’90s Script Kiddies
Sobodash was part of the first generation of kids who truly grew up online in the mid-to-late ’90s. A self-described “script kiddie” who would use other people’s code to access unauthorized computer systems for fun, Sobodash started using bulletin board systems (BBSes) in his early teenage years. Prior to his interest in hacking Super Nintendo games, Sobodash’s dalliances with tools and malware he found online would occasionally land him in hot water. At one point, he accidentally emailed a copy of the controversial book The Anarchist Cookbook to every email address in his high school from the administrator’s account after obtaining access with a “keylogger,” a tool that records keystrokes made by a user.
Though this stunt earned him a lifetime ban from his school library, Sobodash quickly found a new obsession: untranslated Super Nintendo games. Having already beaten most of the SNES library by sharing rented games with friends, Sobodash became fixated on the possibility of playing these lost games, immersing himself in the vibrant online Square fan community in the process.
But his interest and passion developed into a directive after he stumbled upon an incomplete fan translation of the Japan-only Final Fantasy II by SoM2Freak and another user, “Demi.” Even though the buggy FFII fanslation simply ran out of English text only an hour or two into the JRPG, it forever changed the then-14-year-old Sobodash.
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Sobodash clung to the realization that hackers could translate these old games by manipulating their files. That might seem obvious now, but back in 1996, the idea of ROM-hacking was very much in its infancy. Though the Dutch group Oasis pioneered the concept of fan-translation back in the early ’90s with hacks of MSX games like Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher and cult JRPG The Legend of Heroes, the concept had yet to be popularized online. SoM2Freak and Demi never completed their Final Fantasy II translation, but it inspired Sobodash and other would-be hackers to reach out to the duo for tools and advice on how to start their own hacks.
Sobodash didn’t know much about SNES programming and had self-described “pretty terrible” understanding of the Japanese language, but he was determined to translate Final Fantasy V himself. SoM2Freak and Demi’s abandoned translation of Final Fantasy II actually had begun life as an attempt to translate FFV, but the duo soon decided that that goal was too ambitious for a first project. (In fact, that project grew out of yet another FFV translation effort announced by a group called Kowasu Ku, which never produced any meaningful progress.) However, that didn’t stop Sobodash from following in their footsteps.
At the time, Final Fantasy VI (initially Final Fantasy III in English) was the latest and greatest game in the series, which meant that FFV was the next-best thing, and the next object of his ever-growing obsession. From his research, Sobodash also knew that an English translation had been released online in 1996 by a fan named Mark Rosa, which would make the process much easier, given his lack of Japanese skills.
SoM2Freak eventually sent Sobodash some of the rudimentary fan-developed tools they used to translate FFII – a sprite editor and a text editor – but Sobodash quickly concluded that they were too clunky to use and decided to find his own. (One of them crashed every time he alt-tabbed out of it.) After obtaining a superior sprite editor from another fanslator’s Dragon Quest I & II hack and a different hex editor, Sobodash sat down and put himself to work.Armed with his 380-page paper translation of Final Fantasy V, his hex editor, and printed-out copies of the game’s Japanese font, Sobodash began creating physical flashcards to teach himself which hex code corresponded to each Japanese and English character. While this might seem like a waste of time, the hex editor that Sobodash used was so primitive that it didn’t have a table that would break up and sort the hex code for you. Instead, Sobodash was simply looking at unbroken lines of raw hex for hours at a time, which meant that memorization was important. Needless to say, it was tedious work.
He would even carry a gigantic three-ring binder filled to the brim with hexadecimal tables and the English script to his high school, spending hours during class and lunch breaks transposing the hex code into romanji – Japanese characters rendered in English text. His translation project claimed casualties, too: the sheer amount of paper involved eventually led to the messy demise of his cheap family printer.
