Import gamers are a subset of the video game player community that partake in the practice of playing video games from another region, usually from Japan where the majority of games for certain systems originate.
Reasons for importing
There is no uniform motivation amongst import gamers, but some common reasons for importing include:
- Wider selection of titles. A large fraction of games are never released outside of Japan. This is especially true of the visual novel medium, or many games based on licensed anime/live TV series where very few titles have ever been given overseas releases. Those who are interested in these games but do not live in Japan can only enjoy them through importing. This also applies to Anglophone European gamers who purchase North American game releases, as it offers an extended selection of English language titles. Japan is not the only region to have exclusive games which attract importers, simply the most common.
- Localization issues. Many import gamers do not want games that feature edited dialogue, changed names, re-dubbed audio tracks, removal and/or censorship of content, and/or other similar changes which often appear in translated editions.
- Collector's value. Sometimes, a die-hard fan of a series that is released in their local region will buy both the local releases and the Japanese copies. This is also sometimes done for special print or premium box versions which are more common in Japanese releases than those from other regions and come with special extras.
- Language factor. Import gaming is common among students looking to improve their language skills, as well as native speakers of Japanese who do not live in Japan. This is also occasionally done with games in other languages, though less commonly. On the other hand some non-student import gamers would learn foreign languages (English and Japanese) just to be able to play these games.
- Advance release. Some do not wish to wait for a game to be released in their local region, and import the Japanese (or other non-local region) copies to obtain the game sooner. This is very common in English-speaking countries (i.e. the UK and Oceania) where games are often released later than in North America. This is also sometimes done with consoles; shops offering advance PSP imports recently made news when Sony took action against them.
- Financial reasons. Due to the current high value of the Euro compared to the United States dollar, along with the high pricing of video games in Europe, import gamers may save money by importing games instead of buying localized versions, even when shipping and handling costs and import tax are taken into consideration. This is also true within the used games market offering used import games way cheaper than local new games due to the localization delay. Before the recent introduction of the Euro though, import new games were commonly sold 40% more expensive by import shops than the European local edition.
- Technical issues. US and Japanese games are developed with NTSC television specs (480 lines, 60 Hz) in mind. PAL specs (576 lines, 50 Hz) used in the EU (except France) require changes to the source code of these games. While some games are rewritten accordingly, some aren't (or are done so only partially). Issues include black bars on top and bottom of the picture to make up for the 96 missing lines, resulting in a distorted image. Due to the different refresh ratio, some PAL games are about 17% slower than their NTSC counterpart. An infamous example would be the entire SquareEnix lineup on Sony systems, as well as other RPGs of different make. Users could often override these effects by applying their own software or hardware modifications to their setup (thus forcing the PAL software back into its native 480i/60Hz resolution), but this may be out of the scope of some users, could potentially invalidate the system warranty (as opening up older cartridge-based machines was necessary to force 60Hz), and in some instances could disrupt "PAL optimisations" that the coder applied (such as PAL-optimised video or 576i menu screens - even where the game itself was not PAL-optimised). Another factor to consider is that certain features are inherently included with software in some territories (such as the 480p option on NTSC Nintendo GameCube consoles), but not on others. As HDTV hardware is spreading however, games for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are typically being programmed in 720p or 1080p (which are standard across all territories), thus eliminating the TV specs hurdle. Also - starting with the Sega Dreamcast - most software in PAL territories included the option to play PAL software in its original 480i/60Hz format.
Difficulties of importing
Many game consoles
feature varying degrees of regional lockout
to discourage import gaming. Nevertheless, determined individuals find ways to enjoy their hobby. Some purchase Japanese (or other non-local region) game consoles to avoid the need to struggle with protection methods (though these are generally not able to play local games, in the event the user wishes to play both without modchip), while others prefer to have modchips
installed inside of their machines. There are yet others who prefer non-permanent alteration methods such as boot disks
, swap tricks
, or other methods. Some only purchase import games for region-free consoles. GameBrink.Com
is one of the few sites to actively cover the Import scene and gets updated daily.
Additionally, the power ratings of the console's originating country might come into the picture. Some Pacific countries use a 240v 60Hz feed and most Asian, European and African countries run off a 230v 50Hz feed, while Japan uses a 100v 50/60Hz feed and the US uses a 110v 60Hz feed. These factors are usually overcome with the use of a step-down (or step-up) transformer if the power supply of the console is built right into the console itself, or a replacement power block/charger if the power supply of the console comes from an AC-to-DC power block/charger.
The TV system of the console's originating country might also come into the picture. Even if a console's power issue is solved through a transformer/power block in the importer's country, the TV system might be incompatible. For example, If the console is a PAL machine, it would produce rolling pictures or no color when plugged into an NTSC display. Older system using RF output will also produce a loud hum, white noise or no sound in addition to the abovementioned picture problems when plugged in. While this problem never affects American importers bringing in Japanese consoles and vice-versa (due to both countries using NTSC), importers in PAL countries bringing in consoles from the US or Japan and vice-versa faces this issue regularly. A couple of ways to work around this issue exists as well:
- Use of a world-multi-system TV set (although most modern PAL TVs support both PAL and NTSC input)
- Use of a system converter that specifically converts the console's output system to the importer's native TV system, or a multi-purpose system converter
- Import compatible display with the console.
