How Nintendo Went from Censoring All Religious Imagery to Publishing a Game Rooted in Gnosticism and Religious Philosophy

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How Nintendo Went from Censoring All Religious Imagery to Publishing a Game Rooted in Gnosticism and Religious Philosophy

It’s a little difficult to remember now—or maybe you were never aware at all, depending on your age—but Nintendo of America used to be known for quite a bit of censorship. Oh, you think you’re oppressed now because the skirts are a hair longer in the international version of a JRPG? Consider that the poor children of the ‘80s and ‘90s had to deal with Nintendo of America’s fear of anything religious. Religious imagery was just not something they would allow in the North American localizations of Japanese videogames, whether it took the form of overt messaging, symbolism, or even something as casual as saying the word “praying.”

Did you know that The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is known as Triforce of the Gods in Japan? And that changes like this were common, even though the title wasn’t referring to capital-G God? It was a mostly blanket policy that even extended into the game’s locations and character identities. Agahnim, the initial villain of the game, was a priest in the Japanese version, but that identification was cut. The Sanctuary Link and Zelda escape to after the game’s opening sequence is the Church in Japan, and Cathedral in Germany—this really was just a North American policy, specifically.

Which is one reason why North America has never seen a release of one of Shigeru Miyamoto’s early console games: Devil World. Sure, the game was kind of like Pac-Man featuring Bibles, Satanic imagery, and the hooved one himself, so of course Nintendo of America was never going to localize and publish it in the ‘80s like Nintendo of Europe did in 1987 three years after its initial release. As Chris Kohler put it in his book, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, the concern was that Devil World’s imagery would be considered “blasphemous” in the United States, as instead of ghosts, your “cute little dragon” character was chasing around “Satanic demons,” and “instead of picking up Power Pellets, the little dragon had to collect crucifixes and Holy Bibles to defend himself.” As Kohler noted, Devil World remains the lone Miyamoto game to never make its way to North America—Nintendo of America never bothered making the Famicom game an import title on any version of the Virtual Console like they did for previously Japan-only games such as Sin and Punishment or The Mysterious Murasame Castle. And all of this despite the fact that the titular devil is just that annoying assist trophy from Smash Bros. who moves the screen around.

As detailed at Escapist Magazine in 2015, Nintendo of America’s No Religion policy wasn’t just for their own published titles, but extended to third-party offerings as well. Konami had to remove crosses from Castlevania, even though vampires and Christianity are inexorably linked. Dragon Warrior III’s coffins holding fallen party members were removed in favor of ghosts, which then extended into the very influenced-by-Dragon-Quest EarthBound—which also had to remove red cross symbols from its hospitals. Despite the fact you are playing as a literal god in Quintet’s SNES classic ActRaiser—a god who lives in a palace in the sky, has worshippers building temples to you, and can slay demons from on high or after your essence transfers to an avatar on earth—the text had to be changed so that the player character was referred to as “the master” instead. NoA wouldn’t even let Squaresoft refer to praying in the North American release of Final Fantasy IV: those were all changed to “wishing” and “wish.” At least that policy relaxed a bit for EarthBound, where Paula’s “Pray” skill remained intact, but if EarthBound had actually released back when it was originally supposed to before it hit development snags, that might not have been the case.

Nintendo of America was afraid of being labeled blasphemous, and we can sit back and make fun of them all we want about it, but the era of the NES was also the era of Satanic Panic. Heavy metal bands like Judas Priest were accused of hiding secret messages inside of their songs to get kids to worship Satan and self-harm, while Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, or BADD, formed in 1983 because they felt the rise of the game coincided with a rise in teenage suicides for a reason. That reason being that D&D was supposedly stuffed with the same kind of pro-occult messages that Rob Halford’s lyrics were. So, a little bit of caution was understandable, if that’s all Nintendo of America was exercising, but it all went on just a little too long until it was standard procedure for the company, and something as innocuous as praying in Final Fantasy had suddenly become verboten.

Things have changed for Nintendo in the decades since. For one, HAL Laboratory legend Satoru Iwata became president of Nintendo in 2002, and shortly after, a working relationship between Nintendo and Monolith Soft began. Nothing actually came out of the initial overtures—discussions for a possible EarthBound title on the GameCube between Iwata and the art director from Xenogears, Yasuyuki Honne—but it was the start of something. Monolith was a Namco subsidiary at the time, working on Xenosaga for the Playstation 2, but permission was granted to work with Nintendo to develop Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean for the GameCube, with Nintendo even publishing its prequel, Baten Kaitos Origins, three years later; Honne was the director of the former and a designer on the latter. According to an exhaustive (and excellent) history of Monolith published at Kotaku in 2020, during the development of another game for a Nintendo system, Disaster: Day of Crisis for the Wii, Monolith was given “the choice to change hands,” and decided they’d rather be Nintendo’s subsidiary than that of the by-then merged Namco Bandai.

Nintendo now had themselves something they had never really had before: an in-house developer for role-playing games. Intelligent Systems had Fire Emblem and Paper Mario, of course, but the former was a series of tactical RPGs, and the latter, as enjoyable as they are, weren’t exactly sweeping, ambitious epics. The Mother/EarthBound series was more cult classic than mainstay, and most affiliations of Nintendo and JRPGs had to do with their console being the home of some of the best third-party ones out there… until those companies all started developing those games for Sony’s platforms, instead. Nintendo went out of their way to get Monolith to develop JRPGs for the GameCube to help fill that void, and now Monolith had become a subsidiary whose focus would always be on Nintendo systems.

