The Curious Case of Doctor Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine

With the addition of Super Mario Bros. 2 to the Switch’s library of NES games, Nintendo Switch Online subscribers now have a chance to play one of the most unique Mario games of all time. As most fans now know, the game originated as the Japan-exclusive 1987 Doki Doki Panic, adapted as the second Mario title for western audiences when Nintendo of America decided that the Japanese sequel would be too frustrating for the then-still recovering video game market. 

SMB2 is one of the most famous examples of drastic localization in video games. But the same year that Japan’s original release was published in the US as The Lost Levels, Sega put out their own odd bird, one of the most unique entries into its flagship Sonic the Hedgehog franchise to date Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean MachineThis unique episode in localization history spotlights what it means to “Americanize” a Japanese property, and why doing so is a difficult and often misguided process.

SEGA’s Mean American Machine

Mean Bean Machine is a puzzle game which vaguely resembles Tetris if the Tetrominos were replaced with blinking colored blobs. However, there’s one significant difference between Mean Bean Machine and Tetris one has a narrative framing the experience, while the other takes place in an abstract Russian void.

Mean Bean Machine’s lore is quickly established upon boot up a cartoonish Dr. Robotnik styled after his 1990 Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog animated series incarnation challenges the player to defeat his robotic minions in a series of puzzles. They then proceed through the stages, fighting against robots with designs borrowed from the cartoon series. And throughout it all, there’s absolutely no reference to Sonic or Tails.

If this all sounds out of place in the Sonic universe, that’s because it was never meant to be a part of it. Just a little bit of tinkering with Mean Bean’s code reveals plenty of leftover assets from its base game: 1991’s Puyo Puyo, a funky little puzzle game released only two years prior in Japan.

Dungeons & Puzzles

The Puyo Puyo franchise is unique among puzzle games in its emphasis on narrative and commitment to the conventions of its RPG origin story. It offers a test of skill against a cute anime backdrop common to Japan, but utterly foreign to the west in the early 90s, hence Sega’s use of the Sonic world in the American release.

And the conceit of the original Puyo Puyo wasn’t simply overcoming puzzle challenges it was a spin-off of the 1990 dungeon crawler Madou Monogatari, a far cry from the typical role-playing experience popular in the US at the time. By using assets from Madou Monogatari published just a year prior, Puyo Puyo featured a cast of fantasy-inspired anime characters from that series.

Because of this convoluted background story, Puyo Puyo never saw its proper Sega Genesis debut. But why specifically the dramatic shift to American cartoon aesthetics? It’s likely that Sega believed that a game like Puyo Puyo — which trades on its cute anime girl protagonist and colorful design — wouldn’t appeal to the male audience of gamers of the nineties.

There’s a valuable lesson to be learned here: whether you like it or not, sometimes a book is judged by its cover. This also implies a distinctively American preference for a rude and crude style of cartoon villain rather than say, a female protagonist. And so, rather than simply translate the existing game, the title received a makeover.

Puyo Comes Stateside

Almost a decade later in 2002, the Puyo series would see its first US game released for the Gameboy Advance. Unlike its bean-shape doppelganger, this particular game adopted a streamlined art style re-introducing the story of the original Puyo Puyo protagonists, Arle and Carbuncle. So what changed over those ten years?

By the time Puyo Pop Fever was released for the Gamecube, the series had shed its ties to Madou Monogatari and adopted an art style reminiscent of the Superflat art movement established by Takashi Murakami in the early 2000’s. The style in which the puyo are drawn in Fever is even referred to as “flat” in later games, a potential reference to the popping bright colors of Superflat. The video game character designs of Rodney Greenblat also provide an early glimpse what this Superflat future would resemble.

Puyo Pop Fever’s and Greenblat’s two-dimensional, flat-colored characters look like paper dolls, easily lifted up from their context and placed into another setting altogether. And this seems like a perfect analogy for the process of localization, as though these characters were suddenly “flat” enough to be picked up and airmailed to American audiences.

Superflat not only promoted a globalized aesthetic, but welcomed the intersection of anime-inspired pop-art and the blurring of cultural lines thanks to the influence of technology and entertainment. Whether intentionally or not, Puyo Puyo happily swept itself right into the this emerging scene, making the timing just right for a proper, no-nonsense translated release.

Aesthetics and Comfort Zones

The untouched US localization of Puyo Pop Fever poses several questions what did Mean Bean exactly do for the franchise’s cultural relevance in the West? Would it have been able to live up to its full potential without the earlier slapstick cartoon makeover? In his lecture “Superflat Japanese Postmodernity,” Hiroki Azuma provides commentary on this process of Americanizing Japanese culture:

“Otaku culture is the result of Japanization of American pop culture[…] that is, re-Americanize otaku culture, re-Americanize the Japanized American culture. ‘Superflat’ is not an authentic successor of ‘pop’ but its hybrid, mixed, fake bastard.”

If later Puyo Puyo games reflect a “Japanization of American pop culture” then this puts Mean Bean Machine in an awkward position. Is it a “fake bastard” of an localization attempt, a lesson for developers and translators? Absolutely not. It’s almost like asking which came first the chicken or the egg(man)? However, it does suggest that we should question the intent behind the localization of past games.

Pushing the Envelope

In any case, radically localized games don’t take on a life entirely separated from their place of origin. In some cases, like that of Puyo Puyo, they help bring the original games to the attention of other audiences. Without the drastic measures taken to adapt it for the west, Puyo Puyo might’ve remained a foreign oddity. And now, the original dungeon-crawling side of the franchise has been overshadowed by its far more popular puzzle spin-off series — especially considering the recent success of Puyo Puyo Tetris for the Nintendo Switch.

With an abundance of pop-art inspired anime character designs and loud catchphrases, the Puyo franchise remains stylistically distinct from eighties-retro vibe of contemporary remakes of the classics like Tetris Effect. It’s this stripped-down, cultural bareness of Tetris that deflects the loud-mouthed gallery of anime toons in Puyo’s Japanese roster. Unlike the Tetris’ series emphasis on abstraction, it seems as though the Puyo series’ focus on colorful, Superflat-inspired characters and visual novel-like scenarios made it too culturally convoluted for an earlier Western debut.

However, titles like Mean Bean Machine force us to ask whether we need games that sit squarely within to our cultural comfort zones. It might be wiser to ask for games that push us to try new experiences, without an “America first” sticky finger mentality. It’s up to us to make that change and to ask for more from developers, translators, and even ourselves when it comes to what we don’t understand.