Nintendo's Era of Censorship
In today's era of Xbox and Playstation it's often easy to forget that at one time the North American video game market was almost single-handedly dominated by one firm — Nintendo of America. For many years Nintendo enjoyed a privileged position in the video game market that at times seemed to borderline on monopoly. The company released the three most popular systems on the continent; Gameboy, NES, and Super NES, and although challenges would later emerge from Sega, Nintendo retained a position of dominance for most of the 1980's and early-to-mid 1990's.
This dominance, in turn, allowed Nintendo of America to establish a series of policies and conventions regarding video game content that quickly became the unquestioned industry standard.
Nintendo of America's policies of strict video game "censorship" have become one of the infamous tactics of this period. While often overlooked back in the day, the rise of ROMS, especially Japanese ROMs, have exposed many gamers to numerous examples of Nintendo censorship in practice. References to smoking or sex may have been removed from the Japanese version of a game prior to its release in the United States, while other games with potentially offensive content may simply have not been released at all. Although Nintendo's censorship practices have often been condemned as inconsistent, or at worst hypocritical, they actually stem from a document that outlines the rules in explicit detail. I was able to track down a copy of Nintendo's content guidelines at my local library, and have typed it up:
Nintendo of America's Video Game Content Guidelines
Nintendo of America's priority is to deliver high quality video game entertainment for our customers. When those customers are children, parental involvement in their game playing is recommended. Nintendo is concerned that our products do not contain material that society as a whole deems unacceptable.
Consequently, since 1988 we have consistently tested the content of all games developed for Nintendo systems against our evolving game standards. As our business has matured, we have adapted our guidelines to meet the concerns of the members of our target age group and their parents. Although we realize that definitions of social, cultural and political views are highly subjective, we will continue to provide consumers with entertainment that reflects the acceptable norms of society.
The following Game Content Guidelines are presented for assistance in the development of authorized game paks (i.e., both Nintendo and licensee game paks) by defining the type of content and themes inconsistent with Nintendo's corporate and marketing philosophy. Although exceptions may be made to preserve the content of a game, Nintendo will not approve games for the NES, Game Boy or Super NES systems (i.e., audio-visual work, packaging, and instruction manuals) which:
include sexually suggestive or explicit content including rape and/or nudity; (1)
contain language or depiction which specifically denigrates members of either sex; (2)
depict random, gratuitous, and/or excessive violence; (3)
depict graphic illustration of death; (4)
depict domestic violence and/or abuse; (5)
depict excessive force in a sports game beyond what is inherent in actual contact sports; (6)
reflect ethnic, religious, nationalistic, or sexual stereotypes of language; this includes symbols that are related to any type of racial, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic group, such as crosses, pentagrams, God, Gods (Roman mythological gods are acceptable), Satan, hell, Buddha; (7)
use profanity or obscenity in any form or incorporate language or gestures that could be offensive by prevailing public standards and tastes; (8)
incorporate or encourage the use of illegal drugs, smoking materials, and/or alcohol (Nintendo does not allow a beer or cigarette ad to be placed on an arena, stadium or playing field wall, or fence in a sports game); (9)
include subliminal political messages or overt political statements (10)
[editor's note: I have recently received several queries from researchers asking where they can find a published copy of the above NOA guidelines, for citation purposes. The list above is transcribed from "The Parent's Guide to Video Games," by Steven A. Schwartz and Janet Schwartz (Prima Lifestyles, 1994).]
Nintendo of America maintained a tight control over game content by insisting that every video game produced by a third-party publisher be pre-screened and approved by NOA censors before release. If a game, manual, or box contained inappropriate material, it was sent back to the licensee for revision.
Because Nintendo of Japan had no such content guidelines, often the most intense period of revision occurred when NOA was translating an imported title from Japanese to English.
I have annotated the above policy guidelines, showing some examples of these rules being used in practice. The examples I provide are nowhere near exhaustive, but should hopefully provide some insight into the precise methods which Nintendo used to enforce their censorship guidelines.
Rule 1- "Nintendo will not approve games that ... include sexually suggestive or explicit content including rape and/or nudity"
This nude statue in Castlevania IV was "clothed" in the US release.
