Hi there! Earlier this year I decided to play more of older Zelda titles, which inevitably led me to Ocarina of Time. I read all about it, how it is considered to be the best game of all time and how it is a pillar upon which the world of modern gaming sits. I did not really doubt that I would enjoy it, so imagine my feelings when I realized that I was... not really enjoying the famed Ocarina of Time, the best game that ever existed.
I don't really know what it was but somehow playing Ocarina of Time was fun just occasionally. I powered through until I hit the Zora Dungeon, it got really frustrating at some point, and I just stopped. Maybe I'll come back to it someday but not anytime soon.
However, this story is not about how something being praised as the best thing in the world might still not be up your alley and what to do with guilt that sometimes arises from it — although I think it's an interesting topic to discuss. This is a story of me really wanting that Zelda-specific gaming joy but getting it out of a completely different game.
Not so long ago one of my friends was like, "I think you should play Ōkami, it's an amazing game". I knew about Ōkami, I saw a few gameplay clips, the artstyle was really memorable, and I knew you play as a white wolf that is also Amaterasu. I planned on playing Ōkami some day, but my friend INSISTED capital letters that I'd love it, and continued showering me with screenshots. I was like yeah yeah, one day. And then I got really sick, I was lying in bed all the time and since I can't sleep when I am sick, I needed something to play on my Nintendo Switch, and I thought why not try Ōkami.
And you know what?
Ōkami is a fantastic game.
Ōkami was developed by Clover Studio and published by Capcom in 2006 for PS2. Later that year Capcom shut down Clover Studio and its key members founded Platinum Games. Ōkami was directed and written by Hideki Kamiya, THE Hideki Kamiya who writes and directs, just for example, all Bayonetta games.
In 2012 Capcom released Ōkami HD, an HD remastered version for PS3 that in 2017 got ported to other platforms. It launched on Nintendo Switch in 2018 where I ended up playing it. I'd say that Nintendo Switch is probably the best way to play Ōkami HD today since you can use either gesture controls or draw directly on the Switch in its handheld mode.
Ōkami is set in classical Japan where you play as Amaterasu, the embodiment of the goddess of the sun that took a form of a white wolf. You are on a mission to save the land from darkness and demons that plague it.
First of all, let's talk about artstyle. Ōkami looks incredible. It really stands out because of its unique sumi-e inspired artstyle that looks like traditional ink-wash painting plus cel-shading plus watercolour. The game was updated to HD 11 years ago and it looks absolutely stunning today. When Amaterasu runs, grasses and flowers sprout in her footsteps, when she jumps — a whirlwind of red momiji leaves envelops her, it looks gorgeous. And these types of effects were present even in the original PS2 version of Ōkami when the technical limitations were much more severe. For example, initially Ōkami was meant to look more realistic and use traditional realistic rendering but it heavily strained PS2. Cel-shading was chosen to reduce processing, and thus the unique style of Ōkami was born — a combination of Japanese watercolor and technical constraints of the time.
One thing that I think is always very divisive among players is a chatty sidekick or a narrator figure. And here I am not talking about sidekicks like Atreus who contribute to the conversation and kind of interact with your protagonist: I am talking about a completely silent protagonist and a sidekick who does all the talking, a lot of talking, all the time. It's really hard to nail this kind of character and not make them overly annoying; I can name probably just a couple of games that managed to do so successfully.
In Ōkami, your protagonist is silent, but your sidekick is very much not — and it's Issun. Issun has an opinion on everything, Isshun has a story about everything and Isshun does not hold back to voice it all at any time. I imagine it could get really annoying for some players, but, surprisingly, — even for myself — for me it wasn't. Issun is not just a talking head reiterating everything that is happening around you like a broken tutorial record, he is very much a character himself, and I find Issun both funny and endearing. Even though he rarely shuts up, it was a great pleasure — and honor — to have him as my sidekick throughout our epic 40-hour adventure. This experience without him would have been really colorless and thoroughly lacking in charm. I imagine, he could seem a little bit much at the start of the game, where in the first couple hours or so you're basically going through a tutorial and he always tells what you need to do and how, but beyond that Issun is a great character and I adore him wholeheartedly.
