Semi?Conversion – Phantasian Productions Interview Part 1

Semi?Conversion

Whether you believe it was the 16-bit era, or the 32-bit era, it’s hard to deny that it’s been a long while since the golden age of jRPGs.

It seems like these days the average jRPG fan in the west is almost entirely dependent on either import, or localization of repeated franchise entries. In laymen terms “If it hasn’t already sold a million units as a series, you ain’t getting it in English”.

Sure we catch an occasional break when it comes to one “Rainfall” or another, but its hard not to see what were missing out on.

One of the few franchises still “trickling” over to English speaking shores of late has been the “Tales” franchise: a series of jRPGs connected by an invisible thread of game-play eschewing most classic menu / turn based battle system (or even the now common MMORPG “Click & Reload” system) in favor of a brawler like fast paced combo based battle system.

Faced Paced Menu based Battle System?

While some Tales games have managed to reach the English speaking shore of the west, most have not, however most prominent was “Tales of Phantasia” which was translated as a ROM file by the popular “Dejap” group.

But Dejap had it’s problems, translation errors, inconsistency with the later official translation done for Tales of Symphonia ( a far prequel to Phantasia), and a serious case of very liberal paraphrasing.

Not soon afterwards a remake of Phantasia was released in the land of the rising sun; building upon much of what Phantasia had already accomplished. However, like most entries in the Tales franchise after it, it went without western translation.

So once again the flag of localization was taken up by the fans, specifically the dedicated team over at “Phantasian Productions“.

Today I’ll be interviewing “Cless” the lead (producer, designer, person?) who’s heading not only the “Tales of Phantasia” translation project but also one for “Tales of Destiny”‘s recent remake, and the originals sequel, so… let’s get started:

SAM: First off, could you tell our readers a little about yourself?

CLESS: My name is Chris and I’m 29 years old. I’m a ROM hacker and gamer and got my start with the NES when I was 3. I grew up loving Nintendo’s franchises (Metroid and Zelda being my favorites). My tastes shifted toward RPGs in late 1994 after renting Final Fantasy IV (or II as was known as then).

SAM: Most projects, Phantasian Productions, are known modifications / hacks of titles belonging to the tales series of video-games; could you describe your own relationship with the franchise? 

Oy... the old days

CLESS: There was a lot of hype surrounding the original Super Famicom Tales of Phantasia when the ZSNES emulator finally supported the ROM back in 1998. My curiosity was piqued. Not really knowing much about it besides remembering one of my friends raving about it over a Nintendo Power article, I gave it a spin and was just totally floored by the whole thing. It was like, “Holy crap! I can move my character around attack with a button press, in realtime! No messing around with cursors and selecting ‘Fight’ from some menu!”. It was some kind of revolution for me; I hadn’t played anything like it before. To me, that was way more interesting than the battle voice acting and the opening theme song being vocalized, as nice and impressive of a technical achievement that all was.

However, without going into too much detail, the PS1 Tales of Destiny was a bit of a letdown to me around the time of its release, so I hadn’t really become a hardcore Tales fan or anything at this point. I had learned that Tales of Phantasia for Super Famicom was actually mostly the product of the team that split off and became tri-Ace, known for the Star Ocean series. Star Ocean wasn’t emulated then, so I paid a hefty sum on eBay for an imported cartridge. That too was an instant hit with me, and you could see a very strong resemblance to Tales of Phantasia; there was no mistaking that it came from the same people. Star Ocean 2 then came out officially in English in mid-1999 and it was (and still is) one of the most fun gaming experiences of my life. So, at that point, I pretty much became a devout follower of everything tri-Ace and treated Phantasia as a sort of “unofficial” title of that company.

Games can get facials too...

But I was still curious, though perhaps a little cautious about the PlayStation remake of Phantasia. It looked much more similar to Destiny–a game I was disappointed with–than the original game. I gave Destiny another chance and actually found myself a bit more accepting of it. It still wasn’t anywhere close to its predecessor in my mind, but at least I had actually finished it this time. I got one of those parallel port plug-in “mods” for PS1 and then sent a money order to Game Cave (remember those awesome ads at the back of old gaming magazines?) to import the game. But they never sent it or even refunded my money after several weeks of waiting. Phoning them to ask them to return the money was useless. Bastards. I didn’t have any real source of income then and cash was hard for me to come by, so it really sucked. I saved more money for a while and picked up a used copy from eBay for a lot more than it goes for now.

