If you’ve been gaming as long as I have, you probably remember an outfit called Working Designs. Working Designs was an American publisher that specialized in the localization of Japanese games — particularly RPGs, strategy games and shmups — and quickly gained a reputation for being one of the best in the business.
The primary reason for this excellent reputation was the fact that Working Designs’ Western releases of Japanese hits weren’t just straight word-for-word literal translations — rather, they were genuine localizations that made appropriate use of Western slang, turns of phrase and even popular culture references to give them a unique feel all of their own.
As a Brit myself, I unfortunately didn’t get to play that many of Working Designs’ titles, a lot of which remained confined to American shores during the PS1 era, but a couple do stick in my mind even now — The Adventures of Alundra, which saw a European release via Psygnosis, and the Lunar series, the first PlayStation-based entry of which was one of the first games I ever imported from overseas, and for which I had to do the then common-knowledge trick of holding my PS1’s disc cover open with a pen lid while swapping CDs during the boot process. Ah, the good old days.
Both of these games are excellent titles that still stand up very well today, as it happens. Let’s look at both of them briefly in turn.
1997’s The Adventures of Alundra, or simply Alundra as it was known in the States, was an action RPG by Matrix Software, a team made up of former developers of the Landstalker series on Genesis. In fact, Alundra was considered by many to be a spiritual successor to the Landstalker series, though it had little in common with its predecessors beyond a similar-looking aesthetic and a protagonist who had boots that were much too big for him.
Lazy critics were quick to compare Alundra to the Zelda series, and indeed there are a number of elements in common between the PS1 title and Nintendo’s classic series, though just as many differences. Controversial opinion alert: I always found Alundra to be the more satisfying experience, largely because of its darker, more mature plot, memorable characters and frustratingly difficult puzzles. We were, for the most part, in the era before online walkthroughs were a commonplace sight, remember, so being able to get your head around a particularly tricky problem in Alundra was something that made you feel absolutely great. For the most part, puzzles were of the “slide slidey things around until they’re in the right place” variety, but these were often combined with platforming segments in which you had to figure out exactly what path you were trying to make with the objects and then not only make it, but successfully traverse it, too.
Alundra’s gameplay was just part of the appeal, though. Where Working Designs came in was in the excellent writing. Although the titular hero is a silent protagonist, the other characters were crafted so well that this didn’t matter too much. The quality job that the team at Working Designs had done helped you feel like a real part of the increasingly dark and twisted narrative as it weaved its way towards its conclusion. The nature of the story and characters, which saw Alundra and his friend Meia delving into people’s dreams to free them from nightmares, also allowed for some surprisingly deep and hard-hitting exploration of the characters, tackling themes such as alcoholism and multiple personality disorders.
If you want to play Alundra today — and if you’re a fan of action RPGs with a bit more challenge and depth than the Zeldas of the era, you should — then you can grab a copy from PSN now.
The Lunar series, meanwhile, were somewhat more traditional JRPGs, unfolding from a top-down perspective and featuring turn-based combat. What set them apart from their numerous other rivals at the time, however, was the fantastic job that Working Designs once again did on localization. Due to the quality of their English language script, both Lunar: Silver Star Story and Lunar 2: Eternal Blue for PS1 remain some of my favorite JRPGs of all time, even though their core gameplay was relatively unremarkable in comparison to some of the other more technologically advanced offerings of the time. At least some of this relatively conventional gameplay was due to the fact that both PS1 games were in fact significantly enhanced remakes of much earlier Sega CD titles, which were also localized by Working Designs.
Both Lunar games on PS1 were particularly noteworthy for their high-quality anime sequences that punctuated important narrative moments — one of the big additions over the Sega CD originals. These animations, along with some lengthy fully-voiced sequences using in-game graphics, helped give the whole experience a highly dramatic, cinematic feel despite its rather simplistic presentation — and despite the fact that the chubby in-game sprites didn’t really look a whole lot like the attractive, realistically-proportioned characters in the anime sequences.
If you want to play Lunar today, you have a few options, though none are completely identical to the PS1 version. Your best bet is probably the $6.99 iOS version, as that doesn’t involve any delving into bargain bins or paying over-the-odds collector’s prices!
It’s sad that Working Designs no longer exists in its original form, but company founder Victor Ireland is still working in the industry today through his new(ish) company Gaijinworks. The company has only released a few games to date and is yet to recapture the former glory of Working Designs, though to their credit they have managed to ensure that former Working Designs titles such as the Arc the Lad Collection and Alundra have been rereleased on PSN.
It’s also worth noting, however, that Working Designs was by no means the only company out there doing high-quality translation and localization work on Japanese titles. Small outfit Carpe Fulgur, for example, is dedicated to localizing interesting Japanese “doujin” (indie) role-playing games on PC, with three excellent titles available to date, and outfits such as Nyu Media are dedicated to partnering with other localization specialists to bring the best of Japanese gaming to us Westerners — their most recent release being the excellent Cherry Tree High Comedy Club. Japanese gaming may not have the stranglehold on modern players that it once did, but entertainment from the East is far from dead — you just have to know where to look!
Swords and Zippers is our weekly JRPG column in which we explore the best, worst and most interesting of this diverse and long-standing genre that has fallen somewhat from grace in recent years. You can follow Pete, author of this article and GrE’s managing editor, on Twitter.