Over the holiday season we'll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This feature was originally published in January 2020.
Japanese animation – or 'anime' as many call it – is huge business these days. While it is naturally most popular in its homeland, we've seen numerous anime properties cross over to the west and find the kind of success that is usually reserved for home-grown cartoons and media franchises. Series such as Attack on Titan, Dragon Ball, Berserk, Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, and Fullmetal Alchemist have all become genuine global hits, pulling in millions of fans away outside of Japan shores.
That Japanese animation has international respect is something that is worth celebrating; unlike in the west, where animation is still treated as somewhat childish by many, the Japanese treat it as a legitimate art form and many of the country's most commercially successful blockbuster movies are – as some unkind westerners would say – cartoons.
It's worth remembering that there once was a period when anything that looked even remotely Japanese was seen as a commercial risk
The rise in popularity of anime in the west has had a very welcome side-effect for gamers; we're now blessed with more anime games in the west than ever before, and titles such as Dragon Ball FighterZ, My Hero One's Justice and Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Trilogy are solid additions to the Switch's growing library – and that's not to mention the countless anime-style series, such as Steins;Gate, Zero Escape and many others – which have found a receptive fanbase in the west over the past few years.
However, while anime's influence and reach has expanded massively in recent times, it's worth remembering that there once was a period when anything that looked even remotely Japanese was seen as a commercial risk. Some publishers would try their hardest to limit the Japanese influence from the packaging of their games with all-new western-made artwork, others would go even further and completely change the in-game assets, totally removing all trace of the anime on which the game was originally based.
Of course, it wasn't always down to a matter of western tastes – oftentimes, publishers would remove Japanese licences simply because they weren't well-known in the west, and thereby avoid paying fees to the IP owner – but there was a definite trend at the time for masking the eastern origins of many titles.
Take a trip down memory lane as we look at some of the most notable examples from a time when anime was as good as outlawed.
Dragon Ball / Dragon Power (NES)
One of the earliest examples of an anime licence being totally ripped away from a video game is 1988's Dragon Power on the NES, which is based on the 1986 Famicom release Dragon Ball: Shenron no Nazo. The hero Goku was altered to look more like your typical '80s kung-fu dude, while the legendary Dragon Balls become less-exciting 'crystal' balls. There's also some infamous censorship afoot; in the Japanese original, Master Roshi gets a nose bleed when he gawps at Bulma's panties, but in the American version, he's got a fondness for Bulma's sandwiches. Because Dragon Ball was already popular in France, that region got a proper localised version of the game in 1990, entitled Dragon Ball: Le Secret du Dragon.
Fist of the North Star / Last Battle / Black Belt
Fist of the North Star – or Hokuto no Ken, as it is known in Japan – is one of the true classics of Japanese manga and anime, having established itself during the '80s. We've seen video games based on the series since then, with Sega being one of the main licensees responsible. It produced a Fist of the North Star game for the Mark III console in 1986, and then ported it to the west under the name Black Belt, removing most of the references to the original series. It would follow this with 1989's Hokuto no Ken: Shin Seikimatsu Kyūseishu Densetsu on the Mega Drive, which made its way to the west as Last Battle. Again, the characters were mostly re-drawn to hide the link to Yoshiyuki "Buronson" Okamura's post-apocalyptic franchise, and the gore was toned down dramatically (no exploding heads for us westerners). Oddly, Last Battle was subsequently picked up for conversion to home computers by UK company Elite.
It's worth noting that while Sega changed its Fist of the North Star games to suit a western audience, we did see games cross over from Japan with the licence intact on the NES and Game Boy – presumably to cash-in on the western 1991 release of the 1986 Fist of the North Star movie by Streamline Pictures.
