How far will gamers go to play a game?
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the spread of the Internet connected video game fans from throughout the globe. It was then when Western audiences became aware of the existence of role playing games that had remained in Japan, untranslated and unreleased in the west. Titles like Rudra No Hihou, Record of Lodoss War, Treasure Hunter G, Bahamut Lagoon, and Seiken Densetsu captured the imagination of fans of the role playing game genre and, due in part to the lack of knowledge of the Japanese language, teased them with detailed worlds, compelling play, and a rich lore that ultimately remained inaccessible behind what was to them an incomprehensible language. Because fans were unable to access the experienced contained therein, independent teams of fan translators took to the task of creating translation patches. With teams of dedicated translators such as DeJAP, DL Team, Lina`Chan and Nuku Nuku’s Translations, and Shining Force Central – teams of scripters, rom hackers, proof readers, and testers working for free for the community – fans of Japanese role playing games were finally able to enjoy the games that they had previously been unable to access.
This series, will detail the feats of famous ROM hacker and translator Lina`Chan, famous for translating Seiken Densetsu, and explore and shed light on the motivations behind the passion and dedication of the famous ROM hacker. It relies on data collected from an hour long interview in which I questioned Lina about her involvement in the ROM hacking and translation community.
A Brief Intro to ROM Hacking
In America, the mid to late nineties are considered by many to be part of the golden age of Role Playing Games. Following the tradition of the SNES and of games like The Secret of Mana (1993), Final Fantasy VI, then known as Final Fantasy III (1994), and Chrono Trigger (1995), the Sony Playstation burst into the gaming scene on December 1994 and quickly built up a library of appealing games, thus quickly becoming the dominant console. Two years after the Playstation’s release, Squaresoft published the title that RPG fans had been waiting for: Final Fantasy VII (1997) – the title often credited with popularizing JRPGs as a genre and paving the way for titles like Chrono Cross (1999), Xenogears (1998), and Legend of Dragoon (1999) to be translated from Japanese into English and reach a broader audience. The release of Final Fantasy VII, however, prompted a critical question in the minds of American gamers: If the last Final Fantasy released was Final Fantasy III in the SNES, and this current iteration is Final Fantasy VII, what happened to Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI? This is a question whose answer would help fuel the growth of the ROM hacking and fan translation communities of the late 1990s and early 2000s. American gamers were unaware that nothing had “happened” to the Final Fantasy games between the SNES cyberpunk epic featuring Terra, Locke, and Edgar and the Playstation science fiction narrative featuring Cloud, Aeris, and Barret. Gamers had no idea that there were no games in between these two titles.
The actual events that took place were that the original Final Fantasy was released both in Japan and the United States, but Final Fantasy II and III were left untranslated and unreleased in North America. Being only released in Japan, North American gamers would remain unaware of the existence of Final Fantasy II and III on the NES. This led to the Japanese Final Fantasy IV which featured a Dark Knight’s quest for redemption being released in the United States as Final Fantasy II and the sixth Final Fantasy title being released in the United States as Final Fantasy III.
The arrival of Final Fantasy VII with the Japanese numbering to American shores, along with the simultaneous decreasing prices and increase in distribution of personal computers and the widening adoption of the online information exchange system that we call the Internet led players to seek out the missing Fantasies. What gamers found was a cache of RPGs that they couldn’t have dreamed existed. In addition to the missing Fantasies, gamers found, among others, a series of games called Romancing Saga which featured changing battle formations, individual titles that seemed to feature visuals that seemed to rival those from the newer fifth generation consoles, including Treasure Hunter G, Bahamut Lagoon, Star Ocean, and Tales of Phantasia, and anime-based titles like Tenchi Muyo! RPG, Magic Knight Rayearth, and Record of Lodoss War. This led gamers to come together to accomplish what is perhaps one of the most impressive yet largely ignored feats of gaming in the short history of the medium: fan-created translations and the ROM hacking and translation communities. In their desire to experience the untranslated Japanese RPG gems, many gamers taught themselves to code and master console architecture in order to create and refine emulators, others learned both the Japanese language and the art of coding and ROM hacking in order to translate games, while others still taught themselves the skills of webpage design and community management in order to create spaces where enthusiasts of RPGs could gather, discuss projects, and share their work with other gamers, all while navigating the gray areas of intellectual property and internet law.
