Fan-created translations of video games unreleased outside certain regions must be the "in" topic this week, as two stellar articles chronicling the work of fan translation groups have been published online this week. If you're new to the idea of dedicated fans hacking and cracking ROMs from the comfort of their homes in order to work on the meticulous process of translating a Japanese RPG into English or an English action/adventure title into Serbian, then 1UP.com has a fantastic overview of the concept written by Bob Mackey. Brief tales of how and why games like Mother 3, Final Fantasy V, Seiken Densetsu 3, and Treasure of the Rundras were translated from Japanese into English are told, emphasizing the hard work that goes into the hobbyist job. Here's a bit of the saga of Mother 3:
It's safe to say that no other game in the history of time garnered such a rabid demand for translation; by the time Nintendo made it clear that they had no intention in bringing this late-era Game Boy Advance title to America, [Clyde] Mandelin (assisted by a handful of Mother 3 fanatics) found himself hard at work on making this uniquely brilliant game playable for an English speaking audience. But Mandelin's efforts went far beyond a simple translation; he sought to capture the spirit of the Mother series' idiosyncratic creator, along with the colorful nature of the SNES Earthbound translation. "We wanted to do the game justice and make something on par with what an official English release might've been like," says Mandelin. "I think we came close to that and made a lot of fans happy with how it turned out."
Not being a writer himself, Mandelin at first struggled with the monumental task (and equally monumental expectations) of a Mother 3 translation, but this learning process gave him a greater respect for good writers -- especially game writers. According to Mandelin, "With Mother 3, one of the hardest parts of the translation was trying to keep the same text feel and flow as the original game. The game was written by Shigesato Itoi, who's considered a very good, creative writer. But the act of translating anything usually distorts or destroys a lot in the original text. Usually it doesn't matter in games because game text is usually pretty dry and purely functional."
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.
The one flaw in both articles, however, is that neither covers the Japanese-to-English fan translation of Capcom's 1998 Super Famicom title Rockman & Forte that was released back in 2002. Up until Capcom officially produced a North American and European localization of the game (renamed Mega Man & Bass) for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, this was the only way to play this "lost" Mega Man game in English. Moreover, the fan translation is actually better than the official one, as the latter contains numerous errors and nonsensical gibberish. I'd always hoped that when someone wrote the history of fan translations, that project would be near the top.