Working Designs (1986-2005)

Something I‘ve noticed is that any time a game localized by Working Designs enters any conversation, the absolute first path that conversation goes down winds up being about the localization rather than anything else about the game. After playing a couple games they localized this past year (Popful Mail, Albert Odyssey: Legend of Eldean, and as of writing I’m currently playing through Alundra, if you‘re curious) I can certainly see why. In a case like Popful Mail, they also absurdly hiked up the game’s difficulty along with translating the dialogue – and as we know, Popful Mail‘s case is not a rare one. This, along with their decidedly… let’s say “contemporaneous” way of localizing text, it feels like they‘ve generally been maligned by those familiar with the games they worked on. But here’s the rub: sure, sometimes they grossly change the flavor of a script, but at the same time they‘ve been responsible for some of the most effective, emotionally gripping localization work I’ve found from that time. There‘s dialogue in Alundra that has stunned me with how honest and human it is… and then there will be a character that speaks exclusively in stereotypical 90’s California surfer slang, for no reason I can imagine beyond the translator thinking it would be funny. To a lesser extent, this was the same situation for Albert Odyssey: Legend of Eldean as well. Lots of heart, broken up pretty constantly by childish jokes and dialectal spelling. This brings me back to my point: any time a game localized by Working Designs enters any conversation, that localization almost always becomes the focal point of the conversation. I can‘t think of any other publishing company where this is true! They’re such a unique case in the history of the medium.

Anyways, I wanted to have a space for us to talk specifically about their work, since it spans so many developers and console generations, and people clearly have opinions about these guys. What are your favorite or least favorite games they've worked on? What's your laundry list of games they totally ruined, or are there any games you think they actively made better? Anyone have any stories or memories about how these games were received at launch? What are the implications of a game being more known for its publisher than its developer? Let's hear it!

One thing that I think gets forgotten is that whatever you think of the text, they actually bothered to hire good voice actors. I will always think of Popful Mail's voice saying “Nuts Cracker!”

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@“Funbil”#p95881 But here’s the rub: sure, sometimes they grossly change the flavor of a script, but at the same time they’ve been responsible for some of the most effective, emotionally gripping localization work I’ve found from that time. There’s dialogue in Alundra that has stunned me with how honest and human it is… and then there will be a character that speaks exclusively in stereotypical 90’s California surfer slang, for no reason I can imagine beyond the translator thinking it would be funny.

As somebody who's been reviewing the *Lunar: Eternal Blue Complete* translation line by line for a while now, this is exactly how Working Designs worked as a localization house. They had *some* sense of how to localize a text, but without the outside supervision they needed to rein in their stranger impulses, that sense got buried under arbitrary jokes and rewrites that ultimately drag the script down in places for no reason. And to address the elephant in the room: no, those jokes etc. were very rarely present in the original work. Working Designs went out of their way to insert them, even (especially) if it was to the detriment of the game as a whole.

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@“robinhoodie”#p95887 One thing that I think gets forgotten is that whatever you think of the text, they actually bothered to hire good voice actors. I will always think of Popful Mail’s voice saying “Nuts Cracker!”

Fun fact: Victor Ireland basically hired his friends and family for most of those roles. It was a somewhat common practice for smaller localization studios back in those days, but fortunately, it kind of worked out in Working Designs' favor. Thank [John Truitt leaning into the ham](https://youtu.be/tO8Q0sYWxWA?t=150) for that.

I‘ve recently started diving into the world of Undubs and Un-Working Designs versions of games. My first run in with them was with both Lunar Silver Star and Eternal Blue. It always felt like such a slog to get through that eventually I resorted to GameShark codes to get my way through without going bonkers. Mario RPG got me into JRPG’s, and as much as I love the Lunar games, they kinda brought me out of it because of their balancing issues hahaha.

The Un-Working Designs versions of the Lunar games feel significantly better.

Same goes for Silhouette Mirage. I did manage to beat that game under their rebalanced stuff, but it did manage to make the extra weapons pretty useless. Localization felt fine for that, but it's also a Treasure game. I'm pretty sure you could do anything with the script and it would fit in just fine. Playing the JP version with its original play style feels almost like a different game. It's weird.

I only recently started playing Popful Mail. Weirdly, I'm actually further a long in the PC98 version than I am in the Working Designs Sega CD one. I do kinda like how amateurish and goofball the english voices sound, though. There's some charm to it. I'm not sure if the Magic Knight Ray Earth version I'm playing does anything to the balancing, I think it's strictly just an Un-Dub...

One thing's for sure, though, and that's their english versions of the songs in various games they worked on were actually super good! I prefer the english version of Silhouette Mirage's Leave the Tears Behind (Though I Cry I'm Happy Inside)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxaQArhoMnM
Beautiful song. Great vocal performance.

