Study #3: Athena (SNK, NES/Famicom, Arcade)
SNK has, over several years, been one of the leading forces of the unification of anime and gaming with their multitude of fighters, shooters and action games. In fact, I'd argue SNK is one of the first companies to truly embrace the combination! However, as we will see, SNK was not exempt from the common practice in the 80′s of recasting their games, art and press materials with a more Western flavor for their overseas products. Let’s start with one of their most obvious.
Action/platformer Athena itself wasn’t the world's greatest game, but it did introduce one of their leading female characters, the titular goddess. She became popular enough to be spun-off into Psycho Soldier, which in turn gave rise to the schoolgirl/pop star Athena that we see in the fighting franchise King of Fighters today. The original arcade title was released in Japan with these ad materials (click to see them in full):
Athena doesn’t drift outside of the 80′s “cute anime girl with crazy colored hair and as little in the form of clothes as we can manage to get away with” stereotype too much (Lum Invader from Urusei Yatsura, Kei and Yuri from Dirty Pair, etc.), and was thus perfectly suited to catch gamer’s attentions over in Japan. The game was a moderate success, and SNK began considering Athena for an overseas audience. Their focus groups in Europe must have given them some interesting results gauging by the European poster art. This is about as far away from anime caricature as one can get:
While European Athena is somehow wearing the same clothes (minus the purple hair) as her Japanese counterpart, the art style is distinctively targeting a different crowd than the average Japanese otaku. Athena is quite muscular, and her ears give off some elven vibes. This fantasy makeover is quite the transformation from her cutesy anime roots! The funny thing is that SNK didn’t bother to update the sprites to reflect the radical changes made to the art design abroad, so the purple hair and original sprite style remained intact.
Here's the arcade title screen. Nothing much to comment on, although there will be once we get to the NES and Famciom ports.
Here's an in-game shot. Colorful, at least!
When SNK ported the title to the Famicom, they reused the first arcade flier above as their box art. North America never saw the arcade original, so their first introduction to Athena was on the NES with this box:
This isn’t terrible like the majority of NES box art tends to be, but it again eschews the original anime artwork for something more fantasy-oriented, a "Clash of the Titans" motif, perhaps, to woo American audiences. It also kind of got away with some nudity, as the topless mermaid attests. The overall artistic style is fairly unique, actually. The healthy use of color that seems to speak ’70′s mystery pocket-book more than the usual fantasy tone of the 1980's (like the European poster above).
As for the game itself, SNK once again left the game’s spritework alone, so the anime origins are quite obvious (Famicom/NES):
The title screen doesn’t even try to hide its stylistic roots (especially when contrasted against the more sterile arcade title)! It mirrors the arcade flier's rendition of Athena…minus the inexplicable hair color change to blue. The big difference is that SNK's logo is removed in favor of Nintendo of America's licensing notice, and that SNK trademarked the title in North America.
In-game, Athena looks pretty close to her arcade sprite, although the meters and colors are rearranged.
Since ye olde NES days, Athena’s original Goddess form has seen a bit of a resurrection, popping up in SNK vs. Capcom Chaos and Neo Geo Battle Coliseum as a playable fighter, and the game has had a remake come out for Japanese mobile phones. With this, SNK Playmore (their modern-day name) played up her character design proudly, going for a more kawaii-like appeal:
Ultimately, Athena's cutesy anime look was kept in-game, but localization teams for Europe and America felt that a different artistic approach would be better for their Western game players.