Daughter sims and Clinton jokes: a conversation with the original localizer behind Princess Maker 2

In the 1990s, Tim Trzepacz tried to bring Princess Maker 2 to the world. It failed, but decades later, he's finally seeing the game enjoy an official English release.

Tim Trzepacz is best known as an alumnus of Working Designs, a localization studio responsible for bringing the Lunar games and other Japanese role-playing games to English-speaking audiences through the 1990s. More recently, he's a software and hardware developer, the lead mind behind DSiWare sound composer program Rhythm Core Alpha and its follow-up.

But what many JRPG fans may not know is that Tim Trzepacz also headed up the original English localization of Princess Maker 2, an influential life sim/visual novel. Trzepacz's localization never officially saw the light of day, but a nearly-completed version escaped into the wild online, circulated as "abandonware" among a net-savvy young fanbase hungry for Japanese games and esoterica.

Formally, this translation of PM2 is not "abandonware" at all, and circulating it is tantamount to piracy. Fortunately, with the new English edition, Princess Maker 2 Refine, now available on Steam, players won't have to. Trzepacz, however, was not at all involved in this new translation -- so I sought him out through an arcane summoning ritual known as LinkedIn to ask what he thought about it.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Princess Maker 2 (right) shows some graphical improvements, but a few of its localization choices are a bit wonky. Princess Maker 2 Refine (right) shows some clear graphical improvements, but a few of its localization choices are a bit wonky. Notice "2th day" and Refine's decision to keep height and weight in centimeters and kilograms, for instance.

ZAM: Princess Maker 2 is now officially on Steam. Given your long history with the game, you’ve got to have some feelings about that.

Tim Trzepacz: The goal was always to get the game out there in front of people to see what a wonderful game it was. I feel we did a better job of translating, our version was better than what eventually shipped, and it’s sad that they couldn’t have approached us and licensed our translation ‘cause we worked really hard on it and it was really good. But finally people have a legal way to see the game. It’s a shame that it couldn’t have been ours.

So you weren’t approached at any point about licensing your translation or bringing you on for a new localization?

No, I found out about it the same way everybody else did!. Somebody posted a Steam video on Facebook and said ‘I guess this is coming out.’

Dang.

I had approached Gainax many times over the years, both when we still had a contract and after that contract had expired, and they just never, ever replied to me, so eventually I just gave up. It seemed like they weren’t really interested in that [publishing an English localization]. I can pretty much guess how this [version] came about: they had a partner in Korea who was already distributing a version of the game, I think they had transferred all the international rights to them, so they [that partner] had all the rights to make an English version now.

"I thought I'd be the first one riding that train rather than cheering as it goes by."

The world has changed, the internet is a thing, Steam is a thing, it’s now much easier to be published there when [a game] already has a track record and a built-in fandom – they can thank us for that, although they have plenty of reasons not to thank us for that. We were ahead of our time.

There’s no denying there’s been just an explosion of interest in Japanese visual novels and life sims since your localization leaked online. There are games explicitly inspired by PM2 like Long Live the Queen. Could you ever have imagined the game could be this influential?

I did believe in the product when I licensed it! I’ve always been an admirer of Japanese animation, games, and culture. I firmly believed it was a good product, I didn’t think that it was gonna set the world on fire, but I thought we could sell 20,000 copies of it. Evidently at the time the rest of the industry didn’t share my conviction, so it was impossible for us to get proper distribution. The story’s out there. But times have changed, as I knew they would, I just thought I’d be the first one riding that train rather than cheering as it goes by.

Do you think the fact there was something illicit about downloading your localization of game that contributed to its fandom, in the long run?

I would still not choose it as my primary mode of distributing my product. I do need to eat. But you know, that certainly does help. If it’s actually free then nobody wants it, because clearly it’s bad; but if it’s illicitly free, if people wanted to charge you for it but you got it anyway, it must be good. I’m also an independent musician and just try giving away your demo CD sometime. No matter how good your album is, nobody wants it.

So… I have to ask. Have you checked out the version of Princess Maker 2 on Steam?

