I’m sure most of us remember our first imported game. There’s something about playing a game that you were never meant to play that I can’t describe. The feeling of getting away with something is half the fun. It takes a dedicated gamer to go to some of the lengths necessary to import games, and some even go so far as to buy a foreign console. Many times, this is just to buy games before they are released stateside. Because of the passion and determination needed, importing is almost exclusive to the elite class of gamers. I have a unique respect for hardcore importers; I consider them pioneers, opening new markets for foreign games the world over.
Importing has taken a much larger role in hardcore gaming with the emergence of CD based consoles. Rising development costs forced companies to be more selective with the games they produced for foreign markets. At the same time, software and hardware based copy protection and region control have made playing foreign games more of a challenge than ever before. I’ve been playing console games since the Atari 2600, but there always seemed to be enough games to hold me over until the next big one. But as we got into the new generations, it seemed that one killer title we were waiting for might never make it to our home country. Realizing that, we had a choice to make: Suck it up and wait for the next one; or shell out for a mod chip or foreign console, and visit the local import game shop. Sometimes we were saved by those gutsy publishers, like Atlas and Working Designs, who sometimes completely remade their games and weren’t afraid to export something “sketchy.” As gamers, we knew what we wanted, and when what we wanted wasn’t understood by the industry, we had to go the extra mile to get our hands on something special.
On the other hand, gamers nearly turned some consoles into import- exclusive platforms. Here in the U.S., some of my favorite games on the Sega Saturn were imports. X-men Vs. Street Fighter anyone? Or how about Samurai Showdown IV? Let’s not forget Radiant Silvergun or the other shooters on the platform. These games were no-brainers; you didn’t need to speak Japanese to play a fighting game or shooter. If you were willing to deal with the added cost of importing, then you’d get to experience a huge selection of excellent games not available to the U.S. market.
In many cases on the Saturn, even domestic releases became popular imports from overseas. Being a huge fan of the series, I frantically searched for a U.S. version of Shining Force III in the hopes of continuing the epic series of turn-based strategies. In my quest to discover this game at a reasonable price, I uncovered an interesting bit of information: Sometimes, import role-playing games (RPGs) are less expensive and more readily available than the localized versions. Because RPGs rely heavily on story, it makes sense the imports would be cheaper, but that usually doesn’t stop a player from enjoying what he can glean, despite the language barrier. For less than the cost of the U.S. version of Shining Force III on eBay, I enjoyed both scenario one and three (scenario three was never released to the U.S.) on my Sega Saturn in Japanese. Obviously, there are some cases where the Japanese versions just won’t do, which is why people like me are willing to pay $107 for a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga. After playing this game in English, I have to say that importing a game like that would be a travesty. But sometimes, it’s all you can do.
Now, if a game can generate frenzy like this, years after release, there’s something to be said for the foreign market. And the game companies are taking note of what is imported. Ikaruga (descended from Treasure’s Silhouette Mirage and Radiant Silvergun), Guilty Gear X, and Project Justice, just to name few, were some of my prized imports on Dreamcast. And look at how the industry responded. Guilty Gear X was localized on PS2 with several follow-ups and port versions; Ikaruga was re-released on the U.S. Gamecube; and several Dreamcast and Saturn fighters have made their way to mainstream consoles in the United States.
Sometimes though, it seemed companies were afraid to go the extra mile in an unknown market. Some games, like Project Justice and Dead or Alive II, were both released here in the U.S. with features cut out. Project Justice, and even previous U.S. incarnations of the Rival Schools series from which it hails, lack the custom character creation feature popular with the original versions. If you had a choice between the U.S. version and the import version for the same price, wouldn’t the choice be obvious? Perhaps this timidity on the part of publishers is the result of skepticism about the openness of the U.S. market to non-traditional game elements and styles. However, the popularity of importing makes it clear that hardcore gamers know a good game, no matter what language it’s in.
As the big guys in the suits start to realize that the market for these sorts of games does exist outside of their normal release zones, I feel that companies will continue to take chances with less mainstream games and genres. With sequels of popular imports produced for the U.S., we’re on the right track now to see a larger variety of games hit our shores than ever before. Importing spurs game companies to develop innovative games with new ideas and, further, encourages them to take more chances with new markets. For this evolution of the video game market, I think we should thank anyone who has ever bought an imported game.
Hugh Duffel is a student studying for a career in medicine at the University of Georgia with a minor in foreign language. When he isn’t studying he enjoys playing MMORPGs, shooters, and assorted console games.