Interview with Oasis about SD Snatcher

The Dutch group Oasis released their English translation patch for SD Snatcher in the early 1990's. All this time, this has been the only English version available - until now, ofcourse. This first translation was made by Dennis Lardenoye and Ron Bouwland. While working on Project Melancholia, Rieks contacted Dennis to talk about the two projects. Dennis sent him an interview that was published in a Finnish game magazine in 2009. We got permission to publish the interview, so you can find it below.

What made you decide to start translating games? What drove you?

Actually, the original idea did not come from me personally, but from a good friend of mine at that time, Ron Bouwland. He approached me with it, since we both had some (basic) knowledge of Japanese – something most MSX users in the Netherlands at that time, did not have. I found the idea very appealing, since it would make a great classic instantly approachable to the MSX community. Since at that time, the best software for MSX was still made in Japan, I already saw the potential for follow-ups – if we could pull it off for Snatcher, we could pull it off for other titles, too. But the most important thing, for me it was a challenge, something that hadn't been done before.

Why Snatcher SD in particular?

Several reasons. Firstly, at the time we made the plans for the translation, it was one of the hottest games out there for MSX, and at the same time one of the hardest to follow (story wise) for gaijin players. Secondly, it was a challenge. The amounts of texts were vast, compared to some of the more action oriented RPG's at the time. We felt that if we could translate Snatcher, the sky was the limit. And finally, there were some technical reasons, like the relatively low amount of kanji used in the game, the fact that it was the only Konami title on floppy disc, and the fact that Ron had already figured out part of the character encoding system used in the game.

To your knowledge - had it ever been done before? Had fans ever tried to translate games themselves before? Did you see yourselves as pioneers?

I'm pretty sure we were the first. At least on MSX. And for game console translations there was neither the need nor the technical means to do it for hobby groups, because everything was on firmware cartridges. I know there had been some people (me among them) who translated MSX game plots and published them or made combined plot summaries-walkthroughs in magazines. But nobody had ever attempted to translate the actual software in the way we intended to.

Although I thought pretty early on about follow-ups, I had no idea we'd be as successful as we turned out to be, neither did I have any idea that more people would become involved than Ron and me, much less that we'd form this group called Oasis ("Making it all make sense") . I think a lot of people in the MSX community saw themselves as pioneers at that point in time, even though in the mainstream media, MSX was already regarded as almost past history. The closeness and smallness of the MSX fanscene in the Netherlands was one of its appeals, and it was not THAT hard to make yourself renowned by doing or creating something new. Many small circles of users/friends existed at that time, doing various stuff on MSX – developing games, creating a novel piece of peripheral hardware for MSX, publishing magazines on disc, composing music, etc. MSX was a true 'hobby system', inviting you to push its boundaries time and time again.

Could you describe the process of translating the game? How long time did it take? What were the biggest challenges? How did you work as a team? What were your thoughts during the process? Things like that.

I don't exactly remember how long it took – my guess now would be between half a year and a year. We were both still students and we had to do everything in the free time we had. The translation process was actually really straightforward. We simply took a copy of the game itself, used a basic disc editor that allowed you to modify floppy disc content on a byte level (MSX had built-in Japanese character set support on ROM level), and alternately translated a section of text (modifying it directly on disc), and replayed through that section of the game as a test to make sure everything looked right and fit what actually happened on screen.

Of course, that required us to first have figured out the text encoding system and the rough location of the text sections on disc (which were, in most games concentrated in one location). For SD Snatcher, this turned out to be pretty complex since not just plain text was involved but also various escape sequences to control stuff like text color, text speed, etc. However, having figured this out (trial and error style!) also gave us total control on what appeared on screen.

And of course, when the translation was finished, we needed to make a patch program that would compile together all the sectors of translated text, and would put them back where they belonged on the translation 'target' (note that what we made were PATCHES for games, not the actual translated games themselves!)

We divided the work as a team simply by saying "You do the Syd Garden part, I'll do the Docks". We divided up the game between the two of us, but we both did basically the same work.

The challenges were several. First, there was the matter of the translation itself (see the next question). But there was also the problem of text that you encountered on the disc, and had to guess where it was located in the game itself. Theoretically, you could translate straight from disc without ever seeing it 'live'- but a sentence can mean several things depending on context. If you don't know the context, it's hard to make a good translation (unless it's simple 'Yes', 'No', 'How do you do', or menu commands). So in practice, you had to know and play through every nook and cranny of the game to encounter every possible text string. That by itself could be a challenge, especially for later translations of more action oriented games (which I was bad at...I still have nightmares about the time I tried 50 times to beat one boss in Ys, simply to see its ending speech) – remember we played the game in its actual hardware environment, there were no emulators yet...and most games also did not allow you to simply save your progress anywhere.

Also, a very big challenge was the problem of space. Character space. Remember that we had a handicap that professional game translators nowadays do not have: we had no source code! We could only REPLACE 20 bytes of Japanese text with 20 bytes of English text, we could not recompile and make it 40 bytes. For SD Snatcher, this was okay – you had 2 bytes per Japanese character (mostly katakana and hiragana are used), and a Romaji (English) character used only one byte. Since these are phonetic ways of encoding, we were mostly okay when it came to space. However, later translations were much harder, especially Microcabin titles like Xak 2 – they used much more kanji, meaning 2 bytes for one WORD (kanji are ideographs). This resulted sometimes in very 'creative' writing or SMS like abbreviations. We had no other choice.