No, I don’t use Steam because their EULA required arbitration for all disputes, and you can't use the service without clicking on the EULA. As a result, I can't play Skyrim anymore either. So sad. [From watching the promo video] what I saw seems inferior to our translation. My friend Bryan Buck did a very good job at not only translating the material, but writing the translation with humor and sensitivity to what was said and how it would be perceived culturally. The translation in the video you sent seems accurate, but lacking in nuance and flow.

Working Designs was notable for taking certain 'liberties' with its localizations. Some have aged better than others. Working Designs was notable for taking certain 'liberties' with its localizations. Some have aged better than others, like this NPC's line in Lunar: Eternal Blue.

How do you feel about so-called ‘literal’ translations, which I guess you could say as existing on one end of a spectrum, with the more ‘free-roaming’ Working Designs localizations on the other end? Bill Clinton jokes and all that.

The thing to remember is that Working Designs had really terrible translators until I came along. They were hiring some company out of San Francisco and the translators there didn’t really know English. They could translate the Japanese, but they didn’t really understand what the idiom was they were translating to.  And everything was coming out of a spreadsheet so it wasn’t even in context. Japanese is a very context-sensitive language. So to a certain degree [Working Designs co-founder Victor Ireland] had no choice but to make things up as he went, because he had very little to go on. When I came in, I brought in two well-known fan-translators, C. Sue Shambaugh and Richard Kim, who ratcheted up the quality of the translations tremendously. Now things made sense! But by then Victor kinda already had his process down, he liked rewriting it and adding the comedy in.

One game that sticks out in my memory is Magic Knight Rayearth. That project was really dragging along what with problems from Japan. They wanted to change the names to match the TV version, but the localization team on that had done a bad job, and we said no. Victor was [getting frustrated] and turned to me and said, 'Why don’t you do the rewrite?' So I tried to do it very, very accurately. Victor saw my work and went ‘OK, nevermind.’ He didn’t like my very, very direct translation. I think a lot of the time Victor went over-the-top with his translations, and perhaps a lot of the jokes no longer work now that time has passed. But he definitely had a lot of respect for the source material and the characters, and his translations did make the games palatable for an American audience who wouldn’t have been into it if it had been a straight, literal translation.

Nowadays there’s a big fandom for Japanese things and I think they can go for those more direct translations, they have the knowledge base for it. But back then there really wasn’t.

Today's Japanese imports, like Atlus's Persona 4 (above), often retain a lot of their original cultural references and terms. Today's Japanese imports, like Atlus's Persona 4 (above), often retain a lot of their original cultural references and terms of address, assuming players will recognize them.

Is there such a thing as a ‘literal’ translation, though? Or are fans barking up the wrong tree there?

I get what they mean when they say ‘literal,’ even if it isn’t actually ‘literal.’ They mean a translation that adds nothing that wasn’t already in the spirit of the original. And in that sense I can totally respect that.

You’ve talked openly in the past about voluntary ‘censorship’ during localization -- you even mention drawing clothing on some of Princess Maker 2’s nude sprites. These days, some players might see that as a mortal sin, or at the very least pressure from outsiders, rather than something localizers chose to do on their own.

Well, people are still welcome to go and play the original Japanese version. It exists untouched, you’ll just have to play it in Japanese. But as a developer, I have to make certain concessions to the laws and social norms of my country; my culture. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not a child pornographer and I have no intention of unleashing something that could be considered such upon the world. I do not like or enjoy such things. So those parts of Princess Maker that were over-the-top for our culture were -- with sensitivity to the original material -- adjusted, and I make no apologies for that.

Nowi's character bio in Fire Emblem: Awakening makes sure to stress she's over 1,000 years old. Nowi's character bio in Fire Emblem: Awakening makes sure to stress she's over 1,000 years old.

In the late 1990s, that certainly felt like the prevailing sentiment. However, I do feel there's increased acceptance of (or at least desensitization toward) sexualized children in media today. For instance, when a technically old, but visibly young character like Nowi in Fire Emblem: Awakening (left) shows a lot of skin, it feels like suggesting this is maybe, possibly, not in the best of taste is more taboo than just embracing it.