And all of this despite the fact that Nintendo of America would have had to set the design documents for Xenosaga on fire had they been presented to them in the SNES era. I’m being glib here, but not dishonest, when I say that a significant arc in the Xenosaga trilogy revolves around the idea of resurrecting the soul and consciousness of the Biblical Mary Magdalene and implanting her being into a robot in the series’ far-flung future. If a little pixelated blue devil doing a little dance while you collect Bibles set off alarms for Nintendo of America, you can imagine how they would have reacted to a game heavily based on gnosticism and the philosophy of a man famed in part for his writings about how much he despised Christianity. In fact, Monolith named all three episodes of Xenosaga after different works of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and set them in a world whose past, present, and future were all shaped by Gnosticism, a sect of Christianity deemed heretical back in the second century for a number of reasons, many of them having to do with the varying gnostic sect beliefs about who Jesus actually was: A divine son of God? Which God? Simply a messenger of God? Possibly even the serpent in the Garden of Eden doing humanity a favor by exposing them to the truth of existence and the world through a taste of the forbidden fruit, rather than forcing them to live in ignorance as the creator God in this belief system had planned? Oh yeah, Nintendo of America would have been all over that in the era of the SNES’ JRPG dominance, sure.

Gnosticism wasn’t a new thing for Monolith’s games, either: before the developers who would go on to form this studio left Squaresoft, they created Xenogears. There is no better proof of Nintendo shedding their old ways than their acquisition of Monolith… especially since the studio has continued to be the one they were before Nintendo acquired them, at least in terms of their ambition and their subject matter.

There are people who will say that the Xenoblade series is not nearly as philosophical or religiously oriented as its predecessors, but they are every bit as much so as the previous Xeno titles. They’re just a bit more gameplay-forward now, and with an improved design and development process built on trust and patience—something neither Squaresoft nor Namco provided (again, I direct you to Kotaku’s history of Monolith for the mounds of evidence of this). The games are more enjoyable to play than their predecessors if you prefer a flatter understanding of the narrative, that much is true, but if you are looking for rich, philosophical debates about the nature of existence, of the power gods have, should have, or should not have over their creations, and what those creations might need to do to break free from their creators? Xenoblade still has you covered more than enough to justify its place as a spiritual successor to Monolith’s past works.

The first Xenoblade Chronicles is not only overflowing with additional gnostic philosophy and foundations, but the work of German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz as well. Leibniz’s Monadology, like so much 18th century philosophy, attempted to answer many of the questions of the universe and what it was made of, and would invariably come to an answer that revolved around God. In Leibniz’s work, God was divine, infallible, and worthy of trust to the point where, if God decided it was time to wipe out all of humanity and give it another go at another time, then that was what was right. Leibniz, you collaborating fool. Anyway, spoilers for a decade-old game abound: the weapon that Xenoblade revolves around, the Monado, isn’t just named that because it sounds neat when said with a British accent. In-game it controls the flow of ether, which is the basic element of the universe: everything is ether, ether is everything. In Leibniz’s work, “monads” are that basic element that everything is composed of. And again, if God wants to throw everything into a blender because he’s bored with his creation and wants to make something new out of all of those monads, that’s his prerogative, according to Leibniz. And it is so because God is on a level above his creations, one humanity cannot comprehend, and one they certainly cannot create for themselves. Yes, even the Bionis vs. Mechonis, biology vs. technology aspects of Xenoblade are covered by Leibniz’s Monadology.

And it all works because Monolith set Leibniz’s “God is the creator, the most supreme being” angles and philosophical justifications up against gnosticism’s “Well, what if God the creator only thought they were the supreme being, but in reality there is another even more powerful God out there, and it is this misguided arrogance that spawned the imperfections in the world?” vibe against each other in a videogame, heavily baked into the narrative and the gameplay. Again: Nintendo of America, nearly two decades before Xenoblade Chronicles finally received a North American localization, wouldn’t even let Squaresoft use the word “praying” in Final Fantasy II.

The gnosticism would continue in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, this time with a hefty helping of Platonic philosophy to go with it—it is fair to say that this game is an Allegory of the Cave simulator, wherein you travel the path of a philosopher-king, and that much of the critical reception of it completely missed just how ambitious and successful in its ambition it was for creating that very thing, in a way only a videogame could. Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s Rex might seem boring and flatter in comparison to the original’s protagonist, Shulk, but that’s only because it takes starting with a kindhearted himbo to end up with the understander of reality. The nature of the soul and reality, who has the right to exist and how, the power that a creator God has over its creations: all of these philosophical questions that are also religious questions are part of a Nintendo-published JRPG.

It’s unclear at this time exactly which philosophy Monolith is pairing up with its traditional gnostic foundations for Xenoblade Chronicles 3, but you can bet that God (or god, or gods) are involved. And thanks to significant, overdue changes in how Nintendo operates their global business, millions worldwide—including in North America—will get to experience all of it for themselves. Between this series and Nintendo’s publishing of PlatinumGames’ Bayonetta 2 and Bayonetta 3—games where you play as a witch whose powers came from Satan in exchange for her eternal soul, battling the forces of Hell as well as Biblically-accurate angels—it’s fair to say Nintendo of America finally lost their war against religious depictions in videogames.

And yet, Devil World still isn’t available worldwide. Nintendo of America must just be watching out for that Satanic Panic revival. Nostalgia for the ‘80s is very in right now, you know.


Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.