Nintendo of America long had a policy of strictly restricting potentially offensive or controversial content in games released for its systems, often requiring changes in games ported from other platforms or localized from Japan. The best-known examples of these revolve around sex, violence, or drugs-removing or altering gruesome violence, covering up scantily dressed characters, excising sexual innuendos from dialogue, or populating taverns with customers eagerly guzzling “soda.”
Less well-known was Nintendo of America’s equally strict – well, sometimes – policy regarding religious content in games. These were laid out alongside Nintendo’s rules for sex, violence, and the like in a set of guidelines originally written in 1988, which forbade
“symbols that are related to any type of racial, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic group, such as crosses, pentagrams, God, Gods (Roman mythological gods are acceptable), Satan, hell, Buddha;“
Like their other rules, this reflected Nintendo of America’s desire to present avoid controversy that could hurt its family-friendly image. This policy frequently meant games had to be changed before NoA would authorize their release.
Often, this amounted to minor graphical changes. In many games, such as the Castlevania and Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) series, crosses were removed from tombstones, coffins, places of worship, and clothing or equipment. (Ankhs were sometimes substituted, the media clout of Osiris worshipers being fairly small nowadays.) This applied even to secular contexts, requiring removal of the Red Cross symbol from hospitals or healing items in games like Earthbound. Other symbols with religious or occult significance, like Stars of David and pentagrams, were also usually removed.
(Sometimes the change was arguably an improvement. When a member of your party died in the American Dragon Warrior III, their sprites in your party lineup became ghosts until they were revived, whereas in the original Dragon Quest III the hero would be followed by a train of apparently self-propelled coffins.)
This censorship was not consistent; some games had prominent crosses left intact. These were often minor games like 8 Eyes, where Nintendo’s censors might have figured they could get away with slacking off that day. Not always, however – the American versions of The Legend of Zelda and Adventures of Link removed some references to Christianity but still had clearly visible crosses on tombstones and Link’s shield, among other places- the latter even had a Cross as a usable item! The first Zelda predated NoA religious content guidelines, but it’s not clear how Adventures of Link slipped through.
Sometimes the changes went a little deeper. Consider the beloved classic The Legend of Zelda: The Triforce of the Gods – which you probably know as A Link to the Past, because the word “god” fell afoul of Nintendo’s policy. The evil wizard Agahnim was a priest in the Japanese version, a detail removed in America. Many games underwent similar changes in dialogue or story.
Gods were bowdlerized into “superbeings” or “immortals,” churches became “sanctuaries” or “Houses of Healing,” priests became “sages.” Names from real-world demonology were altered- for instance, in Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, final boss Samael became “Sardius.” Nintendo policy did include a specific exception for Classical mythology, which allowed games such as Athena and Battle of Olympus to use otherwise forbidden terms like “gods.”
The Final Fantasy series provides interesting examples. In the original game, the spell Holy was renamed “Fade,” and churches where fallen party members were revived in the original game were secularized into “Clinics.” (Which was actually more intuitive if you were unacquainted with traditional D&Disms like “your parish priest can resurrect the dead.”)
When Final Fantasy IV was released as Final Fantasy II in 1991, “pray” and “prayer” were changed to “wish.” This lead to some odd scenes with characters gathered in the “Tower of Wishes,” prostrating themselves reverently – or possibly doing rebound pushups, it’s hard to tell with sprites that size – while the town’s Elder exhorts them to “wish” for the world’s salvation from evil. Several references to Hell were turned into “the Dark World.” The Holy spell was re-renamed, becoming “White.”
Interestingly, by the time Final Fantasy VI came over as III in 1994, Nintendo seems to have eased up a bit. The archvillian Kefka is served by a group called the “Cult of Kefka” and described as “like a god,” while the game’s backstory refers to three warring goddesses. On the other hand, “Holy” was apparently still too offensive for American audiences and was re-re-renamed “Pearl,” while the “Pray” ability became “Health.”
