cfc2.jpg['Quiz Me Quik' is a new weekly GameSetWatch column by journalist Alistair Wallis, in which he picks offbeat subjects in the game business and interviews them about their business, their perspective, and their unique view of life. This time, we talk to the translator of a classic handheld card battler.]

I’m really quite atrociously bad at competitive card games. I missed the whole Magic explosion growing up, and while I admit that I did get into the Pokemon cartoon to a degree that could be considered mildly inappropriate for someone at university, I didn’t even touch the collectable card thing. So, yes, part of it is simply that I have very little interest in it, but it doesn’t excuse how mind-blowingly bad I’ve appeared to be the few times I’ve tried video game based card games.

I was, for example, invited to the Kongregate Kongai card game beta to go along with the interview I did with Jim Greer and David Sirlin which appeared a couple of days back. I had to admit to Jim that I really can’t say whether or not the game is any good, because I suck so viciously at it. Mildly embarrassing stuff.

But enough about my shortcomings. It’s obvious that there is a real interest in card games, especially when they happen to revolve around a premise as blatantly awesome as SNK Vs. Capcom: Card Fighter’s Clash. Characters from the most beloved fighting games series around in super deformed appearance, with cards! Even I can recognise the appeal in that.

There are currently three games in the series – two for the Neo Geo Pocket Color, and a more recent one for the DS. The first game proved reasonably popular as far as niche titles go, but the second was never released outside of Japan. And the less said about the DS effort the better. So, a translation project, helmed by one Flavor, was started in late 2001, and finally – after a number of roadblocks and pauses – completed in March.

To celebrate what is a pretty mammoth effort, we talked with Flavor about all the goings-on regarding the project, and received some astoundingly in-depth answers about topics such as his Card Fighter’s Clash fandom, why it’s all taken so long, and why the Lost Church is now a Rooster Church.

GSW: When did you first encounter CFC2?

Flavor: I had been kinda watching the Neo Geo Pocket Color a little just because I'm interested in handheld stuff. I was into Game Boy development at the time. I went to a local shop and they had a used copy of Card Fighter’s Clash there. I bought it without even owning a Neo Geo Pocket Color. Then I had to get myself an actual NGPC of course. I really liked that game.

Anyway, fast forward a bit to when CFC2 came out: one of the other developers called Fuz talked to me about it, and he ended up ordering it directly from SNK, as I recall. I've never been into trying to play Japanese games. I just figure it's a bit too much work for me, and with a text intensive game like CFC, it just wasn't worth it. I didn't buy it.

I suppose, at the time, I figured that the previous one came out in English, so this one would, too. Obviously, SNK crashed and took down all the NGPC development with it, so there never was an official English version.

GSW: So you decided to translate it simply because the game has never been released in English?

F: Once SNK died, I knew that there was no chance of the game coming out in English. A lot of people - including myself of course - liked CFC1, so I thought that it would be nice to make the game playable at least. I didn't intend on making a full translation.

GSW: Do you consider it a vast improvement over the previous game?

F: I didn't - nor do I now - consider it a real improvement over CFC1. CFC1 has a different feel to the "story mode" parts. It's more like playing Pokemon where you walk around and talk to NPCs. You battle them and, when you win, get cards from them so that you can make your deck better. You're pretty much free to wander and talk and figure out things on your own.

cfc2-1.gifCFC2 is, at the core, very similar in gameplay, but it has a rather different feel as far as the story mode. Now, I didn't know some of this until I really got into translating the story, but it's very linear.

It's more like a "story" that you help tell. The story doesn't progress until you beat the next opponent. You can always go back and challenge any of the opponents you've previously beaten, and that's important for building up your deck. Though, re-playing previous opponents won't give you any new information, it will just help make your deck better so that you can beat the next guy to progress the story.

Both are well done, so I don't think either is better. They're just different. I do, however, think that the game mode of CFC2 is slightly better because it features new cards.

