Friday, September 18, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part Fourteen: Odds and Ends

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather extensive “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)

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As I’ve mentioned before in this series, music names such as those in Mega Man aren’t exactly rare. The Guilty Gear fighting game series, for example, went crazy with them, though grasping all of them on your own would require a command of rock bands as wide-ranging as Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Helloween, Testament and Metallica. Some are obvious: guitar-toting witch I-No namechecks Brian Eno. Others, of course, are more obscure, either intentionally or accidentally. As this site notes, for example, the nod that the name Millia Rage makes is only clear if you have any notion that there exists a heavy metal band called Meliah Rage. When translation mucks up the spelling, spotting the allusion gets twice as hard: Even if you knew of the Swedish pop band Cloudberry Jam, you might not suspect that the fighter named Kuradoberi Jam was a reference to it. Now, the latter beats out the former in terms of Google hits. And the fact that the series protagonist Sol Badguy references Queen only becomes apparent when you learn that Mr. Bad Guy was the name of Freddie Mercury 1985 solo album.

Queen’s work pops up in other games. Notably, the Ogre Battle series of strategy games is itself a reference to Queen’s 1974 song by the same name. (And yes, now that you think about it, it does seem strange that the games featured relatively few ogres.) The first game bore the subtitle March of the Black Queen, and indeed that too is one of the band’s songs. A sequel, Ogre Battle: Let Us Cling Together, also borrows from a Queen song, though the track is more commonly known as “Teo Torriatte.” This song also happens to feature two verses sung in Japanese. The games also feature a geographical area known as the Rhyan Seas, which references yet another Queen song, “Seven Seas of Rhye.”

So while some games traffic in allusions to some segment of popular culture, others aim for something more highbrow. Doesn’t mean they don’t make a mess of things, referencing this and that and ending up referencing all over themselves. Take Samurai Shodown, for example. (And while you’re taking it, if it strikes you as odd that the second word of the series title is missing a “W,” know that I have a post explaining that apparent mistake. It’s somewhat intentional.) Generally speaking, characters in these games tend to have real-life historical counterparts. Some directly influenced the game, while some loosely inspired it. For example, one of its recurring characters is Hanzo Hattori — a name that should be familiar at least from the Kill Bill character if not other manifestations of Japanese culture. The man was real. The historical Hanzo Hattori may not exactly resemble his representations in movies and video games, but the fact that his legacy continues to inspire writers and game creators today shows that he probably registered fairly high on the badass scale.

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hanzo, jubei and charlotte — revived to duel for our pleasure

Among the other characters directly inspired by historical personages:
  • Jubei Yagyu is a 17th-century samurai based on the 17th-century samurai Jubei Yagyu Mitsuyoshi, who is arguably the most famous figures to emerge from Japan’s feudal era.
  • And Shiro Tokisada Amakusa, depicted in the game as a kind of satanic wizard, is based on Amakusa Shiro, a leader of the largely Christian Shimbara Rebellion of the mid-17th-century. (The fact that a Christian revolutionary would be demonized as as an effeminate villain is fairly telling as to how Japanese history has chosen to remember this particular person. In the games, the character is so unmanly in his mannerisms that a person could easily mistake him for a woman. And the American dub of the Samurai Shodown skirted the gender confusion altogether by just depicting the character as a woman.)
  • The American fighter Andrew, who first shows up in Samurai Shodown VI, seems to be based on Andrew Jackson, Mr. Twenty Dollar Bill himself. I’ve put up a previous post on this blog that focuses on this strangeness and how the game seems to use Andrew to rag on American military policy. Worth a look.
  • And then there’s my absolute favorite of all the characters based on real-life: Charlotte, the French fencer. Her full name is given as Charlotte Christine de Colde — an odd-seeming surname for a Frenchwoman. In fact, it’s a likely mistranslation of the name of the woman she’s based on, Charlotte Corday, the celebrated assassin of revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat.
Other characters have historical ties, but more to the point of this post is that fact that others yet have names that mean something, even out of historical contexts. The first name of the very dark, very Crow-esque Kubikiri Basara, for example, literally translates as “throat-cutting.” The later games also feature a towering cannibal named Gedo Kusaregedo, whose name, I’m told, translates to “rotten bastard.” And Samurai Shodown 2 features a Prussian fighter whose name, Neinhalt Seiger, is a very bad approximation of the German for “nonstop victory” or “nonstop winner” — the German version of Engrish, maybe?

