SUPER PLAY-Fantasy Quest: Interview with Ted Woolsey
By Neil West
(Taken from Super Play Magazine, September 1994)
SquareSoft's main man and translator of Secret of Mana, Ted Woo-
lsey, talks to Super Play about life, the universe, RPGs, and
everything. But mainly he talks about RPGs.
Q: Up until the release by Nintendo UK of the insanely great
Secret of Mana, European players will only ever see the won-
der of Square games by obtaining gray import cartridges. Is
this the start of more officially released Square games to
come, or a one-off deal purely for the launch of the Secret
A: No, there are definitely more Square games planned for rel-
ease in Europe. This process of releasing games through other
people is pretty much the same strategy that our parent co-
mpany in Japan used when first breaking into the American
market. They didn't set up a company here straightaway and
market our games direct, instead they licensed the first
8-bit Final Fantasy game to Nintendo and eased in to the US
market gradually. I'm sure this is the same strategy now but
Q: So it would seem likely that SquareSoft's presence in Europe
will increase, maybe until a SquareSoft Europe is establi-
A: Well, that would seem sensible because the European market
is very strong, and it looks likely that it will only incr-
ease, but I think it's too early to tell if there will be a
Square office set up. Either way, the games will keep coming
Q: Tell us about your relationship with Square of Japan. Do you
choose which of their games will be translated into English,
or do they tell you?
A: It's getting to the point where we do actually have a lot of
control. In the early days - about five years ago - titles
were selected in Japan for American release, 'localized'
[translated and re-jigged for the new audience] and then
shipped over for release. But at the end of this month, I'll
be going over to Square in Japan to take a look at all the
titles in development and hand-pick which games we're going
to release in the US and Europe over the next year. So more
and more we're having a hand in deciding which games make it
out of Japan.
Q: And this responsibility will increase, right?
Q: Things are really on a roll for Square right now. It seems
that Final Fantasy is now a serious rival to Dragon Quest
for the crown of most popular RPG series in Japan. In America
though, Enix still has a loyal following. Do you think the
next few releases from Square will consolidate your position
as leader in the field? Do you feel you are in a battle with
A: Hmm, not really. It's funny over here in the US because role
playing games are such a small slice of the overall video-
gaming pie, the following is still very much a minority of
gameplayers. Our research has that if someone has a positive
experience playing a role playing title, then they want more.
So people who like, say, a Dragon Warrior title seem to like
Square Soft titles as well. I know that there are big sales
battles going on in Japan between Square and Enix, and I
think that they actually have some sort of agreement not to
go head-to-head with the release of similar titles and to
make sure that both Square and Enix have enough space, but
over here in the US it's a whole lot more relaxed. Over here
I really don't think that it's a negative thing to have two
very strong RPG lines.
Q: You're saying that yourselves and Enix are actually doing
each other favors: making sure that RPG fans have a decent
supply of quality titles enabling the genre to grow and gain
A: Yeah, absolutely.
Q: Do you take much notice of releases from other companies, and
follow gaming trends? Or does Square stick to its own guns
and try not to be swayed by current trends?
A: No, no - in this day and age it's impossible to shut your
eyes and ignore what's going on around you. We're very care-
ful to look and watch what's coming out and when stuff's
being released also.
Q: On a scale of one to ten, how tough is it to translate Japa-
nese games into English?
A: Let me put it this way, It's a lot more difficult than it
seems! Our avid following in the US is constantly saying to
us, 'look, just what is your problem? Get the games out fas-
ter!', they have a real problem with this. But they don't
understand that there are severe limitations - as everyone
who's played a Square game will realize - with size, it's
just so tough squeezing the translated text intothe game.
What this means is that you have to rethink an entire plot
without actually changing any of the parameters that govern
how the plot has implications on the rest of the game. So,
inevitably, some depth is lost in the translation from Japa-
nese to English.
Q: How much is lost?
A: Well, as far as simple text is concerned, I would say that
you can get twice as much information into the same space
when written in Japanese as you can writing in English. But
it's the process of making sure that what you're left with
still makes complete sense, that's the real time consuming
problem, even after you've stretched and pulled all the text
windows until they are as big as possible. Also, with some
titles - like the Secret of Mana - there's no order to the
messages. As a result, it's very difficult keeping all the
plot lines and story elements in your head while working out
what can be lost and what needs to be changed. Translating
Japanese can be a completely frustrating task!
Q: Aside from the basic difference in languages, do you exper-
ience a lot of problems when you're dealing with distinctly
Japanese cultural points or cultural references?
