Mother 3, published in 2006 by Nintendo for the Game Boy Advance, has a huge following outside of Japan despite there being no official English translation.
There are ways to play Mother 3 and other games that never got an official translation, of course, such as unofficial fan translations. But now, there’s an automated tool for live translations of video games while playing, which could be helpful for playing any game that isn’t translated into a language that you know.
The Universal Game Translator, as the program is called, is the creation of Seth Robinson, a game designer and retro gaming enthusiast. In a blog post on Thursday, Robinson explained that he’s got a ton of retro games stacked around his apartment, but they’re in Japanese, and his Japanese reading skills aren’t great. Previously, he wrote, he used Google Translate on his phone to translate the games' Japanese text. This wasn’t ideal, so he decided to create a program that would allow Robinson to read live translations while playing on PC or an original console.
“Not exactly sure if it fulfills any needs other than my own,” Robinson told VICE. “I enjoy playing with this kind of stuff and try to work on thing that don’t exist or don’t work like I want them to.”
Robinson's program works by using Google's cloud-based machine learning tools, which are pre-trained to do things like pick out text in an image and translate the words. With the Universal Game Translator and a Japanese-text game running, all a user has to do is press a button in order to send a snapshot of the game screen to Google’s servers. Google scans the image for text and translates it, and the Universal Game Translator overlays the translated text over the original text.
Robinson said he started working on the program a month ago, but that most of the work was done over one weekend. “It didn’t take too much work, as it’s Google’s API doing the heavy lifting,” he added.
Importantly, the Universal Game Translator isn’t a replacement for human translators. Fan translations are a true labor of love—it’s not an easy feat to translate the nuances of language and emotion for a paragraph’s worth of text, let alone a full game. If you’re looking for something that’ll consistently and accurately convey a game’s story, this isn’t the tool.
“All machine translation is horrible,” Robinson wrote in his blog. “It’s just slightly better than nothing and can stop you from choosing ‘erase all data’ instead of ‘continue game’ or whatever.”
Thanks to emulators that mimic old consoles on home PCs, most people these days are playing old Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) on computers, and so the Universal Game Translator has a desktop client. But Robinson said he managed to use the Universal Game Translator with a console and TV by splitting the video signal to run it through a Windows machine, and then reintegrating it with the source video.
Robinson said he got “bad results” with older consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis. Games running on the Sega Saturn, Dreamcast, and PlayStation were more easily translatable thanks to sharper fonts using full kanji, he wrote.
Google supports more languages for translation than just Japanese, and so The Universal Game Translator could be of help to even more people. “Hard to say,” Robinson said. “I guess that’s why I put it up for download. It’s there in case someone searching for that exact thing needs it.”
If you want to try the Universal Game Translator for yourself, Robinson has posted a download link on his website. Be warned: It’s a complicated endeavor, but if you’re someone who’s already dedicated to playing games in a language other than your own, it might just be for you.