Good morning, class. Let’s start today’s lecture off with a little history lesson.
In 1996, Squaresoft released Radical Dreamers, a text-heavy visual novel that served as a pseudo-sequel to the massively popular Chrono Trigger. It never saw an official western release.
Among other reasons, this is because Radical Dreamers was released exclusively for the Super Famicom’s Satellaview add-on. A somewhat peculiar contraption, the Satellaview connected to a Super Famicom console and allowed it to receive downloadable content via satellite radio. It’s a pretty interesting piece of hardware, and if you’ve got the time, I would recommend that you read this article about it. However, for purposes of this discussion, you can think of it as Nintendo’s Japan-only version of the Sega Channel.
The Satellaview never made it out of Japan; a release would have been fruitless, as satellite radio wasn’t widely available in the rest of the world at that time. Accordingly, Radical Dreamers never saw an official translation from Squaresoft, and it went largely unplayed by western audiences. As untranslated ROMs gradually made their way onto the Internet, though, Chrono fans knew it was out there, flickering like a frozen flame in the darkness, just waiting to be played.
In 2000, after the US release of Chrono Cross – the official, canonical sequel to Chrono Trigger – fan demand for a translated Radical Dreamers was at an all-time high. While Squaresoft never officially answered the call, in 2003, ROM hacking group Demiforce released an unofficial translation patch, which is what you see in action here:
For whatever reason, despite being an avowed Chrono fan, I never got around to playing the Demiforce translation at the time of its release. As such, Radical Dreamers had been on my to-do list for a little over a decade when I saw this at Too Many Games last June:
What you are looking at right there is what folks these days call a “repro” – a reproduction cartridge. In so many words, reproduction cartridges are ROM data flashed to an existing cartridge for play on a legacy system. To quote John Learned’s excellent piece on the subject over at USGamer:
“In laymen’s terms, it works like this: several years ago, talented programmers concocted emulators, which essentially found a way to trick a computer, phone, or other device into thinking it was an NES, Genesis, or even an Apple IIe computer. Actual software that runs on these emulators are roms, which are the image of a game or other computer program run through the emulator to work. By themselves, they’re a wonder of computer engineering in that they can help preserve the winding (and largely unkempt) history of the video game medium. Repro cartridges basically reverse engineer what was already reverse engineered so these altered roms can play on an original piece of hardware.”
To grossly oversimplify, repros are basically gray (if not outright black) market reproductions of old console games, and an affordable way to play rare releases the way God intended – on original hardware. Personally, I’d never really understood the appeal of repros, but I had always been curious to try one out. And, hey, who doesn’t like the idea of getting a BRAND NEW cartridge? In 2015!
I bit the bullet and plunked down the cash for Radical Dreamers –about $30 if memory serves me correctly. If nothing else, I thought it would look neat sitting next to Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross in my collection.
The final verdict? It wasn’t worth it. Far from it.
This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Radical Dreamers as a game; quite the opposite, in fact. While mileage may vary, I imagine that any fan of the Chrono series would find some way to enjoy their time with Radical Dreamers. It’s got an evocative score by Yasunori Mitsuda, decent (if not sparse) visuals, and in its story lays the thematic and conceptual groundwork for what would become Chrono Cross. Additionally, the Demiforce translation is positively top notch – borderline professional. In short, I loved it.
So what was the problem?
Well, for starters, I couldn’t save. Delving into a 2004 FAQ reveals that this has always been a problem for certain versions of the Radical Dreamers translation: the original game is designed to save to the Satellaview’s memory, which, when utilizing a repro, simply doesn’t exist. While Radical Dreamers is short enough to be completed in about 2 to 3 hours, it’s a game that’s designed to be played through multiple times. Like the other entrants in the Chrono series, it has branching paths and multiple endings – 7 in total. However, in order to access 6 of those scenarios, the player must first complete the game’s primary scenario. Like in Chrono Trigger, the extra content can only be accessed through a “New Game+.”
So, in essence, in order to expeditiously access all of the content contained within Radical Dreamers when playing on this repro cart, one would have to reserve quite a few hours of free time. The only other alternative would be to restart the game and replay the primary scenario each time, which would be more than a little inconvenient.
Now had I played Radical Dreamers on an emulator, I would have been able to record my progress through the use of save states, exploring the game over a series of days, as its designers had intended, rather than a few hours. In seeking a more “authentic” experience by playing a repro, I’d sacrificed some of the game’s core functionality and playability. This is particularly ironic when one considers that Radical Dreamers was never even released on a cartridge, let-alone in English, to begin with.
But it gets worse. You may have noticed that I noted that the inability to save is only an issue for some versions of the Radical Dreamers translation. That’s because in 2005, approximately 10 years before I purchased my repro, Demiforce released an updated translation patch which actually rewrote portions of the game’s code to enable save functionality.
In short, the individuals who made this cart didn’t even have the courtesy to download the latest version of the translation. The least they could have done was slap a “no saving” disclaimer on the cartridge. Would the in-game saves have worked on any old reproduction cart? I don’t know. But after my time with the repro, I loaded the 2005 translation onto my Everdrive, and the save functionality worked just fine.
Undoubtedly, some of this is on me. I should have done my homework. Nevertheless, the whole process left me feeling swindled, and more than a bit angry. My money had gone to the wrong person: a lot of time and effort went into making Radical Dreamers playable in English, but none of it was expended by the individuals who made this quick, cash-in repro. They simply took the work of Demiforce (outdated and incomplete work, at that) and slapped it on an old cartridge for pecuniary gain. If any members of the translation team are out there reading this, I owe you $30.00. If the people who sold me this repro are out there reading this, go pound sand.
So let this be a lesson to you, retro gamers. When it comes to repro carts, caveat emptor is the golden rule. You never know what’s inside these things until you actually play them. Could you imagine buying an RPG, only to find the cart has no battery inside? Above all, make sure you’re buying from someone you trust, as it’s pretty hard to return what basically amounts to pirated merchandise – it’d be like trying to get a refund for a defective crack vial. Further, if you happen to be purchasing an unofficial translation, give some thought to the fact that you’re essentially allowing an opportunistic retailer to profit from someone else’s hard work.
I’m sure there are good repros out there, but this experience has likely soured me on the concept for good.