In their desire for missing Japanese games, gamers banded together and created some of the best Japanese to English game translations in the industry, and one of the key figures in this movement was Lina`Chan. With the help of a supportive group of ROM hackers and game enthusiasts, Lina managed to create some of the most popular fan translations, including a partial patch for Record of Lodoss War and completed English patches for Tenchi Muyo! RPG, Magic Knight Rayearth, as well as participate in the translation of one of the most popular translations in the history of ROM hacking: Seiken Densetsu 3.
Lina’s Feat: Mastering Coding, Hexadecimal Notation, and Japanese over a Summer
Lina’s nickname came from an IRC role playing and anime group called DalNET where she used to role play as the characters Rezo and Lina Inverse from the Slayers anime series. When she discovered ROM hacking communities she simply kept using her role playing moniker. Although Lina did have the opportunity to make original games, she says that she preferred to translate Japanese titles because she had little artistic talent. Her forte, she said, was on analytic thinking and the mastery of languages and systems, which made her an ideal person to translate ROMs.
Lina’s interest in the ROM hacking community began when she attended Anime Expo ’98 in California. She says that she, like all her friends, had always been RPG fans and held the genre in the highest esteem. At the time, console emulation on the personal computer was rising in popularity, but Lina and her friends only had what she considered the classics, games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy III, and Chrono Trigger. However, they were looking for something new to play, and while in California they heard rumors of RPGs that were never released in America. Upon returning home, Lina tried to play some of these Japanese games, but “RPGs are story driven, so we had no idea what to do.” Lina says that there were some easier games to play and mentions Super Robot Wars, where “you just kind of fight robots and push the button and that’s it”, but says that she wanted to play games like Magic Knight Rayearth and Tenchi Muyo! RPG. One of Lina’s friends whom she referred to as Yasu, better known as Nuku Nuku, Lina’s partner in translation, suggested that between them they should be able to translate some of these games. They were unsure of which game to work on first, but another of Lina’s friends was a big fan of Magic Knight Rayearth, and he begged Lina and Yasu to work on the SNES game. Lina and Yasu were ready to begin working, but Lina had no idea what to do. Although she was somewhat familiar with BASIC from courses she took during high school, her understanding of coding was so limited that, as she confesses, she “didn’t even know about loops or GOTO, I only was familiar with IF statements.” Although Lina’s knowledge of coding and computer structures was limited, she resolved that she would master the art of ROM hacking and translation. Her passion for RPGs drove her, and she was going to make her mark.
Lina’s opportunity to learn how to translate games came in the summer of 1998, shortly after her trip to Anime Expo ’98. That summer, her partner was going to attend a training session at Cornell and her grandparents decided to take an extended leave to travel across the U.S. Lina was eagerly waiting for the start of the next school year so that she could start immersing herself in computer programming at the University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón, but before that she wanted to “solve the problem of Magic Knight Rayearth.” Lina decided that she would spend all of her waking hours dedicated to figuring out how to hack a game ROM and how to translate RPGs. Thus, Lina moved her computer, an Intel 386 with a 20 MB hard drive and 512 kb of RAM memory, from her bedroom to the living room. This, Lina says, would help her cut down on menial tasks like having to walk from her room to the kitchen to make lunch. She wanted everything to be as close as possible so that she could maximize time spent learning to translate games.
Lina’s first step was to find information on how to translate games. Her first resource were a series of documents created by Jeremy Chadwick, who at the time went by the nickname of Y0SHi, which she found in the website Zophar’s Domain. There, along with Chadwick’s documents about the structure and architecture of the NES and SNES consoles, Lina obtained a series of tools – one of them a hex editor called Ultra Editor, and the other a tabling tool needed to organize the text of a game.
Because during 1998 the dominant computer languages were C, C++, and Ansi C, Lina decided to teach herself these three languages in order to develop the tools needed to hack ROMs. During the two months of summer, she woke up at 6:00 a.m. and diligently studied game console architecture documents and computer coding until 11:00 p.m., taking pauses only to tend to her basic physiological needs. During this time, Lina mastered Assembly so that she could better understand the architecture of game consoles, C and C++ so that she could create tools to easily hack ROMs and, when needed, break the ROM’s compression schemes, hexadecimal notation, which was the way in which text was stored in a ROM, tabling in order to make translation easier, and basic Japanese. Although she was not able to complete the translation of Magic Knight Rayearth that summer, she was able to successfully make a simple hack of Lufia II where she replaced some text with what she refers to as “funny hentai references.” Things as simple as identifying the place in a long string of hexadecimal codes where the script began, Lina said, felt like an accomplishment.
