I first got into importing videogame’s back in the late ’90’s. Fed up with waiting for the latest releases and the crappy PAL ports we would (eventually) get given, I decided to shun the official world of the UK market place for something far more satisfying…
One has to remember, throughout the 1990’s, Japan was the global powerhouse in the world videogame market place. The two biggest console companies were Sega and Nintendo, and of course by the latter half of the decade Sony had entered the fray, and surpassed both Sega and Nintendo by the decade’s close. The two big attempts by American companies to enter the growing home console market both failed miserably (Atari’s Jaguar and the 3DO), and European input was restricted purely to the actual games rather than hardware. Nevertheless, with few exceptions, many of the decade’s biggest titles came out of Japan, and because of this, and the strength of the Japanese home market, these games came out in Japan a long time before they reached UK shores.
This became increasingly irritating for me, especially when waiting for sequels or certain titles to arrive from Japanese developers. Another source of irritation would be reading through my monthly copy of Edge magazine. Back then Edge gave good coverage to what was coming out in Japan – most major releases were reviewed when they were released in Japan, so, for example, Metal Gear Solid, Biohazard (aka Resident Evil), Super Mario 64, Sonic Adventure and many others were all reviewed at the time of their Japanese release. You’d see the screenshots, read the review, and then just as you were thinking of nipping down to Electronics Boutique or HMV to pick it up, you’d see the release date and become instantly dismayed. At best the UK release would be some six months away; at worst the letters “TBC” would be printed and you would start to wonder if you would ever play the game at all.
Another issue for me, and for many others as well, was the lacklustre attempts by Japanese videogame companies to optimise their localisations for the PAL market. Most hardcore gamers did not wish to play their games in letterbox format, but sadly that was the reality for most as many titles were optimised for PAL display and therefore wouldn’t run full screen. Does anyone remember the awful PAL port of Dino Crisis on the Dreamcast? If you ever needed a prime example of how bad some PAL ports could be for big releases, Dino Crisis PAL for Dreamcast is perfect.
I think it was around late ’97 that I finally got fed up with being treated as second best, and so packed up my PAL Playstation and went and traded it in at my local import shop (remember them?) for a brand new NTSC/J Playstation Dual Shock edition (which I still have somewhere). Along with the console, I picked up Tekken 3 (which was still months away from being released in the UK) and a couple of other games (I don’t remember what they were) and went home happy. Thus, my indoctrination into the murky world of importing had begun!
Throughout the rest of the 90’s I bought all my PSX games on Japan import only, only slowing this trend with the release of the PAL Dreamcast as many of the games were running full screen and launch dates started to appear at a more acceptable rate. However, just as I thought my reliance on importing was waning, a number of Japan only titles appeared on Dreamcast as the European support for the console was pulled in 2001, and I ended up buying a NTSC/J PS2 to catch up on many Japan only titles some years back.
Today I still get many games from Japan, mainly through either eBay or Yahoo! Japan, to help compliment my collection of PSX, Saturn, DC and PS2 games but gone are the days when I go down to my local import shop for the latest releases. Most, if not all, the big titles are released globally today, occasionally the odd week passes between a US and European release, but nothing like the kind of wait UK gamer’s used to have to endure. As the new Millennium has progressed and the seventh generation of video game consoles has moved in, developers and publishers have adopted PAL 60hz for European releases and the days of letterboxing seem consigned to videogame history. Nevertheless, there will always be the odd Japan only title that intrigues, and having a bit of a soft spot for shoot ’em ups means that I am mulling over the possibility of picking up a NTSC/J Xbox 360… best not let the wife know!!