999’s First Puzzle is Completely Different in Japanese

A friend was playing 9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors (999) recently, and was curious how it was changed in localization. The game deals heavily with wordplay and puns that seem difficult to localize. Hopefully, I’ll get to cover all of them, eventually! I actually ran into the first big change unexpectedly while checking something else.

A side-by-side comparison of 999's PC title screens. The English one is simply 3 colored 9s with the title below it, which the Japanese one is a 3x3 grid with the title written out in kanji.
Even the title screen is different, which is surprisingly common in localization. I think it looks a lot nicer, personally.

If you don’t know, 999 is a game in the Zero Escape trilogy, originally released on the Nintendo DS in 2009. There’s also a 2017 remaster available on current platforms. You may recognize its writer (Kotaro Uchikoshi) as co-writer of World’s End Club (alongside Danganronpa’s Kazutaka Kodaka).

999 has a Saw aesthetic, but the story is more reminiscent of a scifantasy thriller, or even death games like Squid Game. The gameplay/genre is visual novel most of the time, but occasionally switches to an escape-the-room type puzzle, reminiscent of early 2000s flash games. This article won’t contain story spoilers, but I do recommend the game, if you’ve got the time.

As it turns out, the game’s very first puzzle differs significantly from the original release. The English puzzle uses a straightforward cipher to unlock a pair of colored suitcases. Colored shapes are drawn on two scraps of paper, with each shape corresponding to a number. After matching the colors to the briefcases, it’s a simple matter of referencing the cipher and entering the numbers.

A brief summary of the English version of the puzzle, as described in the paragraph above. Colored symbols, when matched to numbers on a cipher, give two 4-digit suitcase combinations.
I always found this puzzle a little underwhelming, but I wrote it off since it was just a tutorial.

The difference between the Japanese and English puzzles is immediately obvious: the shapes were originally Japanese characters!

The two scraps of paper with colored shapes on them are instead replaced with Japanese writing. The first says 'ao', the Japanese word for blue, in red writing. The second says 'aka', the Japanese word for 'red', in blue writing.

The red text says ‘アオ/ao‘, while the blue text says ‘アカ/aka‘. Native players will immediately realize these mean ‘blue‘ and ‘red‘, respectively. Meanwhile, the cipher itself originally had this text:

The Japanese cipher. It simply lists Japanese characters and equates them to numbers.
“A, I, U = 11, 12, 13
A, KA, SA = 11, 21, 31″

So, the puzzle is to text into two 4-digit numerical combinations, one for each suitcase. The blue text is straightforward; the second half of the cipher pretty much hands you the answer. ア= 11, カ = 21. Entering 1121 into the blue suitcase will confirm that easily enough.

The red suitcase, however, is not as simple. The value for ア (A) is the same on both halves of the cipher (11) but there’s no value for オ (O). So, we’re going to have to extrapolate it, using something known as 五十音順 (gojūonjun), or AIUEO order.

A full set of katakana, displayed in a 5x10 chart
A gojūonjun chart

Translated literally, gojūonjun means ‘50-sound order’. This is a bit of a misnomer, since even though the chart is 5×10, some of the spaces aren’t filled in. There’s even an extra character hanging around on its own outside the chart! Regardless, AIUEO order is pretty much comparable to the alphabetical order we have in English. In Japanese, vowel sounds are listed first, then the consonant-vowel pairs ⁠— starting from K, then moving on to S, and so on. This order is standard, and you’ll see it in the text-entry fields of most games.

Ocarina of Time's name entry field, in English and Japanese.
In this example, Ocarina of Time‘s name entry screen has the characters in AIUEO order, but from left-to-right. It’s actually more common than not for video games to display Japanese text entry with this Western orientation. 

So, how does this relate back to the puzzle? Well, if you number the rows and columns of AIUEO order, you’ll make a chart that gives the value of オ. Mark the first row of the first column with 11, then the next row down with 12, and so on. Moving left, mark the top of the next column as 21, and continue the pattern, ending up with something like this:

The katakana chart shown above, this time with each cell on the chart numbered.
If you compare these against the cipher from earlier, you’ll see the values for ア, イ, ウ, カ, and サ match.

Looking at this, we can see that オ should be 15. That gives us a full code of 1115. Let’s give it a shot:

A screenshot of unlocking the red chest in Japanese.
Alright! The lock released!

So, the original puzzle relied on the player making a connection to the order of Japanese characters. Amusingly, if you tried creating the same type of puzzle using the English alphabet, O would still be 15, as it’s the 15th letter of the alphabet!

A similar summary of the puzzle to the one at the beginning of the article, but this time the papers read 'ZE' in red text and 'RO' in blue text. A cipher gives the codes for A, R, E, Y, O, and U, and the codes are 2605 and 1815.
Here’s what the puzzle might’ve looked like if they tried to transfer the same overall concept to English.

I can only speculate, but I imagine changing the lock combination and art on the papers was easier than redesigning the puzzle completely to work with English characters. In Japanese, ‘red’ and ‘blue’ can conveniently be shortened to two characters, but I’m having trouble thinking of an English synonym that would’ve worked with the 4-digit code.

Two rabbits laying next to each other.
“We carrot think of what they could have bun, hare, either!”

Another advantage of the official localization is that it is language-agnostic, so if this game had ever been localized into yet another language with a different alphabet, like Russian, Spanish, or Italian, the puzzle wouldn’t have to be redesigned yet again. To my knowledge, this didn’t happen, but it might’ve been among the considerations the team made. Players with English as a second language might also have an easier time with this puzzle.

A 7x7 hiragana chart displaying the 47 standard japanese characters in gojūon order, with red and blue katakana along the top and sides.
By the way, gojūonjun forms the basis of a Japanese-invented cipher called the Takeda Shingen Cipher. I plan on writing an article about it in the future, so stay tuned if ciphers interest you!

Are there any other puzzles like this you know of that were changed significantly in localization? Let me know below. Or, let me know if there’s something in particular you’ve always wanted to know about this game’s localization. You can also follow me on Twitter to stay up-to-date on new articles!

One comment

  1. I could never get out of the first room when I played this game, the puzzle is really obvious in Japanese but in English there’s so many interpretations to the clues given that I spent literal hours following trails of logic and looking for different lines of thought only to resort to a guide after some weeks and see it was really “simple” ( I completely gave up on the game after that )

    Looking at both side by side I think the player will only really get the logic by knowing the Japanese puzzle because it doesn’t provide enough context

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