There are clarifying moments in life, forcing one to ponder how to spend the unknowable time we have left. COVID-19 made 2020 a rough year for just about everyone. Combined with other personal traumas, it resulted in that clarifying moment for Near, an online programmer best known for their historic work on bsnes, a foundational gaming emulator whose focus on accuracy has been hugely influential on the modern archival landscape.
"It forced me to re-evaluate how I wanted to spend the rest of my life," they said. "I took a few months off the Internet entirely and really tried to find what it was I wanted to do, for myself."
Their mind settled on an unfinished project they’d been working on, in various forms, since 1998, when they were a young and inexperienced 15-year-old amateur programmer. A time when they were so obsessed with JRPGs that they wanted to help localize what hadn't been translated in English, during an era when there was little documentation on how to accomplish that, and so they learned how to program solely to make this localization a reality.
This unfinished project was Squaresoft's Bahamut Lagoon, a game about raising and fighting wartime dragons released on the SNES in Japan on February 9, 1996—a little under a year after the genre-defining Chrono Trigger and a month before Super Mario RPG. (Today, Squaresoft is Square Enix, following a merger with Enix in 2003.) It was a period when Squaresoft was red hot in the world of JRPGs, but was not yet such a household name than anything it made was, without question, released to the rest of the world.
The thing is, as of 2020, perfectly acceptable and celebrated localizations of Bahamut Lagoon had already been released. It's not as though it was impossible for the world to play Bahamut Lagoon. Unlike Near's trailblazing work on SNES emulation, which allowed people to experience older games the way they were meant to be played with their computers, this was a personal mission, an accomplishment that had far more to do with pride and history, with the cursed knowledge that, for 23 years, they've tried and failed to localize this game.
"I have attempted this fan translation five times," they said. "The reason I've started over each time was because I learned more, and felt I could do better. The reason I've released this fifth attempt is because I no longer believe there's anything left that can be improved upon."
It is not a surprise, perhaps, to learn Near's personal website includes an autobiographical section that proudly notes they have an "overwhelming drive to achieve perfection" and that "you'll pretty much always find me working on something, as I don't enjoy leisure time."
But why Bahamut Lagoon? This one game? Because Bahamut Lagoon is Near's origin story, and goes back to an era when they went online as byuu, taken from the main character in Bahamut Lagoon because it meant "mistake" and reflected their aggressive perfectionism.
Near's obsessive attitude sprouted a long time ago, while Near was paging through an old video game magazine—EGM or GamePro, they’re not sure—and saw an advertisement for a company specializing in importing games that mentioned Final Fantasy V. Near adored the Final Fantasy series at the time, and the realization that there was a game out there for them to play, even if it was in a language they didn't understand, was alluring. They spent all of their meager savings at the time, even paying $15 for a useless "region adaptor" before realizing you could snap the region-locking tabs on a SNES cartridge, and imported Final Fantasy V.
"At my young age, I thought, 'well I can just study Japanese and then I can make sense of the game."
They could not, and it would take more than 20 years of studying Japanese and moving to Tokyo before Near would become fluent enough to play such a game. But in the meantime, they poked around the still-developing Internet and stumbled into the still-developing fan localization scene, where there were people trying to localize Final Fantasy V into English.
With Final Fantasy V already being taken care of, Near threw themselves, without any experience, into a localization of Dragon Quest I & II, SNES remakes of the original Dragon Quest games that were never released outside of Japan. (Dragon Quest was another series dear to their heart.) Near downloaded a hex editor, a tool that allows someone to modify the ROM data of a game. To the average person, booting a hex editor looks like total nonsense:
But to someone who understands what they're looking at, how it represents game data, it's everything. It proved good practice for Near, as they started borrowing library books to learn Japanese, and tried localizing Dragon Quest I & II. They eventually stopped. They were only 14.
That was 1997. In 1998, Near set sights on Bahamut Lagoon, their eventual white whale. Near was already a fan of games that combined elements of RPGs and strategy games, but for whatever reason, this game spoke to them. And crucially, nobody was trying to translate it.
Near teamed up with like-minded fans to form a group called Starsoft Translations, and hoped to deliver the JRPG community their first English localization of Bahamut Lagoon.
They failed, though the group did release what little they were able to accomplish.
