Fan translations

Originally published in Retro Gamer magazine - now updated

By John Szczepaniak / Images courtesy of RHDN and MSX.org


Page 2 (top 10 games)
Page 3 (non-Japanese translations)


Many cite Final Fantasy V as the reason they got into fan translating


Daughter-raising sim Wonder Project J2 on N64 has been translated


Nightcrawler of TransCorp makes an appearance in Dual Orb 2 (SFC)

Many great games have been left in Japan, hidden behind a complex language. Ever since Japan first began dabbling in videogames, and despite Working Designs, Atlus and others fighting valiantly, many great titles were released and never officially translated into other languages. With highly desirable, text-heavy Japanese games being painfully ignored by publishers over the years, it's fallen to ragtag teams of guerrilla ROM hackers and translators to make them accessible. Despite their incredibly important role these groups are mostly ignored by the press, while their dedicated history pages are removed from information sites such as Wikipedia.

Anyone interested in Japanese games will have played a fan-translated ROM at some point. If you haven’t, then you should. The emulation of fan-translations makes the world of videogames a far more exciting place. These homemade creations are the only way to fully enjoy many fantastic RPGs that were never released locally. Sometimes, unofficial translations are even better than the official output of developers. They also occasionally improve the actual games and correct bugs.

Veteran hacker Lin Xiaolang elaborated, “Regarding games that were hacked to better quality, Bahamut Lagoon (Dejap), Der Langrisser (a bunch of people), Daikaijuu Monogatari (myself) are all games to which were added variable-width dialogue fonts, variable-width 8x8 fonts (meaning no abbreviated item or character names), rearranged menus, and numerous hacks to optimise the game engine. Sometimes adding new features like gradient/translucent windows, etc. Those projects consumed at least 100kb of pure x816 assembly source code, while 100% of all text routines were completely rewritten. Of course you can't compare them directly to official efforts, since those games were never officially translated.”

The origins of this unspoken art are hidden behind layers of pre-internet lore, sparsely documented. The consensus is that fan-translation origins go back to Holland and the MSX hobby scene, with the foundation of translation group Oasis in 1993. This is unsurprising since the MSX was a Japanese series of home computers that achieved respectable market success in Europe (especially Holland). Owners of the system developed a taste for Japanese titles, so when domestic releases prematurely stopped they turned to importing.

Veterans on MSX.org, many of whom were around during these early days, had plenty of related anecdotes to share. As they explained: A gentleman named Koen Dols founded a disk based MSX magazine called FutureDisk, which focused on Japanese games. This bolstered the interest in import titles, and a community spirit was formed as fans helped each other play through complex Japanese RPGs. While such importing spirits were being forged, FutureDisk took on Dennis Lardenoye as a writer. He would, along with Ron Bouwland, later found Oasis in order to translate these games, thereby ensuring everyone could enjoy them fully. Their first project was Kojima’s Japan-exclusive MSX RPG, SD-Snatcher.

A Belgium forumite elaborated on what followed, “After the success of the SD-Snatcher translation (more than 250 copies were sold at the first fair!), they quickly started working on other titles. At some point Ron left Oasis and Marcel Kok and Eelco Slaaf joined. Marcel particularly helped to increase the quality of the translations, since he was a 2nd year Japanese student.” Such events exemplify the way things were done: optimistic youngsters ignored by the corporations, with a little talent, skill and hard work, banding together to change things single-handedly.

Though MSX star Cas Cremers revealed an interesting fact that predates Oasis. “Before [SD-Snatcher] we hacked the character sets of Dragonslayer VI, putting phonetic letters in place of the Japanese symbols. You’d locate a Japanese character block (8x8 pixels) and look it up in a translation table. Maybe it says ‘SU’. You then redraw those letters in a 3x7 pixel font, thereby fitting the two into the original block. Then do this for the whole font. Now when the game says ‘disuku 2’ you’re supposed the change disks. It was much easier to remember item names in English instead of Japanese characters.”

Beyond the MSX

Wishing to explore further, I spoke with many of the translation pioneers who congregate at ROMhacking.net (which hosts a huge library of translation patches). By its very nature, fan-translations (or ROM hacking, since they’re intertwined), are linked to taboo subjects like ROM dumping, emulation, and piracy. As a result, many wished to be mentioned only by their online pseudonyms.

Questioning the issue of legal sensitivity, their answers were forthright. The renowned Gideon Zhi explained “I generally don’t work on games that are new or still in production, and I like to think that in the case of sequels that are getting US releases (such as Metal Saga) I’m adding an extra bump of enthusiasm for the game. Free marketing, maybe?”