Notably, it includes a new type of card called the REACTION card. CFC1 had ACTION cards that could be used during your turn to affect things in the game. REACTION cards are like ACTION cards, but they can be used in response to the opponents attack. I like the new complexity and possibilities that the extra cards add. Though, I can completely understand someone that prefers the slightly more simple gameplay of CFC1.

GSW: Are you a fan of Card Fighters DS?

F: No, in fact, that's the main reason I re-started this translation project.

GSW: When did you begin translation, and how many other people did you work with?

F: Somewhere around October of 2001, we started working on translating the cards of CFC2. Originally, I thought it would be cool if we could just translate the card names and some of the menus. I don't recall exactly how it all came together, but I recruited about two other guys.

Let's just get this out of the way now: I don't know a lick of Japanese. To me, looking through Japanese characters is like searching for meaning in Rorschach inkblot tests. Sure, in a pinch, I can try to match a character up with something I found elsewhere, but even that takes a lot of time for me. My brain just isn't trained for that sort of recognition.

Anyway, as I recall, I had a guy helping me with graphics and a guy helping me with some translations. I think we used some Babelfish for help sometimes, but mainly we used the excellent FAQs from GameFAQs.com.

That way, we didn't really have to translate much. We would just find the card, look it up on the FAQ, and then convert it to the English name. This worked fine for the card names and their ability names. One of the nice things was that CFC2 already had English characters built in. Well, it had capital letters built in, anyway. So, we did the card/ability names. We were just starting out.

At the time, and still to this day, one of the best NGPC hackers was a guy called Judge. If I ever had a technical NGPC question, he would be the guy I could ask. At some point, probably via IRC, I started talking to him about my CFC2 translation project. Imagine my amazement when he told me that he also had his own CFC2 translation project. So, we decided that the best way to move forward was to merge the two projects.

Our project had been mostly a hack. Judge's approach turned out to be fairly intelligent. I hadn't really intended to take it as far as Judge had, but I'm glad we worked together because I learned a lot from him and the code he wrote for this project. It really is, now, the basis for the whole translation project.

So, pretty much, that left me managing the project and working on hacks. Judge continued to edit his tools and I asked the other guys for help when we needed it. It was going great, and we released a Work-In-Progress version of the translation project on December 14th of 2001 and promptly moved on to other things - halting all work that may have been in progress.

I don't think any of the rest of the team worked in it after that. For a little while, I worked on some ideas that I had to make the translation portion of the project more accessible to anyone on the outside that might offer some translation help. I converted all the game text (both the original Japanese and our English versions) to HTML and tried to get some people interested. Though, I didn't really know who to ask, and nobody really wants to translate a whole game script just for fun.

cfc2-2.jpgSo, fast forward again from early 2002 to 2007: I was fairly excited. SNK - well, SNK Playmore anyway - was going to release a new CFC game. Wow, after all these years, they finally realized that people liked CFC enough to make a new game. This was awesome news. Sure, the reviews based on the Japanese release of Card Fighters DS weren't so hot, but come on, this game was awesome. Even a sub-par version of a great game like CFC would have to be good. Right?

So, if the reviews based on the Japanese version weren't glowing, how do you think a very poorly translated English version of the game would be received? Oh, and be sure to calculate that many of the people excited about this game were interested in it because of their experience with CFC1 on the NGPC, and that the game played mostly nothing like the original CFC1.

Was it a bad game? Well, I'd like to say no, but it was very disappointing.

So, I figured I'd do something about it. There were people out there that were expecting a sequel to CFC1, and they were disappointed when they got something else. I know that there were people like that out there, because I was one of them. I could deliver a proper sequel to CFC1, and I could even make it play on the DS, with some emulation required.

I decided to resurrect my project, and I started talking to one of the guys that was running the Jump Ultimate Stars translation project. They had a cool idea to convert all the game text into HTML so that outsiders could help translating the game.