A: Oh yes. And a lot of the problem lies with the basic expec-
tations of the gameplayer. Japanese RPGs come from a textual
background; from short stories, Manga and novels. In Japanese
literature, typically, the need for a strong beginning, mid-
dle, and end is not that great. The Japanese tend to savor
the episodic elements of an adventure; brief jaunts off on
sidequests which bear no relation to the main game are wel-
comed in Japan, but here in the US - and I guess in Europe
too - players tend to react like 'Now what was all that for?
What a waste of time!'. So in some ways it's difficult to
translate a game that was designed for the Japanese market
because the gameplayers themselves are very different - it's
not just that they speak a different language.
Q: So how do you deal with this kind of problem? Do you have the
facilities in the US to restructure a game to suit tastes
outside of Japan?
A: Well we have the know-how - that's not a problem - but we're
really up against tough time constraints. In a perfect world,
we would take the beautiful graphics we get from Japan and
completely dump all of the code that stipulates when an event
has to happen and how it occurs. We would go back in and
tailor it to the audience here. But back in the real world,
we simply don't have the time or resources to do this. We
have to take it exactly as it comes and simply dump the Eng-
lish translation into the original game.
Q: So you'd still keep the graphics?
A: Oh yes! While the actual game code may be in no way superior
to stuff generated in America or Europe, the Japanese do have
a beautiful sense of style and I think the games (esspecially
Final Fantasy III, which is FFVI in Japan) are absolutely
beautiful with scanned images overlaid on built-up graphics.
Q: So how do you go about actually translating a game? What
process is involved?
A: I was given just 30 days to translate the Secret of Mana
text. This meant that I had to fly out to Japan for a month
with my wife and kids and just get on with translating the
original scripts practically just as soon as they were comp-
leted. There's really no time to do justice to these games.
Q: So do you normally wait until a game is finished before star-
ting on the translation or work side-by-side with the people
writing the original storyline?
A: No, I usually wait for a finished product and that's because
if I jump in and start taking on text before the game is fin-
ished, there will inevitably be so many countless revisions
and rewrites of the original, that my translation becomes out
of date practically as soon as I've completed it. The people
who write these games work right until the last minute to
hone the text to perfection, and as the text changes then so
does the graphics, the timing of animated sequences and,
indeed, the storyline. So it really does pay to wait until
the game is done and then jump in and get on with it.
Q: How do you coordinate dialouge with hundreds of different
A: I play the finished Japanese version about three times then,
having videotaped all the appearances of characters, I'll sit
down and work out a translation that seems to work in English
but will also work with all the original Japanese source
code. Then, if there's time, I can start adapting the game to
more non-Japanese tastes.
Q: Secret of Mana's wide appeal might be put down to its action-
based combat, players don't have to worry too much about
weapon stats and the like if they don't want to. Many older
gamers prefer turn-based combat, however, and the slower,
more involved plots. Which do you favor? Are there more act-
ion RPGs on the way from Square?
A: Well, Secret of Mana 2 will be an action/adventure title as
will our first US-developed game; both of which are currently
in development. This US game is being done by Americans, for
Americans, so it would seem logical that it will follow the
more popular action/adventure format. In regards to which is
the better system... Well, there are maniacal players of the
command-driven RPGs and these people will dabble in action
games, such as Zelda, but they always actually prefer the
slower-paced, more strategic traditional games. We receive
telephone calls from strange people many years after a game
was released, calling to find out if the game hero ever got
married! Now those are real maniacal players. The action/ad-
venture players, however, are larger in numbers and the demo-
graphic is different. They tend to be younger and like the
idea of jumping straight into the action with a sword in
their hands; it's an empowerment issue - you get to go out
there, start whacking things and it feels good! With the more
traditional RPGs, it takes a good 15 or 20 hours of playing
before you're finally hooked.
Q: So I guess there's always a compromise to be faced when put-
ting a game interface together or designing a combat system.
Do you appease the diehard fans who like to 'go deep,' or
make the game more accessible to a larger audience?
A: Exactly. It's definately a trade-off and it's a tough one.
But I think that Secret of Mana went a long way into bringing
more RPGs into the mix than perhaps, say, Zelda, which is
more predominantly a straightforward action game.
Q: You must be very pleased with the reception of Secret of
Mana. This game has caused jaded reviewers to blub with joy,
with it's sumptuous graphics and perhaps the greatest musical
score of any Super NES game ever. Did you know it was going
to be such a success?
