Category Archives: Classic Gaming

Universal Game Translator – Using Google’s Cloud Vision API to live-translate Japanese games played on original consoles (try it yourself!)

Why I wanted a “translate anything on the screen” button

I’m a retro gaming nut.  I love consuming books, blogs, and podcasts about gaming history.  The cherry on top is being able to experience the identical game, bit for bit, on original hardware.  It’s like time traveling to the 80s.

Living in Japan means it’s quite hard to get my hands on certain things (good luck finding a local Speccy or Apple IIe for sale) but easy and cheap to score retro Japanese games.

Yahoo Auction is kind of the ebay of Japan.  There are great deals around if you know how to search for ’em.  I get a kick out of going through old random games, I have boxes and boxes of them.  It’s a horrible hobby for someone living in a tiny apartment.

Example haul – I got everything in this picture for $25 US! Well, plus another $11 for shipping.

There is one obvious problem, however

It’s all in Japanese.  Despite living here over fifteen years, my Japanese reading skills are not great. (don’t judge me!) I messed around with using Google Translate on my phone to help out, but that’s annoying and slow to try to use for games.

Why isn’t there a Google Translate for the PC?!

I tried a couple utilities out there that might have worked for at least emulator content on the desktop, but they all had problems.  Font issues, weak OCR, and nothing built to work on an agnostic HDMI signal so I could do live translation while playing on real game consoles.

So I wrote something to do the job called UGT (Universal Game Translator) – you can download it near the bottom of this post if you want to try it.

Here’s what it does:

  • Snaps a picture from the HDMI signal, sends it to google to be analyzed for text in any language
  • Studies the layout and decides which text is dialog and which bits should be translated “line by line”
  • Overlays the frozen frame and translations over the gameplay HDMI signal
  • Allows copy/pasting the original language or looking up a kanji by clicking on it
  • Can translate any language to any language without needing any local data as Google is doing all the work, can handle rendering Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc  (The font I used is this one)
  • Controlled by hotkeys (desktop mode) or a control pad (capture mode, this is where I’m playing on a real console but have a second PC controller to control the translation stuff)

In the video above, you’ll notice some translated text is white and some is green.  The green text means it is being treated as “dialog” using its weighting system to decide what is/isn’t dialog.

If a section isn’t determined to be dialog, “Line by line” is used.  For example, options on a menu shouldn’t be translated all together (Run Attack Use Item), but little pieces separately like “Run”, “Attack”, “Use item” and overlaid exactly over the original positions.  If translated as dialog, it would look and read very badly.

Here are how my physical cables/boxes are setup for “camera mode”. (Not required, desktop mode doesn’t need any of this, but I’ll talk about that later)

Happy with how merging two video signals worked with a Roland V-02HD on the PlayStep project, I used a similar method here too.  I’m doing luma keying instead of chroma as I can’t really avoid green here. I modify the captured image slightly so the luma is high enough to not be transparent in the overlay. (of course the non-modified version is sent to Google)

This setup uses the windows camera interface to pull HDMI video (using Escapi by Jari Kompa) to create screenshots that it sends to Google.  I’m using an Elgato Cam Link for the HDMI input.

Anyway, for 99.99999999% of people this is setup is overkill as they are probably just using an emulator on the same computer so I threw in a “desktop mode” that just lets you use hotkeys (default is  Ctrl-F12) to translate the active Window. It’s just like having Google Translate on your PC.

Here’s desktop mode in action, translating a JRPG being played on a PC Engine/TurboGrafx 16 via emulation. It shows how you can copy/paste the recognized text if want as well, useful for kanji study, or getting text read to you.  You can click a kanji in the game to look it up as well.

Try it yourself

Before you download:

  • All machine translation is HORRIBLE – this is no way replaces the work of real translators, it’s just (slightly) better than nothing and can stop you from choosing “erase all data” instead of “continue game” or whatever
  • You need to rename config_template.txt to config.txt and edit it
  • Specifically, you need to enter your Google Vision API key.  This is a hassle but it’s how Google stops people from abusing their service
  • Also, you’ll need to enable the Translation API
  • Google charges money for using their services after you hit a certain limit. I’ve never actually had to pay anything, but be careful.
  • This is not polished software and should be considered experimental meant for computer savvy users
  • Privacy warning: Every time you translate you’re sending the image to google to analyze.  This also could mean a lot of bandwidth is used, depending how many times you click the translate button.  Ctrl-12 sends the active window only, Ctrl-11 translates your entire desktop.
  • I got bad results with older consoles (NES, Sega Master System, SNES, Genesis), especially games that are only hiragana and no kanji. PC Engine, Saturn, Dreamcast, Neo-Geo, Playstation, etc worked better as they have sharper fonts with full kanji usually.
  • Some game fonts work better than others
  • The config.txt has a lot of options, each one is documented inside that file
  • I’m hopeful that the OCR and translations will improve on Google’s end over time, the nice thing about this setup is the app doesn’t need to be updated to take advantage of those improvements or even additional languages that are later supported

After a translation is being displayed, you can hit ? to show additional options

5/8/2019 – V0.50 Beta – first public release, experimental
5/13/2019 – V0.51 Beta – Added S to screenshot, better error checking/reporting if translation API isn’t enabled for the Google API key, minor changes that should offer improved translations
5/30/2019 – V0.53 Beta – Added input_camera_device_id setting to config.txt for systems with multiple cameras.  Moves mouse offscreen for “camera” mode captures

Download Universal Game Translator for Windows (64-bit) (Binary code signed by Robinson Technologies)

Conclusion and the future

Some possible upgrades:

  • Built-in text to speech on the original dialog (well, by built in I mean using Google’s text to speech API and playing it in UGT, easier than the copy and paste method possible now)
  • A built in Kanji lookup also might be nice,  Jim Breen’s dictionary data could work for this.
  • My first tests used Tesseract to do the OCR locally, but without additional dataset training it appeared to not work so hot out of the box compared to results from Google’s Cloud Vision.  (They use a modified Tesseract?  Not sure)  It might be a nice option for those who want to cut down on bandwidth usage or reliance on Google.  Although the translations themselves would still be an issue…

I like the idea of old untranslated games being playable in any language, in fact, I went looking for famous non-Japanese games that have never had an English translation and really had a hard time finding any, especially on console.  If anyone knows of any I could test with, please let me know.

Also, even though my needs focus on Japanese->English, keep in mind this also works to translate English (or 36 other languages that Google supports OCR with) to over 100 target languages.

Test showing English being translated to many other languages in an awesome game called Growtopia

Classic gaming magazine ad from 1983 – was Dunzhin really cutting edge?

Last night I was laying in bed reading classic gaming mags from yesteryear (what? it’s great) and this one ad from COMPUTE!’s Gazette cracked me up; not since Diakatana have you seen ostentatious claims like this about a game and its author!

“No other fantasy role-playing game author has skills comparable to Masteller’s.  And Masteller’s software demonstrates that skill.”

Did the C64 port of Dunzhin live up to its flamboyant verbiage at $29.95?  Well, it’s a pretty basic rogue-like with random dungeon creation, random encounters, near ascii-like graphics and frustratingly gameplay so… not so much, even for that year.

Maybe the  rest of the series was better.

I’ve been guilty of plenty of hyperbole myself (what kind of ego-maniac puts himself in his games as a boss, or romantic interest?  Insane!) so not casting stones here, just enjoying some retro history.

ScreenPlay, well played.