Ōkami is a metroidvania-style open world game where you will regularly backtrack to gain access to new places and unearth new treasures using your newfound abilities. As with all backtracking, there is just one question, really: is it tedious? And the answer is no, it is not. The world is so tight-knit and full of life that you'd want to go back and, for example, check on some NPCs and see what they are up to. Many characters have recurrent questlines or they are in the process of creating something and it requires you to periodically check on them and see whether they are finished and if their story can be advanced. The main quest also doesn't just move forward in a straight line, leading you further away from the first areas; it goes in quite an interesting swirl: the new areas get introduced fairly often, sure, but the previous locations are often cleverly reused so you can rediscover them. This is a very Zelda-like experience that allows you to actually inhabit the world you're trying to save.
New abilities are also given at a steady pace till the very end of the game, which I feel is a rare metroidvania case. Ōkami is a 40-50-hour adventure that is kept fresh and engaging because there is always anticipation of something new: new ability, new area, new key character, new weapon, and the game never disappoints.
The main mechanic of Ōkami is the Celestial Brush that you wield and a number of different brush techniques. For example, one horizontal line is Slash, if you draw a circle and then a line crossing the border of the circle, like a little fuse — it's Sakura Bomb that would spawn and go off, or you can draw a line from a water or fire source and water a flower or light a torch; you can also draw a circle on a withered tree and it will flower. These brush techniques are used not only in battles but in exploration too, and they help you complete quests, restore valleys and access new areas. At first I was really skeptical about drawing on screen, especially during battles, but it turned out to be just so much fun that I never got tired of it in all 40 hours of playing. I played Ōkami on Nintendo Switch in handheld mode just drawing on the screen with my finger, and it was so cool! The readability of the brush strokes is really well done so the game is able to parse them correctly even if you were in a hurry and didn't really make it perfect. I never expected a game where you regularly pause during battles to draw on screen to be so dynamic but Ōkami absolutely is: the battles themselves are pretty short but always made my heart beat faster. Each new type of enemy is a new riddle to solve: to what techniques are they immune, what is their weakness, maybe they take more damage from fire, maybe I need to bait them to reveal the weak spot or lure them somewhere; what is their Flower Finisher so I can get more resources from them? Issun keeps a detailed bestiary with incredible character art, and its entries can help you understand the best way to defeat each enemy.
Boss battles are just pure joy because they all work very differently and each has its own gimmick that you're supposed to solve in order to beat them. Some bosses may challenge you more than once and even though I personally don't like repeating the same fights, these battles were so unique and fun that I always eagerly agreed to take up the challenge once more.
The story of Ōkami is a retelling of the legend of Orochi — an eight-headed and eight-tailed serpent. The legend goes that the Shinto storm god Susa-no-O was expelled from heaven for playing tricks on his sister Amaterasu. He found himself near Hii River in Izumo Province and followed the river upstream because he saw a pair of hashi — chopsticks — floating by. Upstream he found a weeping elderly couple and their beautiful daughter. When Susa-no-O asked them why they were crying, they told him about the fearsome serpent who came every year to devour one of their daughters; they had eight, and the one with them was the last one, Kushi-inada-hime. Susa-no-O promised them to save their last daughter if they betrothed them, which they did, and then proceeded to ask them to brew sake and distill it eight times. Meanwhile he set up a trap for Orochi, and when the serpent came for the maiden, he fell for the sake, drank all of it and fell asleep, giving Susa-no-O an opportunity to sever all of his heads and tails.
The Legend of Orochi is one of the most important legends in Japanese mythology but hardly the only one; even though Orochi myth serves as the main backdrop for Ōkami's story, there are many more legends that you stumble upon while exploring the world: the tale of Bamboo Cutter, also known as a tale of Kaguya-hime, the tale of Urashima Taro, Izanami and Izanagi creation myth, and a whole assortment of Ainu myths, including but not limited to Okikurumi and the Koropokkuru.
The question then becomes: if there are so many myths in Ōkami, how was the game localized?..
Oh no, plot twist! We're going to talk about Ōkami localization but just in general, not the detailed stuff that I usually do, so BE NOT AFRAID.
By the way, the title of the game is a pun: it's written like 大神 [o:kami], literally "great god" or "great kami" but the reading coincides with 狼 [o:kami] — wolf.
