Saturday, June 30, 2012

An Ill-Advised Trip Down a Pixelated River

Today, Square has a good name in video games.

And what I just said is a lie, since Square — the company responsible for the Final Fantasy series as well as heaps of other games that allowed kids like me a little escapism back in the 90s — merged with rival company Enix back in 2003, so it’s Square Enix. (I assume they decided against my suggestion, Squeenix!, because I did not call their corporate offices frequently enough.) However, before the release of the first Final Fantasy back in 1987, the old business name didn’t carry much prestige. In fact, the company didn't end up focusing on what it does best — swords and magic and all that — until a few more years down the line. In the year between Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III, Square made a strange attempt to capitalize on the success it had found with the turn-based RPG. Springboarding off the Euro-vague medieval world of the Final Fantasy games, someone apparently said, “Hey, who likes Mark Twain?” And that’s why Square’s Tom Sawyer was released in Japan in 1989, causing there to be a reason for eight-bit representations of famous literary scenes such as the one you see here:


Note also the anime-ized Tom Sawyer on the cartridge, even if he looks more like Rod Flanders than anyone else:


And while it seems strange to see iconically American characters rendered in an inherently Japanese style, the existence of this game hardly marks a unique meeting of east and west. Case in point: Laura, Girl of the Prairies — an anime adaptation of Little House on the Prairie that I blogged about here a few years back. So what makes Squares Tom Sawyer so notable? And why did it never reach American shores?

Well, it wasnt necessarily that the game was unplayable, even if it straddles the platformer and RPG genres in a way that a lot of players probably found awkward when Nintendo tried it with the second Legend of Zelda game. You can see in the below video that how the genre mishmash plays out.


No, the reason that Americans werent afforded an opportunity to traipse about a digital version of the Missouri swamp probably stemmed from how the game represented poor Jim, who still wasn’t getting any breaks more than a century after Mark Twain created him. This is what Jim looks like:




Yes, “Good god, what the fuck?” is the correct response to orange Ronald McDonald hair, jet black skin to the point that his white dot eyes just float on the void that is the background screen, and the lower half of his face being comprised of grotesquely large, orange-striped lips. Jims face is so bizarre that you have wonder if the person designing him had not only never seen a black person but also had felt that previous racist depictions had erred on the side of subtlety. And lest you think that Jims in-game sprite resulted from the technical limitations of eight-bit video game graphics, I have this to demonstrate otherwise:


There he is, near the bottom of the pile, sporting the same bizarre lips. (Apparently only the orange Ronald McDonald hair resulted from the graphic constraints.) You have to wonder, given what became of Jim, how Injun Joe might have turned out. He appears in the game, too, and Tom can even recruit Joe to join his party, but I couldnt find any images of him except for this one, in which he, Tom and two other characters are apparently fighting a jack-o-lantern:


(Twain-literate: any guess about the identity of the bag-lady looking character wearing the sack dress?)

So that, friends, is the most noteworthy thing I can say about a game that was never released here in the U.S. and that was instead included on two different lists of the most inappropriate video games ever.

Squares Tom Sawyer isn't the only game to portray a non-Asian, non-Caucasian character in a questionable manner, and even a decade later, Square released Chrono Cross, which featured an “islander” character who looked and acted remarkably like a mammy, so the company clearly didnt learn a lesson. The company fared slightly better with two black male characters in later Final Fantasy titles, but Barret from Final Fantasy VII earned some criticism for being overly fond of Mr. T-isms such as foo and Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII did as well for keeping a baby bird in his afro.

I should probably point out that Squares Tom Sawyer never received a sequel in Japan, while Final Fantasy is currently anticipating its fifteenth installment, so presumably game quality also factored into Squares decision to keep this one to themselves. Historically, however, some games that have make it to the U.S. underwent cosmetic tweaks to make debatably racist imagery less offensive. Consider Oil Man, a boss character added into a remake of the first Mega Man game. On the left, Oil Man appears as he did in Japan. On the right, he's as he appeared in the American version of the game.


Clearly, Capcom took a look at the character and realized that it could be construed as an unflattering depiction of black people — a tar baby, in fact — but then put forth only the bare minimum of effort to disguise this. “Hey, I recolored his lips from pink to yellow! I think were good! Lets call it a night!”

