Video-Game Censorship: Nintendo’s Nazi Scare
Perhaps somewhat inspired by my recent reviewing of the Iron Sky movie, I decided to look back at some classic video-game censorship issues. Nintendo, being the golden boy of decency in the industry, has always been at forefront of keeping games clean for the kiddies, at least in the late 1980s and the early 1990s in the very least. Nintendo admittedly had at one time the most harshest censorship policies in its games – mainly because it saw children as its principle audience and wanted to avoid getting into trouble for the slightest questionable thing.
Nintendo also had to recognise the fact that many of its games came from Japan and that Japanese developers didn’t always have the best sense of what was considered appropriate and inappropriate in the eyes of Western audiences. This included everything from violence and sexual content to something as mild as having alcohol or profanity in a game. One thing in particular and the thing I’ll be focusing on today was the unfortunate issue of the Manji and the Swastika.
Contrary to what you may believe, the Nazis didn’t invent the Swastika, but instead hijacked the symbol from Buddhist countries where it was considered a symbol of peace and love. In the similar fashion, the Japanese Shintoist tradition had adopted the Manji, a counter-clockwise version of the same symbol to represent happiness and luck. Sadly, to most Westerners, the symbols are practically identical.
Nintendo however, did have the foresight to see that the Japanese lack of understanding (or possibly pure indifference) to the extreme negative connotations of the swastika meant that Japanese game developers would very easily use the Manji in their games, not realising that the symbol may get misinterpreted further down the line.
Even Nintendo themselves weren’t immune to their game developers not realising this issue. As a result, the NES’s The Legend of Zelda actually features a dungeon shaped in the form of the Manji. Nintendo never bothered altering the layout of the dungeon, probably because it would have meant redoing a sizable portion of the whole game and also possibly because Nintendo suspected no-one would probably notice.
However, there were other Nazi related scares in Nintendo’s history which didn’t go over so nonchalantly…
Bionic Commando was the first time Nintendo had to tell off one of its favourite game developers, Capcom, for including blatant Nazi references in their game. The problem stemmed from the fact that in the original Japanese version of the game, the Evil “Badds” were a Neo-Nazi group who were trying to resurrect Adolf Hitler. Nintendo didn’t take the matter sitting down.
In the Western versions all Nazi symbols and references were removed and the game became a simple action title about a hero with a bionic arm defeating a bunch of bad guys whose leader was a guy’s head in a jar.
A head with a rather uncanny resemblance to the former Führer of the Third Reich. So yes, Nintendo removed all the other Nazi references, but decided that Hitler’s mug-shot should go completely unaltered. This seems rather counter-intuitive, especially since Nintendo presumably did this to make the game more appropriate for children. However, in both the Japanese and the International version of the game, once you defeat Hitler his head explodes in a very gruesome manner. You have to love Nintendo’s logic: Let’s censor all the symbols of an evil political movement which kids don’t even understand, but let’s leave the exploding head of Hitler untouched.
Maybe Nintendo was counting on kids not actually beating the game (since Bionic Commando is a pretty hard game) but it seems they just did a very half-hearted job with their censorship, especially in light of the reasons for it. Thanks to the internet, this issue is now common knowledge among Capcom and Bionic Commando fans.
ID software’s Wolfenstein 3D was already a controversial game when it first hit PCs in 1992. The first true First Person Shooter in history would pave the way for the entire genre and ID’s own FPS hits Doom and Quake. The game was simply too big of a deal for Nintendo to ignore, but upon releasing it committed one of the biggest mistakes in its existence.
In Wolfenstein’s case, Nintendo went all out on removing Swastikas and didn’t even refer to the enemies in the game as Nazis. This time the Big N also decided to alter Hitler’s appearance in the game, removing his moustache and referring to him in-game as the “Staatsmeister”. Nintendo were probably, once again, scared that children would see the Nazi symbols and whatever it is that they would do with them afterwards.
ID software however felt betrayed by Nintendo’s decision to alter the game and decided to avenge the injustice by handing the source code of Wolfenstein 3D to the infamous Wisdom Tree company, known for their horrendous Bible based video-games. What resulted was Super Noah’s Ark 3D, a direct copy of Wolfenstein 3D, but with the player as Noah, using a sling-shot and fighting animals inside the ark.
It sounds like a bad joke, but this is what actually happened. Nintendo thankfully learned from this debacle and decided to let ID’s games be uncensored from now on. This was probably also in light of how poorly Nintendo’s censored version of Mortal Kombat was selling in comparison to the competing Mega Drive’s version.
But again, Nintendo’s actions don’t really make much sense. Wolfenstein 3D is a violent game any way you look at it and so it probably would have made sense not to tamper with its Nazi backdrop. The only reason for removing Nazi symbols to begin with would have been if Nintendo was hoping to release the game in Germany (where it was banned), but this didn’t even factor into the move, which makes it all the more stupid.
Pokémon is the last franchise you’d think anyone could possibly get mad over, but in fact it seems everyone has taken shots at Nintendo’s cute ring-battling monsters, Christian Groups, Middle-Easterners, the Jewish anti-defamation league and even the spoon-bending Uri Geller.
The original controversy relating to the Manji in this case was due to a trading card called Koga’s Ninja Trick (Konga is one of the original Gym-Masters in Pokémon Blue, Red and Yellow – and a Ninja). Nintendo apparently has very shaky control over the various Pokémon merchandise that gets produced, despite their efforts, and unfortunately at the height of Pokémon-mania in the late 1990s, this card, which was only intended for Japanese distribution accidentally got released in the States. What resulted was a shit-storm of people confusing the Manji symbol for a swastika.
In the light of the craziness, psychic/magician has-been Uri Geller decided to get in on the action and accused Nintendo of making fun of him in the form of the spoon-bending Kadabra. What was probably intended as a loving, tongue-in-cheek nod to Geller turned in his eyes into an attempt of tying him into occult and Nazi circles due to the Star on the character’s forehead and the lightning symbols on his stomach, which he claimed were modelled after the SS troops logo.
Thankfully, I would say very predictably, the case was thrown out of court because even people who have no idea who Uri Geller is anymore would know that this was just a desperate attempt by Geller to grab some free publicity. Either way, the situation was very awkward for Nintendo since it seemed everyone was ganging up on them.
Luckily the fuck up with the trading card was handled through a simple recall and the Geller conundrum imploded on itself due to its innate stupidity.