Strange Video Game Translations: Metroid

Metroid was one of those super deep games for the Nintendo (or Japanese Famicom) that I remember never actually beating except by cheating and using passwords. Reader Razovsuki pointed out on the first twisted translation post how there is a famous mistranslation from Metroid where バリアスーツ (Barrier Suit), the suit the hero wears, was turned into “Varia Suit,” and it caught on so well that it stuck throughout all future installments of the game. So I figured it would be worth it to take a more in depth look to see what other insights into Japanese language and culture that this game provides.

Video Game Twisted Translations 2 Metroid 3

The start is fairly simple, but reveals quite a few things.

Metroid J1

While the game is technically the same for both the Japanese and English versions, colors, graphics, text size, sound effects, and music may vary a little bit. This is due to the Japanese Famicom and NES being similar, yet quite different.

Never seen the Famicom before? Here it is in its red and white (oh Japan, you and your flag pride) glory.


But things start to get a little weird at the intro story (you know NES games with their deep plots . . .) screen.

Metroid J2

Before even hitting the English side, welcome to the katakana barrage.  Most early Famicom games apparently decided katakana was the way to go. Not sure if this is because of system limitations, or they were trying to just be cool, but it’s a pain to read. Not sure when hiragana finally made its debut.

But getting to the translation, the problem phrase is キカイセイメイタイ (機械生命体)

機械: machine
生命体: life-form

I guess they were kind of close . . .

But let’s start the game. And we find out immediately that we in the West kind of got screwed.

This is what we saw:

Metroid J3

Fairly simple, with the game just waiting for you to eagerly type in “Justin Bailey” as a password . . .

But what did the Famicom get instead?

Metroid J4

A full-blown save system, which looks surprisingly similar to the Legend of Zelda.


They also got “Kill Mode.” Now I know you wish you had a kill mode. Unfortunately, while it sounds cool, it is really just the Japanese (translated back to English?) way of saying “delete a character” or as pictured above, Zelda’s “Elimination mode.” The concept of killing is wrong, but eliminating is fine.

Once you get yourself ready to enter the game, we can finally be thankful that we had an NES and not a Famicom.

Metroid 11

Since the Famicom was so much more awesome, it required loading times. I can’t imagine having to deal with this for such simple games, and I’m glad this never got “translated” over.

As I was about to get into the real crazy translation midst of this game, I realized that there isn’t any more text throughout the game until the very end, as is typical of most NES games.

They do get one of the final translations right though!

Metroid J5

For those who are going katakana blind, that’s:

*Note: I do believe they could’ve easily provided the more accurate translation here of “Somebody set up us the bomb.

Finally finish the game? What great Japanese message is waiting for you?

Metroid J6

This is the final screen in both the Japanese and English versions.

Many Japanese games had a lot of English in them. I can understand some minimal things in English for simple text, like the “Push Start Button” above. But I don’t get why they decided to do this for the more complex parts.

Unless I went to a different Japan, the Japanese I knew didn’t know English that well. Maybe Japanese are better at understanding bad English then we are? Give this text to an elementary school Japanese kid and see what he thinks he just accomplished.

Beat Metroid? Incomprehensible congratulations message!

And this wasn’t the age of just being able to look it up. There were probably groups of confused Japanese kids across the country trying to figure out what just happened.

Any of these interesting Metroid localization or translation issues make you go “へぇ~~”?

Part 1234

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Strange Video Game Translations: Metroid — 6 Comments

  1. I seem to recall reading that the title メトロイド came from the earliest concepts of a game set underground — as in メトロ train system — and with a robotic player character — (アンド)ロイド — presumably the jellyfish like enemies ended up called メトロイド just because nobody really understood the pun.

    I don’t think I ever beat the first game properly either although I think I managed to get through a ROM version through liberal use of save states once. I don’t think it was ever really tough but the fact that every time you load the game you only start out with only a single block of health filled meant lots of time grinding for health orbs before you could do anything. I guess that’s what it takes to revive peace in The Space.

  2. The katakana craze in 8-bit video games was ultimately a product of several technical limitations. The two most important were memory limitations and screen resolution. Although later improvements would somewhat alleviate the memory issues the readability of hiragana and kanji at 8-bit resolutions generally made katakana the best choice. This was especially important on hardware like the NES and Sega MasterSystem which were tile-based and thus had optimal sizes for the characters.

    There’s another important reason that Metroid, and Zelda as well, were much different in Japan. They were actually early releases for the Famicom Disk System. Since they were released on floppy they had a lot more space for storage, some extra RAM in the disk system hardware itself, the ability to save to the disk, and extra music hardware.

    Any fan of these early NES games that original came from the FDS should definitely check out the music clips posted on YouTube. You’ll notice the music in later releases of the series generally follow the FDS versions more closely than the remasters made for the NES releases.

    Also, if you are ever in Akihabara make sure you visit Super Potato where all of this stuff is still for sale. It’s fun to browse around and see the old box artwork and the systems themselves.

    The use of English in older video games is amusing and seems to have disappeared as gaming went more mainstream. Since videogaming was the realm of studious, and very single, students they probably could get away with a lot more back then. This trend of English in Metroid continued in Super Metroid as parts of the store were voiced in English and then subtitled back into Japanese.

    • Great info!

      I can understand kanji, but I wonder why katakana requires less memory than hiragana. The characters are sightly less complex I guess?

      • If you assume that they only have space for either katakana or hiragana but not both then the decision to use katakana was probably some sort of art or stylistic decision. I seem to remember there being a bias for fantasy games to use hiragana and space games to use katakana, but ultimately the decision between the two was up to the designers.

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