I played Ōkami in English because I was incredibly sick and for once I really did not want a Japanese game to be an educational experience because I did not have enough strength to reach for the dictionary every time I stumbled upon an unknown word or an unknown kanji. All was well, I didn't really mind the obvious stylistic changes that the localization added to characters' speech to make them unique, even though I didn't much like Waka's French mannerisms. But then as I progressed further and met more characters I started noticing some weird things. When you meet a new notable character, you get their intro card that flashes on the screen quite quickly, and those were not localized and just left as they were in their calligraphic artistic glory. And even my fever-hazed brain started noticing that the names on the cards do not correspond to the localized names. It had been haunting me from the hub location where I met Kushi who was to be eaten by Orochi, and I was like, "Shouldn't you be Kushi-inada?.." Then there was Susano, who should've been Susa-no-O but I let it slide. The further I went the more dramatic it became, because I met Oki, and his card said Okikurumi, and I realized he was THE Okikurumi. At that point I was really frustrated because the English localization with their silly name shortenings sometimes prevented me from recognizing the myths and analyzing how they were changed, adapted or preserved compared to their original versions which is always a point of big interest for me, even when I'm running a fever. It culminated with Nami and Nagi, ancient counterparts of Susano and Kushi that are constantly referenced from the very opening cinematic, and their character cards that you get towards the endgame, OF COURSE, say Izanami and Izanagi, putting all the events into the context of the creation myth.
So I was kind of disappointed by the English localization and then, while reading about the game after I had already completed it, I stumbled upon an old interview — a 17 year old interview — that 1UP did with David Crislip, a localization producer responsible for the Ōkami localization.
Well, that interview confirmed one thing: I am not at all the target audience for English localizations of Japanese games, and thus I shouldn't really be the judge of one (seems funny somehow).
First of all, the timing has to be considered. Ōkami was released in 2006 when the Internet was younger and the world was not as globalized as it is today. Thus, Western audience didn't have as much context for the Japanese and Ainu folklore and culture as it may now just because Japanese media was not all that abundant outside of Japan at the time and accessing it wasn't as easy. Apart from explaining the usual struggle with English localizations from Japanese that include purely grammatical things like Japanese not really using a lot of pronouns thus skipping character's gender altogether, or not really having singular and plural markers for nouns, David mentioned the names specifically.
And the naming was really difficult. We had to go through the list of all the names and all the characters and all the items. We had two choices, really: we could totally Westernize it and just give them all Western names, or we could leave it 100 percent Japanese and alienate a large part of the crowd because they wouldn't be able to pronounce everything properly. We kind of aimed for the middle here, and what we did was we took existing names and shortened them.
Like Kushinata, which is one of the characters you meet in Kamiki Village, we shortened her to Kushi. There's a boy named Mushikai, we just called him Mushi. We tried to maintain the original flavor without making it difficult to pronounce.
Which makes perfect sense. The interview also mentions the "hardcore gamers who get upset about everything" in relation to this naming decision, and I guess that's me :D Oki does sound better than Okikurumi to a person who has zero interest in Japanese. David also mentioned that they tried to shorten the names in such a manner that people could still search for them in their local library or on the internet to learn more if they were interested, so the fact that they considered the people who might take interest in the Japanese and Ainu myths and culture warmed my heart. Obviously didn't work with Izanami and Izanagi so it took me so many hours to connect the dots between them and Nagi and Nami... He also tells a lot of interesting tidbits including Hideki Kamiya's involvement in the English localization, how many things were actually proposed by him, including Waka's French mannerisms that seemed so out of place to me.
I think that if Ōkami was being localized now, there probably would be a higher chance for the names to be translated as they are, without shortening them, just because now much more people are familiar, at least at some level, with the Japanese culture and language — and videogames! — so the name "Okikurumi" is less likely to put them off.
Ōkami is a fantastic, truly epic adventure that I would heartily recommend to anyone. It is full of quirky characters, memorable encounters, exploration and myth. The world is lived-in and in a matter of hours starts to feel like home. If you have a Nintendo Switch, I'd recommend getting the game there and playing in handheld mode to reap the joy of just drawing on the screen with your finger, it's a lot of fun. If you don't own a Switch, no worries, Ōkami HD is available on other platforms too.
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Thank you for your time.