One thing about translating a game like this – if you've finished it, you're pretty much DONE with the game itself for the rest of your life. You've literally seen every iota of text pass by before you, and seen most of the sections of the game TOO many times. That said, it still was a tremendous amount of fun to do it.

How good was your Japanese?

I go a bit red in the face when I have to answer this one. Looking back, it sucked. At the time we translated SD Snatcher, I could pretty much phonetically read katakana and hiragana, and knew some basic kanji. I could translate verbs and nouns with a dictionary, but that's as far as it went. Knowledge about Japanese grammar was pretty much nonexistent. Although it got better in later translations, I've never come even close to the level of a Japanese graduate student. I was pretty much autodidactic in that respect, although I did follow some Japanese language university courses.

Fortunately, many RPGs at that time used pretty simple language, and had pretty lame (= easy to follow) storylines, and with the visual aids going with it, it was almost always possible to get at least a basic idea of what was happening. Although we took a LOT of liberties in that. I'd say it was about 50% more or less accurate translation, 30% guesswork and 20% imagination to fill in the gaps.

Pretty weird, after 2 years of translating RPG's, I knew 6 different kanji for 'sword' and 20 ways to say "I will kill you and rule the world" in Japanese, but wouldn't have a clue how to start a simple conversation about the weather in that same language...

Could you tell me some anecdotes from the translating-process. Things that stood out.

Well there were some easter eggs, especially during the end of SD Snatcher, when we started experimenting with the text engine of the game (people who know the translation know what we are talking about). But mostly, like real interpreters know, translating is a solitary and often boring job (although translating games is more fun than translating books, I'm sure...)

Our fastest and most stressful translation was Ys-1, which had to be done in one long weekend. I locked myself up in my dorm room with a friend of mine and we took turns translating, round the clock. By Sunday, we were so stressed out that we started to have arguments about *everything*, and we even got into a physical fight when we reached a point that we simply could not get past this one pesky boss fight and started blaming eachother for it... We then made a vow that we'd never do 'duo translations' ever again.

Also, I remember the very amateuristic-ness of it all very well... People would laugh at us nowadays... A few days before the convention where we'd sell the translations, we'd go to a copy-shop, copy 2 hundred CD box inlays in black and white, cut them out with scissors, put them inside the boxes, hand-print the labels for the floppy discs, etc. etc. But there was definitely a pioneer kind of feeling about it. Especially if you managed to sell all those 2 hundred discs in just a single day.

How was it done, technically (the very simplified version of the answer should be better here;)?

Simplified, all translations have the following steps:

  • Figure out how the encoding of the characters works
  • Actually translating and replacing the texts, writing down all the sectors of the disc that were touched.
  • Compile the binary data in those sectors to a patch that could be released separately and be used to actually translate the target game. We even had the marketing sense to copy-protect these patches and make them single-use only (they'd make themselves unusable after translating ONCE, AND add a copy protection to the translated game to boot.)

Most of the time, this was all it took. Although in some cases, a bit more 'hacking' was required. For example, in the case of Dragonslayer 6, we had to actually replace the graphical font data since the built-in English font was butt-ugly.

What reactions did you get from other parts of the community?

Very, very positive. Our SD Snatcher patch sold a couple of hundred copies in one day, which was a LOT in those days. People liked the idea and there were many encouraging letters (and offers for help) we received.

Could you give me a feel for the Dutch MSX-community at the time? How was it to be a part of it?

I've already touched this in some of my other answers I think.

Were you ever worried that Konami would find out about your translation? And take legal actions perhaps.

No. Remember, we did not sell translated games. We sold a PATCH to make it possible to translate a COPY of your personal (we assume LEGALLY bought) copy of the game. Nothing illegal about that. Like with movies, you have the right to make copies for personal use. And you have the right to modify those copies, as long as they remain for personal use. Although there may be some intellectual ownership issues with the translated texts themselves, I don't know...

Our efforts made Konami games more interesting to the European audience, and I don't think Konami had any interest to release their own translation of these games. Personally, I think they would have been surprised to know that ANY native European MSX user would buy games that were intended for the Japanese market.

How do you view the translation in retrospect? And how do you feel when looking back at that time?

It was simply a cool thing to do. It improved my Japanese skills. I made friends doing it. And it was a good feeling to be successful, and also to give other people a good time by allowing them to enjoy these games to the fullest. Would I want to do it professionally? No I don't think so. The fun thing about MSX is that I've always regarded it as a hobby, whereas sitting behind my PC nowadays still feels a little bit like work, whatever I use it for. I'm not into console games, and most interesting titles are already (professionally) being translated or have been translated by people far more qualified than myself. If anything, I'd be fansubbing anime if I still had the time for something like that. But with life getting in the way (work, wife, kids, etc.), that's not likely ever to happen.