One day in the late 1990s, Myria walked into the Irvine High School computer room and spotted a boy playing Final Fantasy 5. There were two unusual things about this. The first was that Final Fantasy 5 had not actually come out in the United States. To play the 1992 Japanese game in English, you'd have to download a ROM, then install the unofficial fan translation patch that had recently begun circulating the internet. Myria knew about this patch because of the other unusual thing: She helped make it.
The boy was astonished to discover that one of his classmates was responsible for this patch. "He had no idea I had worked on it," said Myria, who asked that I not use her real name. "I was amazed to see someone out in the wild who had played it."
Twenty years later, Myria has gotten used to meeting people who have played through the unauthorised English version of Final Fantasy 5. Although it wasn't the first video game fan translation — that would be the Dutch translation of MSX game SD Snatcher in 1993 — it was the most influential. It taught countless Westerners that Squaresoft's "Final Fantasy 3" wasn't really the third Final Fantasy, and more importantly, it showed people the power that fans can have on the video game industry. Sick of watching companies like Square refuse to bring games West, fans simply localised Final Fantasy 5 themselves, as they would again in future years for RPGs like Seiken Densetsu 3 and Mother 3. They'd translate the scripts from Japanese to English, smooth out the language, and implement those scripts into the games using increasingly elaborate programs.
"It's hard to express how big of a deal it was at the time," said Clyde "Mato" Mandelin, a professional localiser best known for translating the third Mother game. "Not only did we get to play the 'missing' Final Fantasy in English, we also got to play it in near-official quality. At the time, most fan translations were simplistic and kludgy, but Final Fantasy 5's fan translation was light-years ahead of them all."
There's no way to tell just how many people played the Final Fantasy 5 patch — by now it's been hosted on so many shady ROM sites, getting accurate download numbers is impossible — but it resonated deeply. Today, Myria is an engineer at a major video game company with millions of fans, but Final Fantasy 5 might be her most resounding accomplishment. "I've met people at work, I've met people just randomly, talked to them," she said. "They eventually find out that I've worked on that translation and they're pretty amazed."
Myria can't remember exactly when she found out about Final Fantasy's number problem — it was either 1996 or 1997 — but she does recall seeing an advertisement for Final Fantasy 7. "We're like, 'Huh, seven?'" she said, echoing the thoughts of RPG fans across the United States. Just a few years earlier, in 1994, Squaresoft had released Final Fantasy 3 on the Super Nintendo. How'd they get from three to seven?
As it turns out, Square was holding out on North America. The venerable publisher had passed on localising both Final Fantasy 2 and Final Fantasy 3 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, so when it came time to bring Final Fantasy 4 to the West, they called it Final Fantasy 2. Then, Square decided to skip Final Fantasy 5, although they briefly considered releasing it in the West with a different name, according to their head localiser, Ted Woolsey. When they brought over Final Fantasy 6, they called it Final Fantasy 3.
That's a whole lot of names and numbers, so here's a quick breakdown:
Final Fantasy (NES) - released everywhere
Final Fantasy 2 (NES)  - Japan only
Final Fantasy 3 (NES)  - Japan only
Final Fantasy 4 (SNES)  - released in the West as Final Fantasy 2
Final Fantasy 5 (SNES)  - Japan only
Final Fantasy 6 (SNES)  - released in the West as Final Fantasy 3
As Myria started to research Square's weird localisation choices, she started thinking about getting involved with unofficial fan projects. She'd always been obsessed with RPGs, and she'd noticed that Final Fantasy 4 (2)'s script was particularly messy, full of clunky sentences and awkward word choices. "I wanted to redo that game," Myria said. "It was a horrible mess in terms of its translation."
Screenshot from Final Fantasy 4's mediocre SNES localisation (via Clyde Mandelin)
While browsing the internet one day in the late '90s, Myria stumbled upon a group of like-minded geeks that called themselves RPGe. Hanging out in an IRC channel, they'd talk about their favourite Japanese role-playing games and make ambitious plans to write English translations for the ones that never made it West. When she found them, they were talking about localising Final Fantasy 5, which they'd do by cracking open a Japanese version of the game's ROM file and translating the script to English. Myria was intrigued, putting aside her hopes of redoing FF4. Final Fantasy 5 sounded way cooler. (A group called J2E would later retranslate FF4 to subpar results, as documented by Clyde Mandelin on his Legends of Localization website.)
