Sunday, December 14, 2008

Lost in the Lamp Flower Forest

I often feel like the amount of cartoons that I watch and video games that I play somehow should disqualify me from full-fledged grown-up status. On the whole, I don’t feel all that more mature now than I did ten or fifteen years ago. But every now and then, I rifle through my old things at home and come across some artifact from the back-in-the-past that speaks to the difference between the then-me and the now-me. And it hits me: I can’t believe I really thought this then, I no longer feel the way I did then, I clearly have changed between then and now.

In 1993, I was in the sixth grade. I sought out a video game called Secret of Mana, which, for whatever reason, I decided I had to have. It set my mind on fire, to put it vividly, and, for a period, I let this game dominate my mental processes. I lived for the world this game offered: a blend between the Legend of Zelda-esque, sword-in-hand adventuring over green plains of and the faux-epic scope and detailed dialogue of Final Fantasy. I’m that kind of person, I learned — the kind who loses himself in a fictional work when he really likes it. (I also learned a few other odd bits of information that have since become relevant in one way or another: mana with one “n,” as opposed to the Biblical manna, for example, and Paracelsus’s wacky theories about the things he thought lived in the four basic elements.

This all happened during the time when gaming magazines populated racks in grocery stores. I bought them all — to what advantage, I’m not sure, though I managed to keep abreast of the industry rather well for an eleven-year-old. Three years down the line, these publications started plugging the upcoming sequel to Secret of Mana, a game that would be known in its native Japan as Seiken Densetsu 3. (A clarification: Secret of Mana itself was a sequel, it turned out, but it was named for its U.S. release so that it appeared to be the first. Hence the number three appearing where one might have expected the number two.) Naturally, I was thrilled. This enthusiasm persisted for some time, but the game never hit American shores. Consequently, I learned a second valuable fact about myself: I don’t deal with disappointment well.

In my head, no good reason could justify the fact that I was being denied something I felt I deserved. After all, Secret of Mana had sold well in the states, or so I had read in the publications that had made me such a minor expert in these matters. What else besides malice — on the parts of some anonymous industry honchos and directed specifically at me — could explain this injustice?

The then-me did not give up, however. Those same magazines that had taunted me with screenshots and previews of this holy grail of video games gave me a resource: importers. With a few physical modifications to an American console and little bit of money, any Japanese-only release could in fact be played by a person who did not live in Japan. And so I took advantage of this option and sent away for the Japanese cartridge for Seiken Densetsu 3 and played it through, beginning to end.

There was a small catch, however.

Recall that I described the previous game as containing an unusually large amount of dialogue. The sequel was no different. But the fact that it was not intended for English-speaking players meant that I would have to wade through Seiken Densetsu 3’s plot twists and character development in the original Japanese. One way then-me and now-me are similar is that neither of us can read Japanese. Nonetheless, I fared well, I’d like to think. Following some trial and error, I navigated the game’s menus and such with relative ease. And you might be surprised how much of an untranslated, non-subtitled plot you can comprehend just by context and characters’ actions. It’s not enough to ever be clear on what’s happening all the time, and I suffered from the confusion of “Where the hell am I supposed to go?” and “Why is that man stabbing me?” and “Why am I dead now?”

It meant something at the time, I guess.

Just recently, however, I uncovered the game’s box in a drawer at my parent’s house. I probably decided back then to save it as a memento of my triumph over adversity. Now it seems only significant as to me an example of how Japanese video game packaging had a lot more artistic freedom than its American counterparts. Looking at it more toward today — with as close to adult eyes as I’ve had yet in my life — I was struck by how very little I remembered about this thing that meant so much at the time.

Seiken Densetsu 3 box art

Those six on the front — three of whom you’d pick to be your correspondents in the game — look unfamiliar now, and I can scarcely remember what they did or why they did it. The levitating rock they’re dashing away from? No clue. Seems important enough, though.

Seiken Densetsu 3 box art

The back of the box sheds little light on my confusion. I can make out locations on the map at the top, but I can’t imagine how they would have looked when rendered on a Super Nintendo. Apparently the game had a volcano. And an icy area. And lots of green. I have the vaguest recollections of the roaring, horned, white thing on the left, and some association it has with the moon that appears behind him. But the apparently sentient and therefore evil jack-o’-lantern? Nothing. And as for that inexplicable instance of English text, “Triangle Story,” I am equally baffled.

It feels very strange that this thing — this prize, this game that I had obtain and play and beat and relish — would seem so comparatively meaningless today. Looking at it now, I feel like I’m sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car, noting how much more cramped my legs feel.

I’ve since read various theories explaining why those awful video game company executives never released Seiken Densetsu 3 in the U.S. My favorite of them and the one I deem the most likely, ironically enough, cites the very dialogue that I couldn’t understand when I played the game through. It came out as the Super Nintendo’s moment in the spotlight was about up and when game developers were looking to make the best of the next generation of systems. As such, Squaresoft, the company that made this game, was familiar enough with the technical aspects of the Super Nintendo that its designers could push the console to its maximum, which meant there was little room to spare on the 32-megabit cartridge it was released on, which in turn meant that the English translation was impossible. A pitfall of reworking Japanese games for American audience, you see, is that the Japanese language is more compact; what can be said in just a few Japanese characters will often necessitate several English letters or words. As such, the English version of all the game’s text simply could not fit

Squaresoft has been tight-lipped about whether this explanation is accurate, but the company’s reps at least admit that the decision not to translate the game arose from a technical problem. The kicker here is that a fan-made translation patch can be downloaded and applied to anyone who has downloaded the Japanese ROM for play on a computer. And thought it’s been available since at least the year 2000, I’ve never bothered to play it through. Couldn’t tell you why, though I suspect now that my decision resulted from that whole growing up thing that happened.

Seiken Densetsu 3 box art

I suppose I’m glad for the memories, which at least burned brightly enough in my mind to motivate me to write this. (Well, that and do a simply Google search for the game. I soon enough landed on a page for the game’s soundtrack, the track listings for which are in English and include some of more humorously strange words combinations I’ve ever heard. Among them: “Axe Bring Storm,” “Hope Isolation Pray,” “Left-Handed Wolf,” “Female Turbulence,” “Faith Total Machine,” “Religion Thunder,” “Oh, I’m a Flamelet,” and “Can You Fly, Sister?” — each utterly delightful in their lack of meaning. Expect them to appear as post titles here soon enough.) But more so, I should be happy for the opportunity to gauge the distance between then-me and now-me, even if that expanse is populated by wide-eyed crusading youths, mysterious sentient jack-o’-lanterns, and, apparently, flamelets.

Whatever those are.


  1. the white wolf monster is lugar, the god best of the moon. and the pumpkin thing is gildervine, who's the boss of the place that you mentioned in your post title. i'm surprised you didn't remember. but if you never played it through in english, i guess it's understandable.

  2. Thanks for your help. And don't be surprised --- I would have had no way to know this ahead of time, I don't think.