“Period piece” fighters such as Samurai Shodown aren’t the only ones who can feature characters whose names actually mean something, of course: My astonishment that such-and-such Japanese character has a name that doubles as a meaningful chunk of syntax is pretty silly, when I think about how many American names mean something that would be obvious to an English-speaker. On the flipside, I can’t help but be amused, for example, that Kyo Kusanagi, hero of the long-running King of Fighters series, has a last name that means “grass-cutter.” My association? The decidedly unheroic literal translations lawnmower, even after I’ve read that the name Kusanagi has certain significance to Japanese folklore.

Other characters’ Japanese roots are less pronounced, though no more apparent to the casual English-speaking video game player.

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inky, pinky, blinky and... miru?

A while back, Destructoid put up a good post on the meaning of the names of the Pac-Man ghosts — that is, both the real names and their nicknames that the game’s attract mode displays. Far from being meaningless, they actually help explain why Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde behave the way they do, though it’s a bit clearer in Japanese. I have my own post on the ghosts and their names, and I also talk about some of the other ghosts, which exist apparently. Also-rans like Miru and Yum-Yum deserve their fair share of shout-outs, I say. As for Pac-Man himself, it’s pretty well-established that his name comes from the paku-paku-paku noise he makes as he gobbles dots. And it’s an often-told and pretty self-explanatory story about why his creators eventually opted not to go with their first choice for his name, Puck Man, for the character’s American debut. I have a post on these Pac-matters here.

Another early inhabitant of the arcades is Mappy — not a clone of Pac-Man but instead a wholly different title by Pac-Man’s developer, Namco. Mappy perhaps doesn’t stir up as much nostalgia as other Namco titles, but it’s a solid one. Billed as a literal cat and mouse game, players control a policeman mouse in environments crawling with feline cat burglars. About five seconds into the first quarter and any sane person would realize the game has fairly little to do with maps. The odd title comes from the Japanese slang term mappo, meaning “police officer.” The online dictionaries of Japanese slang that I found didn’t include mappo, but I’m inclined to believe the term means what it’s purported to mean and that the etymology for Mappy is true. An otherwise unrelated police robot named Mappo appears in two Nintendo releases, GiFTPiA and Captain Rainbow.

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it’s not about maps

In the Japanese version of the game, one of Mappy’s villainous cat characters goes by the name Nyamco — a cross between the name the developer, Namco, and the Japanese onomatopoeia for the noise a cat makes.


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master higgins, master higgins, and master higgins’s japanese namesake

In an interesting marketing move, Hudson Soft — the developer and publisher behind the vaguely Mario-like Adventure Island games — at least twice rebranded the series protagonist for release in different language territories. American players know the grass-skirted, pot-bellied hero as Master Higgins, but in Japan, he’s Takahashi Meijin (“Master Takahashi”), which also happens to be the nickname of Toshiyuki Takahashi, real-life executive at Hudson Soft. (It wasn’t his idea, but he nonetheless went with the suggestion that he — then only the company’s vice-president and someone famous for video game-playing prowess — should be the character featured in the game, though he’s later admitted that being the protagonist in a notoriously difficult title was disconcerting because it was he would be was repeatedly dying. The name Master Higgins didn’t cut it Mexico, however, and, according to Wikipedia, when the game hit that market, the protagonist was unofficially redubbed Capulinita, in honor of the Mexican comedian Capulina, whom Higgins apparently resembles.

The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:

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