Myria can’t remember exactly when she found out about Final Fantasy’s number problem—it was either 1996 or 1997—but she does recall seeing an advertisement for Final Fantasy VII. “We’re like, ‘Huh, seven?’” she said, echoing the thoughts of RPG fans across the United States. Just a few years earlier, in 1994, Squaresoft had released Final Fantasy III on the Super Nintendo. How’d they get from three to seven?
As it turns out, Square was holding out on North America. The venerable publisher had passed on localizing both Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III on the Nintendo Entertainment System, so when it came time to bring Final Fantasy IV to the west, they called it Final Fantasy II. Then, Square decided to skip Final Fantasy V, although they briefly considered releasing it here with a different name, according to their head localizer, Ted Woolsey. When they brought over Final Fantasy VI, they called it Final Fantasy III.
As Myria started to research Square’s weird localization choices, she started thinking about getting involved with unofficial fan projects. She’d always been obsessed with RPGs, and she’d noticed that Final Fantasy IV (II)’s script was particularly messy, full of clunky sentences and awkward word choices. “I wanted to redo that game,” Myria said. “It was a horrible mess in terms of its translation.”
While browsing the internet one day in the late 90s, Myria stumbled upon a group of likeminded geeks that called themselves RPGe. Hanging out in an IRC channel, they’d talk about their favorite Japanese role-playing games and make ambitious plans to write English translations for the ones that never made it west. When she found them, they were talking about localizing Final Fantasy V, which they’d do by cracking open a Japanese version of the game’s ROM file and translating the script to English. Myria was intrigued, putting aside her hopes of redoing FFIV. Final Fantasy V sounded way cooler. (A group called J2E would later retranslate FFIV to subpar results, as documented by Clyde Mandelin on his Legends of Localization website.)
Unlike the two NES games that we’d missed out on, Final Fantasy V was by all accounts excellent. People lucky enough to understand FFV in Japanese reported that it was a blast to play, with a solid story and an elaborate class-changing system that allowed players to customize their party in creative ways. It could be difficult, which was one of the reasons Square hadn’t brought it west, but RPG fans wanted to check it out nonetheless.
Problem was, RPGe’s methods were flawed. Nobody had done anything like this before, so there was no institutional knowledge about how to handle fan translations. The RPGe crew had dug up a Japanese ROM of Final Fantasy V, then cracked it open and started editing the text files, directly translating chunks of the game from Japanese to English. But these files were finicky and tough to handle. When you changed a line of Japanese to English in the ROM, it wouldn’t display neatly in the game, because Japanese characters were rendered so much differently than English ones. Japanese characters are bigger than English letters, and one sentence that takes 12 characters in English (“how are you?”) might just take three characters in Japanese (“元気?”). Final Fantasy V capped each line of dialogue at 16 characters, which looked fine in Japanese but would make an English translation garbled and hard to read.
What they needed to do, Myria realized, was edit not just the text files but also the code that Final Fantasy V used to handle those text files. “I really felt they had the wrong approach,” she said. “That was really my big insight to the ROM hacking community, that you can’t just modify the data of the game to make an effective translation—you have to modify the code as well.”
In order to localize a Japanese game in English and make it readable, Myria decided they would need to reprogram the game. Their version of Final Fantasy V would need to understand that English letters, unlike Japanese characters, have different sizes. They’d need to teach the game that each dialogue box should allow more English characters (including those pesky spaces) than it does Japanese kanji or kana.
Myria (who at the time went by the internet handle Barubary; both names are references to Breath of Fire) started talking with SoM2freak, a Japanese-English translator she met online, about splitting off from the rest of RPGe. By mid-1997, they were making plans to start their own translation of Final Fantasy V, done properly instead of hacked together. “I ignored those people who I felt didn’t know what they were doing,” she said. “We started our own sub group within [RPGe] because I felt they were not able to do this.”
As SoM2freak translated lines of Final Fantasy V’s Japanese dialogue to English, Myria tried to figure out the best way to implement them into the game. She downloaded a disassembler to break down Final Fantasy V’s code, turning it into a file so massive, she needed a special text management program called XTree Gold just to parse it. Then she started changing variables, using trial and error to discern what each line of code actually did. “There were no references on most of this stuff at all,” Myria said. “I just kind of figured out what to do.”
Perhaps the most controversial of the team’s translation decisions was the main character’s name. If you ask Square Enix, they’ll tell you that the star of Final Fantasy V is a man named Bartz. But if you played the fan translation, you’d see a different name: Butz.
On October 17, 1997, Myria and crew released “v0.96,” the first public version of FFV’s fan translation. It went viral, making its way across IRC channels and message boards as RPG fans began to discover that there was a cool new Final Fantasy that none of them had gotten to play. Although SNES emulators were nascent and rough, it wasn’t too tough to get your hands on one. It was also simple for the average gamer to get a copy of Final Fantasy V and the English patch, which you could apply by following a set of simple instructions in the Readme file. “[The patch] really just spread on its own,” said Myria. “It quickly got news in the emulation community and people started playing it at that point. We didn’t have to market it at all.”
Final Fantasy publisher Squaresoft never contacted RPGe about their translation, according to Myria, even though their U.S. offices were in Costa Mesa, just a few miles away from her parents’ house. But in September of 1999, an official English version of Final Fantasy V finally made its way to North America. This version, bundled with Final Fantasy VI in a PS1 compilation called Final Fantasy Anthology, was a mess.
In the PS1 translation of Final Fantasy V, main character Faris insisted on speaking like a pirate for the entire game.
“We were laughing so hard,” said Myria, “because the translation was absolutely awful. We were like, ‘OK, a couple kids in high school over four months did a better job than Square. It probably took them at least a year. We were just laughing so hard.”
It wasn’t until the 2006 Game Boy Advance port—Final Fantasy V: Advance—that Square would finally release a decently localized version of the mistreated role-playing game, although the main character’s name remained Bartz. “When the Game Boy Advance version came out, I was like, ‘Oh my god, they finally beat us,’” said Myria. “It took them eight years, but they finally did a better translation than ours.”