Towards the end of summer 1998 and all the way through the 1998 Fall semester, Lina and Nuku spent most of their time working on Magic Knight Rayearth. They would coordinate their efforts through DalNET and AnimangaRPG. This first translation patch was ready by March 1999 and was released as a joint effort with RPGe, a ROM translation group famous for their patch of Final Fantasy V, because she wanted to build a reputation by being associated with an already established group.
Lina’s Magic Knight Rayearth patch was well received by the community. She suggested that it was well liked because, being a fan of anime, she could give characters an interesting voice. This gave her an upper hand over other translation groups, as she could give each character its own individual personality rather than simply adhere to direct translations. At times, Lina said, it felt more as if she were making a localization rather than a translation.
Because her patch received positive reviews by the ROM hacking community, Lina was encouraged to engage in other projects. With the help of Nuku and others, and at times joining other groups, Lina managed to complete translation patches for Magic Knight Rayearth, Sailor Moon RPG, Tenchi Muyo! RPG, Cotton Fantastic Dreams, and, after teaming up with Neill Corlett and SoMFreak, Seiken Densetsu 3. Lina also nearly completed patches for Record of Lodoss War on the SNES, Card Captor Sakura, Slayers Royal, Tales of Phanasia, and Rurouni Kenshin on the PSX, and Love Hina on the SEGA Dreamcast. She never got very far into her Dreamcast experiments because, she said, “I had to burn a new disc every time I was going to test a minor change, whether it was a script thing or a font thing” and it was taking up too many resources.
Ultimately, Lina had to quit the ROM hacking scene. She says that she didn’t lose interest as much as she simply didn’t have time. By 2001 she was working part time for Electronics Boutique and with the Puerto Rico Telephone Company, and she found her inner circle diminishing in size as Nuku and the rest of Lina’s team began to lose interest. These two events led her to simply let go of her identity as Lina`Chan and carry on with her real life. However, Lina feels content in that she managed to leave a mark in the ROM hacking community. She says that she is especially proud of her protégée Christina, who goes by the nickname Excellence, who worked with Lina in some of her translations and has since gained some reputation of her own due to her work in Super Robot Wars.
Lina says that she is a gamer at heart. She loves all games, and her dream when she began ROM hacking was to land a job for a gaming company, thus she began working on translations in order to make a name for herself and give games her own special touch. She also admits that she was challenged in to it, first by Nuku’s suggestion that he was sure they could translate some of the Japanese titles and later by a friend who explicitly challenged her to help Neill finish the Seiken Densetsu 3 translation. Lina found her motivation somewhere between love and pride.
In a way, Lina’s motivation also came from her sense of responsibility belonging to the gaming community. Lina said that although she could have simply learned Japanese and played the games in their original form, that would have been incredibly selfish. She mentioned that she knew she wanted to play these games and that she knew that there were people who, like herself, wanted to play these games. However, she also knew that many of those individuals did not have the capacity to learn a foreign language from scratch as easily as she could, let alone master the ability of ROM hacking. She thus decided to translate games not just for herself, but for the gaming community as a whole.
Despite her love of games and the gaming community, Lina has remained distant from the community. Everyone she knows already has moved on with their careers, and she leads her own team as a system administrator at a major Texas hospital. If she could go back, she says she would return as a team leader, not as a coder. She says that she still dreams of leading a small team of game developers and that, if she had the luxury to do, so she would approach Square Enix, drop a wad of cash on their laps, and tell them “let’s do it. Let’s do a full-fledged Final Fantasy VI remake. But I have to be at the helm of the process.” With her creative input, Lina says, she would help Square Enix finally make a good Final Fantasy title.
It is unquestionable that one of the most incredible feats of gaming is that of gamers banding together to translate games unreleased in America and that one of the major names in this community is Lina`Chan. Her translations live on in the collective memory of gamers as some of the best and most unique translations, and her list of accomplishments dwarfs that of many other people in the community. Her dedication to games and the gaming community and her passion for creating some of the best translations to date speak volumes for her commitment to gaming, and, if one thing is true, it is that without Lina`Chan, the ROM hacking and translation landscape would be drastically different and greatly impoverished.