Bahamut Lagoon: The Untold Story Behind the Fan Translation of a SNES Masterpiece

Bahamut Lagoon is an extraordinary hidden gem among the plethora of Super Famicom / Super Nintendo JRPGs, and celebrated its 25th anniversary in February of this year. Developed by Square and released solely in Japan in 1996, the game was never officially translated into English or licensed abroad, much to the chagrin of Western fans. With a quirky-yet-serious narrative, unique gameplay, and downright trippy and strange pixel art, the game is one of the most original tactical RPGs ever envisioned.

Approximately six years after Bahamut Lagoon’s official launch in Japan, it was finally playable by the Western JRPG community. An English patch for the game was finished by the ROM hacking team DeJap Translations in 2002, and until very recently this was the only option available for English-speaking retrogaming enthusiasts around the world. DeJap was a legendary fan translation collective that created English patches for other noted Super Famicom titles, such as Star Ocean and Tales of Phantasia, but went defunct in 2004.

The first successful effort to create a translation for Bahamut Lagoon was started by “emulation God” Neill Cortlett around 1998, who at the time was already renown for his work on patching the famed Seiken Densetsu 3 into English. According to a note appended to the English Bahamut Lagoon patch found on DeJap Translations’ website, “Neill started to lose interest in the game after a few months, but Dark Force from DeJap came to the rescue.

“After months of sleepless nights and countless hundreds of hours of grueling work,” the note continues, the patch was finished by a duo of ROM hackers known respectively as Dark Force and Tomato. Dark Force, the current head of DeJap, handled the hacking and programming and aided in localizations and script editing, while Tomato is credited with translating the text itself and the main script editing.

Now here’s where it gets juicy: using an email address I found on an archived mirror of DeJap Translations’ old website, I actually managed to track Dark Force down for comment. Dark Force told NEEMblog firstly over email that “You’re lucky I just saw this, since I don’t really check or use this email anymore,” and wrote further the last time they were contacted about Bahamut Lagoon was almost 10 years ago.

According to Dark Force, the reason fan translators and overseas JRPG fans generally were so interested in Bahamut Lagoon was rather simple: it sounded cool. “Basically, everyone remembers Bahamut from Final Fantasy. He was one of the most bad-ass, most powerful characters. So when we heard about Square naming an entire game after Bahamut, most fans thought it just had to be amazing, and naturally everyone was disappointed when it wasn’t released [in North America]. I think it was perhaps almost as highly anticipated as Secret of Mana 2.”

Before Bahamut Lagoon was patched, “the main source of info on foreign games were sites like GameFAQs and a number of message boards,” Dark Force continued. “So there was still a lot of unknowns about Bahamut, because just running it on an emulator without knowing what’s going on doesn’t really tell you much about the game.”

While Dark Force told NEEMblog that reputation and hype was definitely an important factor in determining which games fan-translators focused on patching, as no one wanted to “waste time” on a potentially obscure release, another factor was hackability. Each game is unique, and certain games can be much more difficult to work with than others. “Most of the major ROM hacks require disassembling the game’s machine code to reverse engineer the source code in order to figure out how and where the game stored information, and how to change it.”

Bahamut Lagoon was one such game, and the coding was quite complex. “Bahamut won on the popularity and cool factor, but was as not an easy sell in terms of hacking and translating — which is what most often kills a ROM hack project,” Dark Force noted.

But the DeJap team was a powerhouse, and they managed to see it through. “Neill was of course amazing to work with because he was as knowledgeable as me, so we could have really technical conversations and make progress very quickly and didn’t try to impress each other,” Dark Force explained. “Tomato was really great to work with because he pushed so hard on the translation and he really wanted it localized not just translated, as we did, but also he wanted to preserve the dirty jokes and nature of the original game, so we went to great lengths to preserve as many double-entendres with item names, and the script in general, as much as possible to preserve that aspect of the game.

“The thing is we were all on the same page and all driven to succeed in a different area so we all just worked really well together. It was the 2nd best collaboration after Star Ocean (which probably set a precedent for most people ever contributing to a project) and definitely what made the project successful.”

DeJap’s tendency for localization was quite controversial at the time, and I’ve covered the localization vs. literal translation debate before in regards to anime. In any case, they were certainly on the localization side of things.

Besides localization, there were little changes made to the game. One exception is a particularly funny Easter egg that caught my eye while I played through Bahamut Lagoon, a dig at the original developers of the game from Dark Force himself.

I love this sort of hacky stuff, so I decided to ask Dark Force about it:

“That Easter egg was a long time coming. When I started working on Bahamut Lagoon, the areas Neill was stuck on weren’t simple ones. I had no idea how much work that game would be when I first signed on to it. There was still some text that hadn’t been extracted and some didn’t make sense out of context. I remember having to write some util that ran through the game’s engine to figure out which text came in which order and went where. But that was just the beginning, once we had a fair bit of text translated, it was clear that Tomato’s edits weren’t going to fit back into the ROM, even with compression. I rewrote a massive amount of the game’s code, it wasn’t just about editing text, I had to make additional room in the ROM by compressing graphics used on the maps and then find all the code that drew the maps to add in decompression hacks; I had to write a new menu system in order to get a small enough font to display all the letters for our really long item names, I had to create a new text compression algorithm (which decompressed in real-time) in order to even fit the compressed data in memory during gameplay, as well as rewrite parts of the game’s engine for how events are handled, and so on.

