The two best-selling games on the original PlayStation were Gran Turismo and Final Fantasy VII, with 10.85 million and 10.02 million units sold, respectively. As for third and fourth, that would be Gran Turismo (2) again and Final Fantasy (VIII) again also. If you owned a PS1 and one of these disparate franchises wasn’t represented in your collection, people were allowed to ask you why. Those were the rules.
It’s hardly surprising that Final Fantasy topped the charts back then. Japanese role-playing games were hotter than they’d ever been, and news that developer and publisher Square, a longtime Nintendo devotee and maker of JRPGs, would jump ship to team Sony was a major story entering the 32-bit generation.
The sudden popularity of sim racing wasn’t so predictable. While Gran Turismo was assuredly the most realistic racing game that’d ever graced a console back in 1997, it was its addictive gameplay loop that truly endeared it to the masses. The rags-to-riches journey of buying a Miata, Civic or Corolla, grinding races and slowly transforming it into a Skyline killer was a novel concept. Out of this, a new term was coined for GT-likes, where item management proved as critical to success as on-track performance: car-PG.
But RPGs have convoluted plots, flamboyant characters and endless dialogue boxes. Gran Turismo had none of those. Despite the zeitgeist around both genres, no title properly combined the two in equal measure before.
This is the story of the one, little-known game that did, and how a determined group of fans rescued it from the depths of obscurity.
On June 10, 1999, Square released a PlayStation game called Racing Lagoon exclusively in Japan. Considering the two smash hits on Sony’s console, the idea to properly meld both genres was a shrewd one, as well as one Square was uniquely suited to carry out.
The unusual title takes its name from the setting. Racing Lagoon is based in then present-day Yokohama, Japan, a city along Tokyo Bay. You are Sho Akasaki, an 18-year-old newcomer to team Bay Lagoon Racing joining at the behest of your friend Ikki. You’re given an “86-Lev” — Racing Lagoon has no licensed cars, though it’s pretty obvious what each one’s supposed to be — and you make a name for yourself. That’s standard fare for any street racing media from Initial D to Midnight Club, but being a Square RPG, Racing Lagoon adds a healthy dose of angsty intrapersonal drama, cryptic prose and corporate espionage involving a clandestine conglomerate called WON-TEC to set it apart from any other racing game you’ll ever play.
It’s an experimental work by its very nature. There’s nothing you can directly compare Racing Lagoon to, because even the most narrative-driven racing games never committed to classic RPG tropes this fully. It really is Final Fantasy, only the turn-based battles are replaced with short races. WON-TEC is to Racing Lagoon’s Yokohama what the Shinra Electric Power Company was to FFVII’s Midgar.
The tragedy is that while FFVII was beloved the world over and localized in a variety of languages — even if those localizations are generally considered quite poor — Racing Lagoon never left Japan. As Racing Lagoon received middling reviews and sold roughly 140,000 copies in its first six months on store shelves, it didn’t perform well enough to earn a sequel.
Like a flash in the Yokohama night sky, it came and went. But the game’s curious conceit and virtual inaccessibility to Western players lifted its legend, particularly among fans of racing games and auto enthusiasts that glorify Japan’s bubble-era performance car boom.
The fortunate thing about racing games is that they’re generally quite immune to language barriers because they don’t have much text to begin with — particularly the older ones. But, as Racing Lagoon is a literal RPG with mountains of dialogue, it’s impossible to appreciate if you can’t read it. There is an “arcade mode” of sorts that keeps the Kana light, but then you’re missing out on the story. At that point, you’re probably better off sticking with Gran Turismo.
As the game’s notoriety grew over the last decade, those few gamers aware of it clamored for a grassroots translation — a common practice with highly-coveted, foreign-only releases. Though that seemed unlikely. Racing Lagoon targets the center of a Venn diagram that barely overlaps, which is likely part of the reason it was never localized for other markets when it failed to catch steam in Japan. Without a groundswell of interest, it seemed like the game was condemned to live on only in the memories of those able to experience it fully in its original language. Until six months ago.
