The most notable RPGs from Japan and other countries in modern games obtain official translations to other territories during or shortly after launch, but this has not always been the case. There is a long line of RPGs whose well-known English translations come from fans, not developers. From the proto-Persona Shin Megami Tensei: if … to the beloved tactical RPG Bahamut Lagoon, many of the most obscure but beloved foreign-language RPGs of the 80s and 90s have been carefully translated into English by hardworking amateurs.
The proliferation of this phenomenon can be traced back to a handful of teenagers whose disagreements and confused ambition paved the way for one of the most notable fan works of the 1990s: an English hack of Final Fantasy V. From the members of RPGe, the group credited as a producer of the hack, none of them better reflects the intoxicating days of translation of the first fans than Derrick "Shadow" Sobodash, a lonely high school student who didn’t let his lack of technical experience or Japanese knowledge stop him from dealing with a such a demanding project. His relationship with other RPGe members, such as Myria and SoM2Freak, would lead to disagreements, drama, split partnerships and more, but his collective work would produce translations from renowned fans that are still frequently reproduced to this day.
And on that note, it's essential to understand that the final version of the famous 90's English FFV hack that you can download on fan sites today is almost entirely the work of three people, known as "Myria", "Harmony7" and "SoM2Freak. "However, prior to his involvement – which is well explored in a 2017 Kotaku article on the subject – Sobodash and several other individuals in the nascent fan translation community were publicly working on an FFV translation and his project has accumulated thousands of views on the primitive Internet. Sobodash and his countrymen may not have contributed to the hack itself in the same way, but his promotion of the concept of English "fanslations" helped to inspire others to pursue their own projects. There have been some shed tears and broken friendships along the way, but the impact that RPGe has had on the world of fan translations cannot be overstated.
& # 39; 90s Script Kiddies
Sobodash was part of the first generation of children who actually grew up online in the mid-90s. A self-described "kiddie script" that used other people's code to access unauthorized computer systems for fun, Sobodash started using chalkboard systems notices (BBSes) in your teens. Prior to his interest in hacking Super Nintendo games, Sobodash's flirtations with tools and malware that he encountered online occasionally left him in dire straits. At one point, he accidentally e-mailed a copy of the controversial book The Anarchist Cookbook to all e-mail addresses at his school from the administrator's account, after gaining access with a keylogger, a tool that records the keys typed by a user.
Although this feat earned him a lifetime ban from the school library, Sobodash quickly found a new obsession: untranslated Super Nintendo games. Having already beaten most of the SNES library by sharing rented games with friends, Sobodash became obsessed with the possibility of playing those lost games, immersing himself in Square's vibrant online fan community in the process.
But his interest and passion developed into a directive after he stumbled upon an incomplete Final Fantasy II fan translation only for Japan by SoM2Freak and another user, "Demi". Even though the buggy fanslation FFII simply ran out of English text for just an hour or two on the JRPG, it changed Sobodash forever at the age of 14.
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Sobodash clung to the realization that hackers could translate these old games by manipulating their files. This may seem obvious now, but in 1996, the idea of hacking ROM was still in its infancy. Although the Dutch group Oasis pioneered the concept of translating fans in the early 90s with hacks of MSX games such as Hideo Kojima's Snatcher and the cult JRPG The Legend of Heroes, the concept had not yet been popularized online. SoM2Freak and Demi never completed the translation of Final Fantasy II, but it inspired Sobodash and other would-be hackers to look to the duo for tools and advice on how to start their own hacks.
Sobodash did not know much about SNES programming and described himself as a "poor" knowledge of the Japanese language, but he was determined to translate Final Fantasy V himself. The abandoned translation of SoM2Freak and Demi from Final Fantasy II actually started as an attempt to translate FFV, but the duo soon decided that this goal was too ambitious for a first project. (In fact, this project came out of another FFV translation effort announced by a group called Kowasu Ku, which never made any significant progress.) However, that did not stop Sobodash from following in his footsteps.
At the time, Final Fantasy VI (initially Final Fantasy III in English) was the latest and greatest game in the series, which meant that FFV was the second best option and the next object of its growing obsession. From his research, Sobodash also knew that an English translation had been released online in 1996 by a fan named Mark Rosa, which would make the process much easier, given his lack of mastery of Japanese.
