Astrolabe 11: Chasing books, Near perfection, and roadkill witches
I don't read enough.
This anxious judgement looms over me daily—a spectre watching me while I scroll on my phone, play video games, write, goof off with my kids, cook dinner. While I do anything that isn't reading.
I’m a writer, a critic, and a well-worn “reader.” A lot of my professional accomplishments involve books, and that creates pressure. Whether that's fair or not is irrelevant to that anxious spectre. Whether it's even a real problem is also inconsequential. Anxiety doesn't care.
It’s not that I don’t read—I finish a couple dozen books a year—but, as it’s wont to do, social media exposes me to other readers who finish a book a week, or have Goodreads yearly goals tickling 150 volumes. And since social media breeds jealousy and self-doubt (Thanks, algorithms!), I’m left with this ever present sense of imposter syndrome. Is a critic who sometimes goes more than a month between finishing books still a critic? Am I really a reader?
Thing is, I used to be a big reader. A real big reader.
Back in high school, I’d finish Wheel of Time volumes in a week. I’d burn through back catalogs of newly discovered authors with reckless abandon. I’d reread books, because I could. It didn't feel like I was missing out on reading something new instead. Now everything in my life is about opportunity cost and how doing one thing means not doing another.
I discovered fantasy through Tolkien’s The Hobbit during the summer before grade seven. I was 11 years old, unburdened by social obligation and social media, with limited screen time, so reading was a natural conclusion to the essential boredom of childhood.
As I entered high school, I immersed myself in more magical worlds, and consumed countless fantastic stories. Many things happened during this time:
I was thrust into unavoidable social gatherings;
My friends also got into fantasy books; and
I took a 20 minute ferry ride to-and-from school each day.
I grew up on a tiny island, located off the coast of a smallish town on a larger island. I went to elementary school on my tiny island, but once I hit grade eight, I had to brave the seas with a hundred other kids to get to high school. This meant very early mornings, and a lot of downtime. A LOT.
I’m a tried-and-true introvert, so that meant surviving busy ferry lounges, school buses, and high school cafeterias required a fine balance of hanging out with my friends and retreating into the solace of the latest fat epic fantasy novel. For the next five years, you’d find me with my nose in a book more often than not, trying to stave off social exhaustion. The pages melted away.
Reading was self care, soothsaying. Meditation. It was a way to manage my energy level, social fatigue, and mental health. It played a hugely important role in regulating my mood through adolescence. Escapism in the truest sense of the word.
Then I met my future wife in high school. A lot of things changed at that point. Suddenly, I very much wanted to be doing things other than reading. We were attached at the hip, and I also didn't need to escape quite so much. We grew up together. Graduated high school and adjusted to the more modular world of being young adults. Gone were the regular ferry rides, bus trips, and quiet nights at home avoiding phone calls from my friends. Part time jobs evolved into a career. We got married, moved, had kids. Lived life. Those built-in opportunities to read dwindled. Disappeared. I couldn’t get home from school and read while my mom cooked dinner, or lounge around in bed on Saturday morning waiting for my night owl friends to wake up.
And I never adjusted.
Without realizing it, I gave up reading.
And grew into a world where I had to consciously carve out reading time. I had to make sacrifices to fit it in, and… I just never did. The idea of not having ample reading time didn’t match up with my lived experience, and I didn’t have the foresight to adjust my routines. I took a breath and held it, forgetting to exhale.
In a time when the compulsive and addictive design of social media inexorably pulls at our attention, I’ve come to recognize why I read less than I used to, and how to work toward a solution. It’s about making a point of emphasizing reading for its own sake. Going to bed a half hour earlier with a book. Audiobooks during commutes. It’s the process of learning to put my phone down and look at my book.
Reading is a hugely important part of my life—not just professionally, or because of my intense curiousity for good stories, but for the way it helps me manage a cacophonous world.
But sometimes, we forget who we are, and we have to make changes to figure it out again.
We hold our breath.
I have to learn how to read.
Learn how to breathe.
Out & About
(Out & About is where I highlight my work around the web—some recent and some old favourites.)
25 years ago, I was scouring the back of gaming mags hopelessly obsessed with games stuck in Japan, pining for official English translations that would never come. At the same time, a young Final Fantasy fan named Near was reading about the same games, and decided to take it upon himself to give fans like me a chance to play them.
One of those games was Bahamut Lagoon, a mashup of Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy VI. Near’s spent the last quarter century honing his craft to create the perfect localization of the cult classic. In “After 25 years, this cult SNES game finally gets a proper English translation” for Input, I speak with Near about his journey, fan translations, and what it’s like to chase perfection.