When it comes to matters of sex, the Japanese are a fair bit more liberal than we are- at least in terms of their definition of what constitutes offensively "explicit" material. This, coupled with the fact that in Japan video games are often marketed towards adults as well as children, led to the creation of many games which included sexual content that Nintendo deemed unacceptable for American audiences.
Game characters that appearednude in a Japanese version were clothed by NOA, and even nudity in artwork was not allowed (as you can see in the example on the right). Similarly, in many cases the skimpy outfits and generous cleavage of female characters were been graphically toned down prior to a US release.
Sex and sex acts were not allowed to be performed, mentioned, or alluded to. The worst offenders are RPGs, which in Japan are among the most popular titles for adults. One fairly well-known example is Final Fantasy 6 / 3, which in the Japanese version featured a stripper, while in the American version featured a much less provocative "dancer." Statements in which characters use double entendres or allude to promiscuity or homosexuality were likewise deleted. I believe there were also more than a couple situations in which overtly homosexual characters were similarly retooled for a US release.
Rule 2-"Nintendo will not approve games that .. contain language or depictions which specifically denigrates members of either sex"
Video games are often accused of being a somewhat sexist medium, always placing males in the hero role while making women characters weak and submissive. This allegation is not without a basis in reality. As well as often playing the role of "damsel in distress" many female video game characters are scantily-clad and overly sexualized. Though a lot of this content gets into the US unchanged, there have been occasions when the depictions of women in certain titles cross the line between "sexualized" and "denigrating".
Again, much of this has to do with Japanese cultural differences regarding gender relations. Video games in Japan have traditionally been designed for an overwhelmingly male audience, which in general possess a far more chauvinistic culture than the West. NOA by contrast is pressured by the concerns of contemporary American society to provide positive female images and even "role models" in its games.
Fighting games, for instance often had female characters who became more "covered up" in the American release, showing less cleavage and in the hopes they'd be viewed as less demeaning or objectifying. In some cases female "enemy" characters in violent games were even replaced by males, in an attempt to show dignity towards women. Such actions are very closely related to the Rule 1, which forbids "sexually suggestive" material.
Rule 3- "depict random, gratuitous, and/or excessive violence"
Nintendo had very strict guidelines regarding what was and was not "acceptable" violence. Essentially, violence had to be committed in a proper context against a proper opponent. Punching and kicking, as well as the use of weapons such as swords and knives were all allowed, but could only be used offensively against the game's armed enemies. Civilian or friendly characters could not be attacked, nor could innocent animals. Guns were usually only allowed to be used against robots, or non-human creatures, such as aliens or zombies.
There is a popular essay circulating the internet written by a developer of the game Maniac Mansion in which he details his personal dealings with Nintendo's censorship policies. As the author argues, Maniac Mansion was a game that was quite noticeably edited by the censors. As proof, he cites how in the original version it was possible to get your character to put a hamster in the microwave and blow him up. This was considered blatantly "random and gratuitous" violence by Nintendo, and removed from the game in the final version.
More significant however were the rules regarding how death, and the description of death were allowed to be portrayed in Nintendo games. Unlike PC games of the time, when enemies were killed in Nintendo games their corpses usually vanished quickly, and did not lie around on the floor forever. The implication was that these characters were not really "dead" but were simply being "eliminated" from the game's universe in the same way pieces are "eliminated" from a Chess board during play.
This went along with Nintendo's other key policy regarding death in games, namely that the words "death" "die" "kill" or "killed" were never to be used, unless in a non-violent context. Thus, Nintendo game manuals and texts of the time never say "Mario must kill the Goombas" but rather "Mario must defeat the Goombas." Though players usually refer to their character's number of "lives," official game texts tend to refer to these as "tries" or "chances."
Euphemistic as they may be, clever language was an effective way of toning down the perception of violence in Nintendo games.
Rule 4- "graphic illustration of death"
In most cases, what this rule amounted to in practice is the sweeping removal of visible blood and "gore" from games. If a character is shot, blood could not spew from his torso, nor could intestines fly out, or anything of that nature.
Mortal Kombat. From blood to "sweat."
