It’s been eleven years since the first fully voiced Final Fantasy, part X for the PS2, has seen the light of the day. And while the genre has gone through many evolutionary steps since then, such as the switch to a 16:9 aspect ratio in HD resolution, often faster gameplay styles and more subtle changes like the ability to save almost everywhere in most recent games, one thing hasn’t changed since back then despite all the technological and gameplay related advancements. It’s the fact that most localized JRPG’s still don’t feature the original voice track, but only the English version done specifically for the west, even though there is a large percentage of the fanbase who’d rather play the games with their original audio track or not at all if only an English option is available. But why won’t the publishers simply offer dual-audio and make all the fans of their games happy?
The following FAQ-style article is going to elaborate on this and why there really isn’t any reason (in most cases) to not include an dual-audio option except for one.
Why should a localized JRPG feature the original voice track at all?
An argument often heard and brought up in most cases by fans who are satisfied to play a completely localized game, is that the western fans won’t understand the game’s original voice track anyway so there is no harm in removing it since the game becomes comprehensible because of the English audio track in the first place.
And actually there are quite a few good reasons why an option to make a choice should be available, the first one being that there are many fans of the Japanese culture, who e.g. do watch anime with subtitles on a regular basis, and don’t mind the Japanese voice track or are even big fans of the original voice actors and have to be content with the only option left to them, the English audio. And there are quite a lot of JRPGs appealing to just this audience such as the Neptunia or Atelier franchises.
The next one is the quality of the dubbing. For every JRPG with an acceptable or even good English voice track, there is at least one where the job has been done rather poorly. In some cases this can destroy the whole experience for even the most permissive fans of a fully localized version, an example for this being Arc Rise Fantasia. This is simply due to the fact that there is only a small budget for the localization and additionally that there are far more professional voice actors for this kind of product in Japan than there are in the USA, just because the whole industry is so much bigger there.
There is also a large number of people who play these games whose mother language isn’t English. For those people there is close to zero benefit if the game is English dubbed, quite the contrary. First of all it seems totally out of character if for example a little girl has an English voice actor who is quite obviously older than the character she is voicing or even trying to imitate the voice of such a younger character. And additionally many games in the EMEA region receive subtitles in the five most common languages aside from English. This way you often get the strange effect of playing a Japanese game, where all characters speak English, with subtitles in your native language. And even worse, you’re translating the spoken English dialog all the time in your head and it often doesn’t totally match up with the subtitles you’re reading at the same time. This can be very confusing, annoying and isn’t really immersive at all.
There are two final reasons. The first one being the circumstance that the original voice track is a part of the game itself – a part of the vision the director had originally. Other game genres or media like movies often feature the original voice track in countries where English isn’t the native language for this very reason. Since every change made in the localization process makes the game less the game it was and is intended to be, the ideal solution would be to make only the changes necessary so that a western audience can understand the game and it retains as much of the original vision and content as possible. This almost always means to only translate the texts or in the case of movies (or cutscenes) to subtitle them.
And finally tastes differ, if there is no downside and a dual-audio option makes everyone happy, why remove it in the first place?
What if there isn’t enough space on the game’s medium?
Thankfully this is becoming less and less of an issue. It practically is already nonexistent, not only for the PS3 with its large Blu-Rays, but also all other currently available consoles. You don’t need to look any further than Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii for an excellent JRPG which doesn’t only feature an expansive soundtrack, but also dual-audio for the complete game and everything fits fine on a single DVD. Even the recently released Fire Emblem Awakening for the 3DS features dual-audio for the complete game, this of course also means that there isn’t any problem in the case of the Vita with its even bigger cartridges.
In conclusion one can say that there still might be rare occurrences where there actually might not be enough space for two audio tracks, but generally speaking the technological advancements thankfully made this concern a non-issue.
What about the additional costs for the voice selection option, the additional quality checking, etc.?
Those exist, but they have to be lower than the costs for adding the English dubbing since the basis for the localization is the Japanese version which of course includes the Japanese audio track and every change that has to be done is a result of the localization. The option to select another audio language and the additional code changes have to be negligible, since for the menu option to select the language existing assets can be reused (or it might just be another line of text, rendered as every other text in the options screen) and the changes to the games code won’t be much more than an elaborate “if/else”-construct.
Some additional costs might arise from the extra quality checking (are both voice tracks OK and does the switching work) and the subtitling (if it is done at all) of a few sections that didn’t have any subtitles in the original game (like the after battle dialog in a tales-of game). All in all the additional costs for implementing a dual-audio option should be reasonable.
But what about the licensing and the licensing fees?
