"All your base are belong to us." That's how far we've come.
Game translations used to be terrible. Back then I guess there just weren't enough Japanese adequately fluent in English to do proper translations. Whatever the case, translations have gotten much better sinceat least when it comes to proper spelling and good grammar. The story in Mega Man Zero unfolds with good grammar and correct spelling, but the scrolling text also illustrates that grammar and spelling are not the only considerations when it comes to translations. To state the obvious: there are cultural differences to consider. At this point I am tempted to go about things in the most politically correct fashion possible, trying to legitimize both eastern and western viewpoints, but that wouldn't reflect the way I feel. There are problems with the western translation and it has nothing to with cultural ambiguities. The problem is that the translation intentionally distorts the meaning in the story. And the manner in which the story is altered also reveals an underlying value system that is disturbingly skewed—a value system that we also use to 'rate' games in general.
This isn't to say that Mega Man Zero is a bad game.
Mega Man Zero is an unofficial sequel to Capcom's Mega Man X games. Starring Zero, Mega Man's rival and partner, the game is very similar to many Mega Man platformers that came before it. There are some notable changes in that Zero doesn't absorb enemy powers, but collects weapons and Cyber Elves (they work like single use magic spells) instead. Mega Man Zero also incorporates a number of RPG elements, including the need to level up weapons and Cyber Elves, and the presence of many non-player characters (NPC). The game itself is a competent effort and the score I've given is a reflection of this.
At issue is the way 'violence' in the game has been obscured. Despite the fact that Mega Man Zero deals with war and genocide, it's disturbing to see how often the game never completely engages with its subject matter. Any instance of violence that does occur has been minimized in various ways.
The story is set in the future when humanity has created intelligent, artificial beings known as reploids. The reploids look virtually the same as any human might look. Unfortunately, some reploids went haywire, sparking a long war between humanity and their robotic creations. In Mega Man Zero, the war is now over, but the conflict between people and reploids still remain. Living peacefully for only a short time, the human government suddenly began arresting and 'disposing' of reploids, even if they did not commit any sort of crime. Driven by fear of another war, humanity had decided to eradicate all reploids as a pre-emptive measure. Those reploids that survived the initial culling retreated to an abandoned city, hoping to make a final stand.
Given such a setting one can justly expect that serious subjects will be addressed during the course of Mega Man Zero. That, unfortunately, is not the case. There seems to be a conscious effort in the localization to obscure the subjects of war and genocide, and even a sense of 'humanity' that we are somehow expected to feel for the reploids.
The most obvious detachment from the subject matter the game makes is its inability to simply say 'murder' and 'killing.' Instead, such things are referred to through the use of euphemisms such as 'retiring' or 'disposal.' On the one hand, Zero and the reploids are robots, and if you really want a clinical answer, then no, technically, they can't die. Yet, through many non-player character (NPC) interactions, we come to understand that the reploids are just as 'human' as the government seeking to destroy them. Not only do the reploids look human, they exhibit the same sorts of emotional responses as real people. One reploid NPC even recounts how he fell in love with a human woman. It seems contradictory then to imbue reploids with human qualities, only to have that sense of 'humanity' taken away from them by not allowing them to 'die.'
The other thing that bothered me was how violent the opening sequence wasat least for a game rated E by the ESRB. In that sequence I watched a large robot, known as a Golem, fire a sweeping laser upon a group of reploid soldiers. The soldiers fell one by one with a gush of red as the laser cut through their bodies. For an E rated game, that is some violent imagery.
I think the reason that scene garnered nothing worse than an E rating was because reploids were robots and not humans. It seems almost silly to suggest this, but I think that if those reploids were humans instead, the game would have definitely garnered a 'Teen' rating. In fact I think one of the ways developers manage to get an E rating is to use robots as enemies instead of 'living' creatures. It seems to work. A quick look at the ESRB website will show that of the nineteen Mega Man games rated, none have been rated any higher than E; the games are considered appropriate for gamers as young as six years of age. On the other hand, of the five Contra games rated, three received Teen ratings (deemed appropriate for aged thirteen or older). Both offer similar run and gun style gameplay and the equivalent amount of 'action.' To me, this situation is similar to the idea that violence can be made appropriate or minimized by portraying the participants in a cartoonish manner. For Mega Man Zero, the violence was minimized and rendered appropriate because 'they were only robots.'
It may seem that I am concerned with discrimination against (non-existent) robots; the fact is I am not. My concern is with why war, death, genocide and the other serious subjects in Mega Man Zero were obscured to begin with. I believe the attempt to obscure the subject matter has to do with children. Specifically, the problem is with the type of material we (as adults) consider appropriate for children, and/or the methods that we use to make 'inappropriate' subject matter 'appropriate.' What I think is happening, is that the localization of Mega Man Zero attempts to minimize the gravity (and even the integrity) of its subject matter in order to obtain an E rating. Sadly, it's probably because an E rating is more commercially viable since it allows for a larger audience. For Capcom, that commercial viability is a higher priority than artistic integrity.
My other concern is that the ESRB seems to feel that by obscuring language and cartoonizing violence, violent games can become appropriate for gamers as young as six. I understand and respect the need to protect children (however brief their time as children is) from violence in the media, but by obscuring language and cartoonizing violence, what are we teaching children instead? Are they really better off? Thinking that obscure language somehow lessens the severity of violence is a dangerous thing, along with cartoonizing those involved. It's all the more dangerous because people can easily read the story in Mega Man Zero metaphorically, equating the plight of the reploids with a real-life phenomenon like racism. Parents may feel safe if their kids play games like Mega Man Zero, but how will their kids interpret the evening news afterwards? More importantly, what are parents who are complicit with the ESRB's judging criteria thinking when they watch the news?
As an organization that supposedly protects children from violence in the media, it's sad to see that the ESRB is in actuality finding ways to condone violence instead of filtering it out. Because of that, Mega Man Zero, and our kids, are worse off for it.