"I started ths group over a year ago in hopes of completing one of my favorite games to exist, to this day," reads a typo-laden statement released on Starsoft's website in 1998. "Unfortunatly i was unexperianced and didnt know what I was doing. All I can say is, until we get someone smart here, Bahamut Lagoon stays japanese."
What's important to realize about the localization process is that it's more complicated than turning words from, say, Japanese to English. That's hard enough, but games are built with code, and that code might, for example, only allow so many characters to be displayed at once, or use a font that doesn't include characters in the English language. This is especially true for older games, built on more limited hardware. Thus, many localizations require the expertise of a programmer who can alter the game code and make those accommodations.
Near was not a programmer. The Bahamut Lagoon failure changed that.
Around this time, Near was blindsided by their parents. The 15-year-old was supposed to spend the summer—all summer—in rural Pennsylvania with their grandmother, and there was a new condition: no computer. We're talking the kind of rural where the only things nearby are a gas station and a grocery store. The nearest McDonalds was at least 20 minutes away.
Their grandmother didn't even own a television, so the prospect of being without a computer, both a hobby and a lifeline, was crushing. The catch: no one had told their grandmother one of the stipulations for the summer was the lack of a computer. So, Near began hatching a plan.
"I would have just had to stare at the walls or corn fields if they had their way," they said. "But I've always been a clever little shit."
At home, Near removed the motherboard and hard drive from their computer and stuffed it at the bottom of their luggage, hidden from sight beneath a cardboard insert. Monitor? Case? Keyboard? Mouse? All of that was left behind, visual evidence the computer was where it was supposed to be, back at home and nowhere near the lazy cornfields of Pennsylvania.
Also in the luggage was every dollar they owned, and when their grandmother picked them up, they asked to stop by CompUSA, a once popular nationwide computer retailer. They rebought everything—monitor, case, keyboard, mouse—and built a new computer in those cornfields.
"I have attempted this fan translation five times. The reason I've started over each time was because I learned more, and felt I could do better. The reason I've released this fifth attempt is because I no longer believe there's anything left that can be improved upon."
The last hangup was Internet access, because, well, there wasn't any. America On-Line, one of the most popular ways to access the Internet via dial-up, did not have a local number, which meant logging on would prompt expensive long-distance charges to ol' grandma.
"We had to arrange a deal with the phone company where they let me use a special long distance number to get online without the toll charges," said Near. "Then I was just a night owl, up at night online so my grandma could use the phone during the day."
That summer, Near became a programmer. They printed out a 200-page document that explained how the SNES CPU worked, and confronted with unlimited time, began trying to understand its secrets. They wanted to build a proportional font engine that would allow them to—well, do you have a second? The short version is best demonstrated by this side-by-side image from Bahamut Lagoon, with a monospaced font (left) and a proportional font (right).
With a proportional font, you can fit a lot more information into the text bubble. The reason everything works this way is highly technical, but largely has to do with SNES' limited RAM.
Despite having ready access to a computer, Near would write down the code onto sheets of paper—"it allows me to scribble wherever, draw"—and then calculate how it'd work in their head. Once they was confident the code made sense, they’d use a hex editor to insert the code into a ROM, and see what did and didn't work. Eventually, they had a proportional font renderer.
The spare parts were left behind at the end of the summer, and their parents never put two and two together. But the legacy of that summer, and Near's gambit, would pay dividends.
Near's experiments in font coding led to another breakthrough, development of what's called a patching assembler, a way to make the lives of people working on fan translations easier.
"Imagine you're making a computer program, and you have all the source code," they said. "You can make changes to it, recompile it, and have a new executable. But with fan translations, we don't have the original source code. We have to patch the original code instead."
It was common at the time for people to manually convert assembler code, the programming language a SNES can understand, into hex code, which can then be stuffed into the ROM via a hex editor—that nonsense you saw above. It was an annoying and laborious process.
What Near came up with simplified all of that, and opened the door for aspiring ROM hackers to tackle more ambitious projects. The assembler, called xas, proved quickly popular, and led Near to meet kammedo, another person who wanted to see Bahamut Lagoon translated. They already had a group they were working with, Yonin no Translators.
This would be Near's second attempt. The year was 2000, and Near was 17 years old. It would, once again, be a failure. But this time, Near was a programmer, which meant they could bend the game to his will. Kammedo was also a programmer. Neither were translators.