Tecmo Cup Soccer Game / Captain Tsubasa (NES)
A soccer game with RPG elements was always going to be a hard-sell back in the NES days, so it's hardly surprising that Tecmo decided to strip away the Captain Tsubasa licence for the western release of its popular footy adventure. The Japanese version took elements from Yōichi Takahashi's famous manga and anime series, creating a game which moved away from the fast-paced action of most soccer sims and instead relied on a more cinematic, turn-by-turn view of the action. The western version retained this structure but removed all of the Captain Tsubasa characters and replaced them with generic footballers (the lead character, Tsubasa, becomes a blond-haired Superman lookalike called Robin Field, for example).
Burai Fighter (NES / Game Boy)
Like a great many Japanese games, Burai Fighter has a massive, Gundam-style mech on its front cover – a surefire way of getting Japanese kids interested in the game contained within, especially in the absence of an official anime licence. However, when the game was released in the west, the robot was supplanted by a generic space dude who looks like something out of Buck Rogers. Boo.
Power Blade / Power Blazer (NES)
This Taito-made NES action platformer is a perfect example of how Japanese publishers re-shaped their games for western consumption. In the Japanese original – named Power Blazer – the main character is a cute, Mega Man-style cyborg, whereas the western edition features a muscle-bound, sunglasses-wearing Schwarzenegger lookalike (so close was the resemblance that cover artist Mike Winterbauer claims he was sent threatening letters by "a certain movie star's lawyers" until he pointed out that he had used his own face as a reference for the image). The game's stages were also changed and the controls were improved, so while Power Blade sports a cookie-cutter visual style that is clearly aimed at pleasing young fans of '80s Hollywood action movies, it does at least play better than its Japanese counterpart. Interestingly, Power Blade 2 was released in Japan under the title Captain Saver and shared the same visual style as the western version, complete with Arnie-style protagonist.
Zelda: Link's Awakening (Game Boy)
This is arguably a controversial inclusion, but one worth mentioning – Nintendo was pretty aggressive in removing any 'anime' elements from the covers of its Zelda titles. Right from the start, the cartoon-like illustrations seen on the Japanese versions of The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past were all replaced by basic covers that didn't feature any character artwork whatsoever (although, to be fair to Nintendo, it would use the cartoon-like artwork in both the instruction manuals and promotional materials). Perhaps the most notable change was for Link's Awakening, which boasted a gloriously colourful anime-inspired cover for its Japanese release – a cover which was ditched in the west in favour of the trademark Zelda logo, complete with sword and shield. We imagine that many of you reading this will have a strong nostalgic connection with the western cover artwork – we don't blame you – but let's face it, the Japanese cover is superior.
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (SNES)
While this might not be as clear-cut a case as some of the others on this list, there's no denying that Capcom – like so many publishers in the '80s and '90s – took steps to lessen the "Japanese" look of their game covers. While the Japanese version of Street Fighter II featured a gorgeous piece of artwork by legendary illustrator Akira “Akiman” Yasuda – Capcom's go-to guy for box art at the time – the North American edition was graced with an all-new image courtesy of Mick McGinty which was much more 'western' in style. It's not a bad image as such; it's just odd that Capcom decided that the original artwork wasn't suitable for players outside of Japan – but as this feature hopefully shows, it wasn't alone in having this view.
Capcom was pretty prolific when it came to changing the box artwork for its games, come to think of it. The Mega Man series on the NES got saddled with some truly terrible western artwork, and titles like Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Final Fight (1, 2 and ) and Demon's Crest all had their Japanese-style artwork replaced by inferior compositions. Tut tut.
Dirty Racing / Race Days (Game Boy)
With a title like 'Dirty Racing' you might get the wrong idea about Jaleco's top-down Game Boy speed-fest, but while it does feature a large volume of bikini-clad anime track girls, the 'dirty' part of the name comes from the fact that, unlike real-world racing, it gets pretty rough out on the track. Dirty Racing was never released on its own in the west, but UK company Gremlin would bundle it together with the North American-exclusive Jeep Jamboree: Off Road Adventure in 1994 to create Race Days – complete with a new cover which buries Dirty Racing's anime stylings as deep as possible.
