Interview with Dan Owsen
Dan Owsen, head of Nintendo's web development and Zelda localizer, recently visited the GIA headquarters. Dressed in a black catsuit and shouting, "I'm Link! I'm Link!," he fired a hookshot and smashed his way in through one of the third story windows. Normally, GIA members would be alarmed, but we were used to Dan's crazy antics. Besides, Zelda had just released, so he had a right to be elated. As long as Dan was playing superspy with us, we decided to ask him some questions. After all, the Agency may have its field agents, but sometimes its best to go straight to the source.
GIA: Hey Dan! Thanks for joining us this evening. nintendo.com readers know
you as the Ask Dan guy, and Zelda players know you as the translator guy. Do
you have any other responsibilities at Nintendo? And what did you do before you started working for the Big N?
Dan:As Nintendo's Online Manager, I'm in charge of Nintendo's web sites. I work
together with my staff to create content for nintendo.com,
nintendosports.com, pokemon.com, and many others. Most recently I've been
working on www.zelda64.com, which we just launched yesterday. We'll be
adding to the strategy and news sections as time goes by. Before I worked
at Nintendo I worked at a comic / record / skateboard shop in Seattle and
went to the University of Washington, so Nintendo is my first (and only)
big corporate job. I've been working here for over 10 years.
GIA: You've just completed localizing Zelda 64 for the U.S. market. What other games have you localized? What's your battle plan; do you play the games first or dig
right into editing the script?
Dan: I worked on the localization of a bunch of games but the three Zelda titles
were the most work. I wrote the screen text for SNES Link to the Past, GB
Link's Awakening and now N64 Ocarina of Time. I usually start playing the
games at the same time as I start working on the script, and that usually
happens at the headquarters in Japan. The games aren't done when I start
working on them so sometimes the only way to play them is on a development
GIA: Sounds you and the Zelda series are closely connected, then. So what's your favorite Zelda game? Other than Zelda 64, of course!
Dan: I honestly like all the games in the series. Zelda 64 is the pinnacle, but
each of the games was great in its time. For a long time SNES Zelda was my
favorite but I really liked the charm and storyline in Game Boy Zelda. It
was sad that the whole island of Koholint had to disappear, but I think it
lives on in the Wind Fish's memory. I'm looking forward to playing it
again when the Game Boy Color enhanced version comes out.
GIA: So am I! Zelda DX looks great. People who missed out on the GB Zelda not only missed out on a great game, but on a major part of the Zelda mythos continued in Ocarina of Time.
Zelda games have always been action RPGs, but Zelda 64 seems to have
more NPCs and characters than previous titles. How much text is there in Zelda 64?
Dan: A TON! (laughs) I don't know for sure, but I think there were about 2,000 messages
in the game. There are many messages that I translated that the average
game player will probably never read... Even so, there are so many
variables in the game I think we could have added even more text but we
just didn't have enough time.
GIA: Not enough time ... what about space? Zelda 64 is the largest Nintendo 64 game to date. Even so, did you ever find yourself cramped for space when translating? English text, after all, can take up a lot more space than Japanese characters.
Dan: Actually, for Zelda 64 I think the data for the English text takes up a little less than
the Japanese text. After all, you have many different Kanji characters in
Japanese and each one of them has to be its own little bit map. In this
game, though, there was no limit to the length of the messages. However, we
did have to limit each line to a certain number of characters and four
lines per page. I had a tool that calculated all that stuff for me, but I
still had to be careful.
GIA: Those translating tools certainly seemed to help the translation speed! Most RPG titles arrive in the U.S. only months after their Japanese
Zelda 64, on the other hand, arrived on these shores a mere two days after
Japanese debut. Were these the 48 most harrowing hours of your entire life? Or was there some other way the localization process was accelerated?
Dan: I stayed in Japan for 6 weeks during the development! I
worked very closely with the guys over there, especially the Japanese text
director, Mr. Osawa and a translator, Mr. Yamada. Mr. Osawa informed me
and the translator of his running changes and additions and we translated
them almost immediately. I thought that this system would cause some
problems but in the end it worked out very efficiently.