Well, even though it doesn't sound much different than the idea I had in 2002, it was very much more accessible to these would-be outsiders because they had an actual interface where a translator could read the Japanese version of a string, and then type in the English translation. Get enough translators - or one highly-motivated translator - and it'll just work itself out.

So, I set out trying to fix up my text extraction tool so that it would be more accessible to translators. I also talked to the guy running the JUSTP website and discussed how I might get my text into an interface like the JUSTP. He was even somewhat willing to try to help host it for me, but I needed to get it in a proper format and then he'd have to figure out how to host it alongside his current project.

Well, it started sounding to me like it would be a hassle to get my stuff on his website. I decided to come up with another way to work on it. I fixed up the text extraction tool even more, and I started working on a new text insertion tool. This way, I could extract all the Japanese text into a file. Then, a translator could translate the strings in the file and give them back to me. These translated strings could then be re-inserted into the ROM using my insertion tool. It sounds easy, but there were obviously bumps along the road. The system ended up working out very nicely though, because I stumbled upon Calden.

Calden is the reason that we have a translated CFC2 storyline. I really had no idea how to find a translator. I figured that there were two types of people in this world: those that can translate Japanese and those that can't. The people that want CFC2 in English are probably among those that can't. That leaves us with the rest of the population that really has no motivation to work on CFC2 English.

So, one day I just decided to look around a lot of places on the web to see about translators in general. I even got curious how much these guys make for smallish projects. Perhaps it was divine intervention, because at one classified ads for translators seeking work sort of site, there was an ad for a guy that wanted some small projects that he was offering to do for free.

He wanted to build up his portfolio. Perhaps he also just liked translating Japanese for fun. Well, I contacted him, and the rest is history.

Calden is a busy guy. Calden is a smart guy. Calden amazes me. He stuck with the project when I think most people would have just ignored it and worked on real life. Going into the project, he knew nothing about SNK, Capcom, CFC, NGPC, etc. He also had to deal with the oddities of translating stuff ripped from a game ROM and meant to re-insert. I mean, my text will include things like {0x0B], which means to me that a new line is going to start.

Why would Calden want to deal with weird little stuff like that? That's out of the realm of a small project one would want to donate some time for, right? Anyway, I don't know. All I can say is thanks, Calden. You amaze me. If anyone wants to donate back - even just your thanks - to the guy that donated a lot of his time for virtually no reward, leave a comment on the CFC2English blog.

So, essentially my new extraction/insertion tools combined with Calden equals CFC2 English storyline.

GSW: What are the challenges in translating a Pocket Color game?

F: I had never worked on a project like this before, but I am pretty proficient with hacking tools; hex editor and whatnot. Previous to my work with Judge's code for this project I had never really given much thought to how the strings in a ROM file would be stored. I mean, if I thought about how it would work from a programming/machine-code perspective, I could have figured it out, but I never needed to before.

Anyway, so I hadn't really considered that there would be a pointer table with pointers to a whole bunch of static strings. Each string would be NULL (0x00) terminated and the following string would be directly after it. This is how it's laid out in the ROM file. It's actually rather simple. The real issue is to figure out and understand all the control codes. As a quick example, you may encounter a 0x00 in the middle of a string.

If you were just parsing a bunch of strings, you might take that as a NULL character and assume that it ends the string. Though, if it is part of a control sequence - like maybe 0x80,0x00 - then the character in front of the 0x00 might mean that the following character controls something in the game; like which character to draw on the screen. So, perhaps "0x80,0x00,H,e,l,l,o,!,0x00" might mean to draw Haruna on the screen and print "Hello!" at the bottom.

While we're on the topic of strings, let's get to the big challenge of many Japanese to English translation projects: character width. The Japanese character set can say a lot in a space of 8-pixels x 8-pixels. If you convert all the Japanese tiles into the English alphabet, you can then - easily in our case - say any English word that you want to.

cfc2-3.jpgcfc2-4.jpgThe problem is that each English letter will be an 8x8 tile. That's not all bad, because a fixed-width font is easy to read on a small screen. The real problem here is that you may need a lot of English characters to say something that a single 8x8 Japanese character could say, so you run out of room on the screen very quickly when printing English.