Oh, Japan.

(Also? Back-to-back references to pixelated water. Who would have guessed? Oh, you would have? Smartass.)

12 comments:

  1. In the picture where four of them are fighting a pumpkin, the characters are labeled "Tom" "Indi" "Dick" and "Huck." So, I guess it's not a sack dress.

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    1. Ah. Well, that would make more sense. Kind of. Inasmuch as anything in this game could make a lot of sense. Thanks for the answer.

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  2. Hey Drew! This looks game looks amazing, and I loved reading your take on it. More articles like this, please!

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    1. I do feel like I haven't been writing about games as much. I will try to do more.

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  3. Believe it or not, the "bag-lady looking character wearing the sack dress" is supposed to be Huck Finn, if I'm reading the Japanese correctly. Huck would be considered a strange character in Japan: doesn't go to school, lives with no parental supervision in a cabin, hangs out with people of color. He's everything "good" Japanese kids don't do. :P

    It seems weird in this allegedly globalized culture of ours, but most Japanese don't get the idea of race and racism at all. My daughter taught English in some backwater town for three years, and she said it was exceptionally bad there. When her school had an "international day," the students and teachers trotted out the creakiest ethnic stereotypes from the 1950s: Arabs in bath-towel headdresses, Native Americans in feathers and warpaint, Latin Americans in sombreros and ponchos. Interestingly, Americans were portrayed as all blonde and blue-eyed, prompting my half-Japanese daughter to lecture her students on how the US is a multiracial, multicultural country. That blew the students' minds: not that America was multiracial, but that their gaijin sensei spoke fluent Japanese, right down to the street slang.

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    1. Craziness. Though I'm not surprised by the lack of Japanese sensitivity to American perceptions of racism. I've seen the movies and played the games. Why is that, though? I have a theory that people living on islands tend to develop racist attitudes a little more easily than people living in less insular places. But even that wouldn't account for Japan.

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  4. Yikes! This is timely, as my fiancée and I listened this past week to a public domain audiobook of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", so we've had poor reenactments of Twain on the brain. Where'd they get 1855 for the date (as on the cartridge label, "Since 1855!") – aren't these stories set in the 1840s? And who is this "Dick" character??

    I see via the game's Wikipedia page that they included Tom Sawyer's half-brother Sid as a character, so at least it's in keeping with the Final Fantasy Sid / Cid tradition.

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    1. No clue as to the liberties taken, but that's a right good catch on the Sid/Cid thing. For the life of me, I have no recollection of Sid in the books.

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  5. Consider my mind blown. I know I've heard about this game before, but I also know I've never actually seen screenshots or videos of it before now. Jim's representation is ... shocking, to say the least. It's too bad, really, because in every other way the game looks pretty interesting. At the very least, the graphics/sprites are appealingly drawn (and even Mother/EarthBound-esque, I dare say). Anyway, is it wrong that this post has me itching to pick up a copy of this game sometime soon?

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    1. No, it's not weird at all. I've studies a lot of Twain and just the idea of this existing is a lot to take in. And I'd actually pursue the matter if any sort of through English translation existed...

      And I'm with you on the similarity to Mother. It makes you wonder: Was it just Dungeons & Dragons' fault that the RPG genre got so thoroughly stuck in medieval times? Why weren't there more games set in other time periods?

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  6. Oddly enough, they are showing the anime based off of Tom Sawyer right now on Japanese TV (I'm currently watching it!). I think that this is the same Tom Sawyer that I watched as a kid on HBO. It was made in 1980, so the timing seems right. I'm pretty sure that the video game has nothing to do with the anime series, but the fact that the anime existed probably led to the existence of the Tom Sawyer game. Sadly, I have yet to see Jim, but if this was on American TV, he probably doesn't look quite as offensive as the above portrayal.

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    1. Now that you mention it, I have the vaguest memories of watching Tom Sawyer cartoons as a kid on HBO right when my family first got a satellite dish. But the funny thing is that I have no memory of them being anime. I wouldn't have known what anime was at the time, of course. (I also didn't realize what I was watching when I first watched "Warriors of the Wind" on the Disney Channel, either.)

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