In 1999, Japanese RPG developer Squaresoft was on top of the world. Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 8 were blockbuster successes and every other quirky RPG it released seemed destined to become a cult classic. But even at the peak of its popularity Square was still releasing games it decided were too niche, too hard to translate, or too Japanese to release in the west. One of those was Racing Lagoon, an RPG that blended trendy street racing and bizarre, almost poetic writing into a game that nearly defies description. Imagine if E.E. Cummings wrote the script for a Fast & Furious movie and you'll be on roughly the right track.
22 years later, Racing Lagoon is finally playable in English—and we have a fan translator who goes by the name 'Hilltop Works' to thank for channeling its singular style into English, in the process coining the best gaming diss since 'spoony bards.'
"This lady who's the boss of Chinatown throws an insult at you, and I wanted to use 'green beans,' an insult no one's used before, I don't think," he says. "But you hear it and you kind of understand what it means, you know? 'Green beans' means someone who's kind of young, not fit to be where you are. The line was: 'Get it, green beans? Chinatown has rules.'"
In Japanese the insult is something simple like "brat," but the goofy localization works in a game that's famously quirky 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 every character adds in random English words and speaks very poetically."
That unique language has made Racing Lagoon a challenging translation process, but it's also happened at a shocking pace in the world of fan translations. These projects often take years as volunteer writers and hackers come and go. Many are abandoned and never finished. But Hilltop announced Racing Lagoon's translation on May 23 and released the finished patch on November 11, just shy of 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 to do everything on my own until people reached out to me," Hilltop says. But he didn't anticipate how many people had had similar reactions to Racing Lagoon over the years as he had when first discovering it.
PancakeTaicho cites Racing Lagoon's music as the main reason he fell in love with the game. "The soundtrack is a world unto 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 wailing over techno, be prepared to pay as much as $1,000.
"I just want people to see this game. This game is wild. This game is absolutely nutters crazy. There is just nothing like it, at all, and people need to see it," he says. "I think of this game like a beautiful diamond. It's a pure crystal—no part of it could really ever be recreated."
The late '90s street racing aesthetic is intensely nostalgic for 30-somethings who grew up watching Initial D, playing Gran Turismo, and lusting after Nissan Skylines. Suddenly there was a chance that this cult object could be playable in English, and people who loved the game jumped at the opportunity to help.
"My friends have been having to suffer through me talking about it non-stop 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 make it easier for other people to play it for years.
"The game dives into Japanese tuner culture as a whole in a way that I've never seen anything else before or after," Syd says. Gran Turismo was its contemporary, but only for legal racing. Tokyo Xtreme Racer tapped into street racing, but was more grounded, without Racing Lagoon's story or unique language.
Translator PancakeTaicho currently lives in Japan, where he first saw a copy of Racing Lagoon at a used game store on a trip in 2009. He loved Initial D, so he bought the game and unexpectedly found himself 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 videogame QA by day and on the Racing Lagoon translation in his spare time, divvying up the hefty script between volunteers and hosting editing sessions where they talk through scenes line-by-line. "Hilltop is like, I don't want to say jack of all trades, because that means it sounds like he's not good," PancakeTaicho says. "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 localizer. He has a knack of helping find the right line, the right turn of phrase."
Racing Lagoon is actually only Hilltop's second-ever translation project after Dr. Slump, a PS1 game based on the comedic manga Akira Toriyama created 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 on his commute.
"What could I do with these two skills? It was fan translation," he says. "I wanted to do something with my life. I was unemployed at the time, not really 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 understand how to hack into Dr. Slump and wrap his head around data compression, a field of programming he didn't have any experience in. His notebook from the start of that project is filled with pages of assembly language code that he was trying to debug. Finally he understood it and was able to extract the script. On Racing Lagoon, the same process took only two days.
Though he now has a day job in gaming QA, Hilltop has found fan translation "hugely" fulfilling in a way no paying job ever has been. While most fan translators seem content to treat it purely as a hobby, and others are professional translators who take on the occasional passion project, Hilltop is somewhere in the middle. He started a Patreon for Hilltop Works, which states that if he can get 600 monthly backers, he'll quit his job and work on translation patches full time. When we talked midway through Racing Lagoon's translation, he hoped that the flurry of interest when it was finished would bring with it more Patreon backers. "If I could do this forever, I would 100%," he says. "I would much, much prefer this 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 really is rare to find a game with a history as rich as Racing Lagoon's, that ties so directly into the broader culture of when it was made.
"Somebody went around Japan and laser scanned a lot of the locations for it," says Syd-88. "So somebody 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 effect."
Hilltop adds that there's a running theme in Racing Lagoon about how parts of Yokohama, where the game's set, are being westernized—that things that were once written in Japanese lettering are being written in English lettering as part of the "21st century shift."
"A direct translation of the script would be gibberish," he says. "Half of it is weird, random English words—half of it is poetic nonsense, half of it is just obtuse ridiculousness. We have to cobble that together into a script that not only makes sense but still has that flavor, that still feels like you're playing a Squaresoft JRPG from the '90s… I wonder if really the whole thing is some sort of wild commentary that went over everyone's heads, in a way, about how the local culture, the local scene, was slowly getting overwritten by these western influences."
It's perhaps ironic that it took a full English translation to bring Racing Lagoon's commentary back to the surface after two decades. Even if the Racing Lagoon fan translators go their separate ways now, Hilltop has plenty of other ideas for PS1 games to work on next, and the hope to someday move beyond fan translations altogether while still remaining independent.
He loves the whole process: writing, hacking, reworking graphics. "The absolute dream scenario is I would actually work on, say some company wants to re-release a PS1 game, they'll hand me the disc and say 'give me this in English,' he says. "That would make me… that would be a dream come true."