A nice solution is to make a variable-width font so that a skinny letter like "l" or "i" doesn't take up a whole 8x8 tile. It might only take up 2x8. Then, you can fit more on the screen. However, this is rather difficult, because it means that you now must hack the game code to figure out how wide a tile is and then place it on the screen. Furthermore, the NGPC only operates in full tiles, so what you really have to do is dynamically put letters together until they make a full tile and print only full tiles at a time.

There are all sorts of problems that arise from this because the original game didn't intend for some things to be smaller than 8x8. One of the main things that I worked on was getting the name entry screen to work in a usable manner. The code that lets the user move around the screen and select a letter assumes that each letter is 8-pixels wide. When some aren't, and you want to select the "j" that's next to the "i", it gets tricky. The approach that I used was to put spacing between each letter.

It doesn't look pretty, but it works.

Another challenge I faced was emulation. I know that there are very few people that can play CFC2 on the actual NGPC hardware. I've worked with guys to try to get actual flash writable carts made. I actually know what needs to be done to create such hardware, but I don't have the proper tools and skills to design and produce the hardware.

Well, since people don't have the hardware, then most people will use emulators. I actually am an "author" of one of the NGPC emulators called "RACE! (As In Koyote-Land)." Actually, Judge wrote the emulation core for it. I did a lot of work to bring it to the GP2X and recently it's been ported, by myself and others, to other systems. I want this to be playable on the go, and an emulator that will run on other handheld platforms is the main way people will do it.

GSW: So were there many lines of text that you had to drastically rethink in order to fit?

F: No, I wouldn't say drastically. Some took some time, but it wasn't that bad. I always have it in the back of my mind that the player won't really care about a poor translation here or there when they're getting a fully playable game. Also, I knew that no matter what, I couldn't be worse than Card Fighters DS.

The most difficult ones were probably the card names and ability names. They have a pretty small window – in terms of the space on the card - that they need to fit into. I had to creatively re-name some cards. For example, a guy just asked on the blog comments:

”Isn't the card ‘Angel Wings’ supposed to be ‘Seraphic Wings’?”

Well, "Seraphic Wings" is just too long to fit on there.

GSW: What's the deal with the whole Lost Church/Rooster Church thing?

F: It's the whole L and R thing in the conversion from Japanese to English and vice-versa. I think Judge, or whoever, originally translated it as "Rosta Church". Then he had to decide what English word that was closest to.

Think of a Japanese guy saying "Rosta" to you. Then think how he would say "Lost". Sounds pretty similar, eh? Calden translated it as "Rooster" and then a big conversation ensued. I found more and more clues to support Calden's claim. Ultimately, I found that the original CFC2 official website listed it as "Rooster" and that was that.

As a side note, and a testament to how bad the Card Fighters DS translation is, there is a character in CFC2 named "Lip." She is the principal. Now, if we were just translating it without any "official" help, Calden would have translated her name as "Rippu Sensei".

However, we know from the official CFC2 website that her name is "Lip." We decided to call her "Principal Lip," because we think she's the headmaster of the school. Anyway, a guy wrote a message to me and mentioned that in Card Fighters DS they call the same character "CEO Rip”. SNK called her "Lip" while SNK Playmore calls her "Rip." Nice effort there.

GSW: How much of the art needed to be redone? How did you go about that?

F: Well, first off, I wouldn't call the stuff that needed to be redone "art." I'd call it graphics, though. Some of the menus use buttons that include text instead of just plain text. Those needed to be translated, but it's not part of the game text, so it's not included in my export/import process. We used a program called Tile Layer Pro to edit the ROM graphics. I found most of the graphics needing translation with TLP, and a guy called Comic-Kaze did most of the TLP graphical editing.

cfc2-3.jpgActually, the current release still has some graphics of minor importance left in Japanese. I've been working on getting them translated. I'm almost done with them. That's not to say that the game will be Japanese-free when I'm done. Even the main CFC2 splash screen still has Japanese in it. Some of those screens are just too difficult to bother editing.