Additionally, on a modchipped console, certain games can be forced into displaying graphics in a different system using cheat devices.
While many games consoles do not allow games from other countries to be played on them (mainly due to voltage, localization and licensing issues), some consoles (often handheld, due to the universal nature of batteries) are not necessarily restricted to a certain locale. Some of these include:
- 3DO Interactive Multiplayer
- Game Boy and variant Game Boy Pocket
- Game Boy Color
- Game Boy Advance and variants Game Boy Advance SP, Game Boy Micro
- Game Gear
- Neo Geo
- Neo Geo Pocket
- Neo Geo Pocket Color
- Nintendo DS/Nintendo DS Lite
- TurboGrafx-CD/PC Engine CD-ROM2
- PSP (*)
- PlayStation 3 (*)
- The V.Tech V.Smile and V.Smile Baby consoles.
(*)While the PlayStation Portable is hyped to be region-free, regional lockout do exists to some extent in the console, and it's up to the producer of the game to implement it. For example, some have reported that the PSP release of Battlezone in some countries are region-locked. Likewise, UMD movies are region-locked. The PlayStation 3 also has an optional region-lock that the producer of the game can choose to or not to implement. It will also honor the region-coding of Blu-ray movies, DVD movies, and PS1 and PS2 games.
While the 3DO does not feature regional lockout, a few Japanese 3DO games can only be played on a Japanese console due to special kanji data. (Likewise, games for the Chinese iQue DS do not run on non-Chinese Nintendo DS systems due to the larger size of the firmware chip to compensate the Chinese alphabets.) At the 3DO company's suggestion, the majority of game developers added these files to the game CDs so that they could be played on foreign consoles. Known titles that did not feature these data on the CDs include Sword & Sorcery and a demo version of Alone in the Dark.
The seventh generation consoles have complicated matters by largely leaving the region coding of games down to the individual developer. The Xbox 360 has many games that are not region coded (as did the original Xbox, albeit to a lesser extent) and both Sony and Nintendo have alluded to the fact that developers will have the option of making their games region-free.
Cartridge-based protected systems
Consoles that feature regional differences in cartridge sizes or slots:
- Sega Master System: North American and European machines can run games from each other's regions, but Japanese cartridges are incompatible, having the same shape and pinout as the Master System's Japanese predecessor, the Mark III. This serves the purpose of backwards-compatibility with Mark II and Mark I games in Japan, as well as a form of regional lockout.
- Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: The Genesis and European Mega Drive have a cartridge slot which is mutually incompatible with the Japanese Mega Drive, but the same pinout. The cartridges can be interchanged if either the cartridge slot is squared off, or a simple converter is placed on the bottom of the cartridge. Later in the Mega Drive/Genesis's life, some publishers, including Sega, produced games which would refuse to run outside the region they were marketed in. These games would require a more complex device such a Game Genie or an Action Replay in order to play in a different region.
- Nintendo Entertainment System (Famicom in Japan): A NES can run Famicom games by use of a converter placed on the end of the Famicom cartridge. Some North American NES games published in the winter of 1985 use Famicom game boards with converters; it is possible to disassemble these games and use their converters, or simply purchase third-party ones. Its also possible to disable the lockout function completely, by doing very minor modifications to the circuit itself.
- Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super Famicom in Japan): A North American Super Nintendo can run Super Famicom cartridges if two tabs are removed from its cartridge slot. PAL Super Nintendo consoles, while sharing the same cartridge size as the Japanese Super Famicom, require an adapter cartridge to work with Japanese or North American games due to a lockout chip that differentiates between PAL and NTSC versions of a game.
- Nintendo 64: A Nintendo 64 can run Nintendo 64 games from another region by use of a device such as Passport 64 which reads the regional data from one cartridge and game data from another. The US Nintendo 64 could be modified to accept Japanese Games by cutting out two plastic tabs at the bottom of the dust guard. US modification No converter is needed on the US system to accept Japanese Games with this simple modification.
Disk-based protected systems
The majority of disk-based consoles released in more than one region feature regional lockout
, the main exception being the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer
Modchips are a popular choice for many of these consoles as they are generally the easiest to use; however a poorly installed chip could permanently break the console. Some modern consoles, such as Xbox, cannot be used for online play if chipped.
Boot disks are another common choice, as they are generally reliable and do not require risky installation methods. These disks are loaded as though they are local game disks, then prompt the user to swap them for an imported game, allowing it to run. A Wii "Freeloader" boot disk was just launched by Codejunkies.
The Sega Saturn has a fairly unique workaround; while mainly a disk-based console, it has a cartridge slot generally used for extra memory, cheat cards, or other utilities. This same slot can be used for cartridges that allow imported games to run. Some of these cartridges include extra memory, RAM expansions, cheat devices, and regional bypass all in one, while others only feature regional bypass and cannot play certain Japanese Saturn games that require RAM expansion cartridges.
All three major game console makers refuse to repair any system that has been modded or if boot disks are used.
Some consoles are only released in one region, and therefore have no protection. These include:
PC-based import gaming
is a popular platform for import gaming as well. While some operating systems
are unable to run games designed for other language versions of the same operating system, others, such as Windows XP
and Windows Vista
are capable of being set to run Japanese (and/or other non-local) games and other software.