Their project page from 2000 illustrates their strengths and weaknesses, showing how they were able to hack the game ROM to accomplish more of their goals. They needed words.
- "Dialogue decompressor : finished
- Dialogue compressor : finished
- Font insertor : finished
- Script/Raw Data converters: finished"
The translation was listed at 25% complete. It would never make it to 100%, and it would be seven years before Near would get the bug again, and attempt to localize Bahamut Lagoon.
A lot happened in those seven years. They spent three of them reprogramming Der Langrisser, a SNES version of the Nippon strategy game Langrisser 2. The localization wouldn't be finished until 2007, but it's considered the gold standard for playing Der Langrisser. More importantly, it's during this era that Near started work on their most important historical contribution: the emulator bsnes, one focused on accuracy over performance.
Bsnes came about because of the work on Der Langrisser. When the team tried to run their work on actual SNES hardware, there were unexpected bugs, because the SNES emulation scene at the time was, as Near/byuu wrote in 2004, "not to duplicate how the system performs, but simply to emulate as little hardware as needed to run commercial ROMs."
The bsnes experiment had a different goal: accuracy.
"Even though without emulators, there may have never even been a translation scene," they continued to write, "a true attempt at hardware emulation is long overdue.”
"We had to arrange a deal with the phone company where they let me use a special long distance number to get online without the toll charges. Then I was just a night owl, up at night online so my grandma could use the phone during the day."
Over and over, Near would encounter a stumbling block and instead of, understandably, shrugging and giving up, tossed the problem on their back. That bsnes has contributed to archiving gaming history is a convenient side effect of building something useful to them.
Near's focus on accuracy, called "cycle-accurate" because of its precision, was controversial early on because bsnes ran like shit, compared to more popular emulators like ZSNES and Snes9x. The games running on ZSNES or Snes9x may not, pixel for pixel, be the same thing on the cartridge, but that didn't matter for most of the people who just wanted to play Super Mario World. You either needed a high-powered machine to enjoy Near's commitment to properly emulating SNES hardware, or wait until the code became more efficient over time.
"Telling gamers their computers weren't fast enough for my software, as it turns out, is a very bad move when you want people to like you," they joked.
During this period, a collaboration between well-known Mother 3 localizer Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin, the localization group Dejap, and ROM hacker Neill Corlett resulted in the first finished localization of Bahamut Lagoon. It was a psychic blow.
"Well, maybe it's vain but ... with the Dejap patch out, I'd say 99% of everyone who would ever play the game had already played it with their patch," they said. "I believe they did the best job one could do in 2001. Having the other fan translation released in 2001 took a lot of the wind out of my sails, but it was still very much something I wanted to do."
A great irony is that, prior to this, Mandelin had reached out to work on Bahamut Lagoon with Near, when their missing piece of the puzzle was a legitimate translator. But a petty disagreement over how to localize a special class of dragons lead to Near posting online, in front of the community, that Mandelin was "butchering the script."
"This isn't something I'm proud of but you have to understand I was still a teenager," they said.
The two would become friends again later, and Near would help with the famous localization of Mother 3, which to this day is the only way to play Nintendo's heralded JRPG in English.
Near's third attempt at localizing Bahamut Lagoon came in 2007. They were 24 years old now, and it was nearly 10 years since they’d first started wrestling with this still-obscure JRPG.
Because Mandelin and Near had patched things up, they didn't have to worry about spending months coming up with an English script—Mandelin gave his blessing to use the one he'd worked on for his own localization project years back. This gave Near space to explore their own expertise, programming, and try to make the game look better than ever before.
One of the problems with the existing patch was that it was extremely slow. Menus could take several seconds to load, and there were noticeable graphical glitches. For someone who was deeply concerned with accuracy, this was unacceptable.
Near came up with a technical solution, but implementing it would have been an overwhelming amount of work, and so the project was canned. But just a year later, like clockwork, the itch returned. Near's programming skills had continued to progress, and they had a few other tricks to make the game run even faster. But they faced the same problem as before: all the re-programming they’d performed on Bahamut Lagoon was ancient, which basically meant rewriting all of his old code in order to make the new tricks work. All of this for a game that had already seen a successful localization. They were even using the same available script.
"I ended up walking away from the project for a really long time that time," they said. "My emulator had really started becoming popular and so I ran with that for a very long time. I also think a part of me knew in 2009 that I had the skill to finish the game for real, and there was a sense of wanting to keep having it as a dream to look forward to one day working on."