Ranma ½: Chōnai Gekitōhen / Street Combat (SNES)
Ranma ½ is another classic Japanese manga series which, in the early '90s, gained considerable fame in its homeland, as well as several video game adaptations. The first of which arrived on the Super Famicom under the title Ranma ½: Chōnai Gekitōhen. A one-on-one fighter in the same style as Street Fighter II, it was quickly re-branded as Street Combat by Irem, stripping away the Ranma ½ characters and settings and supplanting them with some pretty atrocious and generic replacements. Ironically, one of its sequels – Ranma ½: Hard Battle – would make it to the west intact, although the box artwork was westernised slightly to remove the 'anime' edge.
Rolan's Curse II / Velious II Fukushuu no Jashin (Game Boy)
Oddly, when Sammy released its Zelda-style action adventure Velious Roland no Majuu in the west in 1991 under the title , it decided to use the original Japanese artwork – a decision it presumably regretted, as the 1992 sequel received an entirely new piece of western cover art which doesn't feature any of the cute characters contained within. Shame.
Power Moves / Power Athlete (SNES)
This one is a bit of a close call, as you could argue that the original Japanese cover for Power Athlete isn't particularly 'Japanese' to begin with – in fact, it looks very western in design, despite the anime-style characters contained in the game itself – but that didn't stop publisher Kaneko from binning it and instead using one of the most offensively amateurish covers we've ever witnessed for the western release, known as Power Moves. One or the worst SNES covers ever? Quite possibly.
Area 88 / U.N. Squadron (SNES)
Kaoru Shintani's seminal manga (and later anime) Area 88 is perfect fodder for video game adaptation, featuring loads of real-world military fighter jets, vengeful heroes and plenty of intrigue. Capcom duly stepped up with a 1989 arcade release which was released in the west under the title U.N. Squadron – although the character portraits remained intact. The game was ported to the SNES in 1991 and is arguably one of the best shooters on the console, but it's a massive shame that the licence didn't make the trip, too; the cover to the Japanese Super Famicom version is downright gorgeous.
Assault Suits Valken / Cybernator (SNES)
The sequel to the Mega Drive game Assault Suit Leynos (released in the west as Target Earth), Assault Suits Valken was one of the first video games that really felt like it was an interactive Japanese animated movie – despite not having a connection to any manga or anime. Blessed with character designs by Satoshi "Langrisser" Urushihara and a gorgeous cover image by Masami Ohnishi – not to mention amazing in-game visuals and tight, rewarding gameplay – it gained rave reviews at launch and was quickly picked up for release by Konami under the title Cybernator (although the game itself was developed by NCS and published by Masaya in Japan). Konami toned down the anime influences, commissioning a new piece of western-style cover art and removing the anime portraits which appear during the game's dialogue sequences. It also removed a sequence at the end where the enemy nation's president, realising they have lost the war, commits suicide. The game's promotional campaign in the west also name-checked Robocop and The Terminator, oddly trying to frame the game's human-piloted mech as an autonomous android.
Magical Hat no Buttobi Tābo! Daibōken / Decap Attack (Mega Drive / Genesis)
Magical Hat was a fairly short-lived TV series by Studio Pierrot which ran between 1989 and 1990, and is perhaps best known today for the excellent Mega Drive game it sired. It's arguably one of the best platformers on the console and is a semi-sequel to the equally brilliant Psyhco Fox on the Master System. Thankfully, it made its way to the west, but minus all of the anime trappings. Instead, the game was given a macabre theme, packed with zombies and skeletons, and retitled Decap Attack. It's not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but in losing the bright and colourful visuals of the Japanese original, it certainly feels less appealing.
Like Power Athlete, we've been a bit cheeky here, as the cover for Kemco's Super Famicom shooter Phalanx: The Enforce Fighter A-144 isn't 'anime' as such, but it does include a very Japanese-style space ship which wouldn't look out of place in an '80s anime series with huge stomping mechs and massive floating battle fortresses. It never made it onto the western cover, which instead featured an old dude playing the banjo. Go figure! For the full story behind why this change occurred, check this out.
Do you remember any Japanese titles that were toned-down for their western release? Let us know with a comment.