While community leader Nightcrawler elaborated, “I would say nobody here feels that anything legitimises ROMs or changes the law books. We all understand what’s going on here, but we also view it as preservation of classic games and many times the ONLY chance of playing some great titles never released here that, quite honestly, people feel we were robbed of.” He then raised an important point regarding Final Fantasy developers Square, and their arrogant attitude towards the West, “I personally feel that when a company decides its U.S. audience is too stupid to handle complex RPGs, or won't notice changing title numbers, I’ve been robbed of an opportunity.” The complaints are valid, since many Japanese devcos back in the day felt Western audiences couldn’t handle their RPGs, while others flagrantly misled us. How many Nintendo fans still have their ‘Warrior World’ newsletters from Enix, promising that Dragon Quest V was ready for release?

Despite copiers allowing console games to be traded in the early 1990s via BBS and run on original hardware using floppy disks, the post-MSX translation scene didn’t pick up until around 1996 with the proliferation of PC based emulation. Finding precise details is difficult, though most agree Final Fantasy V was the game which grabbed everyone’s attention. It was the ‘lost FF game’ for the SNES, with FFIV coming Stateside as II, and FFVI being renamed III, so people understandably wanted to experience it in English. Online sites and alliances were formed, work on projects began, and then we reach what veterans describe as ‘years filled with teenage melodrama’.

This era even has its own illustrious title, ‘The FF Translation Wars’. Members directed me towards Snakeyes.org, which covers events in infinitely greater detail and contains fascinating interviews. While Googling this feature is recommended for an in-depth analysis on events, they can be summarised as occurring mainly because of personality clashes amid what were at the time, simply tech savvy kids with language skills.

There was intense rivalry between groups to be the first to release a patch, exacerbated by some games such as Romancing Saga frustrating the hackers and translators on a technical level. With everything being unofficial, some even stole other’s work and passed it off as their own. Nearly everyone admitted to clasping their duelling rapiers on various projects (FF3j, Treasure Hunter G, even DQV). Thankfully things settled down over the following decade and today, in reflection of the increasing age of many members, it's a much more level-headed community.

One member, Derrick Sobodash (aka D), who went on to work as an English-lecturer in China, explained, “Drama was rampant back in the day - pretty much every kind of drama you could think of. It was amplified by people (myself very much included) not knowing how to ignore trolls who were just looking to provoke even more. The scene tended to embrace drama, fan its flames, and then bitch about it for the next year after realizing how stupid it was.”

Other Factors

Beyond playing games in English, and the aforementioned egos, I asked what else motivates them. With a cheeky zest a Mr Filler revealed something which warrants standalone articles. “You sometimes discover ‘hidden treasure’. I ran across a bunch of programmer’s notes in Lady Sword, relating things like the time he got drunk at his computer and woke up with a liquor soaked keyboard, or his views on the cold war. That’s pretty rare stuff.” Suddenly the discussion heated up regarding what’s hidden beneath the code, and I was shown a frankly bizarre section of hidden text from Emerald Dragon on SFC, where a female-character-designer spoke about having his own harem, before listing his real-life address and phone number! Hacking the text has revealed several programmers’ musings over the years, some of them quite disturbing.

If anyone thinks such motivation results in poor translations, they’d be mistaken. While it’s estimated that half of projects never reach completion, due to starting for the wrong reasons, those that are completed often surpass official translations. Numerous people share the views of Mr Byuu, “Many of us have created translations far exceeding commercial quality (Breath of Fire 2, Terranigma) in half the time it took commercial companies to do the same. It wasn’t so much our skill, as it was the companies’ lack thereof. Makes you wonder what the hell their employees were getting paid to do! They didn’t even have to reverse engineer anything or write tools. And with millions of dollars to hire talent, it’s just sad some of the stuff we ended up getting stuck with.”

Despite fewer resources and occasional internal strife, these lexical guerrillas are beating the corporations on their own territory. There have been several examples of already translated games being retranslated from Japanese to English, because the official translations were poor, or censored. Popular examples being Breath of Fire 2, Assault Suits Valken, and Metal Gear, which had a previously missing 40% worth of text restored.

But it’s more than mere translating, these groups have a profound understanding for good localisation. A great patch they say needs three things: A good grasp of both English and Japanese, respect for source material, and respect for the target audience. Translate too literally and the game comes across as dry and no longer fun. Change things too much and it reads like it’s trying too hard, taking away from the atmosphere. Despite good intentions though, there have been some infamous examples of groups taking huge liberties with their work (Tales of Phantasia).