SoM2Freak eventually sent Sobodash some of the rudimentary fan-developed tools they used to translate FFII – a sprite editor and a text editor – but Sobodash quickly concluded that they were too clumsy to use and decided to find his own. (One of them crashed every time he left.) After getting a top sprite editor from the Dragon Quest I and II hack from another fanslator and a different hex editor, Sobodash sat down and went to work.
Armed with his 380-page paper translation of Final Fantasy V, its hex editor, and printed copies of the game's Japanese font, Sobodash began creating physical flashcards to learn for himself which hex code corresponded to each Japanese and English character. While this may seem like a waste of time, the hex editor that Sobodash used was so primitive that it didn't have a table to split and sort the hex code for you. Instead, Sobodash was simply looking at unbroken lines of crude hexagon for hours on end, which meant that memorization was important. Needless to say, it was tedious work.
He even carried a giant three-ring binder filled to the brim with hexadecimal tables and writing in English for his school, spending hours during classes and lunch breaks transposing the hexadecimal code for romanji – Japanese characters rendered in English text. His translation project also caused casualties: the large amount of paper involved eventually led to the disappearance of his cheap family printer.
Although Sobodash admits that this low-tech approach was far from ideal, his adolescent enthusiasm took him further. He knew that Square's online fan community was eager to play these games in English, and any translation project would attract a lot of attention. Although he has not yet produced much in the form of a usable hack, Sobodash promoted his project by manipulating FFV images with Photoshop. He removed the Japanese text and replaced it with phrases from the English translation to give the illusion of miraculous progress to others.
And so, some poorly prepared images in Photoshop led to the news of the Sobodash project traveling quickly through the Square fan community. In the following months, several fans approached the teenage translator for help. One of them was a university student who called himself "Hooie". He and Sobodash quickly became friends, chatting about the ICQ instant messaging service several times a week. Unlike many of the other would-be collaborators, Hooie brought substantial technical knowledge as a computer engineering graduate. He was also not shy about occasionally asking his Japanese instructors at his university to help him translate enemy names or items.
With his help, the duo was able to use hexadecimal editing software to replace some of the game's Japanese text with English, and they even released some patches on the Final Fantasy mailing list. It was slow and hard work, and the pair was not connected to the fledgling emulation community, resulting in many bugs in the few patches they released. But its progress has still attracted a substantial amount of attention from other Internet enthusiasts, including rivals in the fan translation scene.
Lives of RPGe
In mid-1997, a notable emulation figure known as "Zophar" accused Sobodash and Hooie of stealing the work of a fellow translator, David Timko, who was also working on his own English patch for the FFV. Sobodash attributed the entire ordeal to a misunderstanding, and Timko and Sobodash eventually buried the hatchet and formed a partnership to produce a patch together. This feeling of unity eventually led the group to coin an official name for itself, RPGe, which would be the label that the complete hack of Myria and Harmony7 would be released in the following year.
Myria first stumbled upon RPG projects while researching her own passion project, a version of Final Fantasy IV that would restore many of the changes that the localizers made to the English version, particularly the dozens of items considered too complicated for the Western audience. Although Myria's interest in FFV was relatively low, the challenge of translating an unknown game intrigued her, so she decided to check out the group's ongoing patches for herself.
Myria quickly concluded that the hexadecimal editing process that RPG hackers like Sobodash were using to modify game files would never be able to produce a complete hack.
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In simple terms, they were modifying the text of the game directly, without modifying the code, she explained. "In FFV, as in many older Japanese games, all Japanese characters were the same size. In English, imagine if the letter I and the letter W were the same width. It looks bad. The Japanese version of the game is limited to 16 characters per line. If you think of Japanese as a language, fine, but it's too low for English … it just wouldn't work. "
Although RPGe had a unified facade on its Web page, as Myria recalls, the group was surrounded by internal factions, even at the best of times. Myria tried to explain the shortcomings of his text-only approach to Sobodash, Timko and their collaborators, but his arguments failed to convince his fellow hackers.
"I basically told them that the approach they were taking was completely wrong and that we needed to modify the game's code to make it work," she said. "Well, they wanted to continue what they were doing, but SoM2Freak agreed with me, so we just started our own version of the project."
After Myria determined that the rest of RPGe did not agree with her approach, she and SoM2Freak restarted the hack from there. In the following months, Myria used a variety of tools to disassemble the FFV's machine-level code in terms she could understand, and ultimately reverse-engineered the parts of the code that displayed the text. She then modified these parts of the game's code to better suit the English language. Their version, of course, would become the famous fan translation that is still fondly remembered today.
