Back in 1999, Japanese RPG developer Squaresoft was on top of the world. Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 8 were blockbuster hits and every other original RPG released seemed destined to become a cult classic. But even at the height of its popularity, Square was still publishing games that it felt were too specialized, too difficult to translate, or too Japanese to be released in the west. One of them was Racing Lagoon, an RPG that blended trendy street racing and bizarre, almost poetic writing into a game that almost defies description. Imagine if EE Cummings wrote the script for a Fast & Furious movie and you’ll be pretty much on your way.
22 years later, Racing Lagoon is finally playable in english– and we have a fan translator who goes by the name of “Hilltop Works” to thank for channeling his singular style into English, creating the best gaming diss since “Spoony Bardes”.
“This lady who is the boss of Chinatown is insulting you, and I wanted to use ‘green beans’, an insult that no one has used before, I don’t think,” he said. “But you hear it and you kind of understand what it means, you know? ‘Green beans’ means someone who’s kinda young, not fit to be where you are. The line was, ‘Grab- the, green beans?Chinatown has rules.'”
In Japanese, insult is something simple like “kid”, but awkward localization works in a game that’s famous even in Japan. Hilltop says Racing Lagoon has had something of a rediscovery at home in recent years, because even there, there’s nothing else like it. “They call the speech Lagoon-go, “go” meaning accent, where each character adds random English words and speaks very poetically. »
This unique language has made Racing Lagoon a difficult translation process, but it has also happened at an astounding rate in the world of fan translations. These projects often take year as volunteer writers and hackers come and go. Many are abandoned and never completed. But Hilltop announced the Racing Lagoon translation on May 23 and released the finished patch on November 11, just under six months later.
“When I announced the project and when I released the prologue patch, nobody else had worked on it. I did the programming, I did the editing, I was planning on doing it all myself- even until people contact me,” Hilltop said. . But he hadn’t anticipated how many people had had similar reactions to Racing Lagoon over the years as he had when he discovered it.
PancakeTaicho quotes The music of Racing Lagoon as the main reason he fell in love with the game. “The soundtrack is a world in itself that I just wanted to hang out in all the time,” he says.
If you want to buy a super rare CD of the jazz fusion saxophone moaning over techno, be prepared to pay up to $1,000.
“I just want people to see this game. This game is wild. This game is absolutely crazy. There’s nothing like it, at all, and people need to see it,” he says. “I consider this game to be a beautiful diamond. It’s crystal clear – no part of it could really ever be recreated.”
The street racing aesthetic of the late ’90s is intensely nostalgic for 30-somethings who grew up watching Initial D, playing Gran Turismo and coveting Nissan Skylines. Suddenly, there was a chance that this cult item could be playable in English, and people who loved the game jumped at the chance to help.
“My friends must have suffered from me talking about it nonstop for the past decade,” says Syd-88, who joined the translation project not as a translator, but as an automotive consultant. Syd first played Racing Lagoon in 2011 and has wanted to help others play it easier for years.
“The game delves into Japanese tuner culture as a whole in a way that I’ve never seen anything else before or after,” says Syd. Gran Turismo was its contemporary, but only for legal racing. Tokyo Xtreme Racer drew on street racing, but was more grounded, lacking Racing Lagoon’s unique story or language.
Translator PancakeTaicho currently lives in Japan, where he first saw a copy of Racing Lagoon in a second-hand game store during a trip in 2009. He loved Initial D, so he bought the game and s found himself unexpectedly obsessed with the soundtrack. “I’ve listened to it more than anything in my whole life, I think,” he says. PancakeTaicho actually tried to learn ROM hacking a few years ago and worked on Racing Lagoon, but didn’t have the technical skills to make it work. When he saw Hilltop’s tweet, he jumped at the chance to help translate. Before long, Hilltop’s solo project had grown into an eight-person team effort.
Hilltop works in video game quality assurance by day and on the translation of Racing Lagoon in his spare time, dividing the heavy script among the volunteers and hosting editing sessions where they talk through the scenes line by line. “Hilltop is like, I don’t mean jack of all trades because that means it looks like he’s no good,” PancakeTaicho said. “I think he’s more like a one-man army. There’s all the programming stuff, but I think he’s also a really good locator. He has a knack for helping find the right line, the right turn of phrase.”
Racing Lagoon is actually only Hilltop’s second translation project after Dr. Slump, a PS1 game based on the Akira Toriyama comic manga set before Dragon Ball. He studied computer science in college but never became a full-time programmer and started learning Japanese years ago by listening to tapes while commuting.
“What could I do with those two skills? It was fan translation,” he says. “I wanted to do something with my life. I was unemployed at the time, I wasn’t doing very well. And I had never really produced anything – ever, really – for public consumption.”
Learning PS1 romhacking was difficult. For the first three months, he was just trying to figure out how to hack Dr. Slump and figure out data compression, a programming area he had no experience with. His notebook from the beginning of this project is filled with pages of assembly language code that he was trying to debug. Eventually he figured it out and was able to extract the script. On Racing Lagoon, the same process only took two days.
Although he now has a day job in game quality assurance, Hilltop has found fan translation “extremely” fulfilling in a way that no paid job ever has. While most fan translators seem content to treat it purely as a hobby, and others are professional translators who occasionally embark on a hobby project, Hilltop falls somewhere in the middle. He started a Patreon for Hilltop Works, which states that if he can get 600 monthly contributors, he will quit his job and work on translation fixes full time. When we spoke halfway through the Racing Lagoon translation, he hoped the surge of interest at the end would bring more support to Patreon. “If I could do this forever, I would 100% do it,” he says. “I would much prefer that to just about anything.”
The question now is whether the group that came together on this project will stick around for whatever Hilltop decides to translate next, or if Racing Lagoon was an irresistible anomaly. It’s truly rare to find a game with such a rich history as Racing Lagoon that ties so directly to the larger culture of the time it was created.
“Someone went around Japan and laser scanned many locations,” Syd-88 says. “So someone had a lot of passion and wanted to capture that moment in time. Hell, I’m not sure you could recreate something like that today. It wouldn’t have the same charm or the same effect.”
Hilltop adds that there’s a running theme in Racing Lagoon about how parts of Yokohama, where the game takes place, are westernized – that things that were once written in Japanese letters are written in English letters as part of the “21st century change”.
“A direct translation of the script would be gibberish,” he says. “Half is weird, random English words – half is poetic nonsense, the other half is just obtuse ridiculousness. We need to cobble together that into a script that not only makes sense, but still has that flavor, which still feels like you’re playing a 90s Squaresoft JRPG… I wonder if all of this really isn’t some kind of wild commentary that somehow went through everyone’s head on the how the local culture, the local scene, was slowly being crushed by these Western influences.”
It’s perhaps ironic that it took a full English translation to bring Racing Lagoon’s commentary to the surface after two decades. Even though the Racing Lagoon fan translators are now splitting up, Hilltop has plenty of other ideas for PS1 games to work on next, and hopes to one day go beyond that. fan translations while remaining independent.
He loves the whole process: writing, tweaking, reworking the graphics. “The absolute dream scenario is that I would actually work, say a company wants to re-release a PS1 game, they’ll hand me the disc and say ‘give me that in English,'” he says. a dream come true.”