GIA: Let's hope that other RPG companies start using a similar translation system. Translating the text as the game is written - who'd uh thunk it! On another note, it's no secret that most RPG fans have turned to the Playstation for
their RPG fix. Do you think that Zelda 64 will bring some of them back into the
Dan: Although I consider Zelda 64 a RPG in spirit, it is really aimed at a
broader audience than just RPG players. I think it is a lot more fun that
menu-based combat adventure games. Players who really appreciate good
games will play whatever system is necessary to enjoy those games, so yes,
I think some of the die hard Playstation players will come to N64 to enjoy
GIA: Anecdotal evidence around the Net suggests that Nintendo may be selling as almost as many systems as Zeldas! Zelda is certainly good enough to push systems. And push systems it must, in Japan. Think this will help the Japanese situation? (Nintendo 64 has an approximate 3% market share.) From early reports, it sounds like
Nintendo has a bonafide hit.
Dan: Early reports are that Zelda 64 is selling extremely well in Japan. I
think this game will satisfy the otaku gamers over there who are looking
for a true challenge.
GIA:As for the translation of Zelda, did you put any secrets or inside jokes into it?
Dan: Well ... not really. Not any of my own invention. There may be a couple
things that certain people will "get" more than others, but I'll leave
those for the players to find out. Some of those things might not even be
intentional. In all seriousness, I tried to follow the Japanese text in
both mood, style and content.
GIA: Good criteria for any translation. Did you ever think to yourself, "Oh my God, I'm working on the greatest
game ever made, I can't screw things up!"? I would imagine that the pressure of
handling Miyamoto's masterpiece could sometimes be overwhelming.
Dan: No, not really. Of course I wanted to do the best job that I could, but I
have worked on these before so it wasn't as overwhelming as the previous
games were. Also, I had more freedom to make the messages as long as they
needed to be. Length limits were crucial on SNES and Game Boy. The
schedule was extremely tight though, and for a moment I thought I might
have to go back to Japan for a fourth trip!
Actually, the most stressful thing was being over there when North Korea
launched that missile over Japan. I thought, "I need to get home as soon as
possible," but the problem was Northwest, my airline, was on strike!
Luckily, it turned out to be no problem.
GIA: Have you ever met Shigeru Miyamoto? What sort of a person is he? Most
him fairly calm and unassuming, given his amazing gaming pedigree.
Dan: Yes, I have worked with Mr. Miyamoto many times. He is a very nice person
and helped me a lot when I was in Japan. This last time, though, I didn't
work too closely with him because he was too busy fine-tuning the game play
and Japanese text. Of course, his input on the Japanese text affected the
English text too.
GIA: Well, Zelda 64 looks to be a massive success! And the sky is blue! And water is wet! Anyways, now that I'm done stating the obvious ... what're your favorite non-Zelda RPG, puzzle game, and strategy title?
For RPGs, I remember really enjoying Shadowrun for the SNES. I had fun
with Earthbound and StarTropics. I also really liked some of the Ultima
series, both on PC and console. I used to play a lot of dice and paper
RPGs, which I really consider superior to any computer based RPGs, given a
good game master and good players.
My favorite puzzle game is probably
Tetris of course, but I also really liked Kickle Cubicle for the NES. I
wish I still had that one.
For strategy, of course I like Starcraft and
Warcraft (it was fun making scenarios for WC) but I remember losing an
entire Christmas vacation to Civilization and Railroad Tycoon. Recently,
I've been playing a lot of historical wargames like Talonsoft's Battlefield
series. There are so many great games out there I just don't have time to
play them all.
GIA: Amen to that! Forget a RAM Expansion Pak with 4 more megs of RAM; Nintendo needs a DAY Expansion Pak that gives me 4 more hours of TIME! You probably know Zelda 64 inside and out by this point. Do you have a favorite moment?
Dan: I still get kind of choked up when Link gets the Spiritual Stone from the
Deku Tree. I also love ... well I don't want to give away too much of the
GIA: Now that Zelda 64 is released, you're undoubtedly relieved. What's next
for you? And for Nintendo?
Dan: I'm really concentrating on Nintendo's web site now. We have some great
ideas that we're going to get going as soon as the holiday rush is over.
Obviously the whole Internet thing is getting really big and I hope to be a
part of whatever Nintendo does in that arena.
GIA: Sounds like Nintendo's certainly keeping you busy. Any words of wisdom you'd like to share with us before you go?
Dan: Always make sure that people who are in a position to help you achieve your
dreams know what those dreams are.
And if you get stuck in Zelda, try playing the Ocarina!
GIA: "If you get stuck in Zelda, try playing the Ocarina!" ... those words have changed my life, Dan. (laughs) Well, thanks for dropping by this evening, and good luck with your future projects! The window will be billed to Nintendo Co. LTD - as usual.
Visit nintendo.com's NSider to Ask Dan.
Interview by Andrew Vestal.