The NGPC, as with many handheld systems, uses tiles to make up the screen. In many cases, all the tiles to make a graphic are found in order in the ROM file. Using TLP, one could just browse the ROM and find interesting graphics. The problem is that the tiles don't have to be in any particular order.

Now, most graphic editing tools would put the tile in order. What the editing tools will also do is to optimize out redundant tiles. For example, if you had a graphic that went "1,2,3,4", in the ROM you would probably find tiles 1, 2, 3, and 4 in order one after another. Though, if you had a graphic that went "1,1,1,2,1,3,4", in the ROM, in the ROM you would probably find tiles 1, 2, 3, and 4 in order one after another.

That's because it only needs to store the 1 tile once. There's a map that would reference the tiles somewhat like a paint-by-number picture. The problem comes when translating "1,1,1,2,1,3,4", because if you edit the 1 tile, you're actually editing 4 of the tiles that make up the whole picture. Hopefully I explained that somewhat clearly.

GSW: Why did you need to make a decision in regards to the system? Wouldn't it always be a patched ROM?

F: Yeah, but there was the emulation issue. I would have loved to make a Nintendo DS executable that just played CFC2 on the DS - assuming that you could run homebrew on your DS. I mean, it could have been like a prequel to the current Card Fighters DS game. But, now, it's an emulator that runs a ROM that must first be IPS patched. It's a lot of steps that up the cost of entry for many players.

I would prefer just anyone to be able to download the game and try it out on their favorite piece of hardware. It pains me a bit to know that there are people out there that will download the IPS file and realize that there are a few more steps that need to be taken before playing the game. Some will even go as far as figuring out what the steps are, but ultimately there is some number of people that will just not play it at all only because it wasn't all automatically set up for them.

During the project, I noticed that people wanted to play on the PSP. It really is the best option now, in my opinion. Anyway, my main motivation for fixing up RACE-PSP was for people to play CFC2. I'd love for people to play it on an actual NGPC, and I'm still working that angle, but the reality is that hardly anyone has the flash cart that will allow them to play a patched ROM on their NGPC hardware.

I don't think most people really want to play handheld games on their PC/Xbox/Dreamcast/etc., so that leaves the handhelds. As far as I know, as of now, CFC2 English should run on PSP, Nintendo DS, GP2X, GP32, and Gizmondo.

GSW: How much of an audience do you think the game has? Was that a factor in deciding to translate it?

F: Small. It wasn't a factor at all. I keep trying to come up with a way to find a larger audience. It's not that I care to get more players. It's just that I feel that part of my job now it to find all those CFC1 players, like myself, that thought they'd never get to play CFC2 because it was never officially released in English. If they know about our translation and they choose not to play it, that's totally fine, but if they live out the rest of their life always wishing that CFC2 was released in English, that's just tragic.

Just as a note, a bit after I restarted this project, I put up the blog site. I added a poll just to see what kind of responses I'd get. As of now, there have been 393 votes. I know that not everyone that comes to the site will vote, but I also know that there have been people that only came to vote, because they wanted me to port the emulator to a specific system.

I don't know if they even out or not. I suppose that it's fair to assume that there are less than 1000 people that know/care about the project. That's a small amount, whether it's 999 or only 99.

Of course I'd rather have it be 999.

GSW: Are you planning on working on anything else?

F: I've always got something else to work on. Though, I don't often plan what will be the next project. I don't know. I was fixing up the Dreamcast version of RACE the other day. That's pretty much done now, though. I've got some other ideas, but my main upcoming project is raising a - to be in about a month - newborn daughter.