Mistaken Identity: Seven Japanese Series with a History of Strange Localized Names

Mistaken Identity: Seven Japanese Series with a History of Strange Localized Names

Sometimes game titles take on a bizarre life of their own in the back and forth between Japan and America.

Today's PlayStation update includes the Vita version of last year's 3DS platformer Yumi's Odd Odyssey... except that this version is coming out under its original Japanese title, Sayonara Umihara Kawase. It's a strange localization flip-flop, but not one entirely without precedent. All kinds of things can happen to game names in translation, and here are several of the strangest through the years.

Umihara Kawase > Yumi's Odd Odyssey > Umihara Kawase

For years, Umihara Kawase languished in the realm of "legendary import games": A cool but pricey Japan-only release with an inscrutable name. Publisher Natsume clearly agreed, and when they announced their intention to publish the PSP Umihara collection in 2007, they gave it a new title that would be more appealing to English-speakers: Yumi's Odd Odyssey. That release fell through, but Natsume went ahead and kept the new English title last year when they released Sayonara Umihara Kawase for 3DS in America.

Now, developer Agatsuma is self-publishing that game's Vita port in the U.S., and they've rolled back the title to the original Japanese: Sayonara Umihara Kawase+. Was Natsume unwilling to give away the rights to their localized title, or is Agatsuma simply banking on the fact that the game's legacy mostly centers around its native name? Whatever the case, it's led to an odd situation in which the U.S. went nearly 20 years without ever seeing this series... and now we have two versions of the same sequel under two different names. Madness!

Doki Doki Panic > Super Mario Bros. 2 > Super Mario USA

Going from obscure to famous: The story of Super Mario Bros. 2 (and how that title describes two very different games by region) has become a well-worn bit of video game trivia. The game Americans know as Mario 2 began life in Japan as an unrelated adventure called Yume Koujou Doki Doki Panic, which received a massive overhaul to become a game starring Mario and friends. But while the U.S. didn't see the true Mario 2 until 1993's Super Mario All-Stars for Super NES, our reworked game made it back to Japan a year earlier. In 1992, Nintendo published it under the name Super Mario USA as a Famicom cartridge — technically a new platform for the game in Japan, as the original Doki Doki Panic had only been issued for the Famicom Disk System add-on. Doki Doki Panic has long since been lost to licensing issues, but Nintendo continues to republish both versions of Super Mario Bros. 2 under their best-known titles in each region.

Akumajou Dracula > Castlevania > Akumajou Dracula

Konami published the original Castlevania in the U.S. just weeks after its Japanese debut. But those few weeks were enough for the game to receive an entirely new localized name. "Castlevania" read like some sort of schlocky portmanteau of "castle" and "Transylvania" — perfectly fitting given the hokey "Universal Pictures monster flick" vibe of the original. In Japan, though, Castlevania was Akumajou Dracula, approximately translated as "Demon Castle Dracula." The Castlevania name stuck in the U.S., but the series' Japanese naming conventions were all over the place; Castlevania II's Japanese title dropped the "Akumajou," becoming "Dracula II," while Castlevania III was "Akumajou Densetsu" (Demon Castle Legend), with no mention of Dracula. This weird flip-flopping continued all the way through Symphony of the Night ("Dracula X: Gekka no Nocturne" in Japan) and beyond until finally Konami decided enough was enough and declared the Japanese games would just adopt the Western title of Castlevania to bring some consistency to the franchise.

Not a bad idea, but also not a long-lived one. Only two games (Aria of Sorrow and Lament of Innocence) were released in Japan under the name "Castlevania" before the company realized that as messy as the previous naming conventions had been, they still made more business sense than adopting an outlandish foreign name that no one in Japan recognized.

Ninja Ryukenden > Ninja Gaiden > Ninja Gaiden

The localization choice Tecmo made for its 1989 action game Ninja Gaiden always seemed a little strange. What we knew as Ninja Gaiden in the U.S. was called "Ninja Ryukenden" in Japan (roughly, "The Ninja Dragon Sword Legend"). And while that admittedly would have been an awkward mouthful for Americans, did it really make sense to substitute one Japanese name for another? At least Britain went all in and changed the title to "Shadow Warriors." And for those who understood Japanese, it was an even stranger choice; the Japanese title declared Ryu Hayabusa's journey legendary, while the new American name demoted it to mere side story status.

But it stuck, evidently, because when Tecmo revived the series a decade after the NES trilogy came to a close, the Xbox reboot was called Ninja Gaiden in all regions. Given Tecmo's focus on Western audiences — the game sure wasn't going to sell like gangbusters in Japan as an Xbox exclusive — the unified branding based on the American title made sense. But it must have been confusing for Japanese fans, who undoubtedly wondered, "If this is the ninja side story, what was the ninja legend?"

Burai Fighter Color > Space Marauder

The Burai Fighter games were minor cult favorites on NES and Game Boy. However, most people don't realize that there was a Game Boy Color follow-up years later... probably because it didn't come out under the name Burai Fighter in America. Instead, its publisher inexplicably rechristened it with the shockingly generic Western title of "Space Marauder." Why the change? Presumably the rights to the original name were tied up by original publisher Taxan, which had dropped out of the games biz in the early '90s but still existed in a reduced form as the offshoot of a notoriously shady overseas parent company, Kaga Electronics. Kaga's shenanigans a few years back nearly scuttled Saints Row IV and ravaged developer Volition, so they were probably loads of fun to work with.

Gunbird > Gunbird 2 > Mobile Light Force

Perhaps the weirdest entry in this list is Psikyo's cartoon bullet-hell shooter Gunbird. The original Gunbird took years and years to make its way to the U.S. — enough so that the series' first console release in America came courtesy of Capcom, who published the sequel (Gunbird 2) on Dreamcast. Capcom kept the series' title intact, and it all seemed like business as usual.

But several years later, something bizarre happened. Bargain-basement publisher XS Games released a game called Mobile Light Force for PlayStation, and intrepid consumers were surprised to discover that beneath the odd name and awful Charlie's Angels cover art, Mobile Light Force was actually the original Gunbird... but with all its story removed. Even stranger: Soon after, XS published "Mobile Light Force 2" for PlayStation 2... which, it turned out, was a similarly butchered U.S. version of a completely unrelated shooter called Shikigami no Shiro. XS eventually reissued the first Mobile Light Force on PSN, meaning it's current the only version of Gunbird available for a viable system in the West. So it's pretty much canon, now. Sorry, Psikyo.

Top Secret > Bionic Commando > Bionic Commando

And finally, we bring it all full circle with a second game based on grappling. When Capcom released its arcade hook-and-swing platformer Top Secret in the arcades, the game had nothing whatsoever to do with the popular top-down shooter Commando besides the fact that both starred Capcom's all-purpose hero Super Joe (who was also the lead of futuristic racing action game The Speed Rumbler). But in its trip to the U.S., Top Secret became Bionic Commando, drawing a hard-to-miss connection to the earlier game. The dev team behind its NES version (more of a sequel to the arcade game than a conversion) ran with it, adding top-down stages reminiscent of Commando.

However, the NES game was still called "Top Secret" in Japan. It wasn't until its Game Boy remake that "Bionic Commando" became the series' universal title, which held true through last decade's spate of sequels and remakes. It makes a kind of sense, though; the series has essentially become centered around the West, with the HD games developed in Europe, and Game Boy Color receiving an American-developed Bionic Commando release (Elite Forces) that never saw the light of day in Japan.

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