This strict "no blood" policy came to an embarrassing climax following the SNES release of Mortal Kombat in 1992. Mortal Kombat had been one of the most violent games in the arcade, with wall-to-wall blood and guts. Far from being repelling, the graphic violence was actually one of the chief sources of its appeal. When the game was released on the SNES however, in coordination with Nintendo's content guidelines all the blood had to be removed. Instead, when the characters smacked each other gray blobs of "sweat" flew out of their bodies- a rather awkward compromise. As well, the gory "fatality" moves, in which characters could formally execute their opponents with such acts as decapitating them or ripping out their heart, were all removed. The game was a huge commercial failure for Nintendo compared to the success of the uncensored Sega Genesis version, and the episode is credited with promoting a significant shift in Nintendo's attitudes towards video game violence.
When Mortal Kombat 2 was released for the SNES it gave the user the option of "turning off" the appearance of blood and gore. The fatality moves were included, but so were several non-violent finishing moves, such as the "friendship" moves in which instead of executing your opponent you could give him a present or do a little dance. Though the "friendship" moves were present in the game's arcade and Sega versions as well, some have argued the underlying absurdity was clearly intended as a subtle mocking self-reference to the previous NOA controversy.
Rule 5-"domestic violence and/or abuse"
There is not generally a whole lot of domestic violence in video games due to the simple fact that most video games do not take place in a domestic setting. However, I know at least one situation in which an element of a Japanese game was "softened" for the US release because of domestic abuse overtones.
At one point in the Japanese RPG Mother 2 a father character punishes his two children for coming home late. He takes them off-screen, and this noise is heard. If you talk to one of the children afterwards, he complains that his "butt hurts." When Mother 2 was translated into Earthbound in the US, the "abusive" sound affect was changed to this, which is the sound effect the game uses to represent "yelling." When you talk to the kid after, instead of complaining about his butt, he whines that his dad took away his desert privileges. (Sounds care of Mother 2 to Earthbound)
Rule 6-"excessive force in a sports game"
Most sports games are made within the United States. As a result, the designers would most likely be developing the game with Nintendo's censorship policies already in mind. I have not seen any evidence of a sports game being censored because of its "excessive force."
Rule 7- "reflect ethnic, religious, nationalistic, or sexual stereotypes of language"
I assume this means that racial or cultural slurs are not to be used in Nintendo games, although I have yet to find any serious instances of this rule being evoked. Games that feature a lot of dialogue, such as RPGs, usually take place in fantasy settings that don't feature characters from real-world races and ethnic groups.
One possible instance of this rule in action may have occurred during the transfer of Punch Out! from arcade to the NES. The arcade version of Punch Out! featured a Russian character named "Vodka Drunkenski." In the NES version his name was changed to "Soda Popinski." Although it seems clear that the primary motivation for this change was Rule 9, which forbids liquor references, it's also possible that the name was changed at least partially motivated by a desire to tone down the character's image as a stereotypical Russian drunk.
"symbols that are related to any type of racial, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic group"
This is one of the most infamous of all the rules. Since this rule deals with the occurrence of various visual symbols, instances in which this rule is implemented are very obvious to anyone who has played the censored and un-censored version of a game.
A hospital in the Japanese version of Earthbound (Mother 2) and the modified American version.
The cross is a common graphic symbol that can be frequently seen in everyday life. However, it is also the symbol of the Christian faith, and thus including a cross in any psudeo-religous context would be a violation of the explicit regulation above.
"Cross censorship" occurred in many games. Aside from perhaps the violence regulations, it is easily the most frequently enforced content rule. Examples of such censorship in practice can be commonly seen in three main areas:
First-Aid kits / Hospital settings
The "Red Cross" is the international symbol of medicine and first aid. It is the logo of the International Federation of the Red Cross, which is a global, non-government emergency assistance organization. It is based out of Switzerland, and as a result, the logo is an inverted version of the Swiss flag. The logo cannot be said to have heavily Christian overtones, although it is worth noting that in Muslim nations, a red crescent is substituted for the cross logo.
Regardless, the simple fact that the Red Cross logo is a cross has resulted in its removal from many games. Many action games feature "Health Kits" that can be collected to recover health points to the player. Usually, these are modeled to resemble First-Aid kits, and thus are emblazoned with a prominent red cross. Following Nintendo revisions, however, the cross was usually changed to a heart.