This actually is a major issue if not the main reason to not offer dual-audio as Tom Lipschultz, a translator at the American publisher Xseed, explains in great detail on the Xseed forums. Basically it comes down to the original contracts of the Japanese voice actors stating that their voice may only be used in domestic releases. Everything else has to be negotiated separately if it can be resolved at all for non-domestic releases.
But while this may hold true for smaller publishers like Xseed, Aksys and NIS America, there are also companies like Namco Bandai, Atlus and Square Enix who not only develop the titles themselves but also publish them worldwide. There should be nothing in their way to make fitting contracts with the original Japanese voice actors, at least for titles that are very likely to see an overseas release, such as Final Fantasy, Persona and Tales of. It’s rather baffling for this reason that for example Hideo Baba, the producer of the Tales of-series, would explain the problems in regards to providing Tales of Xillia with an dual-audio option with licensing issues.
With that logic in mind it’s even more mysterious just why most of the titles published by the already mentioned smaller publishers like NIS America, who are a lot closer to their fans then their big counterparts, feature a dual-audio option and most games published by big companies like Square Enix, where every aspect of the game’s creation up to it’s publishing is under the control by a single company, don’t.
The most obvious explanation is, that no matter how it’s done the option to offer the original Japanese dubbing on top of the localized version costs money. So in the end the licensing issue means that all publishers have to pay additional fees and smaller publishers are also facing problems with the licensing itself.
Isn’t removing the original voice track a good measure against reverse importing?
The short answer is no, because there is no issue with reverse importing JRPGs at all. The long answer contains three points, why it’s more then unlikely that anyone in Japan would reverse import a JRPG from overseas to save some money:
- By far most JRPGs that ever receive an English localized version are released months if not years after the original domestic release and games in Japan usually sell over 90% of their lifetime sales in the first few weeks. Even if someone waited a longer time period it’s likely that there would already be a discounted “best hits” or “platinum” version of the game available.
- The regular retail price of a North American version of a JRPG may be cheap for a Japanese buyer, but you have to add shipping and customs to that price making it unappealing to import the game, not to mention the shipping time which can take up to a couple of weeks.
- And even if for some reason or another the two previously mentioned points wouldn’t apply, the fact remains that the localized versions of the games don’t contain Japanese texts.
Aren’t people who beg for dual-audio releases entitled?
The first question of this FAQ covers many reasons why there should be a dual-audio option. Statements like “You should be happy we’re getting the game at all” completely miss the point, because some people don’t get the game they want at all, because they want to play the game with its original audio track for some reason or another. How can these people be entitled if they are supposed to pay the full price for a version of the game they don’t enjoy or not as much? And the crux of the matter is that those people don’t want something extra, they just don’t want something removed from the game that’s part of the original version, an uncut version so to speak. If you’re paying full price you should be able to demand the full experience. And in that regard everyone should be entitled.
If you want the Japanese voices so much why don’t you simply play the Japanese version?
Easier said then done. Almost all Japanese games are completely in Japanese, that means texts, voices and everything else. An argument often brought up in discussions about dual-audio releases is to simply avoid the issue of JRPG localizations by learning Japanese. While this might work for some big fans of the Japanese culture, the fact remains that it is an unreasonable proposal to learn a very difficult language over the course of years just to play some video games. Especially considering that this is a serious time commitment that most people who have a full time job, a family, etc. are not able to make.
That’s the answer to the question, but the question itself has the wrong premise. All those who want a version of the game with a dual-audio options are obviously fans of the game. So if there is a localized version of said game, why should anyone instead of simply picking it up and playing it with whatever audio track he likes, instead learn Japanese to import the Japanese version of a game that has already be translated?
So in conclusion are there any reasons that justify the removal of the original voice track?
As stated previously there are a lot of reasons to keep the original dubbing so it comes down to the question why the Japanese voices should be cut at all. Storage problems and reverse importing are practically no issues. Also the costs for adapting the game’s code to offer two audio tracks are low. Thus only the issue of the licensing remains. It can be difficult for smaller publishers since the licensor or Japanese company can simply deny their request. But surprisingly most titles of such smaller publisher do offer dual-audio, so it doesn’t seem to be a prevalent problem. In the end the last hurdle are the licensing fees and the publisher’s willingness to pay them to satisfy a certain percentage of their fans and gain a few extra sales from people who wouldn’t have bought the game otherwise.
If you take this all into consideration one can say that yes, every localized JRPG should offer dual-audio, at least for the releases of the bigger companies like Square Enix and Atlus. Since in the end, with the exception being the smaller publishers which can try to obtain the rights but aren’t guaranteed to succeed, it all comes down to the money the publishers are willing to spend to make not only some but all of their fans happy.