Religion figured so prominently in some games that localization was impossible. Atlus’ Megami Tensei series is a conspicuous example. The entire series is permeated with gods, angels, and demons as both allies and antagonists. Religious references and symbols are everywhere. The original Famicom game revolves around the protagonist, a high school student, summoning demons to fight for him.
In a country and era where people who claimed that Dungeons & Dragons contained real Satanic rituals were going on national television and not being treated as obviously crazy, that was trouble. The full title, Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, probably didn’t help.
Then there’s the sequels. In Shin Megami Tensei for the Super Famicom, post-apocalyptic Japan has become a battleground between the forces of YHVH – quite explicitly the Judeo-Christian God, and it is not a flattering portrayal – and Lucifer. In Shin Megami Tensei II, the ultimate villain and final boss is none other than YHVH Himself, depicted as a sadistic, murderous tyrant. (Who bears a striking resemblance to the Green Goblin, for some reason.)
This was not going to fly with a company that thought putting a Red Cross symbol on a hospital would risk too much controversy.
Nintendo could be bizarrely inconsistent in enforcing its rules, however. Some games were inexplicably released still featuring content far more potentially controversial than the occasional cross.
In Super Nintendo action game/city builder Actraiser, you’re God. You live in a palace in the sky. You’re served by an angel. People pray in temples to appeal to you for miraculous aid. Your archenemy is “the Evil One.” Admittedly, most monotheistic religions don’t depict the Supreme Being periodically descending to earth to personally fight demons with His sword and 2D platforming skills. But you’re very clearly God.
Obviously, this sort of in-your-face religious content was highly problematic in light of NoA guidelines. So, in the American release, they… changed the player character’s name to “the Master.” Oh, and some six-pointed stars were removed. This was apparently enough to satisfy Nintendo.
Then there’s Final Fantasy Legend for the Nintendo Gameboy, which one would have expected NoA censorship to nuke from orbit. The axis of the game’s universe is a vast tower, stretching between worlds. At the top, legends say, lies Paradise. The heroes resolve to climb it, making their way through its numerous floors and the worlds it connects. Along the way, they encounter all manner of evil and tragedy and oppression. Finally they slay Asura, the being said to be evil incarnate, and reach the top of the tower, where the are greeted by the Creator himself.
As in the Creator of the universe. As in God. He’s infinitely more stylish here than He was in SMT II, sporting a rather snazzy top hat.
The Creator reveals Himself to be the true power behind Asura and his evil- all part of a horrific “game” to challenge human courage. He expresses no remorse, saying the Creator can treat mere humans however He pleases.
So, naturally, the heroes fight the Creator and kill Him. Possibly in a single blow from a chainsaw, an instant death weapon that’s normally useless against bosses but actually works against the Creator in a subtle metaphor for the decline of religious faith in the face of technological modernity. Or due to a programming oversight that let instant death attacks work on the final boss, if you insist on explanations that are more likely true instead of interesting.
This was released in the United States in 1990. About two and a half months after Final Fantasy on the NES, which couldn’t call a spell “Holy” because that might have offended religious people. Maybe the guy in charge of checking the game for controversial content didn’t bother playing to the end.
So, what about present day?
Just as with sex and violence, Nintendo of America is far more lenient about religious content today, and the last vestiges of Nintendo’s controversy-shunning past seem be in the process of fading away. (Just in case one of the Wii U’s flagship third-party exclusives being a game about a nigh-naked sexpot gruesomely slaughtering hordes of angels wasn’t a tip-off.) In 2013, popular indie game The Binding of Isaac was denied a release on the Nintendo 3DS due to its extremely dark religious themes. In 2015, however, remake The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth received a release on both the New 3DS and the Wii U, completely uncensored.
Not bad, for a game that breaks about half the rules in Nintendo’s 1988 guidelines just by having its plot summarized.