If a game featured a hospital setting, all Red Crosses were removed from the building as well.
The crosses on the tombstones in Ducktales were changed to "RIP" for the US release.
Tombstones and Cemeteries
Cemeteries are traditionally home to a fair bit of religious imagery. In many western countries cross-shaped tombstones are common, and almost synonymous with death. Think of the vast World War 2 cemeteries in Europe, for example. In many Nintendo titles cross-bearing tombstones had to be modified.
Interestingly, though religious icons are specifically banned by Nintendo's guidelines, religious institutions and figures are not. Many role-playing games feature church settings that are important to the storyline. While these churches are unquestionably Christian, all Christian imagery is removed to comply with Nintendo's regulations. As well, the term "church" is often substituted with a more neutral term such as "sanctuary" or "chapel."
Other than in churches, few games actually feature crosses in a Christian context. One notable exception would be the Castlevania series which involves Vampire slaying. In the game's original version vampire-killing crosses were part of the hero's weapons arsenal, but even these were censored by NOA. In the US version boomerangs were now used to kill Dracula.
Strangely enough, devils have been permitted to appear in Nintendo games, but are never allowed to be referred to as such. Instead, horned creatures were always given names such as "imps" or "demons." Even the "Yellow Devil" character in Megaman was renamed the "Rock Monster," despite the fact that he bore no resemblance to a traditional Christian devil.
The Swatiskas on the Nazi flags in Bionic Commando were changed to equally Germanic eagles.
There are several other examples of substitutions of religious terminology. In the Secret of Mana the "Hell Hound" character was given the laughable name of "Heck Hound" for the US release. Likewise, in Final Fantasy 3 the "Holy" magic spell was renamed "Pearl" to remove the religious overtones.
Though much less prevalent than crosses, several games originally featured appearances by various hate groups, whose presence in turn brings with them various symbols of racial, religious, or ethnic intolerance.
Most common were Nazis. Even if a game used Nazis in a historical setting or context (such as a World War 2 themed game), the party's Swastika logo was never allowed to be shown. Adolph Hitler, it appears, was also considered to be among the banned "symbols."
The NES game Bionic Commando had a very different start in Japan, where it was called Top Secret: The Resurrection of Hitler. Originally, the game's plot centered around a group of Neo-Nazis who were trying to resurrect Hitler in order to complete their sinister plan for global terror. When the game came to America, the basic plot stayed the same except Nazis became "The BADDs" and Hitler became "Master D." Swastikas were edited out, but Hitler's appearance remained unchanged, even in his graphic death scene.
A Hitler poster in the PC version versus a poster of the "Staatsmeister" in the SNES one.
Wolfenstien 3D was a popular first-person shooter for the PC. You control some sort of vigalante-type who is storming a castle full of Neo-Nazis, eventually doing battle with Hitler himself. The game's Nazi references were all carefully edited for the SNES port. Hitler's name was changed to "Staatmeister" and all Swastikas were deleted, creating a castle full of plain red flags.
Sometimes the risk that a certain character or icon could be accidentally perceived as a hateful symbol was enough to warrant a change. Consider the example on the left, in which the "Insane Cultist" character from Earthbound had his appearance"softened" so he would less resemble a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Rule 8- "use profanity or obscenity in any form"
Nintendo's decision to ban swearing from games has not been particularly controversial, nor has it led to any particularly notable instances of censorship. Usually the only games that feature enough character dialogue to contain the odd swear word are RPG's, and even then the swears have usually been insignificant enough to remove without altering the larger context. It's often said that Japanese society is so polite they don't even have swear words. While this is only partially true, the fact that swears are not a huge component of Japanese speech have traditionally made NOA's translation efforts fairly easy in this regard.
Bowser's offensive "winning pose" was changed for the American version of Super Mario RPG
One specific incident of swear removal I can remember was in the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? game for the NES and Game Boy. The bad guys in the film were the weasels, who each had adjective names describing their personality, such as "Psycho," "Stupid," "Greasy" etc. One of them was named "Smart Ass" but in the Nintendo game his name was changed to the less-offensive "Smarty."