A: Well, no - there's an interesting story here in that Secret
of Mana was originally scheduled as a CD game for the Sony
CD-ROM SNES add-on that never appeared. So it probably would
have been much longer, and I think that when you play it you
can get a sense of areas where it seems that something might
be missing... But the team working on it turned it back into
a cartridge game and I think they did a wonderful job; cert-
ainly the graphics speak for themselves. But as to whether we
knew it was going to be a success, well, no. In Japan the
game certainly didn't sell very well up against the Final
Fantasy Series (which was in its sixth iteration, whereas
Secret of Mana was starting off with no momentum) so no one
was expecting the runaway hit that it's turned out to be.
Q: Is there anything missing from the English version?
A: No, just some things have been altered for sake of space.
Q: Final Fantasy VI is going to be released as FFIII in the US,
with FFV being held over 'till 1995 to be released as a sep-
erate game. Could you explain this decision, and tell us
about the games themselves?
A: The Final Fantasy series basically has two seperate tracks:
the odd series (FFI, FFIII, and FFV) are controller command
drive games, whereas the even series are more story line
driven games. As for FFV though, well although we're sure
it's a great title it hasn't been a hit with too many people
in out-focus groups, although the more experienced gamers
loved the complex character building - it's just not acc-
essible enough to the average gamer. But we're determined
we want to release it so we're going to wait and introduce
it once there's a larger audience for it's particular style.
Hence the wait.
Q: Is there a finalized name for FFV yet?
A: The tentative, working title at the moment is 'Final Fantasy
Extreme'. But this could always change...
Q: FFII also had some changes (we've heard rumors about dancers
stripping off in the original!). Tell us about those, go on.
A: Well, there's a level of playfulness and - dare I say - sexu-
ality in Japanese games that just doesn't exist here [in the
USA], basically because of Nintendo of America's rules and
guidelines. And this includes little characters that take
their clothes off, or show their bottoms or chests - that
Nintendo won't allow over here. I guess the aesthetic in
Japan is perhaps similar to that found in say France or Ger-
many, where you might see more people nude sunbathing or - in
magazines perhaps - see more 'anatomical' shots. I mean, in
the original there was nothing shocking - there was no sex or
anything - but what there was Nintendo didn't like so we had
to remove it.
Q: Maybe the new, more lenient Nintendo would now allow this...
A: Yes, it's certainly possible that in the future there will be
a completely uncut version released.
Q: Square has picked up Capcom's Breath of Fire for translation
and a US release is planned for August of this year. What
prompted you to make this move?
A: Actually, Capcom approached us. They had a very busy schedule
(that included at least two RPGs) so they simply didn't have
room for it. And we loved it, and knew it to be something our
audience was dying for...
Q: What about Romancing SaGa 2? Have you any plans to translate
this? It did remarkably well in Japan, and its simalarities
to the FF series would make it extremely popular with fans of
A: Oh yeah, I'm sure it would be great but unfortunately it all
comes down to a manpower issue and we really don't have the
resources to do it. For every person put onto the job of
restructuring a game for an English translation it means one
taken off the development of FFVII or Secret of Mana 2. So
no, unfortuneately, I can't see the Romancing SaGa series
making it over here.
Q: A new 16 meg RPG called Live A Live is shortly to be released
in Japan. Have you any plans to bring this over too? We un-
derstand that it contains a little strategy game called Cap-
tain Square, and few strategy games have made it to the West.
A: Oh, yes, this is a great game. It's been designed by one of
the teams behind Hanjuku Hero from a couple years ago and
it's basically seven games crammed onto one 16 Meg cart - so
each are graphically quite simple, but great games. The tro-
uble is that up against Mortal Kombat, for example, gamers
really demand more visual sophistication - so it's fairly
doubtful that we could ever sell enough to get our money
Q: That's a shame. Maybe one day the audience will be big ebough
to make it worth while. Just one last thing: the faces that
appear in the backgrounds of a lot of your games - what are
they all about, is there a hidden message here?
A: Everyone seems curious about the faces! But no, there's no
hidden meaning, satanic messages or anything - I guess it's
just our artists' sense of bizarre humor coming to the fore.
Actually, in one of the deep dungeons in FFII there was a
room that contained the entire programming team. Unfortunat-
ely that was one thing that just didn't make it across to
the US version. Nintendo didn't seem to appreciate it.
Spoilsports. Well, here's wishing you the best of luck with your
future titles Ted, and pick out some good ones for us when you
visit Japan. Thanks very much for your time.