Unlike the two NES games that we'd missed out on, Final Fantasy 5 was by all accounts excellent. People lucky enough to understand FF5 in Japanese reported that it was a blast to play, with a solid story and an elaborate class-changing system that allowed players to customise their party in creative ways. It could be difficult, which was one of the reasons Square hadn't brought it West, but RPG fans wanted to check it out nonetheless.
The problem was, RPGe's methods were flawed. Nobody had done anything like this before, so there was no institutional knowledge about how to handle fan translations. The RPGe crew had dug up a Japanese ROM of Final Fantasy 5, then cracked it open and started editing the text files, directly translating chunks of the game from Japanese to English. But these files were finicky and tough to handle. When you changed a line of Japanese to English in the ROM, it wouldn't display neatly in the game, because Japanese characters were rendered so much differently than English ones. Japanese characters are bigger than English letters, and one sentence that takes 12 characters in English ("How are you?") might just take three characters in Japanese ("元気?"). Final Fantasy 5 capped each line of dialogue at 16 characters, which looked fine in Japanese but would make an English translation garbled and hard to read.
What they needed to do, Myria realised, was edit not just the text files but also the code that Final Fantasy 5 used to handle those text files. "I really felt they had the wrong approach," she said. "That was really my big insight to the ROM hacking community, that you can't just modify the data of the game to make an effective translation — you have to modify the code as well."
In order to localise a Japanese game in English and make it readable, Myria decided they would need to reprogram the game. Their version of Final Fantasy 5 would need to understand that English letters, unlike Japanese characters, have different sizes. They'd need to teach the game that each dialogue box should allow more English characters (including those pesky spaces) than it does Japanese kanji or kana.
Myria (who at the time went by the internet handle Barubary; both names are references to Breath of Fire) started talking with SoM2freak, a Japanese-English translator she met online, about splitting off from the rest of RPGe. By mid-1997, they were making plans to start their own translation of Final Fantasy 5, done properly instead of hacked together. "I ignored those people who I felt didn't know what they were doing," she said. "We started our own sub group within [RPGe] because I felt they were not able to do this."
Examples, via Clyde Mandelin, of what other fan translations looked like in the 1990s.
It was memorably hot in Irvine, California during the summer of 1997, and Myria had no interest in going outside. She'd just finished Year 10 of high school, and she planned to spend the summer just like any self-respecting teenager would: Disassembling ROM code. Listening to video game remixes and old CDs, she taught herself how Final Fantasy 5's innards worked. In her room she had a sluggish Intel 486 computer, which she could use for some development work, but to test out the game she needed to go downstairs and use her dad's faster Pentium. After all, the 486 couldn't run emulators. (Myria presented as male at the time, which we mention, with her permission, to paint an accurate picture.)
As SoM2freak translated lines of Final Fantasy 5's Japanese dialogue to English, Myria tried to figure out the best way to implement them into the game. She downloaded a disassembler to break down Final Fantasy 5's code, turning it into a file so massive, she needed a special text management program called XTree Gold just to parse it. Then she started changing variables, using trial and error to discern what each line of code actually did. "There were no references on most of this stuff at all," Myria said. "I just kind of figured out what to do."
Each file of the disassembly looked something like this:
Disassembly shot via Myria
This particular snapshot shows the code that Final Fantasy 5 used to render dialogue. Since the game assumed that every Japanese character would have the same width — 12 pixels — this code would tell each dialogue box to render a character, then move the invisible cursor 13 pixels to the right, then render a new character, and so on. For English letters, which have varying width, Myria needed to find another approach. "The natural solution to modifying this code for an English translation is to vary the amount the cursor moves to the right based on which character is being drawn," Myria said. "I replaced this code with a 'jump' to extra code I added that determines the amount to adjust the cursor based on the English character being drawn."
Myria spent that whole summer sorting out solutions to these problems, which made her something of an outlier among the fan translation community. Previous fan translators had never even thought to disassemble code or alter dialogue renderers, perhaps because they weren't as passionate — or obsessive — as Myria. "A lot of this was pretty tedious," she said. "A lot of it was spending time in [emulator] SNES 9x trying to figure out what's going on with [the ROM], and looking at hex dumps and assembly dumps for many hours, and just trying to debug this annoying text routine."
Midway through the project, they brought in a new editor, Katsuyuki "harmony7" Ohmuro, an senior at Myria's high school. Ohmuro thought SoM2freak's translations were flawed and full of problems. SoM2freak was young, and not a native Japanese speaker, so Ohmuro started going through the script and revising big chunks of SoM2freak's work. Frustrated by this decision, SoM2freak quit the group, although he'd go on to help translate more big RPGs in the following years, like Final Fantasy 3 and Seiken Densetsu 3.