Last May, a translator and game hacker by the name of Hilltop announced his intention to create an English translation patch for Racing Lagoon. The patch would replace all of the game’s Japanese dialogue with English, amend full-motion videos and cutscenes with baked-in copy with English subtitles and rework some menus.
It would be a tall task. While Hilltop initially set out to do it alone, offers of help from fellow fans began flooding in as soon as they learned of the objective. Very quickly it progressed from one-man show to team effort, with Hilltop overseeing it all. Aside from him there were four translators, two graphic artists and hackers, two automotive consultants to ensure the car-related language was appropriate, and two more individuals who contributed additional art and testing.
Patches like these usually take considerable time. The fan translation of Nintendo’s Mother 3, an infamous RPG released only in Japan, needed two years for completion according to the creators. Granted, Mother 3 is a significantly longer game than Racing Lagoon, and that project was done almost 15 years ago when hacking tools weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. Either way, this isn’t the sort of work that’s finished quickly. Many are never finished at all.
Hilltop announced the Racing Lagoon English patch on May 23. It was completed and uploaded for everyone to enjoy on November 11. I asked him how the team pulled it off in less than six months.
“No real secrets, it was a lot of work,” Hilltop told me. “Having the technical stuff and the creative direction sorted out near the start helps, as did having [a community on messaging app] Discord to help with QA.”
Putting aside the technical aspect of the endeavor that’s endemic to this medium, translating any work invites philosophical questions that go far beyond finding the most appropriate like-for-like counterpart of a word in another language. Professional translator Clyde Mandelin, author of the Legends of Localization series, touches upon the difference between “translation” and the more abstract concept of “localization” like so:
Basically, the term “localization” is relatively new in the translation industry – I’m not even sure people started using it until the early 2000s. Even so, the idea behind localization (that focusing on the original intent is just as important as the original words, if not more important) has probably been around for as long as people have been translating.
How does one render a text in another language as accurately as possible while also ensuring the intended audience is able to grasp concepts that can’t be conveyed so naturally or efficiently in the target language? This is the very crux of the localizer’s dilemma, a delicate balance only the most thoughtfully translated works strike. It’s a problem for any game, but Racing Lagoon introduces its own idiosyncrasies.
“This game is infamous among Japanese players for its overly-poetic language that makes liberal use of broken English,” Hilltop said. “The biggest challenge was to make English players feel the way that Japanese players felt when they played the game. My goal was to make the player feel that something was always off, that the people who wrote this game spoke some sort of alien language that didn’t translate well to Japanese in the first place.
“From the reactions we got, I think we nailed it.”
Playing Racing Lagoon in its patched form for the first time, you might think that the translators either took too many liberties in some cases, or didn’t go far enough in others. Head-scratchers like this are very much the norm and hardly exceptions:
The key thing to remember is that the Japanese audience likely experienced much the same confusion when it played the game in its original form 22 years ago. Partly that’s down to the frequency of English in the original copy, and partly that’s down to the fever-conceived existential musings of the characters. Japanese fans even coined a nickname for the game’s contrived and awkward manner of speaking: “Lagoon-go.”
There happens to be a narrative, pseudo-fourth-wall-breaking justification for the regularity of English in the text.
“There may be a whole layer of subtext that went over nearly every Japanese player’s head,” Hilltop told me. “The usage of English in the Japanese script might not just be a stylistic choice, but part of the theme of Japan’s transformation post-bubble economy. The game draws attention to how everything Japanese and local was being replaced with things that are English and modern.
“Later on in the game these themes boil over in ways I won’t get into because of spoilers, but it’s worth paying attention to if you’re playing through the game.”
That redundant ‘S’ stands for ‘Spencer’ bit above can be read as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it commentary on the Westernization of Japan on the brink of the 21st century. Other moments of the story hammer that theme in a decidedly more overt way.
Chris, one of the automotive experts that contributed to the project (and has also helped bring fictional cars to uber-realistic simulators like Assetto Corsa) recalled the team unpacking the depth of that through-line during development of the patch.