Key Oasis figures at Zandvoort’s 1995 MSX fair. From left: Marcel Kok, Dennis Lardenoye, Bernard Lamers (MSX.org)


Unofficially translated games are still available to buy through MSX fairs. Deltasoft’s Xak 1 at the Tilburg 2004 convention (MSX.org)


Sorcerian on the MSX, by Deltasoft, at the 2003 Tilburg convention (MSX.org)


SD Snatcher - MSX


Bahamut lagoon - SNES


Front Mission 5 on PS2 marks a significant release in the community


Phantasy Star Adventure - Game Gear


Shining Force 3: Final Conflict - GG


Lady Sword - PC-Engine


Emerald Dragon - SFC/PC


Famicom Tantei Club Part II - SFC


Assault Suits Valken was retranslated since many things were removed from Cybernator during official translation


Gunman’s Proof on SFC has Earthbound-style humour


Cotton had one of the earliest PS1 patches, for English cut-scenes


Official translations also make mistakes - Terranigma on SNES


Romhacking 101

Creating a translation patch demands a marriage of hacker and translator; technology and art; hexadecimal code and poetic license. But technically speaking, what happens on the honeymoon?

For cartridges the ROM is dumped, while for optical media most PCs can extract needed data. Translation methods vary depending on how the data is organised, and can be extremely difficult depending on game mechanics, types of compression used, and how text is stored and accessed. Few store text in ASCII format (basically what you’re reading now), so specialist hexadecimal tools are needed (though some use assembly). Games contain graphics-based text tables, with each character block having a corresponding hex code that displays it. While normal decimals deal with ten figures (0-9), hexadecimal deals with 16 figures (0-F) where two digits can represent values from 0-255. Eg: The letter “N” might be represented by the code “E7”.

To find which value corresponds to specific letters in the graphics table, hackers will change values while observing text. Through trial and error they can decipher things and create a conversion table, eventually dumping the text, making it easy to read. Here the translators take over and work their magic. Hackers also need to replace the Japanese symbols in the graphics table with an English font, many already contain one but are normally unusable. Once each sentence has been translated, they need to be reinserted into the game by altering each hex value based on the new graphics table.

A patch is then made. This contains lists of entries which changes data at specific places in the code. When you use a patching program, it goes to the listed sections and inserts the new specified data. When the game decides to show a specific word, this new coding tells it to load a different graphics character, and voila! Il est Anglais!


'Cavespeak' happens when you replace font tables but don't change what the text says


So many machines

Which system has the most translations? It's not an easy task to find out, since despite high volume of projects, not all are complete. An archive search on RHDN reveals the NES has the most overall patches, at 390, but only 285 of those are complete. The SNES meanwhile has 274, but only 155 are complete. The Famicom Disc System in comparison has one of the highest completion percentages, with 23 projects listed and only one of them being incomplete (due to the game, Dirty Pair, being technically impossible to finish). Meanwhile the Sega Master System now has a patch for all of its Japan-exclusive titles which needed one (all 4 of them, 5 if you count the SG-1000). Matters are confused further when you realise some systems have games which only require the title screens be translated (such as Altered Beast).

RHDN has some strict policies regarding releases for current gen systems, so several recent releases are missing. As Nightcrawler explained, this is to prevent publishers driving the entire community underground. Also, certain translation groups don't want their translations featured on the site. Furthermore the MSX scene, being sometimes insular, will complete translations with only scene members finding out about it, simply because they don't publicise it enough. Meaning what's on RHDN isn't representative of all translations out there. MSX translations appears to be a site attempting to document all MSX work.

Otherwise nearly all systems, including CD based ones, are catered for to varying degrees on RHDN.


RHDN Hardware list - total # patches, all poss. (July 2010)

These are not representative of everthing which is available, and there is likely more translations which aren't listed on RHDN.

Arcade - 1
Dreamcast - 3
Famicom Disc System - 23
Famicom/NES - 390
Game Boy - 98
GBA - 41
Gamecube - 1 (several are covered on other websites)
Game Gear - 16
Mega Drive - 53
Master System - 10 (+2 for SG1000)
MSX - 32 (considerably more exist in Holland)
NGPC - 2
N64 - 6
NDS - 0 (due to RHDN policy DS translations aren't covered)
PC - 61
PC6001 - 1
PC88 - 3
PC98 - 13
PCFX - 2
PS1 - 37
PS2 - 11
Saturn - 5
SNES - 274
TG16 - 12
Turbo Duo - 9
Virtual Boy - 1
Wii - 0 (several can be found elsewhere)
Wonderswan - 9
X68000 - 7

TOTAL: 1123




Captain Rainbow - Wii


Samurai Showdown - Neo-Geo CD


Pia Carrot - PCFX


Farland Story I-VI - PC98


Dicing Knight - Wonderswan

Page 2 (top 10 games)

Page 3 (non-Japanese translations)

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