Atlus USA has become a go-to publisher for niche Japanese role-playing games, with Persona earning the company its reputation. The mature RPG franchise deals with heavy issues, centering on self-acceptance, and forces characters to confront their deepest fears. The true-to-life writing has earned high acclaim; after all, don't we all hide behind some sort of persona? It also caters to the hardcore RPG player with its traditional, challenging battle system that focuses on exploiting enemies' elemental weaknesses.

The franchise might seem like a no-brainer for localization now, but in the late '90s, it was a risky venture for a small company. While Atlus Japan handles development, it's up to Atlus USA to translate it in English. With plenty of dialogue to translate, only six full-time employees, and mature, potentially divisive material, the American division took a risk. It paid off. This is the underdog's story of how Persona propelled the small team from obscurity to the front of the JRPG pack.

Editor's Note: This feature originally appeared in issue 245

Forming an Identity

By the time the first Persona hit, Atlus USA had been around over five years, but the company lacked a flagship franchise. "We really had everything to gain since we were really in need of a series or game that would define us as a publisher," says former marketing manager Gail Salamanca. "Square had Final Fantasy, Konami had Suikoden, Capcom had the Breath of Fire series. Persona was Atlus' first very real opportunity to grab a piece of the RPG pie in North America."

Crafting a North American Brand

When Atlus localized its first mainline Shin Megami Tensei game, Nocturne, in 2004, the company made the decision to add the name Shin Megami Tensei to every title, even spinoffs like Persona. "That was pretty much a marketing strategy decision that the company made," says lead editor Yu Namba. The games aren't so different; using similar universes plagued with demons, so Atlus decided to keep all the names under one umbrella to form a brand for English-speaking audiences.

The venture was risky; localization with such a small team and large amount of text is not an ideal undertaking, especially on an untested property. According to Salamanca, Atlus USA also struggled with making a game so infused with Japanese culture relatable to an American audience.

"The localization staff was really concerned about the game being too Japanese and alienating Western consumers," Salamanca says. "So a majority of the references to Japan and Japanese culture were either altered or changed." Characters were also made over; the lead's hairstyle was altered and one character, Masao, was dubbed Mark and had his race changed to African-American.

Additionally, the staff didn't anticipate the uproar from the name Revelations: Persona. "It was one of those things that just sounded cool at the time, and the staff never gave it any thought in terms of the religious implications that it might have had," Salamanca says. "So, we had people calling us, saying that we worshiped the devil because of the name and the demon-esque character on the front of the box."

But Revelations: Persona did exactly what Atlus wanted: the PlayStation release got people talking, and eventually became a cult hit. The title had the exceptional persona fusion system and multiple endings that the series is known for today. With most RPGs adopting fantasy settings, it also stood out for its contemporary backdrop featuring high school students. This lured people in and got them anticipating the sequel.

Atlus split Persona 2 into two games - Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment, each one side of the same story - but only Eternal Punishment was localized. Rumors swirled that an appearance from Hitler and Nazi-like enemies made Atlus back away from Innocent Sin. According to Salamanca, other factors led the company to pass. "I remember a few things that we were 'told,'" he says. "But, I think it pretty much boiled down to resources and manpower since development was well underway on P2:EP. Having to go back to P2:IS localization probably wasn't factored into the dev team's schedule, so we pretty much had to let it go. Though it wasn't for the lack of b---ing and moaning by the U.S. staff."

Revelations: Persona and Eternal Punishment both did decent critically. Revelations scored in the 7 tier from publications like GameSpot and Gamepro, and got an 8.75 from Game Informer. Eternal Punishment did even better, receiving scores in the 8 range from GameSpot, EGM, and Game Informer, putting the series on the map. But to find a wider North American audience, Atlus still had some hurdles to overcome.