“Every time I solved a major issue, another one would just pop up, that combined with the constant crashing during testing (due to not finding all the code injection points) was just extremely frustrating to the point where I needed to vent at Square. It was actually Tomato’s suggestion to write that comment in the script to show how pissed off I was at the game’s code. Even Neill was happy he didn’t need to deal with that mess. It was far more than just a ROM hack and more than I’d ever done before, and the end result (at least the intended one) is that the translation looks translation looks seamless and not cut short in any way. I could have said no to Tomato and told him he had to cut down his script, but I’ve seen the effect that can have on a game and I didn’t want to lose his trust, so I did what I had to do and Square got told to go f*#! themselves.”

For the final question, I asked Dark Force for his thoughts on the game itself; should you, the reader, give it a try?

Bahamut Lagoon – at least at the time – was the coolest strategy game I had played (note that I hadn’t played Fire Emblem yet at that point). Strengths are obviously the graphics and effects, as well as music and the story. Gameplay is average for a strategy game, but the attacks and different dragons help keep it interesting. The dragon raising is also a pretty interesting twist and overall the game can be considered very complex when you take into account all the job/status/dragon building systems and item combinations – my favorite is combining Porno Mags! – and it’s mastering that which allows you to really beat the game.

“On that subject, one of the most fun things to me about the game are the humorous sexual references, because they fit in without really being awkward or forced and it makes it clear that the developers had fun creating the game. I suppose some of the strengths could also be a weakness in that if you just want to play through for the story and don’t care too much about raising dragons and character classifications then you won’t get very far, but that goes for all strategy games. The battle music gets a bit repetitive and old after a while but it doesn’t last that long so it’s not a huge negative. I wish it was given the same production value as Final Fantasy 4/5/6 in some areas, that would have taken it from an amazing game to an exceptional game.”

Dark Force provided much, much more information to NEEMblog over email regarding the ROM hacking scene overall and Bahamut Lagoon in general, probably more words than this entire article. I can’t print it all here, but I’ll eventually find something to write with the rest of the interview.

However, the history of Bahamut Lagoon’s English translation doesn’t end with Dark Force and DeJap in 2002. To get the full history, we actually have to start all over, and reach out to another old-school ROM hacker.

In 1998, not only was Neill Cortlett getting started on a translation of Bahamut Lagoon, but so too was someone else. Another group called Starsoft Translations, headed by future Higan creator Near, would also attempt to translate Bahamut Lagoon during the same year. This being the group’s first “job,” Near and his team would fail due to inexperience and a lack of programming know-how. Near was just an enthusiastic teenager at the time, but his passion for the game was intense.

Near then embarked on what can only be described as an epic quest to finish the project he started as a young man, trying once again in 2001 to fan-translate the game. However, due to “irreparable differences with the script translation,” his second attempt failed as well. Near had not yet actually learned Japanese at this time and was still lacking in hacking prowess, but was dead-set on eventually mastering the very technical skills required for this obscure endeavor. “I made a promise to myself that I would finish the translation no matter what one day,” Near told NEEMblog.

Near honed his skills over the years, creating bsnes, the only Super Nintendo emulator with 100% known compatibility, and releasing English patches for a number of other games. Finally, in December of 2020, he would release the first version of an astounding new patch for Bahamut Lagoon that showcased a number of his new skills. This was not only a personal triumph for Near, but for the entire ROM-hacking community. Near had built on decades worth of his own work and the work of others, and created something of virtual monument to Bahamut Lagoon itself.

Many technical advancements that were essentially impossible in the early 2000s went into the new patch. “My patch uses static rendering, which makes it 20 times faster moving through menus, and without any visual artifacts due to the double-buffering I use. I also polished everything: I have tabular numbers, font kerning, every menu dynamically resizes to be as small as possible so you see more of the game, et cetera,” Near explained. “I also spent many months researching every item, enemy, class name in the game and making sure everything was translated as accurately as possible.”

The final version of Near’s new patch was released on Bahamut Lagoon’s 25th anniversary, February 9th, 2021. Both Near’s patch and DeJap’s patch are quality works from expert ROM hackers, and they each have their own unique charm. I’d definitely suggest trying each version out for a bit before deciding which one you’re going to use.

“This patch was made only for me to fulfill the promise I made to myself,” Near proclaimed before he gave his last words to NEEMblog. “There’s no harm in trying and failing, you can only get better each time. Never give up on your dreams, even if others have gotten there before you. Spend the precious time you have in life working on what you love.”

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