Friday, April 18, 2014

AC3's Official Localization: The Post-Mortem

Not all Japanese games are brought over to the West. It could be for any reason: because the publisher has no idea how, or doesn't want, to market the game overseas, the game being deemed unprofitable, high localization costs and sometimes it's just plain bad timing.

There are a variety of reasons and combinations of factors that can make a game remain Japan-only, letting it fade into obscurity. As it turns out, there was actually a legitimate reason for Namco Hometek's cutting of AC3's story and characters even though the game had always been meant to receive a proper English release.

This post contains all information that I could find about the localization that AC3 was supposed to get but never actually got. I hope the information contained here will give fans a clearer view on the history of AC3 and why the american and european editions ended up the way they did.

The translator

To kick this off, let's begin with the involvement of professional translator Agness Kaku (MGS2, D2), in her own words:

Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere
Client: Namco / Agency: Frognation / Circa: 1999
AC3: Electrosphere, the third installment of the successful Namco franchise, is a FPS/flight-sim-action set against a sweeping backdrop of intense corporate warfare (yes, WAY too many people read Gibson) in a bright, high-tech and trigger-happy future.

I was brought in to do a demo translation of a story chapter by people who were supposedly contracted to write the screenplay. Soon after, Namco decided to lighten the budget by ditching much or all of the plot content for the non-Japanese release.

For whatever reason (though my admittedly biased view is that cutting the story didn't help), AC3 didn't make quite the splash that a release of its size should have. All the pre-localization hype surrounding the massive storyline turned into a chorus of boos and then fading grouses when the change was announced, which meant that there wasn't a lot of interest left when the title was finally ready to ship. A shame, really, since gamers who did play it almost universally praised it and it won a respectable number of "Player's Choice" distinctions.

The company

When Ms. Kaku says "people who were supposedly contracted to write the screenplay." she's very probably referring to Frognation, the consultant company that was put in charge of localization for AC3 and the team of writers that created the story Dai Satō (who created and owned Frognation until 2007), his friend Kengo Watanabe and frequent collaborator Yusuke Asayama.

Frognation had a very important role in the making of this game: Booklet Localization, PlayStation Software Promotional Video [Ed.note: Mission 00], Game Concept & Script, Voice Acting Direction (Namco), Official "How to" Video Production (Media Factory).

For all intents and purposes, this was the company that was going to get this game translated for the stateside release. The fact that the Photosphere booklet had already been made bilingual for the Japanese release can only mean that they had prepared it in advance for the stateside release.

English dub

And here are some audio clips that I presume to be samples from an English dub, made before Namco Hometek decided to drop most of the story.

0:20 "Controller, this is Hopeful, on final approach." (workprint)

0:28 "...a biochemical facility in the vicinity..." (workprint)

The Neucom bioplant in Sandbury, most likely.

0:33 "UPEO has defused (or refused)..." (final)

'nuff said.


Here's a look at the worldwide sales figures of AC 1 through 3. I remember these being available on an ACES WEB page dedicated to AC history but that webpage doesn't seem to be up anymore. However, the same numbers can be still found on the Japanese Wikipedia pages for each game:

ACE COMBAT     2'230'000 copies sold

ACE COMBAT 2  1'092'000 copies sold

ACE COMBAT 3  1'164'000 copies sold

(this section has been updated on April 20th as it has come to my attention that these are infact the total sales and not just the Japanese domestic sales.)

The game fared well enough with critics, scoring a 31 out of 40 on Famitsu. AC3 also got a reprint under the Playstation the Best budget label, which is always a sign that the game sold, at the very least, a good number of copies. On top of that Ms. Kaku mentions that the game "won a respectable number of 'Player's Choice' distinctions", but those are probably buried in old magazines and Japanese websites.

Looking at the way AC3 performed, and considering the fact that it was a much larger game compared to AC2, these sales numbers could only have led to disappointment. The target must have been closer to 1.5 million or maybe even 2 million units (worldwide) but in the end it sold only a little more than AC2. The good but not exceptional reception AC3 got in its home country must have been a factor that helped AC3 get a cut, and cheaper to make, release in the West.

Personal addendum

I remember seeing an ad for AC3 in the promotional catalog that came with the PSOne that my parents had bought me in early 2000 (or was it late 1999...) that mentioned the player flying alongside wingmen Erich, Rena and Fiona in a world where mega-corporations have more power than the government and war is about to start. Sadly I did not keep it so I can't provide a scan.

Me and the rest of the team also noticed how the game was made with subsequent translations in mind at a technical level. The way the text is stored in TIMs, while time-consuming, makes for an easier job during editing than what I usually see when following other fan or even professional translations. This shows how the game was made, from conception to completion, for both japanese and western audiences. After 15 years the hard work of those that spent endless hours typing in, timing and inserting all that text can finally be appreciated.


So there you have it, all the official facts and data that I could find plus my own personal recollections. In the end, after connecting all the dots, it becomes clear that it was a pretty reasonable business decision that made AC3 lose its story, arguably its most defining characteristic but also the most extensive, and by extension expensive to translate.

I can only imagine how the creators of the story and the developers must have felt when told how the story was going to be FUBAR'd in its U.S. and european incarnations, after so much care and passion had been put into the making of this gem.

But at the end of the day, the business side of things just couldn't justify all the expenses in bringing AC3 intact to the rest of the world. It was just too big for its own good and came too late, when the PS2 was just about to arrive. The PS1 era was pretty much over and AC3's fate sealed, just like that, leaving it to fans to translate the game for English-speaking fans from all over the world.

ADDENDUM: according to current series producer Kazutoki Kono, the cutscenes were also "divisive" among Japanese players, which may have contributed to their deletion from US/PAL versions.

Sources and references:
ACE COMBAT 3 electrosphere, Photosphere booklet
ACE COMBAT 3 electrosphere, Mission & World View (p.40)

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The rest of the material in this post is the copyright of their respective owners.
(20200309 edit: corrected AC1's sales figures 223'000->2'230'000. Thank you, Sly!)