If you grew up reading Game Players and Electronic Gaming Monthly in the '90s, you'll have firm memories of ogling games for months before their release. Phoning your local game store to ask if copies had arrived. Cutting out ads to tape poster-style to your bedroom wall. Playing Final Fantasy II again but secretly wishing it was Final Fantasy III.
Then there were the games that never came at all. No matter how long you waited.
The first time I realized Japan got a ton of cool games North American gamers didn't was while perusing the order-by-mail section at the back of an issue of GameFan. Among dozens of severely expensive games were a handful from Final Fantasy-creator Square Enix that sounded cool as hell — but were only available in Japanese. Games like Live-a-Live, Treasure Hunter G, and even a sequel to Secret of Mana.
But the one that caught my eye was a gorgeous blend between an RPG and strategy game called Bahamut Lagoon.
As the 16-bit era transitioned into the emerging 3D technology of the PlayStation, I got swept up in games like Final Fantasy VII and Grandia, and gave up hope of ever playing those games locked behind a language I didn't speak. But gaming is a passionate fandom full of skilled people, and around that same time intrepid fans began working on unofficial fan translations for games like Final Fantasy V, Seiken Densetsu 3, and... Bahamut Lagoon.
One of those fans is a Tokyo-based software reverse engineer named Near. Back in 1998, before he was known for his standard-setting work developing game emulators, he took it upon himself to bring Bahamut Lagoon to English-speaking players. Several attempts and 23 years later, he's finally finished.
This is the story of one fan's pursuit of the ultimate fan localization.
To help me tell this story, I caught up with Near to chat about Bahamut Lagoon, his tireless pursuit of perfection, and how fan localization has evolved over the past two decades.
* * *
Aidan: Why Bahamut Lagoon?
Near: As a child, I fell in love with Japanese role-playing games, and I began importing Super Famicom games. I have a particular fondness for tactical RPGs such as Shining Force and Warsong. This led me to Bahamut Lagoon, and I fell in love almost immediately with the graphics, music, and gameplay. I was inspired by another fan translation group named RPGe that was translating Final Fantasy V, and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of as well.
“I fell in love almost immediately with the graphics, music, and gameplay.”
Aidan: You were originally part of a Bahamut Lagoon fan localization project over 20 years ago, but that eventually stalled out. What's it like returning to the game after so long?
Near: Very nostalgic. In fact, this was my fifth time working on the game. My first attempt in 1998 failed due to a lack of experience. I taught myself programming, Super Nintendo assembly, and reverse engineering specifically to have another go at the game. My second attempt in 2001 failed due to a lack of a translator. My third attempt in 2007 was successfully completed, but I was not happy with the quality of the work: I knew that I could do better. The same thing goes for my fourth attempt in 2009. This fifth and final time finally felt right, as though there was nothing more I could do to improve upon it.
* * *
A couple of years after Near's first attempt at a translation, another group of fans working under the team name Dejap completed their own English localization of Bahamut Lagoon. Members of that team include several high-profile fan translators, including Clyde "Mato" Mandelin, known for his sublime work on the Mother 3 fan translation, Neill Corlett of Seiken Densetsu 3 fame, and Dark Force, who worked on the Tales of Phantasia fan translation, though at the time they were still new to the scene. In fact, the scene was still new, period.
On first glance, Bahamut Lagoon bears a passing resemblance to Square Enix's Super Nintendo opus Final Fantasy VI — gorgeous graphics, chibi-fied characters, and cameos from fan favorite summons like Bahamut — but the systems behind the gameplay are closer to another Super Nintendo classic: Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen — but with with a turn-based grid system instead of real-time.
"Playing Bahamut Lagoon can deliver both a nostalgia trip and a breath of fresh air," said Hardcore Gaming 101's Brendon Taylor. "To its credit, its battle system and aesthetics do not merely retread the path pioneered by Tactics Ogre and Fire Emblem, instead providing its own experience. It ranks as a true classic."
