This Shining Force III translation has been going on for 12 years
The Sega Saturn had a short lifespan. It came at the wrong time—right before the release of the Sony Playstation—and most players were content to wait a few months for a superior system that cost $100 less.
The Saturn console did not do good numbers. Nor did its games do good numbers; only two games, Virtua Fighter II and Grandia, sold over 1 million copies. And no franchise felt the impact from these sobering statistics worse than Shining Force.
The popular turn-based strategy RPG already had two established, classic games on the Sega Genesis. In July 1998, Sega released Shining Force III for the Sega Saturn in North America—sort of. In Japan, Sega planned and eventually released three games, or “Scenarios,” all under the collective title Shining Force III. When combined, they formed the game’s true ending.
The NA release of Shining Force III, however, only contained Scenario 1—Scenarios 2 and 3 were never released outside of Japan. To play the final two Scenarios, an American player would have to own a Japanese Saturn console, and even then, they would need to translate from Japanese to English to understand the plot. In those early days of the Internet, there were downloadable scripts that one could refer to, but obviously, this was not enjoyable or ideal. This was a game that, like mant JRPGs, required its players to talk to multiple people in towns, and relayed much of its narrative through exposition.
The ideal was to get under the game’s hood and replace the Japanese in-game text with English text, creating a seamless translation. This proved difficult, and hackers tried to do so unsuccessfully for years. But in 2005, hacker ‘Knight 0f Dragon’ finally cracked the code and created the Shining Force III Translator, which is now freely available online.
With this, the dream of having an English-patched Shining Force III was now a possibility. The only problem was, having created the software, Knight 0f Dragon had little interest in doing the actual translation. So, the translation project was a patchwork, disorganized effort until Steve Simmons, who goes by the online handle ‘legalize freedom!’, joined the project in May 2006.
“I asked, ‘Who's the leader of this thing?’” recalled Simmons in an interview with Zam. “As it turned out, there wasn’t really a leader. There was only one or two people loosely involved in the actual production, and so I decided to learn the software and bring some organization to the project.”
“Only a little bit of the production work had been done at the time,” continued Simmons. “Basically, somebody would come in, excited to help, do a little bit of work, and then disappear.”
So Simmons, by his own admission, bugged Knight 0f Dragon until he knew everything there was to know about the translation software. He then documented how to use it, to give the project some continuity and legacy. Anyone who picked up the software could now use it to its full advantage.
Next came a blunt assessment: What was left to be done?
“The initial starting point for the inserted text was the scripts available on Shining Force Central, which were raw and incomplete in spots,” Simmons said. “When I joined, only a couple of chapters of Scenario 2 had been inserted, and even those were sorely in need of proofreading.”
“There was also the challenge of making everything consistent over three Scenarios,” Simmons continued. “The Scenario 1 English release contained many departures from the series and it was a bit dumbed down from the original Japanese script. And the most visible departure was the ending of Scenario 1. Once the developers decided not to release the other two scenarios outside of Japan, they had to truncate the ending and wrap up the story in the final cutscene.”
So, the team decided to review and patch Scenario 1 as well.
The actual nuts and bolts of the work took time and patience. First, someone would match up the lines in the code with the currently available English script. A translator would review the original Japanese script, ensuring the accuracy in the English script. Then, it had to be proofread. And finally, someone would have to insert those lines into the game file. At the project’s height, Simmons had recruited and organized volunteers into 3-4 different teams, each working on a respective task. The amount of text that needed to be translated and reintegrated was gargantuan.
“In each scenario there about 80-85 game files. In every game file, there are eight to ten pages,” said Simmons.” And on every page, there’s 250 lines. So it's thousands and thousands of lines of text, with 500 or so being unique in every file. To the moon and back.”
There was also some creative license that came with translation. There is no direct equivalent between some Japanese words and English, and this leaves some the writing’s original intent up for interpretation. Even the smallest turns of phrase may require a judgment call. And sometimes, the translators went even further, and tweaked cultural references to make them more contextual for a Western audience.
“For Penko, the penguin character in Scenario 2, her original promoted class was ‘Geisha,’ which is wholly associated with Japanese culture,” said Simmons. “And since her personality is that of an overconfident entertainer, we changed her promoted class to ‘Diva.’ It’s a bit comical, but the penguins are sort of easter egg characters anyway, so it worked perfectly.”
“We picked English spellings from both the US and UK” continued Simmons. Since the project and its host, Shining Force Central, are based in those two countries, it seemed only fitting that both styles were represented. For example, we use the UK spelling for words such as ‘colour’ and ‘armour’ and the US spelling for words such as ‘paralyze’ and ‘realize.’ It’s primarily based on feel.”
Often times, Simmons would email a quick question to a volunteer translator to ensure accuracy. But currently, there is no dedicated translator involved in the project; the most recent one left in April. Now, just as before, volunteers come, lend their expertise for a period of time, and then go. Simmons has been the constant throughout the project’s development.
Simmons is now 47 years old, which means that the first Shining Force game came out when he was 22. He was an immediate fan: the Shining Force franchise cultivated a lifelong love of strategy RPGs. Today, Simmons is married and works in Texas as a computer-aided design modeler for a structural engineering firm, where he models football stadiums and hospitals. But in his spare time, Simmons continues to work on and polish this translation—a translation that has now been going on for over 12 years.
All three Scenario translations are playable at this point, and Simmons releases annual updates. Community members have posted extensive Let’s Plays on YouTube.
All that’s left is to perfect it. Scenario 1 is polished and now considered finished; the ending has been appropriately reworked to reflect the continuing story. Scenario 2 has been completely reviewed and proofread, but it’s only been polished to the start of Chapter 4.
“‘Proofreading’ is all the normal things you think of, such as grammar, punctuation and on-screen presentation,” said Simmons, explaining his final process. “The script receives multiple proofreads. ‘Polished,’ to me, means complete perfection, but it is unlikely that the average player will notice much difference. It involves making sure the storyline is consistent across all three scenarios, and the dialogue flows properly.”
Simmons recently set up a booth at Retropalooza in Houston—for the “fun of it,” he says. This was also the first time Simmons accepted donations, though it wasn’t specifically for the translation project; it was to recoup the cost for the booth, which Simmons paid out of his own pocket. To date, no one involved in the project has made a dime off of it. The people who really care about the project, who persist with it and attempt perfection, are what remain. For more information on the project and what you can do to help, you can visit the official website and visit the official forums to learn more.
“It's not like anyone is officially committed to work on the project. And that means only true fans are delivering it, as it should be,” said Simmons. “A volunteer’s commitment is only to him or herself, and to giving the game the translation it deserves.”