I haven’t paid that much attention to [current attitudes] to be honest. I do still watch some anime, but I’m not into it nearly as much as I used to be. After you work with all these companies you start to realize, man, all these guys are jerks, and it’s not nearly as enticing as back when you were just a weeaboo. I’ve visited Crunchyroll and there’s a huge number of shows on there I would call ‘boob shows,’ where their only redeeming feature is that they have boobs in them, and that’s not much of a redeeming feature. I do not see how somebody can watch some of these shows and not be embarrassed. But there were shows like that in the 80s and 90s as well, it [just] seems like there are more because there are more channels for finding them.

"As a developer, I have to make certain concessions to the laws and social norms of my country; my culture."

The thing that really gets me these days is not so much the young girls -- there’s always a certain amount of fanservice; it’s whether it’s all fanservice -- but when these shows glorify the culture of the geek shut-in. They make these shows where the main character not only has no redeeming features -- they’re a gamer who doesn’t go to school, have a job, or have any goals or aspirations -- but somehow it all works out for him because he gets transferred to a magical fantasy world where his gamer skills are lauded, or he somehow gets into a harem situation. While that sort of thing can be done well, like Welcome to the NHK, oftentimes it’s a bit too much. It’s embarrassing to watch. And you’re just like, yeah, they’re projecting a little too much here. I feel like they’re not reaching for a mass market, they’re entrenching their own tiny culture that’s going to get tinier and tinier as time goes on. I’m not into that. The fan glorification bullshit, it’s too much.

As a veteran localizer, is there anything that’s come out recently you felt the translation for which was well done?

I’ve had a long and illustrious career in the game industry, but lately I’ve kinda fallen by the wayside. In my time I’ve played through a lot of Japanese games, and I’ve gotten a little tired of what’s out there now. I feel that games [being produced now] aren’t really what I got into this industry to make or to play. I can’t say I’ve played many Japanese games lately, and the mainstream Western games, shooters and that kind of hyperviolent fare, I was never into that. I sort of repurposed myself toward music, and more recently to hardware.

Rhythm Core Alpha 2 is called "one of the most advanced" titles released for DSiWare, available on Nintendo DS/DSi/3DS.

What’ve you been pursuing since getting out of the JP-EN localization scene?

A few years ago I put out a piece of software called Rhythm Core Alpha, it’s music software that runs on Nintendo’s DSi and 3DS. It’s not a game at all. It’s a program for making your own music complete with a drum grid, a music sequencer with 20 different instruments, and a really, really good solo mode you can play on the screen with a stylus. I think it might’ve been a bit too innovative for my own good. Though Nintendo has a strong chiptune scene, it’s really more on the GameBoy than DSi and 3DS.

I understand that you just finished up a residency at Supplyframe Design Lab as well?

Yes, they graciously granted us a residency to use their equipment to design our first hardware project! It only lasted for three months, though. Our project is the NanoEgg, a small, portable music synthesizer. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we made a lot of progress.

Are you considering going the crowdfunding route eventually, do a short production run that way?

Yes, once we have something solid enough. We don't want to do a Kickstarter until it's completely ready.

What would you say to, for example, a young creator who’s very into that Japanese aesthetic, and wants to emulate that?

Yeah, well, you know. When I was in college I was just as much a nerd as anyone else was in that scene. We really, really nerded out on Japan. ‘Oh my god, Japan is so awesome, they make all this awesome stuff.’ But part of it was just because it seemed fresh when I didn’t know the tropes, and now all I see are the tropes. All I see are harem anime and fanservice and the same character archetypes over and over again. The animation quality today may be top-notch, but what they’re doing with it is not always best.

"There are a lot of American creators who’ve been greatly informed by the Japanese style. Do not think it can only be made in Japan."

So I think it’s better to have a tempered view. Japan makes great stuff, and America makes great stuff too. There are a lot of American creators who’ve been greatly informed by the Japanese style. Do not think it can only be made in Japan. Do not think if you’re not Japanese you can’t do anything worthwhile. There’s a tendency with the fanboy mindset to get into that rut and no, no. We have to say to ourselves: ‘Japan has done this, now we need to do it better.’

Long Live the Queen, a life sim game explicitly inspired by the Princess Maker series. Long Live the Queen, a life sim game inspired by the Princess Maker series.