Over the past few years, one of the biggest stories in Chinese business circles has been consumers’ embrace of guochao, or “national chic.” From local fashion brands to gaudy souvenirs designed by the Palace Museum, young Chinese are abandoning Western imports in favor of products that resonate with their upbringing and culture.
Video games are no exception. Not only have games based on Chinese traditional culture and history built huge audiences, some games not explicitly grounded in Chinese culture have even started to incorporate more Chinese elements in a bid to win over players. Getting here wasn’t easy, however. In the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese elements in games were synonymous not with cultural confidence but with rushed, half-hearted localizations and cheap knock-offs known as huanpi, or “reskins.”
The first video games arrived on the Chinese mainland in the early 1980s. At the time, there were no domestic video game manufacturers, let alone a mature video games market. The small number of gamers who could afford them played on consoles imported from Japan, Hong Kong, or Taiwan; the rest made do with arcade machines that mostly featured Western or Japanese-developed “action-adventure” side scrollers like Super Mario Bros., Contra, and Tank Battle.
Although foreign manufacturers had little incentive to target the Chinese market, the occasional instances of representation that worked their way into games were quickly embraced by Chinese gamers. The most illustrative example is probably Chun-Li from the Street Fighter series. Designed by the Japanese company Capcom and based on well-known celebrities like martial artist Mao Yu, actress Etsuko Shihomi, and singer Yoshiko Yamaguchi, the character was essentially an Orientalist caricature of Chinese culture, right down to her qipao outfit. The dress, although no longer common in China by the time of the game’s release, was meant to mark the character as distinctly Chinese, guaranteeing her popularity within China at a time when few games offered playable Chinese characters.
Likewise, when Capcom launched a series of arcade games loosely based on the famous Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” in 1989, the series became a hit on the Chinese mainland. This was despite the games bearing only a passing resemblance to the story Chinese gamers grew up reading.
Stills from “Saiyuuki World” (left) and “Wonder Boy in Monster Land.” From Bilibili and archive.org
Overall, however, Chinese elements remained exceedingly rare in games throughout the 1980s. Instead, to bridge the gap and win over Chinese gamers, publishers and a few developers came to rely on reskins. The originator of this unfortunate trend may have been Saiyuuki World, a Famicom game that still triggers intense nostalgia among many Chinese gamers of a certain age. The original version of the game, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, was first published by Japanese giant Sega in 1987, but the Famicom version — ported by another Japanese company — reskinned it with the protagonist changed from a young knight to the Monkey King from the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” Although there’s a good chance this was not done with the Chinese market in mind — “Journey to the West” is popular across East Asia — the reskin’s popularity in China inspired countless companies on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan to embrace the practice of remaking overseas titles with a thin veneer of Chinese traditional culture.
From the 1980s to the early 1990s, localizers typically based their adaptations on three of China’s four great literary masterpieces: “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” “Water Margin,” and “Journey to the West.” (The fourth classic, “Dream of the Red Chamber,” lacked action, making it unsuitable for adaptation outside of dating simulators.) Much like Saiyuuki World, these localizations were bare-bones at best, often involving little more than changing the hero’s name and slightly tweaking their image to resemble a character from Chinese literature. Add a few simple text explanations, and presto, the “reskin” was complete. Some of these localizations were so half-hearted that they can seem almost post-modern to our eyes. For instance, the Monkey King often found himself battling beasts and demons from Western mythology that the localizers hadn’t bothered to reskin. In another reskin from this era, popularly known as Three Kingdoms: Contra Edition, Capcom’s above-mentioned “Three Kingdoms” game was remixed with elements of the popular side-scrolling shooter Contra, leading to the incongruous sight of Han Dynasty (202 BC - AD 220) generals mowing down enemies with machine gun-like bows.
Reskins became common practice for a number of reasons, the most important being that early video games were relatively simple and easy to modify. In those fledgling renditions, the player’s task was basically to defeat enemies and pass checkpoints; the protagonist’s identity, personality, and cultural background were not particularly important. This made reskins a fairly quick and cost-effective way to rebrand a game for a different audience.
Yet, while the majority of reskins were done by distributors in Hong Kong and Taiwan who were familiar with Chinese culture, their engagement with that culture was superficial at best. Localizers were used to the tropes favored by foreign game developers, and consciously or subconsciously, they often injected these tropes into their remakes, plucking Chinese elements seemingly at random from a stock list of stereotypical characters and images. In many cases, the resulting games were plagued by a kind of internalized Orientalism in which Chinese stories, symbols, and identities were simplified almost beyond recognition.
These depictions were accepted by gamers on the Chinese mainland for lack of better options. In some cases, as in the example of Chun-Li — an Orientalist caricature that became a popular icon within China — their exoticized reinterpretations were reappropriated by a target audience hungry for recognizable symbols, no matter how shallow. To this day, many players still cherish the reskinned games they played as children. This is especially true of the vast majority of gamers who could not afford imported consoles. Their first introduction to the medium came through pirated cartridges, arcade halls, or cheap domestic consoles, and even the most derivative and careless attempts at localization were enough to help them form an attachment to a title.
More broadly, the limited representation offered by reskinned games helped lay the foundation for China’s current gaming industry by inculcating in that early generation of gamers a desire for more nuanced representations of Chinese culture. By the 1990s, Chinese gamers had greater access to original games and were less and less satisfied by crude reskins, even as the increased complexity of games made the reskins harder to turn around.
By the turn of the millennium, huanpi was already generally considered by Chinese gamers to be synonymous with “shoddy.” Instead, gamers were moving on to new role-playing games being adapted from the country’s rich tradition of fantasy martial arts novels by a few far-sighted Hong Kong, Taiwan, and eventually mainland game developers. Although a degree of self-Orientalism persists in China’s gaming culture today, gamers are at least no longer limited to adaptations that only go skin-deep.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Two men play arcade games in Shanghai, Jan. 4, 2021. Chen Yuyu/People Visual)