How to Translate Famicom / Super Famicom Games to English

Pixelly enlargement of art and Japanese text from the Super Famicom game The Great Battle II - The Last Fighter Twin

It was very cool to discover that I could play Japanese Famicom and Super Famicom games here in the U.S. This opened up a whole new world of games with a very different style and flavor. However, after a bit of experimentation, I started wondering how I could get past the language barrier. New tech to the rescue.

Famicom and Super Famicom games are often in Japanese - can you play them in English? The Hyperkin RetroN 5 console plays cartridge games for multiple systems, letting you import English translation files, so that Japanese games play in English. It’s not hard to do. Learn how in this guide.

Table of Contents

Video games have long been popular in Japan, and the Japanese market for the NES and Super NES had a TON of games that were never brought to the U.S. If you like to try new things, and are interested in new-to-you retro games, this is a real treasure trove of gaming discovery. What’s most interesting is that they’re not just American-style games that happen to be in Japanese. These were made for a very different market, and concepts, style, graphics… everything is often different in some interesting way.

I have written on how to play Famicom games on an NES, and one of the options I mentioned was using the RetroN 5, a multi-system emulator console that lets you play cartridge games. The next step is to discover a lesser-known feature - the ability to inject “translation patches” into the system so that Japanese games can come up translated in English.

Story screen from The Great Battle II - The Last Fighter Twin
While you can sometimes guess your way through simple menus, games with story screens that provide explanation of characters, goals, etc, really need translation to English. This is part of the introduction from The Great Battle II - The Last Fighter Twin, on the Super Famicom. (Hooray Ultraman!)

Translate more than just the NES and SNES: The RetroN 5 will actually take translation patch files for any of the systems whose game cartridges it plays:

  • NES
  • Famicom
  • Super Nintendo
  • Super Famicom
  • Sega Genesis
  • Sega MegaDrive
  • Game Boy
  • Game Boy Color
  • Game Boy Advance

Serious Money-Saving Hack: When you’re looking at game cartridges, some can get very expensive. Once you know how to do the translation patch thing on your RetroN 5, you can save serious coin if you find out that an expensive game had a Japanese version that sells for less, and there is a translation patch for it. How’s that for motivation?

What Are Translation Patches, What Do They Do?

Game cartridges store all of their game code in the chips mounted on their internal circuit boards. Games were written in Assembly - a programming language that runs very quickly, because its instructions are so close to what the internal processor actually does, and don’t need much translation. The actual information stored on the chips is the compiled version of the game code and graphics - all the code was processed from Assembly language down into the machine language of 1s and 0s.

Title screen from the Japanese Famicom game, Armadillo
Here is the title screen from a Japanese platformer on the Famicom, called Armadillo. The whole fun little Texas theme doesn’t come through properly without translation of the game text to English.
Story screen from the Japanese Famicom game, Armadillo
Story screen from the Japanese Famicom game, Armadillo

Game text (Japanese in our case) is embedded into the game code along with the game “logic” that controls how it works. Fans have used tools called hexcode editors (they show the most direct, literal representation of the compiled code, and let you change it) to open up the compiled game code, and rework the Japanese text into English.

Hex editing a Famicom English translation patch file
A peek into an English translation patch file for a Famicom game shows the new English text to replace the Japanese. It still looks a bit odd, with some garbling due to how the Assembly code of the game reads it.

Where this becomes useful to us as game players, is that these fans have taken their translations, and created patch files that they have released onto the web for download. A patch is just a file containing instructions to the computer (the RetroN 5, in this case) about how to modify a version of some information (our Japanese game) in specific ways (replace the Japanese game text with English translations). It’s not a pirated game, it’s just precisely targeted code for reworking a game we own (our cartridge) into a tweaked version. It doesn’t change anything on the cartridge, but just changes the code that the the RetroN 5 loads from the game cartridge when it’s ready to play. Remove the cartridge, and it’s the same as before - the modified version evaporates until the next time you do the translation.

A Visual Overview of Working With Translation Files

I find that pictures help me get a quicker understanding of how things work together. This diagram gives you a snapshot of how the translation file thing works.

Diagram of the RetroN 5 English translation process

Finding an English Translation Patch for Your (Super) Famicom Game

You need to keep in mind that these translations are not created by the original game makers, but by dedicated fans who want to open up Japanese games to a larger audience. First off, this means that popular games are more likely to have translations, and obscure games are less likely. I have a small collection of Famicom and Super Famicom games, and after searching, I was unable to find translation patches for a few of them. That may change as people continue to create new translations, so continue to look as time goes on.

What you’re looking for is a patch file that comes in one of two types:

  • .IPS File
  • .UPS File

The IPS filetype is the most commonly used in language patching, and differs from the UPS in the fact that it has a 16 megabyte size limit on the games it can patch. Because NES and SNES games tend to fit within this limit, expect to find IPS files for those. You’re more likely to see UPS files with Gameboy Advance game translation patches.

Important note - You don’t want translated ROM files, since these are of no use on the RetroN 5, and violate copyright law, because they are the actual game. You want the PATCH file.

Yes, you can Google, but it’s probably better to get started with a known resource, so you’re not just out hacking through a jungle of partially-related results, and no actual patch files.

First, you need to know the English name of the game you’re trying to translate.* The game name is often written on the game cartridge in Japanese, which we’ve already established that we can’t read (or we wouldn’t need the translation).

