Most notable RPGs from Japan and other countries in modern gaming get official translations for other territories at or soon after launch, but that wasn’t always the case. There’s a long lineage of RPGs whose well-known English translations stem from fans, not developers. From the proto-Persona Shin Megami Tensei: if… to the beloved tactical RPG Bahamut Lagoon, many of the most obscure, yet beloved, foreign-language RPGs of the ’80s and ’90s have been painstakingly translated into English by hard-working amateurs.The proliferation of this phenomena can be traced back to a handful of teenagers whose disagreements and messy ambition ultimately paved the way for one of the most notable fan-works of the 1990’s: a working English hack of Final Fantasy V. Of the members of RPGe, the group credited with producing the hack, none of them better reflect the heady days of early fan translation than Derrick “Shadow” Sobodash, a lonely high-school student who didn’t let his lack of technical expertise or Japanese knowledge stop him from tackling such a demanding project. His relationship with other members of RPGe, like Myria and SoM2Freak, would lead to disagreements, drama, split partnerships, and more, but their collective work would produce renowned fan translations that are still frequently played to this day.And on that note, it’s essential to understand that the final version of the famous ’90s FFV English hack you can download on fan websites today is almost entirely the work of three people, known as “Myria,” “Harmony7,” and “SoM2Freak.” However, prior to their involvement – which is well-explored in a 2017 Kotaku article on the topic – Sobodash and several other individuals in the nascent fan translation community were publicly working on a translation for FFV, and their project racked up thousands of views on the primitive internet. Sobodash and his compatriots may not have contributed to the hack itself to the same extent, but their promotion of the concept of English “fanslations” helped to inspire others to pursue their own projects. There was some tears shed and friendships broken along the way, but the impact that RPGe had on the world of fan translations can’t be overstated.
’90s Script Kiddies
Sobodash was part of the first generation of kids who truly grew up online in the mid-to-late ’90s. A self-described “script kiddie” who would use other people’s code to access unauthorized computer systems for fun, Sobodash started using bulletin board systems (BBSes) in his early teenage years. Prior to his interest in hacking Super Nintendo games, Sobodash’s dalliances with tools and malware he found online would occasionally land him in hot water. At one point, he accidentally emailed a copy of the controversial book The Anarchist Cookbook to every email address in his high school from the administrator’s account after obtaining access with a “keylogger,” a tool that records keystrokes made by a user.
Though this stunt earned him a lifetime ban from his 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 fixated on the possibility of playing these lost games, immersing himself in the vibrant online Square fan community in the process.
But his interest and passion developed into a directive after he stumbled upon an incomplete fan translation of the Japan-only Final Fantasy II by SoM2Freak and another user, “Demi.” Even though the buggy FFII fanslation simply ran out of English text only an hour or two into the JRPG, it forever changed the then-14-year-old Sobodash.
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Sobodash clung to the realization that hackers could translate these old games by manipulating their files. That might seem obvious now, but back in 1996, the idea of ROM-hacking was very much in its infancy. Though the Dutch group Oasis pioneered the concept of fan-translation back in the early ’90s with hacks of MSX games like Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher and cult JRPG The Legend of Heroes, the concept had yet to be popularized online. SoM2Freak and Demi never completed their Final Fantasy II translation, but it inspired Sobodash and other would-be hackers to reach out to the duo for tools and advice on how to start their own hacks.
Sobodash didn’t know much about SNES programming and had self-described “pretty terrible” understanding of the Japanese language, but he was determined to translate Final Fantasy V himself. SoM2Freak and Demi’s abandoned translation of Final Fantasy II actually had begun life as an attempt to translate FFV, but the duo soon decided that that goal was too ambitious for a first project. (In fact, that project grew out of yet another FFV translation effort announced by a group called Kowasu Ku, which never produced any meaningful progress.) However, that didn’t stop Sobodash from following in their 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 next-best thing, and the next object of his ever-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 Japanese skills.
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 clunky to use and decided to find his own. (One of them crashed every time he alt-tabbed out of it.) After obtaining a superior sprite editor from another fanslator’s Dragon Quest I & II hack and a different hex editor, Sobodash sat down and put himself to work.
Armed with his 380-page paper translation of Final Fantasy V, his hex editor, and printed-out copies of the game’s Japanese font, Sobodash began creating physical flashcards to teach himself which hex code corresponded to each Japanese and English character. While this might seem like a waste of time, the hex editor that Sobodash used was so primitive that it didn’t have a table that would break up and sort the hex code for you. Instead, Sobodash was simply looking at unbroken lines of raw hex for hours at a time, which meant that memorization was important. Needless to say, it was tedious work.
He would even carry a gigantic three-ring binder filled to the brim with hexadecimal tables and the English script to his high school, spending hours during class and lunch breaks transposing the hex code into romanji – Japanese characters rendered in English text. His translation project claimed casualties, too: the sheer amount of paper involved eventually led to the messy demise of his cheap family printer.
While Sobodash admits that this low-tech approach was far from optimal, his teenage enthusiasm carried him through. He knew that the online Square fan community was hungry to play these games in English, and any translation project would draw a lot of attention. Though he had yet to produce much in the way of a usable hack, Sobodash promoted his project by manipulating images from FFV 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 like that, some poorly Photoshopped images led to word of Sobodash’s project travelling fast around the Square fan community. Over the next few months, several fans reached out to the teenage translator to offer help. One of them was a college student who went by “Hooie.” He and Sobodash quickly became friends, talking over the early IM service ICQ several times a week. Unlike many of the other would-be collaborators, Hooie brought substantial technical knowledge as a computer engineering major. He also wasn’t shy about occasionally asking his Japanese instructors at his university to help him translate enemy or item names.
With his help, the duo were able to use hex editing software to actually replace some of the game’s Japanese text with English, and they even released a few patches on the Final Fantasy Mailing List. It was slow, arduous work, and the duo were not plugged into the fledgling emulation community, resulting in many bugs in the few patches they did release. But their progress still attracted a substantial amount of attention from fellow early internet enthusiasts, including rivals in the fan translation scene.
In mid-1997, a notable figure in the world of emulation 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 FFV. Sobodash chalked the whole ordeal up to a misunderstanding, and Timko and Sobodash eventually buried the hatchet and partnered to produce one patch together. That sense of unity eventually led the group to coin an official name for itself, RPGe, which would be the label that Myria and Harmony7’s completed hack would be released under the following year.
Myria first stumbled on RPGe’s projects while researching her own passion project, a version of Final Fantasy IV that would restore many of the changes localizers made to the English version, particularly the dozens of items deemed too complicated for Western audiences. While 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 in-progress patches for herself.
Myria quickly concluded that the hex-editing process the RPGe hackers like Sobodash were using to modify the game files would never be able to produce a complete hack.
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