I bring this up in an upcoming Retronauts, but what the heck is the first published working designs release? Is it cadash, or is it parasol stars? Or is it something else? Working designs didn‘t get into game publishing until 1990, with their first releases in 1991, so I think it has to be one of those, but their release dates aren’t firm anywhere I can find. I bet I could dig through some of Frank's 1991 magazines and find out!

As much of a Silhouette Mirage fan as I am, I have to admit I had no idea that WD had done an English version of Leave the Tears Behind! Thanks for sharing that. I didn‘t get the North American version of the game until much later, and I don’t think I've actually even played the disc, so I had no clue.

I'm real mixed on Working Designs (like it sounds as though most folks here are). In retrospect, I think of them as kind of the Sandy Frank or Harmony Gold of early 90's Japanese games that would otherwise never have gotten an English language version. They were absolutely one of the reasons (along with Gamefan magazine) that I got as interested in Japanese games, so I have a soft spot for their work, but it became super obvious after the fact how fast and loose they were with things like translation and localization!

@“JJSignal”#p95892


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I’m not sure if the Magic Knight Ray Earth version I’m playing does anything to the balancing, I think it’s strictly just an Un-Dub…

I was looking into this for myself after all the praise for the game a few episodes back. From what I understand, you can only get one or the other: either you get a rebalanced game with all the Working Designs audio/translation, or you get an undub that’s still gonna be hard as heck because it wasn’t rebalanced, as it’s based on the NA release.

WD‘s strength as a brand came from Vic Ireland’s willingness to talk to pretty much any outlet or individual enquirer with a relative degree of transparency—for as much as he might have embellished or presented subjectivities as realities, he was one of the few people giving non-industry folk a peek behind the curtain, and that whole “business run by One Of Us” persona galvanised an audience that rationalised and forgave a whole lot of crap concerning their actual output, and I think that aspect of their business is why people still talk about them the way they do (and that includes people, like myself, who basically never even bought anything they put out, at least not contemporaneously.)

Has there ever been any writing or any interviews around why game difficulty was ramped up by WD? I can understand stuff like pop culture references and being super loose with translation, but I don’t get why a game’s difficulty would be ramped up so drastically.

@“fivedollardare”#p96010 Discouraging rentals is a likely reason, even if it‘s a moot point in many of these cases because the game in question’s an RPG.

@“fivedollardare”#p96010 games were often $60-$80 dollars in 80s/90s money, so one had to last you a long time. Game outlets were negative about games you could “beat in an afternoon” and were constantly saying easy games were for babies. It was just the prevailing swirling culture at the time, WD were certainly not the only ones who did it! Most Sega games got a more difficult version for the West until the dreamcast era.

Part of it was combating rentals and/or adding “replay value” by arbitrarily gimping the easy modes, but I suspect a lot of WD's changes, both in terms of difficulty and general content, were made for the sake of a) Vic simply wanting to put his fingerprint on the games, and b) as a fig leaf for not having to translate/localise certain content.

I have to admit I was being naive.

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@“exodus”#p96028 Game outlets were negative about games you could “beat in an afternoon” and were constantly saying easy games were for babies.

I was optimistically believing that this was something that had stayed in the pages of 90s gaming magazines - fully aware that that attitude's totally still around.

I have a lot of nostalgia for Working Designs games. I played all their Sega CD games when I was in high school and most of their Saturn games. They‘re responsible for bringing over some of the best games on those platforms: I have trouble imagining another company stepping up to release the Lunar games in that era. Maybe the Playstation games would have been picked up by another company but not a lot of companies were interested in JRPGs in the Sega CD era in the US. I wish Sega had supported what they were doing a little more; I’d love to live in the alternate timeline where the Lunar games had Saturn releases. Maybe we could have gotten Magical School Lunar…

There's a part of me that thinks some of their dumb jokes are amusing but another part of me can't help but wonder what was lost in the translation. Their meddling with difficulty of games was more obnoxious, especially because in the notes in the manuals they usually incorrectly explained what they did to make their changes sound better (eg in Alundra they claim they reduced the HP of bosses to shorten the duration of repetitive battles while they actually did the opposite). I want to believe that they had good intentions but it really did muck up certain games. I know with Vay they were editing values in the game code to try to tweak the difficulty but weren't able to test out what they were doing before they hit a deadline which is why that game has an infamous difficulty spike.

There's also something to be said about the physical presentation of Working Designs games: they all felt like prestige products with their foiled art and full-color manual with ample notes. I can't imagine being the kind of collector who wants to get all the disc image variations they made, but it's cool that there was different art for their discs! They were way ahead of the curve for collector's editions for niche otaku games!

Exile wicked phenomenon also has a ridiculous spike - you‘ve got to grind about 30 levels before you can proceed because the game becomes impossible at some point. There’s really no excuse for that stuff! But I can‘t argue that someone else would’ve brought the exile games over (or magic knight rayearth!), and they're some of my favorites, so they definitely contributed something!