Interview with Gideon Zhi, the Main ROM Hacker of the Live-A-Live English Translation Project

(5/1/04) This is an exclusive interview of the great Gideon Zhi of the fan translation scene. It is because of him and the efforts of others that we have English translations available for over 30 games! Visit his homepage for the full list. Gideon Zhi is very popular within scene for providing us with so many game translations, and continues to do so. For us, the gaming fans, to be able to experience a Jap-only game in English is a truly priceless experience. For someone like Gideon Zhi to give us something as special as that time and time again... it just puts me in a state of awe. I can't put into words how special I think he is for what he has done for us. This interview focuses on three of his popular RPG projects: Cyber Knight, Live A Live, and Treasure of the Rudras (Rudra no Hihou); all of which I have created dedicated shrines to in my FantasyAnime. (Gideon Zhi's replies are in navy blue)

So Gideon Zhi, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I'm a perfectly normal 23 year old college student. I'm a junior, due to various issues which I'm not going to get into, and am a Psychology major (and hopefully, a Music minor with a concentration in voice) attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

You are one of the most popular people in the fan translation community. How does that make you feel?

It's kind of nice, but largely it's neither here nor there. I don't think about status much when I'm working on a game or when I'm wandering back and forth between classes here at school.

When did you get into working on translation projects?

A good five years ago. It's been a long haul, and I'd like to think I've continued to grow quite steadily over all that time.

What got you into them?

Well, I saw what other people were doing at the time -- FF5, FF2, and RPGMaker, largely -- and wanted to do similar things. I'd been mooching off of emulator authors for quite some time, and wanted to give back. I also wanted to do something that I knew would take a while and prove to myself that I could see it through.

How do you manage working on so many projects at once?

Quite simply, I don't. I do work on what I feel like working on at any particular time, and that often means I concentrate fairly heavily on one thing or another. If I get sick of that, I move on to something else. Currently, I've been kicking around Shin Megami Tensei 2, Digital Devil Story Megami Tensei, Madou Monogatari, an as-yet unannounced RPG that I've been poking at for a few years, and Madou Monogatari, all on and off. Gun Hazard, Fuurai no Shiren, and maybe Makaitoushi SaGa are next on the proverbial list, but this could change at any time.

What influenced your decision to work on Treasure of the Rudras?

The release of the French translation, partially. I've taken a few years of the language and can read it fairly well -- although I don't really trust myself to write or speak it. I've been interested in the game since I first read about it on Squaresoft of Los Angeles' old website back before FF7 was released, and the whole concept of a word-based magic system interested me. I also liked the whole death-and-resurrection concept, with a new race taking control every X-number-of-years.

Did you do anything special to prepare yourself for Treasure of the Rudras?

Not really. Just made sure that it was okay with the original hackers before I started to pick apart their work. Common courtesy.

What problems did you encounter during the Treasure of the Rudras project? And what did you do to correct them?

The major stumbling block was the magic system, of course. I'm not going to give away all of the secrets of how it works here -- that'd be no fun at all! -- but I will say that some of the problems with it involved the simple fact that you can express more sounds with six characters in Japanese than you can with six Roman letters. To compensate for this, I doubled the size of the word you could enter. This involved restructuring menus so the expanded words would display properly, restructuring memory so the words would save properly, and reworking, to a point, how the game built the effect that each word used. It should be, functionally, as close to equivalent to the Japanese version as is really possible given how the system works.

That aside, other, more minor issues involved expanding item names (which involved further menu restructuring), changing the name entry screens to accommodate 8 letters for player character names (Surlent does not fit in the original six) and 12 letters for the new spell names, changing the highlight routines for equipment elemental affinities, and a hell of a lot more things that I can't really remember at this time.

What influenced your decision to work on Live A Live?

The Near Future chapter. I'm a sucker for giant robot drama! That and I was taking an introduction to business class, and our prof wanted us to create a short term plan for something. So, bloody brilliant me, I decided to draw out a plan for having LAL done in just under two months, to make a Christmas release.

Did you do anything special to prepare yourself for Live A Live?

Kind of. LAL's a bit of a special case. For one, I made sure that the stuff I needed to work with was readily accessible. Worked with akujin, one of the translators (both for this and a number of other projects I've worked on), to create a script dumper, and kicked my arse into gear to organize more translators for the task than should have been humanly possible.

What problems did you encounter during the Live A Live project? And what did you do to correct them?

There were a few, and surprisingly, the least serious of these was translator dropout. Admittedly, there were a few who didn't finish their tasks, but for some reason most of them came through. Thanks to all of you!

Tied for most serious issue, however, was burnout, coupled with the fact that the fan died in my laptop shortly after I decided to do the project, and Sony decided to be a royal fucktard about getting it replaced under warranty. For a couple of weeks before it went out I was working on the game with a stand-up fan trained on the computer at all times; afterwards, I was given the task of taking an old Pentium 90 computer with Windows NT 4 on it and restoring it as a Christmas gift, which I commandeered for the project. Basically, the files went back and forth between that, which was the workhorse (and that sucked, 'cuz half the utilities I use don't work on XP) and a dinky little grayscale 486 laptop which I used to load the game into my SNES for testing. Couple that with end-of-semester stress, stress from other projects I was doing at the time -- if memory serves and the Old News page is accurate, Laplace's Demon was released just as LAL was starting and Cyber Knight was released with the project in full swing -- I was pretty heavily burned out come Christmas Day.

What influenced your decision to work on Cyber Knight?

I thought it looked cool, to be honest. The idea of a slightly more strategy-heavy combat system sitting on top a normal RPG -- one that featured robots, which is a plus -- really piqued my interest. I didn't realize until after I'd started on it how nifty some of the systems in it were, with the Neoparts and upgrading your Battle Modules separately from the characters themselves.

Did you do anything special to prepare yourself for Cyber Knight?

Actually, no. I just made sure it was doable, basically.

What problems did you encounter during the Cyber Knight project? And what did you do to correct them?

The weekend I'd gotten the scripts back, I spent half of it formatting them and half of it playing a newly-acquired Playstation title, Juggernaut (used at Funcoland for $12!) I spent way too much time working on formatting that crap -- each of those floating windows has its size and position hard coded into the message that displays inside it, and I had to go through and change all of those manually as I formatted the script. What pissed me off was the computer I had the files on died the Monday morning after that weekend. Yeah.

So I re-did 'em all a few months later, after I got over being depressed about it. Other than that, it was fairly smooth sailing.

Overall, do you think working on Live A Live, Cyber Knight, and Treasure of the Rudras was worth all the hard work you put into them?

Oh, definitely. I'd be nice if I had the time to play them, though. And I still want to go through and rework the script for Rudra.

I would like to close the interview with this last question. What gave you and continues to give you the will and enthusiasm to keep you going with translation projects? Do you have a personal goal or mission?

Bloody hell if I know. Some of it is exposure for the games -- the Megami Tensei titles especially, and the cooler of the games I'm working on -- and some of it just for a personal ego boost. And of course, it's an absolute rush when I finally manage to figure out something I'd been beating my head against for a while! Every once in a while, you enter one of those sort of flow states, you know? Where everything just sort of comes all at once, and you don't have to put any effort into it at all. It's just there. It's neat.