Aidan: You were originally part of a Bahamut Lagoon fan localization project over 20 years ago, but that eventually stalled out. What's it like returning to the game after so long?
Near: Very nostalgic. In fact, this was my fifth time working on the game. My first attempt in 1998 failed due to a lack of experience. I taught myself programming, Super Nintendo assembly, and reverse engineering specifically to have another go at the game. My second attempt in 2001 failed due to a lack of a translator. My third attempt in 2007 was successfully completed, but I was not happy with the quality of the work: I knew that I could do better. The same thing goes for my fourth attempt in 2009. This fifth and final time finally felt right, as though there was nothing more I could do to improve upon it.
Blood Matters: Growing Up in an SF/F House (Uncanny Magazine)
LTTP—Bahamut Lagoon (Super Nintendo, 1996)
( LTTP stands for “Late to the Party” and is a regular column where I let Twitter decide which retro game I’ll play for an hour. Do your worst, Twitter!)
Sticking with Bahamut Lagoon, I decided to skip the LTTP poll this issue, and give Near’s fan translation a look. I’ve messed around with previous fan translations, but never for more than about 15 minutes, and the nearly 20 year old fan translations were novel for the time, but otherwise felt underbaked compared to what their authors are producing now.
So, I dove into a game I’ve wanted to play for 25 years, and walked away impressed enough to skip it to the top of my gaming backlog.
The first, most striking thing about Bahamut Lagoon, the element that kept me flipping to the back of those gaming magazines, are the high end 16-bit graphics, and an art style reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI mixed with Ogre Battle. Many of the games released near the end of the Super Nintendo’s lifespan impress with their detailed artwork, and Bahamut Lagoon’s no exception. Developer Square was at the top of their game, and it can easily sit beside other lookers on the system like Trials of Mana, Star Ocean, and Tales of Phantasia.
Bahamut Lagoon mixes elements from traditional Japanese RPGs, like free roaming areas, and strategy RPGs like Fire Emblem. Combat take place on a grid-based map, but unlike games like Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics, combat encounters between units switch to a new screen that looks similar to traditional JRPG battle screens. Each combat unit is made from a handful of the characters available to the player. It’s a fun twist on the formula, similar to Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, but with it’s own feel, and feels fairly sophisticated for a genre that wouldn’t blossom on consoles until the following generation. These battles are where Bahamut Lagoon’s sprite work and art really shine, standing up to anything on the PlayStation.
Which segues nicely into one of Near’s most impressive feats in the fan translation. Unlike many similar projects, which use existing technology and fonts for the English script, Near developed a unique, truly variable width font for Bahamut Lagoon, and the results are ridiculously impressive. As you can see in the screenshot above, the font, which uses the Super Nintendo’s high-resolution mode, is crisp and clear, well above and beyond anything else found on the console—even Treasure of the Rudras or similar games that use high-resolution mode fonts.
Like most strategy RPGs, Bahamut Lagoon features a political narrative focused on war, rebellion, and empire. The first hour is text- and narrative-heavy, but I liked what I saw, and I’m always a sucker for stories of rebel groups rising up against corrupt empires. The script in Near’s fan translation is clean and reads nicely, though some of the translations are a bit literal for my tastes (you heal with an item called “drugs,” which I think would have been more traditionally localized as “medicine,” or “potion,” or whatever). It never gets in the way of the story as written by the game’s creator, and has an energetic sense of humour.
Near’s goal for this Bahamut Lagoon fan translation was nothing short of perfection. Though I haven’t played enough to pass judgement on that, I can say that it’s one of the most impressive fan translation projects I’ve played, and I can’t wait to see more of the game.
Watch the stream
Bahamut Lagoon was released by Square in February, 1996 for the Super Nintendo. It received Japanese Virtual Console releases on the Wii and Wii U, but never received an official English release. Those with a legally acquired version of the game ROM can get Near’s terrific fan translation via his website.
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
There’s charming, there’s charming, and then there’s Kat Leyh’s Snapdragon. This single volume graphic novel from Leyh tells the story of young Snapdragon, a feisty kid with a heart of gold, her friend Lu, and a roadkill-obsessed witch named Jack. It’s about identity and friendship, self love, and lasting romance.
Leyh’s trademark art sings, bringing so much life, joy, and emotional punch to a story that’ll have you laughing, awwing, and crying in short order. If you’re ever in a funk, and need something to remind you of the joy in life, Snapdragon’s the book.
(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)
Sequel Rights: A Review of Locus Reviews (Shattersnipe)
Who Actually Gets to “Escape” Into Fandom? (Teen Vogue)
WIP: Social Media Expectations (Kacen Callender)
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