So, I finally got the bloody thing! After getting over some very slight disappointment with the soundtrack, I conceded that this was actually better, no, a LOT better than the original game, all other things considered. Relative to the console, it was nowhere close to being the technical marvel that was the original, but in the end, that sort of thing has little bearing on how great a game is. Nearly everything about this version was just better to me. Period. Sure, it was clearly running on an enhanced Destiny engine and felt highly similar to it, but they had fixed a lot of my issues with it, and refined the heck out of things. Then they went and added a bunch of interesting and cool little features that have become staples in the series today. I could go on and on about it. I certainly regained some interest in Tales as a series, although it wasn’t much of one just yet. No one knew there any others on the way.

One year later, we get Tales of Eternia. This game was the ultimate. They did it; they perfected the basic Linear Motion Battle System. It got way faster, and it didn’t stop during big spells anymore. Party member AI options got greatly expanded and thus your allies tended to behave much more as you wanted them to; they had a tendency to stand around like idiots in the previous games if they weren’t casting spells. Things could get so chaotic, and I loved it. It made it a bit difficult to go back to the earlier installments. I was so impressed with this game that it totally pushed the series to number 1 on my list.

Change

The series exploded in growth after Eternia and it has been difficult for me to keep up with it all. I still imported a lot of the games for my collection, but I have to admit the only ones I’d spent any great deal of time with were the major ones that were localized into English. I loved Symphonia, Abyss, and Vesperia. I enjoyed Dawn of the New World a lot more than most others did, apparently. I wasn’t really into Legendia, the Phantasia GBA port, or Radiant Mythology. I did manage to get a playthrough of Rebirth in when it was first released, but I don’t feel like I understood its systems enough to get the most out of it. I haven’t found time to start Graces yet, but it only just came out.

My favorite of the series at this point is probably Vesperia. The game just had a feel to it that I found particularly pleasant, and it has my favorite cast; the protagonists had some really great chemistry. Not to mention that Yuri Lowell is by far my most favorite character in the series and one of my most favorite characters in any game ever, so I can’t see him being topped anytime soon.

SAM: You’ve had the rare experience of having taken a look under-the-hood of many entries in the same franchise, did this change the way you played Tales games? Have you noticed any peculiar repeated oddities?

CLESS: Can’t say I’ve really learned anything useful for playing.

without habitual structuring, much of this wouldn't have been possible

I did notice that the internal data structures of most mainline titles are ridiculously similar to each other, and that is one of the key factors that has made the PS2 projects possible. The structure of Team Destiny’s PS2 games totally take after the internal structures of the PS1 games, while the Team Symphonia stuff appeared to be quite different (I never got really familiar with them on a technical level, though. Just took quick peeks out of curiosity).

One thing that does particularly amuse me, however, is that they’ve been using same data compression format for years. The very same! Even Tales of Vesperia on Xbox 360 uses it. Yes, the same compression used all the way back in Tales of Destiny for PS1. You would think that in this era, they could use something a little more efficient than a format that hardly taxes an ancient and slow processor. I guess if it does the job, it does the job.

In Tales of Phantasia, there are what appear to be conditional text strings all over the script involving whether or not Arche is in the party that nobody will ever see while playing the game. There’s only one point in the entire game where she leaves the party for any notable amount of time, but these strings are located in areas that are completely inaccessible at that point. I don’t know if these were also in the original Super Famicom version (it wouldn’t surprise me if they were, though), but you can’t help but speculate things like whether she was originally intended to be an optional character or something, somehow, and they never deleted this weird stuff from the game.

SAM: Unlike the more universally recognized stream of PC mods, console translations do seem to fall under the general sense of (however unjustified it may be) “legal murkiness”. In all your time working with Tales games have you ever had any contact with Namco-Bandai on the subject?

CLESS: Not really. But I wouldn’t at all be surprised if they’ve got their eye on us. I don’t remember the exact details, but there was an interesting time when the marketing manager for Tales of Symphonia popped up on our forum to, I believe, answer someone’s question about one of that game’s pre-release promotional programs.

SAM: How much of an influence have official -or unofficial translations had on your projects? Tales of Phantasia has already been rather infamously translated officially for the game-boy advance,  and although the remake you are now translating has never been translated, the original, Tales of Destiny was the first Tales title to find its way over to American shores.

CLESS: Nowadays, quite a bit (particularly in regards to official localizations), but it wasn’t always that way.

