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 Square’s Tom Sawyer so notable? And why did it never reach American shores?
Well, it wasn’t 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 weren’t 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. Jim’s 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 Jim’s 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 couldn’t 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.
Square’s 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 didn’t 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 Square’s Tom Sawyer never received a sequel in Japan, while Final Fantasy is currently anticipating its fifteenth installment, so presumably game quality also factored into Square’s 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 we’re good! Let’s call it a night!”
(Also? Back-to-back references to pixelated water. Who would have guessed? Oh, you would have? Smartass.)