People have big opinions on how Nintendo localizes its games today, but let me tell you something as an old person: There's no game censorship like '90s Nintendo censorship. Back then, if you wanted your Final Fantasy VI experience to include swear words, you had to learn Japanese yourself (and many RPG fans my age did exactly that).
The '90s were a sticky time for video games. The world was changing, the media had a fixation on school violence, and there was plenty of blame to go around. For a while, politicians jabbed their fingers in the direction of video games. "There!" they cried, "That's what's turning today's teenagers into surly, greasy goblins from Planet Hell!"
Nintendo of America sat with its fingers pressed together. "Oh, gracious, not us," it said, its halo shining like a string of gold coins. "We're safe, sanitary, and family-friendly."
Nintendo hoped to throw politicians off their scent, and trick families into thinking of them as the good guys. No such luck; the mainstream press and the adults that followed it tucked all video games under one blanket of blame. Nevertheless, Nintendo of America worked very hard to scrub its games of anything that might be considered objectionable, including violence, religious themes, suggestive content, and off-color language.
Nintendo of America has since calmed way the heck down – at least as far as its third-party developers are concerned. Once the ESRB was slotted into place near the end of '94, the game company capped its red pen and took a big step backwards. We all started to breathe a little easier.
All that said, Nintendo itself has always been careful to keep its most popular franchises relatively clean. The occasional dark theme or suggestive joke is OK, but out-and-out crudity is far less common.
So I was surprised to learn The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has an actual swear word in it. An extremely mild word, to be fair: Tumblr user "ScribbleHooves" discovered that the Rito warrior Tebah will exclaim "Dammit!" under the right circumstances. Not exactly the scandal of the century, but I suppose it'd raise a gasp in church.
The cuss in Breath of the Wild made me think back to rare video game moments when swear words appeared where I least expected them to. For all Nintendo's efforts to keep us children safe and happy (and to keep over-protective parents off its butt), curses still trickled on through from time to time.
I think the first one I saw was in Castlevania II's intro screen, which invites you to "step into the shadows of the Hell House." Not sure how Konami got away with this in lieu of, I don't know, "Heck House."
Then there's the widely-known example from the tail-end of Bionic Commando. Hitler – er, Master D – calls Rad Spencer a "damned fool" shortly before Spencer decorates the wall with his brains, blood, and monocle shards. I think Nintendo looked over Bionic Commando, said "Yeah, just change the Nazi stuff," and didn't bother to scrutinize the game through its end. Capcom probably nodded silently. It was most likely 4 PM on a Friday afternoon, and the representatives for both companies probably had a mighty thirst that demanded slaking.
Moving ahead to the next generation, I was privately thrilled to see the word "putz" in Street Fighter II, and I still suspect whomever localized the game used it with the express intent of dodging Nintendo's censorship. "Putz" is delightfully flexible, not unlike the part of the male anatomy it directly refers to. Though I'm not fluent in Yiddish by a long shot, many of the language's words and terms wound up in my day-to-day life. "Putz" is a harmless enough way to say "fool" or "idiot" in secular society, but if you're of Askhenazi descent and you say it to your grandmother, you are so very, very grounded. No, it doesn't matter how old you are.
When the ESRB started doing its thing, it became far more common to see swear words in SNES games. Of course, the system was on its last legs by then, but at least I got to see Mega Man X say "damn." You go, little dude. Forge Dr Light's dream of a world where robots can swear just as freely as humans.
Talk about good timing on Capcom's part, though. Breath of Fire II is another one of its late-stage SNES games, and it has bad words in addition to a plot that equates Catholicism with Devil-worship. I can't even begin to guess how it could localize that craziness for the pre-ESRB era. Mind you, Final Fantasy VI translator Ted Woolsey gave us an incredible story about the actual end of the world even though Nintendo denied him the words "die" or "kill."
That's Ted freakin' Woolsey, though. Breath of Fire II isn't capable of Final Fantasy VI's genius wordplay. Heck, it doesn't even have consistent spellings for its characters' English names.
So, how about you? What are some of the first bad words you remember seeing in video games? Were you titillated? Did you slam the power button in shock and fear? Did your parents catch sight of that rogue "Damn" and holler at you?
I expect those of you who adopted the Master System, Sega Genesis, and TurboGrafx-16 "grew up" a lot faster than those of us who were part of a Nintendo-exclusive household. Dish, darling!
Featured Midboss of the Week
All that reminiscing put me in a 16-bit mood, so let's look back at a 16-bit boss: D-Rex from Mega Man X.
D-Rex is the last challenge you need to surmount before you're given access to Sigma (well, Sigma and his pooch, technically). While it's easy to tell Rexy is supposed to be some facsimile of a mechanical dinosaur, it's also easy to tell he kind of looks unfinished.
That's because he is unfinished. D-Rex was conceived as a giant tyrannosaurus rex-mech that'd theoretically terrorize humanity, but Sigma had to stop its construction shortly after X and Zero infiltrated his base. That's why X comes face-to-face with what's essentially the top-half of a tyrannosaurus skull balanced sloppily on a hovering base fitted with rubber tire bumpers.
Sigma still gets his money's worth out of his half-dinosaur, though. It's still huge, it moves erratically, and X must fight it in a tiny confined space. D-Rex's weak spot is its entire skull, so at least its hit-box is large. You can also make the battle go a little quicker if you use the Boomerang Cutter against it – but given the Cutter's awkward flight path, that's easier said than done. Unfinished or not, D-Rex is a worthy gatekeeper for the self-proclaimed Reploid King.