Like many Japanese strategy RPGs, Bahamut Lagoon's combat-heavy experience is wrapped in a politically-charged story about empire and rebellion, Dragon Squads, a Church of Memories, and a lot of proper nouns. This made it a particularly challenging target for localization by a relatively inexperienced team.
Nevertheless, the Dejap fan translation has remained the go-to ever since, offering English-speaking gamers a chance to play one of the Super Nintendo's most elusive games. But that wasn't enough for Near and his pursuit of the "perfect" localization.
* * *
Aidan: Bahamut Lagoon eventually received a fan localization from Dejap. Why go back to a game that already has a popular fan localization?
Near: To be honest, my only true personal motivation to do this was that I made a promise to myself all the way back when I had to abandon my second attempt in 2001, that I would return and finish this game no matter what one day. This was my one dream: I simply had to finish this.
“This was my one dream: I simply had to finish this.”
Aidan: How have fan localization projects changed and/or improved over the 20 years since you first got involved?
Near: Back then we were all just teenagers, and our work back then left a lot to be desired on account of our inexperience, and lack of knowledge and tooling.
That said, I have nothing but respect for Dejap's work, and they allowed folks to play this game 20 years ago. They should be commended for that. Had I completed my fan translation in 2001, it would have been of similar quality. But we are far more capable today than we were back then.
The one criticism I will make of the previous translation is its egregious use of branding logos on the title screen, and self-insertions into the game, replacing original lines of dialogue. Our patch does none of this. You won't find our names anywhere within the game, nor will you find any dialogue modified from its original meanings.
* * *
Near has a long history with ROM hacks and fan localizations, including Dragon Quest V and Der Langrisser, but his biggest contribution to the gaming community is his work creating and maintaining some of the most precise, powerful, and widely-used emulators available to gamers, including Higan, bsnes, and his newest project, Ares, which targets the PlayStation and Nintendo 64.
This personal knowledge of the intricacies of how the Super Nintendo operates on a hardware and software level gave Near the knowledge he needed to push his Bahamut Lagoon to a level far beyond what was possible in the early 2000s. Near told me he pioneered many techniques, leveraging the knowledge he gained from writing Super Nintendo emulators. Generous with his work, Near has documented many of those techniques to share with the ROM hacking community. "Today many fan translations make use of that knowledge to provide increasingly more impressive technical marvels," he told me.
Near's dedication to his technical and software development is thorough: he wrote all the tools he uses for localizing a game like Bahamut Lagoon. "I use my own emulator, debugger, cross assembler, ROM file patching format and creator," he said, "even my own text editor to write all the code. I similarly built all of the tooling to handle visually editing the script files, converting the bitmap images into the SNES graphics format, etc."
* * *
Aidan: What can fans and newcomers expect from your localization?
Near: In a word: perfection. We poured our hearts and souls into this patch. I truly believe it to be impossible to improve upon this translation any further.
When Clyde translated this script back in 2001, he was very new to translating, and the quality ended up far from his capabilities today, with many mistakes. Tom [Near's partner on the project, who handled the bulk of the text translation] today has surpassed Japanese fluency many years ago, and has many dozens of complete game translations under his belt. There is a massive increase in the accuracy of the script.
I myself spent several months researching the origins of every single item, player, enemy, dragon, and technique name to ensure an accurate translation wherever possible (some names were simply made-up and could only be approximated into English.) The developers of Bahamut Lagoon had a particular affinity for using the names of tanks and battleships from World War II, as well as various names from mythology. We have also had dozens of people play through the entire game multiple times, keeping a close eye on the dialogue and grammar. This may well be one of the most proofread scripts in the history of translation projects.
When it comes to game programming, we were only just starting to understand how the Super Nintendo worked in 2001, and we had only very primitive tools. I myself was the first to invent a Super Nintendo assembler that could modify an existing binary, allowing much easier custom code injection, and I also contributed to the first functional Super Nintendo debugger in ZSNES.
