This is a continuation of my previous breakdown of the Super Famicom release and fan translation of Live A Live, in preparation for the upcoming remake. The first part (the caveman Pogo) can be found here, while a list of all parts can be found here. With that out of the way, let’s get acquainted with the rookie shinobi, Oboromaru!
Oboromaru’s mission is to recover a prisoner from a facility manned by 100 people. This is a sneaking mission, but it’s left to Oboromaru’s discretion whether he avoids detection entirely, leaves no survivors, or a mix of the two. These three paths resulted in different scenarios playing out over the course of the mission. Predating both Undertale and Metal Gear Solid by a wide margin, this was a pretty novel concept that added a lot of replay value to the chapter!
Set in the closing days of the Tokugawa shogunate, Oboromaru’s chapter is filled with figures that are historical, mythical, and a mix of both. It’s kind of like if a game set in the American Civil War featured Ulysses S. Grant and Stonewall Jackson, but also Bigfoot and Pecos Bill. The chapter also has a lot of wordplay in its events and character names, so, naturally, localization is going to present some interesting problems. Native Japanese players would have learned about these figures and creatures via osmosis, but most of the references are going to be lost on English-speaking audiences.
Even Oboromaru’s name contains such a reference. The 丸 (maru, circle) name-end was historically used as a good-luck charm to protect the bearer from death at the hand of demons or disaster. It was typically reserved for things like ships and animals, but it also stuck as a name-ender for fictional ninja. It’s comparable to pirate names ending in ‘-beard’.
The exact reason for this practice isn’t clear, but it is commonly noted that お丸 (omaru) means ‘toilet’. A reasonable extrapolation is that whatever would threaten the maru-named thing would be warded by the smell! Additionally, oboro itself evokes the type of mist or fog that appears on a moonlight night. Perfectly suitable for an undetected assassin, wouldn’t you say? It’s common for ninja to be given names inspired by nature like this (more on that a little later).
With the huge number of enemies, it would be impractical to take a close look at all of their names, abilities, and dialogue. Instead, I’m going to present a brief overview of a select few parts of this chapter, and hopefully give you an idea of the difficulties localizing it presents.
Ignoring the handful of topknot-sporting samurai you encounter that are named for historical samurai, the first point of interest is the chapter’s password system. Oboromaru eavesdrops on a samurai meeting where an officer tests them on the system.
When prompted with やま (yama, mountain), one must reply with the correct word. In this case, the correct reply is かわ (kawa, river), but the correct reply alternates between that and もと (moto, origin). In the scene explaining this, one of the samurai responds with いも (imo, potato), a totally wrong answer that gets him summarily executed. In addition, when actually giving the password, the player also has the option to choose した (shita, possibly meaning ‘down’).
The joke behind this scene is that, while the correct password phrases (yamamoto and yamakawa) are common Japanese names, yamaimo is instead the name for the Chinese yam, the long, golden tubers you sometimes see in Asian markets. As for shita, the remake chose to carry on the spirit of the puns with ‘near’, making ’mountaineer’.
After this scene the chapter opens up a bit and we’re given free reign over a lot of areas. When looking at the following enemies, it might help to bear in mind a historical fact about Japanese names. At the time this game is set, it was common for Japanese people to take on the name of their hometown prefecture as a de facto family name. An example you might be familiar with is Miyamoto Musashi, a samurai whose historical life has been inextricably blended with the myth surrounding it. Musashi’s family name comes from the village of Miyamoto, where he spent his early life. That in mind, let’s look at a couple enemies we can now encounter:
Throughout this chapter, Aeon Genesis chose simply to transliterate the enemy names, for the most part. From what I’ve seen in the demo, the remake’s official localization made this choice, as well. While the jokes don’t translate when doing this, modern localization has generally accepted this as the best way to proceed when the setting is unmistakably Japanese. I think it’s better than trying to rename the characters and disrupting the thematic cohesion.
One of the few exceptions in this chapter is the 越前屋 (echizen ya, lit. Echizen merchant), a hidden NPC the player can choose to fight if going for 100 kills. In this case, Echizen is the name of a province on the western coast of Japan, and ya indicates that the character is a merchant. Without translating ya, it’ll be difficult for players to figure out the character’s role. AG chose to leave the full name transliterated, while the official localization opted to add ‘Merchant’ to the end of his name, as well as the rest of the region-specific traders.
Another interesting thing about this chapter is that the individual enemies do not actually have unique names. The first blue-robed be-top-knotted samurai you kill will always be named Ima Ikuzо̄, no matter how many of his identical twins you’ve spared before. This meant the only way I could check the names for this chapter was to do a “genocide run” of it!
There’s dozens of unique, scripted enemy encounters in this chapter. So much so that this article would be unreadable if I went into all of them, so I’m going to cut that off here. The other point I wanted to touch on in this chapter was the equipment. Both AG and the official localization chose to simply transliterate many of the equipment names, a decision I disagree with. Items like the 水神のたび (Suijin no tabi) carry no meaning to English-speaking audiences. Being ‘Socks of the Water God’, these are some pretty good gear for the chapter, offering a significant stat boost and healing when standing in water. Unfortunately, if the player doesn’t know Japanese, their role as water-related footwear is lost on them.
In cases like names, which are proper nouns, and particularly names of enemies, which players don’t need to understand for mechanical reasons, I think it’s fine to transliterate. In the case of suijin, it’s a common misconception that it refers to a specific deity, but it’s actually a generalized term for gods of freshwater (lakes, rain, irrigation). This may have been the motivation behind leaving it untranslated. Furthermore, tabi are a type of split-toe sock that doesn’t have an exact English equivalent, and ‘socks’ sounds a little unimpressive.
Given this, and a desire to preserve a sense of Japanese theming within the chapter, I think a good compromise would’ve been ‘Tabi of the Water God’ . While preserving the theming, it conveys immediately to the player that they are in some way associated with water, and the equipment slot is easy enough to figure out by checking. There’s quite a few items like this in this and other chapters, and I think they unfortunately drag the experience of the game down a bit for people who don’t speak Japanese.
For now, I think I’ll call the chapter here. If you’re a long-time LAL fan, and have questions about a specific enemy or line in this chapter, let me know, and I’ll cover it in my follow-up when the remake releases! Also, feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I’ll post updates every time I post an article. The next chapter we’ll do is the controversial Kung Fu chapter, which I have a lot to say about. Stay tuned!