When Translation Becomes Hacking
BY: Aidan Simpson
April 4th, 2021: “This Easter Sunday, Mario is resurrected in Brazil (?)! Come check out a Mario World (or better, Mario World) 100% in Portuguese!”, reads a tweet by Twitter user “BMatSantos”. This tweet, along with a short YouTube video, serves as the formal announcement of the first-ever release of the 1990 classic Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in Brazilian Portuguese. It is the fifth project BMatSantos has released since December 2020, with his first four comprising the original Super Mario Bros. games for the NES, first released in the 1980s. What led to these games’ being patched in a new language thirty-five years after their debut? According to BMatSantos, an unemployed programmer and graphic designer from Sao Paulo, Brazil, it was his passion for these games along with his desire to correct a local misconception that “Bros” is the last name of the Mario Brothers that led him to put his skills to use in producing comprehensive translations of these titles, so that they could finally be enjoyed by a Portuguese-speaking audience.
BMatSantos is a Romhacker, a term used to describe members of an international community responsible for creating fan modifications of video games and releasing them on the internet. One of the most popular varieties of romhacks has always been fan translations. All but the most basic video games require some level of reading comprehension in the game’s “native” language to fully enjoy. While today’s high-profile games are almost always released with professional translations in ten or more languages, this has not always been the case. The time when even the most popular Japanese titles would be localized to the West six months or longer after their original release date is a recent memory for American gamers. During the video game renaissance at the end of the last millennium, many classic games took years to reach global audiences or were never officially translated outside their country of origin. This practice inspired fans around the world to create unofficial translations of their favorite games in their native languages. Producing a patched version of the game that can be played in the desired language, and doing so in an elegant and user-friendly way, is no easy task.
ROMs are encrypted files intended to be read only by their original console. While computer emulators may be able to play these files, specialized software is required to edit the specific data they contain. Text in video games is not simply strings of characters which standard text editors can open. Rather, the script the player sees is the game’s code displaying graphical elements in particular orders or orientations. For example, each letter in the alphabet in each font in the game may be stored as an eight-by-eight-pixel tile in a large grid known as a tileset. This means translating a game requires creating all-new graphics and inserting them into the game’s files in the proper formats. Code must also be modified to accommodate the longer text boxes required to express the same sentence in Spanish as opposed to Mandarin. Without software modification, more than half a game’s original text can end up lost in the translation process. Romhackers must have programming skills as well as mastery over at least two languages. These abilities must be advanced: modifying video games requires an understanding of one’s own computational tools as well as the esoteric software conventions associated with the original console of the game. Hackers regularly create new programs to aid them in their quest and help others working on games from the same system.
Some modders focus only on translation. For example, “TeacherGus”, a 30-something Brazilian teacher who does translation as a hobby, explains “programming stuff makes my mind go crazy. I’ve tried it! But whenever it gets too intense … and it becomes a chore, I tend to drop it” on his profile on the popular website romhacking.net. TeacherGus is the translator behind Brazilian-Portuguese patches of Final Fantasy III and Dragon Warrior for the NES, but he only works on the text itself. Three other romhackers are named as collaborators on the programming side of these patches, including “q8fft”, a Kuwaiti programmer responsible for creating software for inserting Arabic text into older games.
The role-playing games translated by TeacherGus present another challenge as well: their scripts number in the hundreds of pages, and the subtlety of humor and metaphors can be difficult or impossible to recreate in a language other than the original. The new words and names introduced by these games also present an interesting wrinkle. To quote the news article announcing TeacherGus’s translation of Dragon Warrior, “As per usual, the author has chosen to not translate items, skills/spells or monsters’ names, considering the niche of Brazilian players who find it to be strange to see everything in Portuguese, after having grown up in the late 80s and early 90s and having the English words for those terms learned as canon”. Games that were never localized are nevertheless played all over the world, so game-specific words from the “default” language of English end up being imported through the medium.
Many also count video games as a major contributor to their learning of new languages. Others lack the time or energy to play the games they love in unfamiliar tongues. Romhacking is, therefore, a fundamentally selfless endeavor: if you already speak a game’s original language, translating it into another one is useless to you. What drives these hackers to spend long hours manipulating esoteric software only to re-release decades-old video games? For most, giving others the opportunity to enjoy the art they love is enough.