Starting in 2004, I began development of my own Super Nintendo emulator, bsnes, out of a desire to understand the hardware better than we did at the time. Over the next 16 years, I have completely reverse-engineered the system to the point of creating the first Super Nintendo emulator to achieve 100 percent compatibility. Essentially, I know almost everything there is to know about the Super Nintendo hardware now. I have also developed substantially more powerful tools since then to assist with this translation effort.
I put my additional two decades of knowledge into this patch, which pioneered many new techniques that have never previously been used in SNES fan translations. Thanks to my techniques such as static rendering, tilemap double buffering, introspective direct memory video graphics transfers, dynamic pre-caching of player names, pre-shifted proportional font rendering, a method to utilize rolling counters without the need to initialize their values, and more ... I can say with no exaggeration that not only is our patch up to 40 times faster than the previous patch, rendering every single menu screen in the game in only 0-2 video frames, it also completely avoids the numerous rendering glitches present while moving through menus present in the older translation.
“Every last text string and menu cursor was hand-positioned to pixel perfection.”
Every last text string and menu cursor was hand-positioned to pixel perfection. Menus dynamically resize themselves based on their contents to take up as little screen real estate as possible. Multiple font typefaces and additional font colors were added to the game to visually distinguish between player names, spoken dialogue, thoughts, written letters, menu headings, stat increases and decreases, and more. The credits were completely reprogrammed to enhance their readability. We even spent hours designing the perfect "The End" graphic, something players will only see for a few seconds after clearing the game.
I fixed numerous bugs in the original game, and I even fully translated the hidden debugger that existed within the game in a disabled state. I exposed additional hidden stats for the game's dragons, allowing players a more complete control of dragon raising, the cornerstone of this game. Unlike the previous effort, I've expanded character names from 8 to 11 characters, allowing every character in the game's full name to be expressed without any abbreviations.
The detail I am most proud of is that this is the first full SNES JRPG to feature truly ubiquitous proportional fonts, even for stat values. Any other SNES JRPG would use 8x8-pixel tiles, which are quite wide and bulky for numeric stats. Mine uses a 6x8 tabular numeric font, requiring all stats to be dynamically rendered. Combined with exceedingly rare for the time font kerning, the result is a truly consistent typographic experience unlike any other. Pulling this off required extensive reprogramming of the entire layout of video memory from the original game to make space for all the additional tiles required.
Put simply, the graphical prowess of the original Bahamut Lagoon developers combined with my expert typography looks and feels more like a Sony PlayStation game than a Super Nintendo game.
Finally, unlike the previous translation, our effort is open source. Those looking to translate Bahamut Lagoon to other languages will find a much easier time with the source code, documentation, and tooling that I am providing everyone with.
* * *
Anyone who has their own legally acquired copy of the Japanese version of Bahamut Lagoon can head to the project's official website to download the patch for free. It can be applied to the ROM using tools like beat (Windows) or MultiPatch (OSX) and loaded into your favorite emulator (I suggest Near's bsnes for a good combination of usability and accuracy). You can follow Near on Twitter (@near_koukai) for latest updates, or find out more about his work on his website.
All told, Near guesses he's spent nearly 1,000 hours on localizing Bahamut in the 23 years since he first took a crack. For someone who's lifework has revolved around perfecting the experience of accessing and playing old games, Near's tireless pursuit of a flawless English version of Bahamut Lagoon feels like the perfect encapsulation of a career that's given so much to retro gamers.
"I am very proud of the work we've put into this translation," Near told me, "and it's my sincerest hope that everyone who gives our translation a go will enjoy the finished result."
As a kid, I would've settled for any version of Bahamut Lagoon—even if the translation was on par with infamously bad ones like Breath of Fire II or Robotrek. That the fan community and engineers like Near are not only working away to make lost titles available to fans, but actively improving the experience with modern approaches to localization, programming, and design is a testament to the passion of an incredibly dedicated fandom.