While Sobodash admits that this low-tech approach was far from optimal, his teenage enthusiasm carried him through. He knew that the online Square fan community was hungry to play these games in English, and any translation project would draw a lot of attention. Though he had yet to produce much in the way of a usable hack, Sobodash promoted his project by manipulating images from FFV with Photoshop. He removed the Japanese text and replaced it with phrases from the English translation to give the illusion of miraculous progress to others.
And like that, some poorly Photoshopped images led to word of Sobodash’s project travelling fast around the Square fan community. Over the next few months, several fans reached out to the teenage translator to offer help. One of them was a college student who went by “Hooie.” He and Sobodash quickly became friends, talking over the early IM service ICQ several times a week. Unlike many of the other would-be collaborators, Hooie brought substantial technical knowledge as a computer engineering major. He also wasn’t shy about occasionally asking his Japanese instructors at his university to help him translate enemy or item names.
With his help, the duo were able to use hex editing software to actually replace some of the game’s Japanese text with English, and they even released a few patches on the Final Fantasy Mailing List. It was slow, arduous work, and the duo were not plugged into the fledgling emulation community, resulting in many bugs in the few patches they did release. But their progress still attracted a substantial amount of attention from fellow early internet enthusiasts, including rivals in the fan translation scene.
In mid-1997, a notable figure in the world of emulation known as “Zophar” accused Sobodash and Hooie of stealing the work of a fellow translator, David Timko, who was also working on his own English patch for FFV. Sobodash chalked the whole ordeal up to a misunderstanding, and Timko and Sobodash eventually buried the hatchet and partnered to produce one patch together. That sense of unity eventually led the group to coin an official name for itself, RPGe, which would be the label that Myria and Harmony7’s completed hack would be released under the following year.
Myria first stumbled on RPGe’s projects while researching her own passion project, a version of Final Fantasy IV that would restore many of the changes localizers made to the English version, particularly the dozens of items deemed too complicated for Western audiences. While Myria’s interest in FFV was relatively low, the challenge of translating an unknown game intrigued her, so she decided to check out the group’s in-progress patches for herself.
Myria quickly concluded that the hex-editing process the RPGe hackers like Sobodash were using to modify the game files would never be able to produce a complete hack.
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In simple terms, they were modifying the text of the game directly without modifying the code, she explained. “In FFV, as with many older Japanese games, all of the Japanese characters were the same size. In English, imagine if the letter I and the letter W were the same width. It just looks bad. The Japanese version of the game is limited to 16 characters per line. If you think about Japanese as a language, that’s fine, but it’s way too low for English…It just wasn’t going to work.”
Though RPGe presented a unified front on its webpage, as Myria recalls, the group was beset by internal factionalism even at the best of times. Myria tried to explain the shortcomings of their text-only approach to Sobodash, Timko, and their collaborators, but her arguments failed to convince her fellow hackers.
“I basically just told them that the approach they were taking was completely wrong, and that we needed to modify the game code to make it work,” she said. “Well, they wanted to continue what they were doing, but SoM2Freak agreed with me, so we just went and started our own version of the project.”
Once Myria determined the rest of RPGe didn’t agree with her approach, she and SoM2Freak restarted the hack fresh from there. Over the next few months, Myria used a variety of tools to disassemble FFV’s machine-level code into terms she could understand, and she eventually reverse-engineered the parts of the code that displayed text. She then modified those portions of the game code to better suit the English language. Their version would, of course, go on to be the famous fan translation that is still remembered fondly today.Meanwhile, as RPGe’s digital presence continued to grow as the group announced more and more ambitious translation projects, the pressure of e-celebrity took its toll on Sobodash. By promoting himself as the public face of the fledgling group, he opened himself up to a flood of hate mail and death threats from anonymous internet denizens desperate to play these unknown titles. Sobodash believed that RPGe was performing a vital service to the Square fan community by translating these lost games, and took the hobby very seriously as a result – perhaps too seriously.
