3 min read

I wrote a thing: "How the greatest Japanese RPGs of the ‘90s came to the West"

My debut at Washington Post explores the groundbreaking localization work of Richard Honeywood and Alexander O. Smith

It’s, uh, no secret that golden age Japanese RPGs (released in the mid-to-late 90s on consoles like the Super NES and PlayStation) were and remain a hugely influential force in my life. In my recent book, Fight, Magic, Items, I explore the history of the genre, and look at how this unusual sub-genre of games designed by Japanese creators for Japanese fans eventually went nuclear in the West with the release of Final Fantasy VII in 1997.

There were so many stories I wasn’t able to fit into Fight, Magic, Items—a book I could’ve easily written twice as long and still felt like there was more to say—but the one that stayed with him long after I’d sent the final draft to my editor was the deep dive I took into the process of localizing the Japanese games for English players.

Alexander O Smith (L) and Richard Honeywood (R)

In “How the greatest Japanese RPGs of the ‘90s came to the West” for Washington Post, I spoke with two legendary game localizers—Richard Honeywood (Final Fantasy VIII, Chrono Cross, Xenogears) and Alexander O. Smith (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII)—to travel back in time to the mid-90s and the epic lengths they and their colleagues went to revolutionize the way games were translated and localized.

Early on, Honeywood watched a dub of [“Xenogears”]’s opening anime sequence, which had been overseen by Baskett before his departure. In it, a generational starship is attacked and destroyed by an otherworldly being, leading to the awakening of a mysterious woman on an alien planet. “Xenogears” was one of the first JRPGs to feature voice acting, so Honeywood knew it was essential to get it right for Western audiences. He noticed immediately that the voice flaps (the character’s voice acting lining up with their mouth moving) didn’t match, but, according to Honeywood, “that was the least of the problems.”

“That’s God attacking them, not aliens,” Honeywood told them after watching the dubbed video. “Read the script. The ship was carrying God, and now God’s attacking them. It’s very vague, but that’s what they’re hinting at in the rest of the game.”

My favourite bit in the piece is a story about how Honeywood pushed back on the name of a horse, and almost ended Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii’s involvement in the legendary series:

Juggling creative decisions with visionary game makers was fraught with potential conflict. A few years later, after the major Square Enix merger, Honeywood was working on Nintendo DS remakes of Dragon Quest’s Zenithia trilogy (consisting of Dragon Quest IV, V and VI). He presented series creator Yuji Horii with a ledger of proposed name changes, leading to an argument over the name of a horse — and almost sank the franchise in the process.

“He wanted to call the horse Elizabeth,” Honeywood said. “After the Queen.” Honeywood objected, suggesting a more traditional horse name like Mary Lou instead. “Horii-san just jumped up and down,” Honeywood laughed, “like frothing at the mouth. ‘You cannot change this!’”

Honeywood didn’t understand why Horii was so connected to the name and pushed back. Horii explained it was because the horse turned into a Pegasus at the end of the game.

“I said, ‘Horii-san, that’s the next game. That’s like [Dragon Quest V] or [VI], and we’re still translating [IV] at this point. We’re not even discussing the same thing.”

“I don’t care,” Honeywood recalled Horii saying. “You have to keep it.”

Frazzled, he did just that.

Afterward, he was pulled aside by the Dragon Quest team. “Don’t upset him,” they told Honeywood. “We don't want to lose him over something like that.”

Dumbfounded, Honeywood replied, “You really think that he would give up working on Dragon Quest games with Enix over a horse’s name?”


This is a huge piece for me for a variety of reasons:

  1. It’s huge. Well over 3,000 words long, and the product of hours of interviews and research.
  2. I first started working on it in September, 2021, so it represents over a year-and-a-half of work and waiting.
  3. It covers so many games that I love dearly. Through their localization, Honeywood and Smith have had an immeasurable impact on me as a fan and creator.
  4. Sadly, Washington Post’s gaming vertical, Launcher, will be closed at the end of March, 2023. I’ve admired their work since they opened a few years ago, and writing for Launcher/Washington Post has been a professional goal of mine for a long time. I’m grateful to be among Launcher’s final stories, but saddened we’ll no longer get to read their brilliant stories.

“How the greatest Japanese RPGs of the ‘90s came to the West” is the story about how games localization went from flat text files and VCRs to sophisticated tools and collaborative teamwork between English localizers and the Japanese creators behind our favourite games.

Read “How the greatest Japanese RPGs of the ‘90s came to the West” on Washington Post