Fan translation of video games
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The fan translation practice grew with the rise of video game console emulation in the late 1990s. A community of people developed that were interested in replaying and modifying the games they played in their youth. The knowledge and tools that came out of this community allowed them to work with translators to localize video game titles that had never been available outside of their original country of origin.
Fan translations of video game console games are usually accomplished by modifying a single binary ROM image of the game. Fan translations of PC games, on the other hand, can involve translation of many binary files throughout the game's directory which are packaged and distributed as fan patch. In dealing with translations of console games, a console emulator is generally utilized to play the final product, although unofficial hardware, hardware mods or software mods can be used to run the translated ROM image on its native hardware.
The central focus of the fan translation community is historically of Japanese-exclusive computer and video games being made playable in English for the first time, and sometimes of games recently released in Japan that are import-worthy and are unlikely to be officially localized to English speaking countries. It has since expanded to include other languages as well. Fan translations to English have provided a starting point for translations to many other languages. A fan translation is also started if a certain game released in Japan is not announced for localization within one year from its Japanese release.
Fan translations may also be done to titles that have received official localizations that fans perceive as flawed; for example, if the game had controversial content removed (such as Bionic Commando), or there were unnecessary changes in plot and character names (such as Phantasy Star).
The fan translation community was at its most popular, and attracted the most media attention, when certain popular game titles were still being worked on. These were usually parts of popular series such as Square Enix's Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Some consider the peak was reached with the translation of Seiken Densetsu 3 (sequel to Secret of Mana), a title that was highly desirable to RPG players and also very difficult to translate on a technical basis.
Some already translated RPGs are available on reproduction cartridges to play on the real hardware for some systems like the SNES.
The earliest fan translations were done by Oasis, a group formed by Dennis Lardenoye and Ron Bouwland, two Dutch fans of the MSX system. Konami’s RPG SD Snatcher was translated in April 1993, and The Legend of Heroes was translated in 1995. Their other projects include Fray, Rune Master 3, Xak - The Art of Visual Stage, Xak 2, Xak - The Tower of Gazzel, Ys, Ys II: The Final Chapter and Wanderers From Ys.
These were possible before emulation on PCs became popular (or even adequate enough to play games) because the games were on floppy disks, and were therefore easier to distribute to the users, in comparison to ROM cartridges used by video game consoles (the MSX also used cartridges, but methods were discovered to copy the content onto floppy disks and other media too).
Revival after emulation
The development of console emulators led to access to foreign video games. A revival began in 1996 when a group calling themselves Kowasu Ku formed under the lead of one "Hazama". The group stated plans to translate Final Fantasy V, but their efforts were never publicly released. Later that summer, a user called Demi announced work on a Final Fantasy V translation and founded Multiple Demiforce. It was eventually dropped in favor of Final Fantasy II (NES), a more manageable goal at that time. Demi and Som2Freak used Pasofami to post four screenshots of their work to Archaic Ruins, an emulation website. Shortly after, the translation stalled and the group disbanded.
Derrick Sobodash (Shadow) and David Timko both saw the Archaic Ruins website and contacted Som2Freak expressing interest in translating Final Fantasy V. He provided each with some primitive tools, and for the next few months, Shadow and Timko worked against each other. Both projects generated renewed interest in fan translation.
After months of working against each other, Shadow and Timko began cooperating. RPGe, the first major translation group was established on July 8 in the #ff5e IRC channel, on the EsperNet IRC network by Shadow, Timko, Hooie and Thermopyle. The start of RPGe sparked many other efforts to unify and within months, Translation Corporation, DeJap Translations and Starsoft Translations had formed.
RPGe's translation of Final Fantasy V was completed October 16, 1997 (version 0.96).
Notable fan translations include that of Mother 3, Final Fantasy II, III, IV, V and VI, Seiken Densetsu 3, Bahamut Lagoon, Takeshi's Challenge, Clock Tower: The First Fear, Radical Dreamers, Ace Attorney Investigations 2, Fire Emblem, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, Front Mission: Gun Hazard and Policenauts.
The first hub of the fan translation community was The ROM Hack Board, hosted by Demi on Frognet. The board began in fall of 1996 operating on the Matt's WWWBOARD script. It reappeared later in 1997.
Early community news was posted to emulation websites such as EMU News Service, now archived by ClassicGaming. It wasn't until July 8, 1998 that Cataclysm-X, Jason Li and WildBill opened RPG Dimension (also known as RPGd), a site dedicated to reporting fan translation news as well as releases of general ROM hacking tutorials and utilities.