The fact that Myria and SOM2Freak had essentially taken over the FFV project that he helped start did bother him, but that wasn’t necessarily the sole source of his growing anguish. Sobodash saw RPGe as an extension of himself, a group in fierce competition with rival organizations to blaze bold new trails in the fan translating scene. To Sobodash and many others, it was a neverending race to see who could translate the most games in English. It was a lot of pressure, even if somewhat self-imposed, for a teenager to handle.
In early 1998, when fellow hacker Demi published a lengthy parody of Sobodash that painted him as lazy and selfish, Sobodash was absolutely devastated. Though Sobodash disagreed with the characterization, Demi was an influential figure in the community, and his opinions held a lot of sway. Not only was he one of the first fan translators on the scene, he owned one of the most popular rom-hacking forums of the day. Whether true or not, Sobodash felt like all of his online friends were laughing at him, and in his own words, he finally “snapped.” He typed one last message to RPGe and then left the scene entirely.
“I can’t tolerate the number of people who send me flames and death threats, it’s more than I can bear to handle,” his final message reads in part. “I’m going off now to work on my own. Maybe I’ll program, maybe I’ll translate for myself, like I used to when it was fun, I don’t know but please wish me well in whatever I do…I’m not sure who’s going to take charge here, pull RPGe back together, and manage our many members. I hope they can keep the spirit of doing this all for fun alive and well.”
By the time of Sobodash’s exit, all four of RPGe’s co-founders had exited the organization, leaving Harmony7 and another hacker named “MagitekKn” to manage it. Meanwhile, the FFV translation had trouble of its own: when native Japanese speaker Harmony7 took a look at SoM2Freak’s script, he made many corrections to it. According to Myria, SoM2Freak resented the fact that Harmony and Myria made changes to the script and ended up growing upset at them both as a result.
“I think he was pretty mad at me,” Myria recalled. “I honestly feel bad about how we handled it, but we were kids at the time.”
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The official release of the FFV patch – the first completed fan translation in English – didn’t come until October 1998, but by that point, Myria wasn’t even involved. She was too busy pouring hundreds of hours into Final Fantasy VII, which had released the previous September.
“It was all Harmony7 at the end,” she says, laughing. “All I did was the programming, and I was done by that point.”
By late 1998, Sobodash had completely exited the online Square fan scene and immersed himself at a job he got at a local pizza joint. He figured out pretty quickly that playing video games with his new friends was preferable to getting yelled at by strangers online. Still, though he dabbled with translations in his spare time as the years passed, he never quite felt the same passion for it than he did back in 1996.
“In 1997, translating games was uncharted territory,” he said. “There were few tools and few documents. None of us knew what we were doing: it was educated guesses, trial and error, and tinkering. I was learning and doing something few other people were able to do, and we were all able to teach each other….In most fields, you have to study and struggle for years to be an expert. However, if you invent a new field, then no matter how limited your knowledge is, you are an expert by default. I think that is what I was most after. I wanted more than anything else to be good at something no one else was.”
Today, it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions about the legacy of RPGe. Much of the group’s online presence has been lost to ever-churning fans of digital progress – the Wayback Machine captured only a handful of ancient pages that mention the group. Sobodash himself says that he doesn’t even have any of the group’s work on his own computer. What’s clear is that Myria’s machine-level reverse-engineering pioneered the approach that an entire generation of fan translators would use on notable English hacks, and it’s still very much part of the basic procedure that hackers use today.
Still, while early hacking groups like RPGe might have fallen apart due to changing tastes and personal differences, they promoted a concept that inspired many JRPG fans to recognize the importance of non-localized games like Mother 3, Trials of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 3), and Ace Attorney Investigations 2. Sobodash might have never lived up to his lofty teenage ambitions, but he and his fellow early hackers made a mark on history just the same.
“Most people have stories of high school sports or funny anecdotes about school life and friends,” he said. “In place of that, I have hundreds of hours of hammering away at [a] screen full of hexadecimal. I cannot say if that should fill me with pride or sadness.”