“I remember during the early phases when that was being looked at, I believe that was when Hilltop and a few others really noticed the Westernization themes of Racing Lagoon. It’s something you can catch early on in the first two nights or so, and it’s not exactly subtle but it’s still somehow easy to overlook.”
The unease and tension that defines Racing Lagoon’s story weaves its way into the composition of its script. It’s one of the reasons why Hilltop reckons nobody attempted to tackle it before his crew.
“For a long time this game’s script has been considered ‘untranslatable.’ People have been reluctant to tackle the script lest it end up as something inauthentic. Coupled with the technical challenges of hacking a highly optimized late-era PS1 game, it’s understandable that no one had been able to translate the game.”
It’s Hilltop’s goal to broaden under-appreciated marvels like Racing Lagoon to audiences outside Japan that would’ve never had the opportunity to know them otherwise. Surprising though it may seem considering the attention to detail of the Racing Lagoon effort, this was only his second try at such a project. He’s started on another import-only PS1 JRPG, Aconcagua, since wrapping Square’s racer.
Hilltop hopes to receive enough backing through Patreon that he can quit his day job in game quality assurance and earn a living saving bygone titles like these full time, as he told PCGamer’s Wes Fenlon. (If you’re enjoying this story, make sure you check out that PCGamer one, too — it goes further behind-the-scenes into how the team came together and got this patch done so fast.)
Dense, cryptic writing aside, Racing Lagoon stands out for introducing other novel concepts within the framework of racing games.
“What makes Racing Lagoon is the sum of its parts,” Hilltop said. “Sure, games like Midnight Club have a story and cutscenes, and others have an open world, and others have some of the customization features. But there’s nothing that has the whole package like Racing Lagoon. [Square] really put their full effort behind all of these different aspects, nothing is just thrown in as an aside. Even today it just feels good to win a close race and be rewarded with taking your opponent’s entire engine.”
Yes, taking your opponent’s engine. Now we arrive at one of Racing Lagoon’s most ingenious, overlooked contributions to the genre: the Get REWARDS system. (REWARDS officially styled in all caps, because that’s how big a deal it is to this game.)
Many street racing games trade on the time-honored tradition of “pink slips.” Win a duel and you get your opponent’s car. Lose, and they take yours. It sounds like an exciting premise but often isn’t so fun in practice, because losing a car you spent hours grinding to buy and build sucks. Besides, back in the day you’d just repeatedly load a previous save until you managed to walk away with your rival’s ride.
Get Rewards fundamentally operates the same way, except it relates to parts — not entire cars. Beat someone in a 1v1 match, and you can take your pick of any of the parts on their vehicle. That includes their engine, as previously mentioned, but it could also be their exhaust or brake pads or chassis braces. Hell, it could be their chassis.
Now, you might be thinking, “that’s great, but what the hell am I supposed to do with the chassis out of an MR2 if I’m driving a Civic?” Here’s where Racing Lagoon’s completely ludicrous approach to tuning and customization makes it a veritable wonderland for car nuts.
Any part can go on any car.
This opens the floodgates for fantastical creations you’d never be able to realize in other games, let alone real life. If you want to stuff the all-wheel-drive system of a Lancer Evolution VII inside an AE86 Corolla, nobody’s going to stop you. In fact, when you do, the Corolla will naturally grow mudflaps and hood vents. If you’ve always dreamed of a midengine fourth-gen Camaro, you’re free to donate an NSX floorplan to the cause. That, in turn, will automatically redefine the proportions of the Camaro body, so it looks properly midengined, too.
You can gift your automotive Frankenstein’s monster the flat six out of a 964-generation 911 — affectionally dubbed the “GermanyRS” — to ascend to another plane of mod shop absurdity. The relative sizes of components do not matter; everything just snaps together in the world of Racing Lagoon.
