and script translation  it was not surprising that the environment proved to be conducive for inaccurate localizations.3
Not only were these crutches in place, but the sheer extent of Chrono Trigger’s multi-branching storyline and host of up to six interchangeable party members (each with unique and fleshed out dialogue scripts), truly made the process even more complicating. “There weren't a lot of people resources to throw on this,” Woolsey attests, “I think it's different today. Today there are teams of people that do these, but basically I had to do all of it and try to keep all the different storylines in my head as best I could.”2
Due to these circumstances, full localization of Chrono Trigger (which entails the added alteration of video game graphics, audio, and potentially voiceover) was not seen as financially viable, and as such was never undertaken. This left intact much of the Japanese culture imbued within the game, which took on the form of anime-style artwork and expressions, as well as cultural themes of collectivism, pluralism, and deicide.
However, Chrono Trigger also reflects a multicultural world distinct from traditional Japanese culture, populated by “one global monorace, spanning all the way from prehistory to the dismal future of 2300 A.D.”3 — arguably one that is primarily Western-like in its qualities. It is this 「無国籍」 mukokuseki, “nationalitilessness” in the form of a “mono race,” that was desired by the “Dream Team.” This concept “helped to both make characters more ‘relatable’ to Western audiences and prevent anything that might be seen as racially insensitive,” ultimately encouraging localization and international mass production.4
Essentially, Chrono Trigger although being censored, translated, recontextualized, and redesigned UI-wise still articulates much of what we consider original Japanese culture. As such, studying these themes more closely is paramount to our understanding of how this Japanese cultural material is expressed in North America, and reveals to us the various discrepancies between these cultures, their histories, and their distinct gaming ecologies during the late nineties.

Works Cited:

[1] Schwartz, Steven A., and Janet Schwartz. The Parent's Guide to Video Games. Rocklin, CA: Prima Pub., 1994. Print.

[2] Woolsey, Ted. "Ted Woolsey Interview: Episode 16." Interview by Chris Johnston and Greg. Player One Podcast. Player One Podcast, 02 Feb. 2007. Web. 19 July 2015.

[3] Hans, Joel. "On 'Chrono Trigger', the Book." Cartridge Lit. Cartridge Lit, 15 Apr. 2014. Web. 28 July 2015.

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