Three game cartridges - one Super Famicom, two Famicom games
The Great Battle II - The Last Fighter Twin (Super Famicom), Hello Kitty World (Famicom), and Armadillo (Famicom)

Even if you can read Japanese, your translation of the name might not match the translated name everyone else is using (and that you need to search for). You need to come up with the English name by Googling the game ID code. Note the highlighted codes on the cartridges above. I get the best results by searching for:

  • [Game Console Name] + [Game ID Code]

    Such as:

  • Famicom CTS-HW

(for the Hello Kitty game above)

This brings back a bunch of results showing both the English name (“Hello Kitty World”), and pics of the cartridge itself for confirmation.

Likewise, a search on “Famicom IGS-9T” confirms the English name as “Armadillo.”

A search on “Super Famicom SHVC-3L” brings up “The Great Battle II Last Fighter Twin.”

Now go to a good source for translation, such as (“ROM Hacking” sounds nefarious, but it just refers to people creating patches to modify games, like the translation file we want). Unfortunately, the dedicated Translation search page does not seem to work properly when you put your game title in (maybe they will have it fixed by the time you read this). So the best way to search is to go to the search link in the top right of the main navigation bar, and put the game title in there. Doing this for Hello Kitty World gets me a Google search results page, whose first result is “Translations - Hello Kitty World -”. Here, click Download under the Links section, and it will take you to a screen where you need to prove you’re a human by typing in the funky password they give you right there. The download will start, and you’ll get a file (Hello Kitty World English). Double click this to open it.

Before proceeding, I strongly recommend renaming the IPS file to match the full text of the English game name, instead of an abbreviation like HKWE. This will make your life easier in the future when you have more.

Now hold that .ips file at the ready for when we need it.

Formatting an SD Card to Get Game Translation Files on Your RetroN 5

In order to get the translation files from your computer onto your RetroN 5, you will need a properly formatted SD card. The requirements are:

  • SD card (or MicroSD card with SD adapter) at least 256MB, and up to 32GB
  • Card formatted to the FAT32 file system

Preparing your SD card in OSX:

Go to Applications/Utilities/ and run Disk Utility. Plug in your SD card, and click to select it in the left-side menu in Disk Utility. Look at the top of the screen and see how the card is formatted. You want it to say FAT32 like below:

Disk Utility - Checking SD card format
If your SD card says anything other than FAT32 in the highlighted area, you need to format it. Make sure to copy off any files you want to save, since this formatting will delete everything from your thumb drive.

If it doesn’t, you will need to format it in FAT32. FORMATTING ERASES ALL DATA ON THE MEDIA IN QUESTION. Make sure you copy off anything you want to keep before proceeding. Now, WITH THE SD CARD YOU WANT FORMATTED SELECTED (it will sometimes toggle to another drive, MAKE SURE your SD card is selected before proceeding), click the Erase button at the top of Disk Utility, and select “MS-DOS (FAT)”. This will format it in FAT32.

Disk Utility - Formatting SD card in FAT32
Why does Disk Utility gray out FAT32, and make you select FAT? This is a complete mystery, but it’s what you have to do.

Preparing your SD card in Windows 10:

Open your Computer view so that you can see the computer’s drives. Now plug in your USB stick, and right click it, and select Format. FORMATTING ERASES ALL DATA ON THE MEDIA IN QUESTION. Make sure you copy off anything you want to keep before proceeding.

Windows Format - SD card drive
Right click the SD card to get the formatting dialog box. Make sure to copy off any files you want to save, since this formatting will delete everything from your thumb drive.

For File System, choose FAT32, type a name into the Volume Label field, and click Start.

Windows Format - SD card format dialog
Choose FAT32 and click Start.

Now go to your unzipped download, find your .IPS (or .UPS) from before, and drag it onto the newly formatted SD card.

Unmount your card, and slip it into the slot on the back side of the RetroN 5.

Applying Your English Translation File to Your Game

Power on the RetroN 5, and insert your desired game cartridge.

Once the game cartridge is loaded, select Game Menu (using the + button).

On the next screen, choose Game Specific Settings (using the + button).

On that screen, choose “Select patch” (+ button again). You will see a list of the patch files on your SD card. Using the + button once more, pick the one that is the translation for your current game. NOTE: If you moved your patch files to the SD card using OSX (a Mac), you will see “ghost” version of the files. Do not select these, since they will not work. You recognize them by the ._ in front of the name. So if your translation patch file is called “Hello Kitty World.ips”, choose that file further down in the list. Don’t choose the one name “._Hello Kitty World.ips”.

Once you select your patch, the system will return you to the previous menu (Game Specific Settings). The system should continue to remember to use this patch with this game cartridge from here forward, as long as both are present. If you want the system to stop using this translation patch for this game, choose “Remove current patch” from the same screen where you chose “Select patch” (Game Specific Settings).

Since you’re back at the Game Specific Settings menu, you need to just press the - button to exit to the parent menu screen (Game Menu). If you had previously played the game without the English translation patch file, the system will likely warn you that an existing “auto saved state” is no longer compatible (since the game has now been changed), and recommend removing it. The auto save is basically just the RetroN 5 holding onto your place from the last time you were playing the game. I always do the recommended deletion. If you don’t, I’m not sure how it might react. Try it.

Enjoy Those Japanese (Super) Famicom Games in All Their Translated Glory

While the key translation is happening in the game text, you’ll also notice that things like the game title screen are also translated in some cases, even though the text isn’t a font, but worked into the graphic image.

Also, note that though some games don’t have a lot that need translating, the ones that do are completely transformed - opening up backstory and explanation on games where you might have managed to play before, but only partly understood what was going on.

Now have at it! Banzai!

Hello Kitty World title screen in Japanese, and translated to English
The title screen from Famicom game Hello Kitty World in original Japanese, and translated to English.
Famicom game Hello Kitty World start screen in Japanese, and translated to English
The start screen in Japanese, and translated into English.