Import Games©
Editorial by Sandy Ross

To import, or not to import: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The delays and pushbacks of outrageous release dates,
Or to take arms against a sea of impatience,
And by purchasing, end them. To play, to wait
No more; and by play to say we end
The nail-biting wait and the thousand inevitable delays
That any game project is heir to, ‘tis a comsummation
Devoutly to be wished. To purchase, to play,
To play, perchance to be dissatisfied, ay there’s the rub,
For in that play of foreign games what confusion may come
When we have shuffled off the security of our native tongue

Must give us pause. . .

“To import or not to import” is a question that usually comes up when people are discussing a highly anticipated title that they don’t want to wait any longer to play. When Mario Sunshine was released, some gamers (Penny Arcade link: experienced a painful dilemma: is it better to import the Japanese version and avoid potential delays, or wait for a version in a comprehensible language? Allow me the liberty of a belated reply: Keep your shirt (and pants) on, Gabe. That applies to you too, Tycho.

As exciting as it is to get a game ahead of its domestic release date, there are far better reasons to buy consoles from another region, or modify your existing consoles, to play import games, specifically those from Japan. Unusual genres, addictive and cheesy low budget titles, bonus promotional gifts, international editions and the challenge of playing at a higher difficulty level are some of the other reasons for importing.

Import titles offer a wider variety of genres than domestic releases. It’s a crying shame that so many great games never leave the Land of Wa. Though many unusual games have started to appear in North America, the arrival of Konami’s Karaoke Revolution was quite astonishing, the field is still very narrow. Puzzle games are thin on the ground, unless you want to play yet another uninspired variation on Tetris, as are multi-player party games, music games and collections of mini-games. Entire genres seem trapped in Japan: ren ai, sometimes called dating simulations; horse racing and breeding simulations; pachinko, a combination vertical pinball and slot machine game simulated on consoles; train driving games; and taiko drumming games.

Though this isn’t my passion, hentai games are also exclusively Japanese (that’s pornography in video game format for those of you who are new to the subject). Whether you prefer big-eyed, big-breasted girls; catgirls with tails and furry paws; gun-toting, vulnerable women; French maids or sword swinging holy virgins, there is a game out there to satisfy your kink. Though there are quite a few dating simulations that would be perfectly safe for a ten year old to play, there are just as many that should require identification before purchase. Oddly enough, the majority of the really hard-core games are for PCs, not consoles.

Another overlooked import category is the “oddball non-genre title destined for a pitiful life in the 100 yen ($1.14 CDN) bin”. The beauty of low budget games in Japan is that competition in this market is intense, which produces titles that may have laughable graphics or poor music, but feature highly addictive gameplay. Iwatobi Penguin (Rock Jumping Penguins) Rocky x Hopper was pulled from a discount basket, and it is one of the most amusing mini-game collections I’ve ever owned. Iwatobi Penguin uses only the directional pad and two buttons, but it’s absolutely fantastic. There is also an entire set of knock-off games known as the Simple 1500 series. From The Mystery to The Ren Ai, or The Mahjongg and The Tetris, Simple 1500 has almost any kind of game for the low price of 1,500 yen, hence the name.

Without even venturing into the world of non-genre, odd-genre and low-budget games, there are still enough interesting possibilities among Japan-only releases to keep you busy for at least a year. Games like Zill’O, Mermanoid or Breath of Zephyr would have done well in North America, but they were never translated and sent overseas.

Special edition and limited edition releases are another excellent reason to purchase import games. In 2000, Squaresoft re-released some of its most popular titles in ‘Millenium Edition’ packages which included special gifts along with new art on the game discs. The Millenium Edition of Ergheiz is particularly attractive, and it came with a set of Vincent Valentine figures. Saga Frontier came with a saucer and teacup, while Saga Frontier II contained a t-shirt. Special edition art books, post card collections, stickers, key chains, spoons, lunch sets and soundtracks are among the treasures available exclusively for Japanese gamers and those who import. Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits also came with a nice special edition, and almost all dating simulation games have a limited edition version of some kind. The Atelier series usually has quite slick special editions as well.

