The Let's Play Archive


by slowbeef

Part 42: Tales of ROMhacking: Part 1

Tales of ROMhacking!

Part 1: Well, Why Don't You ROMhack The Stupid Game?

"Well, why don't you ROMhack the stupid game?"

This is me, July 2008, standing on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. I'm two updates into Let's Play Policenauts (Prologue Only), and trying to figure out how to get Marc Laidlaw to give me the rest of the game script so I can finish the thread. I am thinking this because Laidlaw has just e-mailed me about some of the group's previous progress, because I've offered other suggestions to Laidlaw (why not rip all the assets and recode it in Flash?), and because, after all, I've been a professional computer programmer for about a decade, and who else would be qualified?

"No. No, I can't. It's beyond me."

That is my first instinctual reaction. I don't even think about this or mull it over, it just comes out. For some reason, this just seemed way out of my league. Assembly hacking/reprogramming a video game's executable to make Japanese into English was for an idiot savant, or guys who did tensor products over breakfast.

Me? I was a Java programmer who did server side web stuff. I hadn't gone that low-level since college, and ...

It was a depressing train of thought. There on the boardwalk, I'd thought back to doing Dijkstra's Shortest Path Algorithm in C as a college sophomore, winning a coding argument with some asshole with a notebook full of hypothetical unsorted heaps I'd written up in a hurry ("that's why you need an updateHeapVertex function!"), completing finals with proof-by-inductions in a little blue book. Even taking a 20-credit semester because they offered Computer Graphics for the first time in my school's Computer Science curriculum and I didn't want to miss it, yet I also wanted to graduate in four years.

Back then, I really enjoyed programming and the puzzle solving it seemed to entail. Now, though, I was thirty - I'd never programmed a game (one of those things I wanted to get around to doing), and the thought of assembly hacking Policenauts felt too difficult for me.

It was sobering, and depressing. And awful. I had a technical challenge that deep down, I knew I couldn't do. And I'd done it professionally for ten years.

Around 2004, I started playing a fan translation of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake on an MSX emulator. I had a website for... some reason or another, and I decided to try a funny thing where I took screenshots of the game and made a snarky "strategy guide" out of it. People liked it and at the end, I mentioned doing another Kojima game - my personal favorite - called Snatcher.

But I didn't really want to take the piss out of Snatcher, my favorite game growing up, so I just let the idea fester.

Later on, I saw people doing Let's Plays on the Something Awful forums, and decided that was a better venue to showcase Snatcher (it never occurred to me I could've made a strategy guide that wasn't sarcastic, or even done the send-up as an homage, because I'm kind of dense at times. Well maybe often. Okay shut up.) During the Snatcher LP, I mentioned possibly doing a "surprise" (showing off the 32-bit versions of the game), and a poster named nachobox took that opportunity to joke, "A full screenshot LP of Policenauts (Snatcher's spiritual sequel) with a translation? Oh slowbeef, you shouldn't have!"

Obviously, I was not equipped to do this and nachobox was kidding, but I thought it would be really cool if I could somehow pull it off.

So naturally, I let the idea fester as I am wont to do.

A couple of years later, I wrote up a Let's Play for SD Snatcher, and someon else lamented that there was no Policenauts translation. This solidified the idea, and I contacted a group of Hideo Kojima fans (Artemio Urbina and Marc Laidlaw) from Junker HQ and discussed doing a Let's Play of Policenauts.

It read:

So, being a Snatcher fan, I'm of course interested in Policenauts. I noticed on the Junker HQ forums there was discussion about releasing the translated script (using Marc Laidlaw's very in-depth translation) or, since the translation patch is in limbo, releasing pictures accompanying the translation. I was thinking that if you wanted, an LP of Policenauts might be the next best thing. Using subtitled video, music, and static image, it's possible to show off the game in its entirety - something to tide people over until the actual translation patch works through.

My Japanese isn't very good, so while I've played through the prologue, I don't understand enough of it (I'm only able to get the sleeping pill from the stewardess on the PC9821 version, not the PSX) - but if you'd like, I could try and LP the Prologue to the game to show you what exactly I'm envisioning the end product to be. I can do all the legwork insofar as capturing the game media, and using descriptive text.

If this is something that sounds interesting, please let me know. Obviously, since Marc has the translation, if he's interested in this idea, I'd give him the final word on what and how it'd be presented.

The response:

Hi Mike,

This is Marc. I apologize for this late reply. I remember your Let's Play
Snatcher, which I really enjoyed despite knowing the game inside out! It
was great to see the reactions from people experiencing it for the first
time. I also loved the commentary you added to it.

I like the idea, but the only potential problem I can see is with Snatcher
and SD Snatcher, people can play the game themselves in English if they
like after watching the LP. One advantage is it would be a nice, clean way
to present the material right now. Maybe I could take you up on your offer
and you could show us part of the Prologue as a LP? Just give me a little
time to prepare the text for you. There is more variation depending on the
order you do things than in Snatcher.

Anyway, thank you for contacting us and I look forward to hearing from you

I was in luck - Laidlaw had actully read my Let's Play of Snatcher back in the day, and had even posted about it on the Junker HQ forums. He would be interested in the Prologue and provided a script.

I figured it was the closest anyone could get to playing the game. Myself included.

Three LP updates later, broaching the subject with Marc, however slightly, didn't seem to produce results. Now apparently, on the JHQ side of things, Marc and Artemio were liking the LP's reception and considering releasing more of the script to me.

But I didn't know that.

I was out having a cigarette in midtown Manhattan, pondering how I could convince Marc to give me more of the script. I'd learned that he'd spent over a year on it (and I thought that he'd therefore, never just release it to some guy on the Internet) and while Artemio had spent months trying to find a programmer to finish the ROMhack since their last one left, they got stymied on the fact that the English translation was so much bigger than the original Japanese.

I mean, I didn't know what that meant, but what did I care? I just wanted to play Policenauts.

"Leverage," I thought. "I need leverage. I need something I can trade them." It hit me that they wanted the ROMhack, most of all.

And then it hit me that that was the biggest obstacle, really.

Convincing Junker HQ to release the script for the Let's Play would be convincing them to admit defeat; to take the silver trophy. It would be admitting, "We cannot finish the ROMhack, so we agree this is the closest you'll ever get to a translated Policenauts."

Since the ROMhacking community (mostly found on or RHDN as I'd learn) - and even members of the Junker HQ forums - had long considered the Policenauts Translation Project vaporware, it would be insult to injury. And even worse, at this point, I'd exchanged e-mails with Marc and Artemio and they were decent folk. I really didn't like the idea of trying to convince them to admit defeat.

Yeah, some evil corporate part of me considered it, but I didn't want to.


Maybe I wasn't good enough to ROMhack Policenauts...

But maybe I could solve the problem their last ROMhacker had. Maybe I could get them one step closer. I couldn't be good enough to get the game in English, but surely I was good enough for just one step further, right?

Surely that would earn me an English version of Act 1?

It'd at least get me closer to seeing the spiritual sequel to the game I'd loved as a teenager, wouldn't it? Couldn't it?

Coming up:
- Slowbeef almost leaves the project
- Slowbeef almost leaves the project (again)
- The sad, sad tale of akor1108
- The Catastrophe