Perhaps the most controversial of the team's translation decisions was the main character's name. If you ask Square Enix, they will tell you that the star of Final Fantasy 5 is a man named Bartz. But if you played the fan translation, you'd see a different name:
It's a name that's elicited plenty of snickers over the years, but by all accounts it was the most accurate translation, and Myria stands by it. The alliterative translation of the Japanese name, バッツ, is Battsu, or Butz for short. "There were documents in Japan, for a strategy guide for example, and also these little silver statue things that had Butz the way we'd written it," she said. "We used those kind of things as reference for intended translation."
As summer turned into autumn, Myria finished up her work on the fan translation, writing a program that could implement the translated English text into the game so they wouldn't have to spend dozens of hours copy-pasting. Then she left the rest to Ohmuro, who had originally planned to revise the entire script before a dramatic twist forced them to change course.
Other groups within RPGe had already given up on their own translations of Final Fantasy 5, leaving Myria's crew to finish it themselves, but in October of 1997, someone (or multiple people) got their hands on an early version of the fan translation and stuck it on a Geocities website, claiming credit for the accomplishment. In order to set the record straight, Myria and Ohmuro had to release their own patch, which was nearly finished, but not as polished as Ohmuro would have liked.
On 17 October 1997, Myria and crew released "v0.96", the first public version of FF5's fan translation. It went viral, making its way across IRC channels and message boards as RPG fans began to discover that there was a cool new Final Fantasy that none of them had gotten to play. Although SNES emulators were nascent and rough, it wasn't too tough to get your hands on one. It was also simple for the average gamer to get a copy of Final Fantasy 5 and the English patch, which you could apply by following a set of simple instructions in the Readme file. "[The patch] really just spread on its own," said Myria. "It quickly got news in the emulation community and people started playing it at that point. We didn't have to market it at all."
Ohmuro spent a few more months finishing the ending and polishing the script, and in June of 1998, they released the "official" version of their Final Fantasy 5 patch. At the time, it was seen as revolutionary, and even today, it's heralded as one of the best fan translations in gaming history. "The amount of work put into FF5's translation set the bar for fan translations from then on," said Mandelin, the localisation expert. After looking at Final Fantasy 5, prospective fan translators now knew that if they wanted to get a game looking right in English, they'd need to edit code, not just text.
"I'm not even sure how they did it — emulation was still young at the time, and ROM hacking tools and know-how were basically non-existent," said Mandelin. "It's as if the team time travelled from the future to deliver the Final Fantasy 5 translation patch. I had originally considered emulation nothing more than a fun little gimmick, but after the patch's release I realised that emulation offered so much more. My curiosity was piqued — I had to figure out how these translation patches worked. Soon, I was programming and translating for fan groups too, which led to my career as a professional translator just a few years later. In that sense, I think the FF5 fan translation offered something extra that an official release never could have."
Final Fantasy publisher Squaresoft never contacted RPGe about their translation, according to Myria, even though their US offices were in Costa Mesa, just a few kilometres away from her parents' house. But in September of 1999, an official English version of Final Fantasy 5 finally made its way to North America. This version, bundled with Final Fantasy 6 in a PS1 compilation called Final Fantasy Anthology, was a mess.
In the PS1 translation of Final Fantasy 5, main character Faris insisted on speaking like a pirate for the entire game. Image via LPArchive.org
"We were laughing so hard," said Myria, "because the translation was absolutely awful. We were like, 'OK, a couple kids in high school over four months did a better job than Square. It probably took them at least a year. We were just laughing so hard."
It wasn't until the 2006 Game Boy Advance port — Final Fantasy 5: Advance — that Square would finally release a decently localised version of the mistreated role-playing game, although the main character's name remained Bartz. "When the Game Boy Advance version came out, I was like, 'Oh my God, they finally beat us,'" said Myria. "It took them eight years, but they finally did a better translation than ours."
After Final Fantasy 5, Myria got into PS1 hacking, reverse-engineering old RPGs so she could write her own cheat codes, like a hack for Final Fantasy 7 that allowed players to walk through walls. The whole process helped her launch a career in the video game industry. To this day, she puts Final Fantasy 5 on her resume, and she says without the project, she wouldn't have learned reverse-engineering.
"Today I meet people all the time," Myria said. "They ask me stuff and I'm like, 'Yeah, my claim to fame is that I worked on this translation 20 years ago… I'm still amazed at how many people have played it."