Pre-ordering an import title usually guarantees some kind of promotional item as well. The first press of Final Fantasy X-2 International came with a Yuna, Paine or Rikku key chain. Oddly enough, online import gaming stores were only offering the Yuna version, but Japanese stores had all three. The first release of Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix came with Kingdom Hearts playing cards, which was pretty neat.

International editions have come a long way since Final Fantasy VII International, which was an attempt to compensate for the embarrassing fiasco caused by the original release of Final Fantasy VII in Japan. The latest international title is FFX-2 International + Last Mission. Not only does this new version have slightly harder monsters and bosses, it also has two additional dress spheres, a whole new monster capture system, extra story levels, and another game attached, Last Mission! It also has two trailers for Advent Children, which are splendid incidentally. The international edition of Xenosaga, Xenosaga: Reloaded, restores scenes cut from the North American edition for various reasons that will remain undiscussed here.

Gameplay in international versions is usually more balanced. Weapons that were unbalanced usually have their stats tweaked to make them less powerful, some people would argue less useful, certain enemies are made harder, and sometimes a few ridiculously difficult enemies are slightly weakened. When game design teams are given extra time to produce an international edition, they can improve the game. A local sales clerk asked why I was waiting for FFX-2 International + Last Mission instead of buying FFX-2 immediately. He didn’t seem to understand that I’d prefer to wait for a complete version of the game with all the special features and debugging provided by extra testing and development time, as opposed to the regular release. When working on a tight budget, why settle for anything less than the best version possible?

Voice acting is absolutely abysmal in English, but it is much better in Japanese. Importing games spares you from the agony of listening to poor voice overs. Even if you can’t understand the spoken Japanese, it does sound better, or at least more believable, than the English versions.

If you’re a fan of Japanese animation, anime spin-off games usually don’t make the cut for export to other regions. Though most of these games are naked cash grabs without much value, there are a few really good ones, like the new Naruto game and Card Captor Sakura Tetris. Steer clear of the Rurouni Kenshin fighting game, which is a complete disappointment.

The difficulty debate is unsettled, but I do believe that Japanese versions of games are usually harder. Having played quite a few titles in both North American and Japanese versions, it always seems as though enemies use their special abilities more often, have more hit points and do more damage in the Japanese version. It suffices to say that nothing will induce me to touch the Japanese version of Devil May Cry again after being chased down a corridor by a giant spider with an exoskeleton that has the same texture as a dirty public toilet, and spits a substance that looks suspiciously like flaming vomit.

There is definitely a greater challenge to playing Japanese games, even if it’s only because of the language. If you really liked a certain game, to the point of fanaticism even, ordering the Japanese version offers a new way of looking at it, and a different way of playing it. Sometimes stats and items are changed between the Japanese release and the domestic version, which provides a certain novelty. Certain genres, like fighting games, change very little from one release to the next, don’t expect to find special secret characters in the Japanese version that aren’t in the domestic release for your region. Fighting games, however, do sometimes have special Japan-only editions, in which there will be new moves and characters. Other types of games, like RPGs, tend to have differences between the Japanese and North American or European release.

Import gaming does have drawbacks, mostly financial. The cost of having two consoles, one for domestic and one for Japanese releases, or a modified console, is not cheap. Buying imported games is also expensive. An import usually costs more than the domestic release for your region, video games in Japan are hideously expensive, but when the online retailers add their profit and shipping on top of that, the price is considerable.

Access to import games is also frustrating. You are almost guaranteed to draw a blank at local video game stores, as the market for imports is limited and very few stores carry them. There are quite a few retailers online, but knowing which companies provide good, reliable service with reasonable prices is a bit harder than it sounds. Then again, there are always online auctions. . .

Language is also a problem with many games, as there isn’t much English in most Japanese games. Though this is hardly a drawback for fighting, action or FPS games, it can be a significant drawback for RPGs, strategy and some adventure titles. The worst time I ever had understanding a game was Brigandine, a tactical fantasy war game with absolutely incomprehensible kanji at an incredibly small size.

To import or not to import may not be the most important decision you’ll ever make, but it’s one of the best way to maximize your gaming possibilities, and gain access to some incredible games.