That was 2008, and the itch went away for a long time. Or, at least, they tried to ignore it.
"Bahamut Lagoon eventually started to seem like something that wouldn't happen," they said.
In 2018, their work on the emulator higan, a spin-off of bsnes encompassing "cycle accurate" emulation of several machines, resulted in a collaboration with another programmer helping to rebuild the robotic voice of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. The voice machine Hawking used to communicate with the world shared co-processor that was used in, of all things, Super Mario Kart, and Near was the only person to have successfully emulated it.
But a year later, Near publicly retired from the emulation scene, citing a desire for a more private life. This followed a series of escalating privacy intrusions and targeted Internet harassment that resulted in Near seeking professional help to help reduce their anxiety.
"By 2020 with all that'd happened and me not getting any younger, it felt like it was the perfect moment to go back and finish the game once and for all," they said. "[...] The one thing that kept coming up was finishing Bahamut Lagoon. I'm a person that has a really hard time letting go of anything I seriously commit to, and it would have nagged at me perhaps forever had I never finished the game."
In October of last year, Near began writing the first lines of code for what would be their fifth and final attempt to produce their own localization of Bahamut Lagoon. They were 37 years old, and was attempting to close the door on a project they’d been working on for half of their life.
The original plan was for Near to translate the script themselves. Mandelin's script was almost 20 years old at this point, and Near's journey towards Japanese fluency was nearly over. But as a long shot, Near reached out to a well-regarded fan localizer known online as Tom, who's contributed to dozens of highly praised scripts. Tom agreed to be part of Bahamut Lagoon.
Years back, Tom and Near tried to collaborate on another game, but it didn't work out. So when Near publicly announced they were returning to Bahamut Lagoon, Tom reached out.
"I was under the impression that [they] just needed playtesters, not a translator, so I was surprised when [they] asked me if I would translate the script," said Tom. "Though I hadn't ever played the game before, I knew how important it was to them, so I agreed to translate it. The tools that [they] provided made translating the script really easy, so it didn't take long to complete. I was eager to help [them] finish [their] dream project."
Most projects like this take years. Near wanted to release in February, just months away. Near offered to push back the timetable if that was too soon, but Tom said he was up for it.
While Tom worked on words, Near focused on code. And when Near argued perfection, they meant it. This version of Bahamut Lagoon wouldn't just have an English script, and wouldn't just have an English script that looked nice. It wouldn't just be fast. Near was identifying mistakes by the original developers, looking at errors in their code and cleaning them up.
"In the original game, the menu cursors were slightly haphazardly placed and inconsistent. Sometimes they were two pixels to the left of text, sometimes one," they said, pointing to one of several graphical miscues present in the original release. "Sometimes two pixels higher than the center of the text, sometimes one, etc. I updated the positions of every cursor from every screen in the game to be exactly vertically centered and one pixel away from the text."
Part of what fans can do, and part of the magic of working with a digital version of the game instead of a physical cartridge, as would have been the case in 1996, is you can do whatever you want. Near's patch increased the game's ROM size from 24mbit to 64mbit, which would have increased the cost of producing the game. Near doesn't have to worry about that. It's also still "accurate." Maybe not accurate to the game that was released, but there would've been nothing technically preventing Squaresoft from increasing ROM size.
"By not having to pay ROM chip costs, fan translations are in a unique position to be able to transcend the limits of what was financially viable back in the day," they said. "I believe the fan translation scene has long since surpassed commercial translations for the SNES in terms of technique. [...] But had Squaresoft known the techniques I know today, and ROM costs not been an issue, I'd like to think that this is the translation they would have liked to release."
Near's localization of Bahamut Lagoon was released on February 9, 2021, or nearly 25 years after the original release of Bahamut Lagoon. A quest that began in 1997 was over.
"This will be a touch embarrassing," said Near, "but once the very last thing went in that completed the patch, the ending screen graphic that we updated to make the final screen more memorable for players there were certainly tears of elation."
Technically speaking, Near's work on Bahamut Lagoon is not entirely done. There are a few remaining bug fixes, but those will be addressed soon. Then, maybe Near can finally rest.
"This thing that was such a large part of my life, right from the very beginning of my online presence, was finally finished," they said. "I had finally done it. If only I could've shown this to 15 year old me and celebrate with [them]."