Offensive hand gestures are rare in video games, but still occasionally appear, even in Nintendo's own games, as you can see in the example on the right.
Rule 9- "the use of illegal drugs, smoking materials, and/or alcohol"
Even in Japan, rampant use of illegal drugs is not exactly common in video games. The only instance where drugs were censored from a game that I am aware of occurred in Final Fantasy Legend II. In the original version, a gang of criminals were smuggling large quantities of opium. In the American version, they were smuggling bananas, which I suppose is just as evil.
The various bars in Final Fantasy 6 were changed to "Cafes" in Final Fantasy 3 (US).
What is more common, however is the use of tobacco. Whenever a character was smoking, the cigarette or cigar always had to be edited out before the game could be released in the US.
Casual alcohol use in games was also common in many Japanese releases. Games would frequently feature "bar" settings which had to be modified for American gamers. Usually, bars were converted to less-offensive "cafes" and references to beer were changed to "pop," "soda," or "coffee."
Rule 10- "subliminal political messages or overt political statements"
I don't think the Japanese know enough about American political culture to be able to include "subliminal" political messages, let alone overt ones, that would affect US audiences. So I am not aware of any specific instances in which this rule was evoked.
I have long wondered about a certain never released US-made game, however. It was called Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill, and was a game where you controlled President Clinton's cat as he ventured around Washington trying to find the missing constitution, or some such thing. Anyway, the bosses in this game were all caricatures of Republicans, such as George Bush and Richard Nixon. That fact raised a few eyebrows. In a pre-release review of the game, Nintendo Power magazine openly questioned the point of including such figures as bosses, and described their presence as being potentially controversial. I suspect it may have had something to do with the fact the game was ultimately canned.
By the mid-90's, Nintendo's censorship practices were increasingly becoming both an embarrassment and a financial liability. Nintendo was earning a reputation as being a "kiddy" company that was both too patronizing and immature for older gamers.
A blessing of sorts came in 1994, when the Entertainment Software Rating Board was founded. From henceforth, all video games would be subject to an ESRB rating prior to their commercial release. A "K-A" rating would signify a game was appropriate for all ages, "T" would mean it was for kids over 13, and "M" would mean it was intended for adults. The ratings were given based on an independent panel's analysis of content such as violence, language, and adult situations. The ESRB ratings allowed Nintendo to gradually relax their censorship practices, for now they could legitimately argue that their games were being targeted to specific age groups, rather than "children" as a whole.
Today, Nintendo of America does not actively censor the games released on their systems, except in extreme circumstances. Games such as the infamous Conker's Bad Fur Day, which include swearing, blood, and sex are now openly published under the Nintendo banner, as long as they carry with them a "M for Mature Gamers" rating.
When censorship does occur today, it occurs mostly at the "first party" level; that is to say Nintendo censoring their own games, but not the games produced by other companies. The reason for this is because Nintendo of America still largely markets their titles towards a youth market, and in some cases in order to win an "E for everyone" rating from the ESRB the company must remove a few offensive articles from a Japanese edition before its US release.
Other Japanese companies may occasionally follow suit, and "soften" their games before releasing them in the United States, with the hopes that doing so will make them attractive for a larger consumer audience. Overall however, censorship of video game content is far less widespread today than ever before, and when it does occur it is almost universally a voluntary practice driven by economic/marketing concerns, and not the heavy-handed moralizing of Nintendo of America.
You can tell what video games costumes are popular around Halloween time. Children still want to dress up in a Super Mario costume but when is the last time you saw kids buy costumes to dress like Pac-Man?
Some other sites exploring Nintendo censorship policies in action:
- Lost Levels.org explores NOA's censorship of the never-released Earthbound Zero
TheMushroomKingdom.net discusses edits to various games of the Mario Brothers series
Mother 2 to Earthbound- a site dedicated to exploring all the changes made to the SNES game Earthbound
A chronicle of edits to Ducktales for the NES
The CastleVania Dungeon shows examples of edits in the Castvania series, here's Super CastleVania IV
Chronicle of edits to Wolfenstein 3D
If you know any other sites worth linking, or have any other insights, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org