Translating Bionic Commando

DSCF9587.JPG It's a gamble. A big, big gamble. Capcom is trusting one of its most requested sequels to a first time producer. Not only that, a first time non-Japanese producer working out of Capcom's Osaka headquarters. If that wasn't risky enough, this first timer is overseeing a development team based outside Japan. In the stodgy and safe Japanese business environment this kind of gamble is more of an unheard of anomaly. A risky as hell one at that.

"This may or may not work out," American-born producer Ben Judd says of his Bionic Commando sequel. Judd is frank, straightforward and knows there are a lot of expectations placed on him not only by fans, but by his company and the guy who created Mega Man. Almost twenty years ago, Super Joe (AKA "Ladd Spencer") and his bionic arm swung over enemies the Badds. The game was one of those big-in-America-not-in-Japan kind of things, and Capcom sat on the property for a decade plus, releasing every kind of sequels save for one that Western gamers really wanted: Bionic Commando 2. Enter Ben Judd.

"I kept telling Inafune that we had to do another Bionic Commando," says Judd, himself a huge BC fan. "And Inafune was always like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.'" But as the Dead Rising and Mega-Man creator kept hearing "Bionic Commando" popping up in interview after interview with the foreign press. Judd was heading up Capcom's localisation team in Japan, a team that he created. Japanese-to-English game translations have traditionally been, for a lack of a better word, crap. Until recently, most Japanese companies viewed them as an afterthought, and it showed. Badly. More often than not, they're literally translations that miss the nuances of culture and language. While working for Capcom USA, Judd began gathering game assets in Japan and was asked to do some localisation on Resident Evil: Outbreak. Things went well, and Capcom greenlit Judd's setting up of a localisation studio at Capcom HQ.

Judd was a logical choice to bridge the proverbial East-West gap. "The first I really became aware of Japan was when I was about eight years old," he says. "My dad was in the Navy, and he brought me a Transformer-type Bullet Train toy after a two week stay. We didn't have Transformers in Ohio, and we sure as hell didn't have Bullet trains." He remembers pouring over the back of the toy box, looking at the unreadable Japanese character. An interest was sparked.

Flash forward to the early 90's. "When I was 16 or 17, people would yell at me for having a Japanese car," Judd says. It was the Bush-era cars wars with America patriotism manifesting itself in General Motors. "It's America, should people be able to drive whatever they want?" The political climate of the day made a profound impression on Judd, which was cemented after reading The Ugly American in high school. The book encapsulated everything he didn't want to become: Insensitive to other cultures and unwilling to learn new things. Interested in games and anime, he started learning Japanese and studied abroad in Japan. Judd recalls, "The only thing that really surprised me about when I first got here was that I saw more anime in America than I did in Japan."

After graduation, he got a job at an import video game shop and kept studying Japanese full speed. He measured his progress by his ability to understand Final Fantasy games in their native lingo. "When I got Final Fantasy VII and Cloud showed up in a bath with other men," Judd remember, "I had no clue what was going on." By the time he got to FFIX, he could completely understand 98 percent of the game in Japanese. But Judd knew that if he was ever going to use his language skills, he need to get it damn close to perfect — as perfect as it was going to be for a non-native speaker. Making the trip out to Japan again, he got a job teaching English. His free time was spent honing his language skills. "Then about that time, there was a death in the family," Judd says. "Here I was whiling away my time in Japan. I needed to get back to States." Capcom USA had a job opening, and Judd applied. Translation tests, interview-after-interview and teleconferences in Tokyo followed. Judd was hired. And after a stint working in the American office, he was back in Japan.

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With Judd and Western press pushing for more Bionic Commando, Inafune saw that there was a very real built-in audience for this game. But it wasn't a Japanese audience. This was a game that mattered to Western gamers. It needed a Western producer. Inafune backed Judd, and the project was pushed through the corporate bureaucracy — less an uphill fight and more a vertical climb. A PSP Bionic Commando was approved. The game was slated to run on the Ultimate Ghost and Goblins Engine and a team began work on the project until Inafune said to scrap it. "He said it should be bigger," Judd says. "A next-gen game."

Bionic Commando was now officially a AAA title, and newcomer Judd a AAA producer. "I was in shock", he says. "I didn't want to get excited, fearing that the rug would be pulled out from underneath me. Here I am, making a dream of my youth." With all systems go, Inafune suggested bringing on Western developers to make sure it appealed to the audience's taste. Judd points out that Bionic Commando is indicative of the way that Inafune (and Capcom) have been moving. Take Dead Rising and Lost Planet, both were made with Western audiences in mind. "Japanese programmers aren't as good with things like physics as Western ones are," points out Judd. "That's probably due to a history of working mainly with consoles instead of PCs. Good physics are really important in Bionic Commando." Things are pulled and thrown in Bionic Commando. They've got weight. Swedish developer GRIN was brought on to do the heavy lifting. "Capcom Japan is adding the spice," adds Judd. How is it as an American working in Japan with a Swedish dev team? "Let's be honest," Judd says. "It's a hassle. I love and hate it. But some of the best work is produced when creative forces are pushing hard in opposite directions."

The team has gone through the original screen by screen, combed back through the Game Boy and the Game Boy Color game as well as the entire Commando canon. They know it, they respect it. "I really hope it's something that the fans can appreciate," he says. With any updating, there are complaints. Bionic Commando is no exception. The biggest complaint was by far Spencer's dreads. The laundry list of those in a nutshell: The original character didn't have dreads! White people look horrible with dreads! Those dreads look like hot dogs! "Of course, the character has changed," says Judd. "He's been in prison. It's like Captain America's fall from grace." In short, this isn't the Bionic Commando you grew up with anymore. If you want to play that game, it still exists. You can play it, even. Other complaints attacked things like the size of the arm and more importantly those orange hot dogs inside it. Addressing that singularly important issue, Judd says, "Granted, Kotaku has its own culture surrounding it, but no one else has really has pointed out any hot dogs in Spencer's arm." Everyone else is apparently blind.

Still, purist are wondering: Why not make it 2D? "The fact is that today most people won't pay sixty bucks for a 2D game," Judd points out. "They'll pay ten bucks for a 2D Xbox LIVE game." Capcom wanted to give Bionic Commando to the largest audience possible, and that in this day and age means translating it to 3D. Regardless, the game is not a straight up remake. It is a sequel, set ten years after the first game. Better yet, think of it as a translation. "There are plans to tie it back," Judd says, refusing to reveal more. "The good thing about showing what you are working on is that you can get feedback," he adds. With that, comments can be incorporated or ignored in the evolutionary process that is game development. "Two months from now," he says, "some of those concerns will be addressed in an announcement we're calling 'The Bionic Commando Megaton Bomb.'" Some of those may not. We're hoping the odds are in our favour for a hot dog arm nixing.

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Check back tomorrow for our write-up of the Bionic Commando demo walk through.


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