Meanwhile, as RPGe's digital presence continued to grow as the group announced increasingly ambitious translation projects, pressure from electronic celebrities affected Sobodash. By promoting himself as the public face of the fledgling group, he opened himself up to a flood of hate emails and death threats from anonymous Internet people desperate to play these unknown titles. Sobodash believed that RPGe was providing a vital service to the Square fan community by translating these lost games and, as a result, took the hobby very seriously – perhaps very seriously.
The fact that Myria and SOM2Freak essentially took over the FFV project that he helped start up bothered him, but that was not necessarily the only source of his growing distress. Sobodash saw RPGe as an extension of himself, a group in fierce competition with rival organizations to break new ground in the fan translation scene. For Sobodash and many others, it was an endless race to see who could translate the most games into English. It was a lot of pressure, even if a little self-imposed, for a teenager to put up with.
In early 1998, when his fellow hacker Demi published a long parody of Sobodash that painted him as lazy and selfish, Sobodash was absolutely devastated. Although Sobodash disagreed with the characterization, Demi was an influential figure in the community and his views had a lot of influence. He was not only one of the first translating fans on the scene, but he also had one of the most popular rom hacking forums at the time. True or not, Sobodash felt like all of his online friends were laughing at him and, in his own words, he finally "grabbed". He typed one last message for RPGe and then left the scene entirely.
"I cannot tolerate the number of people who send me flames and death threats, it is more than I can bear," his final message reads in part. "I'm going out now to work on my own. Maybe I'll schedule it, maybe I'll translate it myself, as I did when it was fun, I don't know, but please wish me luck in everything I do … I'm not sure who will take charge here, gather RPGs and manage our many members. I hope they can keep the spirit of doing all this to have fun alive and well. "
By the time Sobodash left, all four co-founders of RPGe had left the organization, leaving Harmony7 and another hacker named "MagitekKn" to manage it. Meanwhile, the translation of the FFV had its own problems: when the native Japanese speaker Harmony7 took a look at the SoM2Freak script, he made many corrections to it. According to Myria, SoM2Freak resented the fact that Harmony and Myria made changes to the script and ended up getting upset with both as a result.
"I think he was really mad at me," recalled Myria. "I honestly feel bad about how we handle it, but we were kids at the time."
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The official release of the FFV patch – the first complete translation for English fans – did not come until October 1998, but at this point, Myria was not even involved. She was too busy pouring hundreds of hours into Final Fantasy VII, which had been released the previous September.
"It was all Harmony7 in the end," she says, laughing. "All I did was the programming and I was ready at that point."
By the end of 1998, Sobodash had completely left Square's online fan scene and immersed himself in a job he got at a local pizzeria. He quickly realized that playing video games with his new friends was preferable to hearing screams from strangers online. Still, although he got involved with translations in his spare time over the years, he never felt the same passion for it as he did in 1996.
"In 1997, translating games was unfamiliar territory," he said. "There were few tools and few documents. None of us knew what we were doing: it was guesswork, trial and error and adjustments. I was learning and doing something that few people were able to do, and we were all able to teach each other …. In most fields, you have to study and fight for years to be an expert, however, if you invent a new field, no matter how limited your knowledge, you are an expert by default. that this is what I wanted most. I wanted more than anything to be good at something that no one else was. "
Today, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about the legacy of RPGe. Much of the group's online presence has been lost to increasingly agitated fans of digital progress – the Wayback Machine has captured only a handful of old pages that mention the group. Sobodash himself says he doesn't even have any group work on his own computer. What is clear is that Myria's machine-level reverse engineering pioneered the approach that an entire generation of fan translators would use in notable English hacks, and is still part of the basic procedure that hackers use today.
Still, although early hacker groups like RPGe may have come apart due to changing personal tastes and differences, they promoted a concept that inspired many JRPG fans to recognize the importance of non-localized games like Mother 3, Trials of Mana ( Seiken Densetsu 3) and Ace Attorney Investigations 2. Sobodash may never have lived up to his teenage ambitions, but he and his fellow hackers left a mark in history in the same way.
"Most people have high school sports stories or funny anecdotes about school life and friends," he said. "Instead, I have hundreds of hours hammering on the screen [a] full of hexadecimals. I can't say whether that should fill me with pride or sadness."