In the beginning, before Legendia’s localization, we intended to do our own thing completely. I’ll just say we had…our issues with the way many things were handled, especially with the PS1-era localizations. One big thing that sticks out was arte names–artes which commonly reappear in games throughout the series received new translations in every single iteration through Symphonia…there was no established naming standard for these.

Attack (/Tech/Arte) names have always been a touchy subject for Tales localization

Everyone knows Demon Fang at this point. Also known as Majinken or 魔神剣. This could very reasonably be localized as “Demon Blade.” It was called “Missile Sword” in Tales of Destiny. Then it became “Sonic Blade” in Tales of Eternia (or Destiny II as it was released in North America). I don’t know anyone who didn’t think these were laughable.

Then comes Symphonia, with this “Demon Fang” thing. I’m like “Well, it’s certainly much closer than anything they used before. Fangs can be sharp like blades, so there’s still that nuance in there.” This name grew on me pretty fast; it’s pretty catchy, really, and it rolls off the tongue well. I didn’t really have any significant issues with the rest of the arte names that I can remember off top of my head. But even being generally satisfied with the arte name translation effort this time around, it was still the third time out of three that these had been localized differently. Why adopt the names of the shared ones if they’re just going to be different once again in the next game that comes over?

Although it's considered the black sheep of the franchise, Tales of Legendia did help in finalizing a certain localization "standard" for tales games to come

But then Legendia was announced, and Peter Garza was appointed localization producer for the project. He interacted with fans to a limited degree on the official forums, and I specifically brought up the issue about arte name consistency, and that a standard really, really needed to be established. There was much rejoicing when he voiced his agreement and that what was used in Symphonia would be the base for Legendia (and as we see today, everything else that has followed).

From that point, I decided we would try to be consistent with the official localizations as much as possible. Occasionally, an official decision may create an annoying consistency problem, seem a tad too lame, clearly be an accidental mistake, or be simple censorship. Then you might have something that probably needed a bit more Google time to really get right. I tend to avoid adopting these in my projects if it can be helped. Fortunately, these problems haven’t been overly frequent. People familiar with the official localization conventions should feel quite at home with our work for the most part.

When we have to make up an English name for an arte or something that doesn’t exist in any post-Symphonia titles, the first thing we try to do is study the names of localized arte names which have similarities to the new arte in Japanese and try to form something that works and might realistically appear in an official release (at least one of the ones I thought up for Destiny R before Vesperia came out ended up also being used officially, which I thought was kind of neat).

Aaaanyway. Our Tales of Phantasia project is really not influenced much at all by any of the other existing English versions of the game. It, by and large, is its very own thing. ~70% of script was translated before the GBA version came out by a super fan who was unhappy with the accuracy of the old DeJap project and most of the rest was translated by someone who’d never played the game to completion in any form (I played a big role in supplying context to him). The translated script was hammered out by three editors including myself. I moderated everything and I like to believe we’ve reached the sweet spot between accuracy and readability for something like this. I would say that it is more loosely written than the official GBA script, but is far more faithful to the source than what DeJap chose to do.

“What the HECK is THAT?!”

If any game had influence on some choices in the script, it was Symphonia, as it is a distant prequel of sorts to Phantasia. One of my goals was to make sure it was consistent and that all shared storyline terminology was translated the same way–something not even the official GBA localization got quite right in every instance (yes, it was published by Nintendo, but the game was, in fact, actually localized by Namco). The only difference is that I’ve refused to use Symphonia’s “Summon Spirit” term and only ever use “Spirit” for those beings. But it’s such a minor difference that most people won’t even notice.

Nothing’s finalized with the Destiny projects. Since we’re not just doing the second game, but also the remake of the first, we sort of want to take this as an opportunity to reboot some things. For instance, some protagonists had their names changed for seemingly no reason. I mean, all the ones changed (not including those re-spelled for cosmetic and pronunciation reasons) were pretty darned normal as-is in the Japanese versions. It’s not like they were Engrishy-sounding abominations at all. I imagine that if Destiny was being officially localized for the first time today, the localization teams would leave them alone. We’re aiming, at least, to keep most if not all of the storyline terminology as it was originally localized, though.

 

Thank you very much to Cless for agreeing to be apart of this interview. Join us in the near future as we follow-up with part 2 of the interview.

Meanwhile check out Phantsian Productions over at their website.

This is Semi?Conversion on Mod Informer, and as always, I claim to be:

-Sam Wagner (Goodnight!)

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