It’s all organized in a system of slots — this is where Square’s RPG knowhow really shines — where three major categories of engine, chassis and body can receive lesser enhancements, like air filters, dampers and even paint. (Conversely, that means you can steal the paint off a fellow racer’s car.) Level those major components up simply by using them in races, and you’ll earn slots for more mods. Some of them have delightful descriptions, like this one for a fuel additive that adds barely any power to the player’s machine:
It’s all clearly a labor of love, one you wouldn’t expect from a developer like Square. Prior to Racing Lagoon, the company only made two racing games for the Nintendo Entertainment System: Rad Racer and Rad Racer II. Since 1999, it’s only made one: the tragic-but-mildly-endearing Driving Emotion Type-S.
“What we found as the team dug into the text strings and other elements is a shocking amount of knowledge on automotive tuning and culture,” Chris told me. “The kind of nerdy know-how that can only be known through passion and dedication. And this was found in a Square RPG of all things?
“The development team gave this game their all, in a way that can almost put modern tuner games to shame.”
I’ve been pestered by one nagging thought as I’ve been playing Racing Lagoon for the first time, thanks to this English patch: why hasn’t anyone tried to make a racing game this innovative since?
It’s not hard to guess why, to an extent. Racing Lagoon is one of the last gasps of an era when the gaming industry wasn’t overly concerned about licensing and legal threats. In Square’s case, it exercised full advantage of that freedom. It’s impossible to imagine the legal department at any automaker signing off on a game that allowed their intellectual property to be mashed together with the IP of their competitors.
Attaining licenses typically stands in the way of remastering and remaking racing games, but that’s ultimately a question of dollars and cents. Big publishers like Electronic Arts need only wave their checkbooks at the problem. But Racing Lagoon’s Get Rewards system — ironically its greatest and most defining invention — would surely invite philosophical objections from license holders and likely present an insurmountable barrier to any rerelease.
“Square may be hesitant to ever touch this game again due to the way it not-so-subtly evaded car licensing,” Hilltop told me. “It’s funny: the only time Racing Lagoon was ever recognized by Square was for a mobile game tie-in event, and the iconic cars were nowhere to be seen. The characters would be posed next to an empty void where their car used to be, sometimes with disembodied headlights floating around to give the impression of their car. Fans are still very vocal about a remake, because there’s so much that can be easily improved and polished about the game that it’d be a shame to let it fade into obscurity.”
On the flip side, Racing Lagoon’s forbidden nature is likely the reason why Hilltop was able to complete this patch without being thwarted by a cease and desist from Square Enix, as is common when certain publishers catch wind of fan projects.
“I have looked at what projects Square has taken down,” Hilltop said in a video interview published on the YouTube channel AnyButton2Start. “There is a very clear pattern to them. They take down projects that are competing with their own translations. I believe they took down the Final Fantasy Type-0 translation as well as a Dragon Quest translation. Both of those cases happened the year before official English translations of those games were released.
Square can’t touch Racing Lagoon, so the community can. That’s certainly better than nothing. And even if the modern game development industry won’t rise to the challenge of taking on an ambitious cross-genre experiment like Square did more than two decades ago, we can be thankful that a team of dedicated fans has unlocked this curiosity for a whole new audience.
It’s almost impossible to describe the sensation of exploring a game like Racing Lagoon for the first time in 2021 — something so old that simultaneously feels leaps and bounds fresher than any racing game I’ve played in a solid decade. “Déjà vu” is the most appropriate term I suppose, but it’s an inadequate one. I didn’t grow up hearing Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi’s eccentric techno-jazz score. I have no memory of darting around the glorious little diorama that is Racing Lagoon’s overworld, nor staring puzzled at its arcane language and arbitrary use of capitalization. But when I play it, I feel like I did. Personally, I’m thankful to Hilltop, Chris and the rest of the group for allowing myself and others to have that experience.
“The greatest inspiration for the writing [for the translation] actually came from Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, a free indie game where Charles Barkley lives in a basketball apocalypse,” Hilltop recounted to me. “The premise of the game is completely absurd, yet every character treats it deathly serious, never blinking as the plot gets increasingly comical and convoluted.
“It was the closest thing I could think of that carried some of the essence that Racing Lagoon’s text is made of.”