RPG Dimension met competition on March 31, 2000 when Spinner 8 and (wraith) opened The Whirlpool, a rival news site focusing exclusively on fan translations. The former met a slow death over the next two years as staff lost more and more interest in updates. The Whirlpool eventually closed on October 4, 2005 following from a dispute between the site's founders, though site owner (wraith) assured users he was working on another project to supersede the old site. Updates ceased by December 27.
The English fan translation community is currently centered at ROM Hacking.net.
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It is unusual for copyright holders to object to fan translations. This is probably largely because the electronic games in question are generally not considered commercially viable in the target language, so the translation is rarely seen as a source of lost revenue.
However, in 1999, one well-known incident in which copyright holders took action involved the translation of a Windows game maker called RPG Maker 95. The Japanese company ASCII had their lawyers send a cease and desist e-mail to the translation group KanjiHack Translations. However, unlike most translation groups, KanjiHack was caught linking to a site to illegally download the entire then-recently released RPG Maker 95 software (including a copy-protection crack). The group shut down immediately but others eventually finished the project. Titles from the RPG Maker series were eventually localized and officially released in the US for the PlayStation and PlayStation 2.
In 2014, publisher Square Enix issued a cease and desist order to Sky, a romhacker who had completed a highly anticipated fan translation of the PSP game Final Fantasy Type 0, soon after they announced an HD version of the game for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. This forced him to remove all posts and pages pertaining to the project (which were eventually restored months later). Sky claimed that Square Enix had made "threats and false accusations". According to Kotaku, Sky had released the translation early against the team's wishes, possibly to preempt any legal action following a localization announcement at E3, and Square Enix may have been forced to announce the HD version prematurely as a reaction to the patch's release. 
A popular belief in the fan translation community is that distributing only a binary patch, which must be applied to the full, original game, is legal. The reasoning is that the patch only contains the new data and directives for where it is to be placed, and does not have the original copyrighted material included in any form, and therefore it is useless unless the user applies it to a (copyrighted) ROM, the acquisition and legality of which they are left completely accountable for. This belief is untested in court. Regardless, the patch must still contain a translated script that is derived from the copyrighted script of the original, but this anti-software piracy attitude by the fan translation community may have convinced copyright holders to, by and large, turn a blind eye.
There have never been any legal cases involving fan translation issues, and such projects have been relatively widespread over the Internet for years. In recent years, anime fansubbers have started to attract the attention of some American anime distributors; and as of 2004 one manga scanlator has been handed a cease and desist by a Japanese company, but most of this attention has been restricted to polite entreaties asking fan translators to refrain from dealing with licensed material. As with the fansub and scanlation scenes, most sites devoted to translation hacks will not acknowledge projects that compete with commercially available localizations, and respected groups will generally attempt to steer clear of projects that may see localization.
An article of Helbraun law firm remarks in the context of fan translations that redistributing complete games with adaptions most likely does not fall under fair use, but in patch form it might fall under fair use, but this was never tested in court.
Game company acknowledgments
On July 12, 2007, RPGamer released an interview they did with Koichiro Sakamoto, a game producer from Square Enix, acknowledging fan translations: "On a similar note, we told Mr. Sakamoto that a fan translation had been done some years ago for Front Mission 1, and asked how he felt about such efforts. The producer replied that he actually found them very encouraging -- it's something the developers should be doing, but because they're not, the fans are doing it instead. He stated that he'd like to be able to give something back to the fans, and would like to thank personally each of the fans that worked on the translation." Clyde Mandelin, a professional localizer and lead of the Mother 3 fan translation project, received letters of thanks from employees of major game development companies for his translation work.
In 2010, publisher Xseed Games licensed and paid for the use of a fan translation of Ys: The Oath in Felghana (PC) in the PSP port in order to offset the localization costs of such a "niche" game.
In 2011, adult visual novel publisher 0verflow acknowledged the fan translation group Sekai Project and its efforts to localize School Days. Eventually, American bishoujo game publisher JAST USA licensed the game and paid for the use of Sekai Project's work in their release, offsetting the localization costs in a similar manner. JAST USA also licensed the all ages version of Xuse's Aselia the Eternal and paid the fan translation group Dakkodango Translations for use of their translation.
In 2010, the Japanese game company Minori sent two cease and desist emails to No Name Losers, a fan group that worked on an unauthorized translation patch of their game Ef: A Fairy Tale of the Two. However, a partnership between Minori, No Name Losers, and American game publisher MangaGamer was later negotiated to allow the official release of Minori's games in English.
In 2013 for The Fullbright Company’s game Gone Home, the company actively encourage fan participation, including fan translations into other languages, providing technical know-how and support.
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