Anyone who’s been in to video games any length of time can easily realize that Japan gets some great video games that never make it to the states. With the growth of the Internet, it’s much easier for American gamers like myself to find out about what we’ve been missing, and it’s also easier to get our hands on them now. There’s no denying there’s a market for imports; eBay and Amazon make trading overseas a breeze, and websites like Play-Asia.com, based in Hong Kong, are specifically designed for western consumers who want goods from the East. But with elaborate region lockout systems built into most home consoles, it can seem like there’s a reason behind keeping games in their country of origin.
Time for a quick tech history lesson. In 1985, the Nintendo Entrainment System was the first home console to feature a basic CIC, or lockout chip. Its primary goal was to discourage the flow of unlicensed games, which were blamed on the video game industry crash a few years earlier, but it also had the function of locking out games from other countries. It achieved this with a “lock and key” mechanism. One chip inside the console, the lock, (pictured) would check for a similar chip inside the cartridge, the key. If the cartridge’s chip checked out with the console’s chip, the game would run. Within the cart’s CIC is the region information for whatever game you’re playing and the consoles’s CIC checks for this as well. This means that a U.S. game can only run in a U.S. console, a Japanese game can only run in a Japanese console, and the same goes for other regions. (Similar to today’s DVD region coding.) This effectively keeps games from working outside their country of origin, but why?
The primary reason for a Japanese game not getting an American release is that either the developer, the publisher, or the localizer doesn’t think that the American audience will be receptive to the game. Even after translation, there can still be large references to Japanese culture that American gamers wouldn’t understand. An obscure Nintendo game known as “Doki Doki Panic” is a good example here. In some cases, a game will get held back if the game is thought to be too hard. This is the case for the original Super Mario Bros. 2, which in Japan was basically a harder version of the first game. (Now, what Nintendo did instead is pretty clever. Since Super Mario Bros. was wildly popular in the states and a sequel was pretty much required, Nintendo took Doki Doki Panic, changed it’s characters to Mario characters, and released it in the states as Super Mario Bros. 2! So when you think about it, SMB2 isn’t really a Mario game… doesn’t that blow your mind?)
Now, in these cases, importing seems a-ok. But sometimes a game can’t make it over to the states due to copyright issues. A perfect example of this is the Nintendo DS game, “Jump Ultimate Stars.” This game features characters from many different manga and anime franchises in Japan, such as Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh, One Piece, Naruto, and countless others. In Japan, these franchises are all owned by Shonen Jump, but in the U.S. they are owned by dozens of different companies. It would have taken way too much time and money to get this properly licensed in the states, so it was left as a Japan-only exclusive.
Does this mean it’s illegal for me to own and play this game on my Nintendo DS here in the U.S. of A? (The DS, by the way, has no region lockout.) I think not. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and even before the proliferation of the internet, extremely dedicated gamers would travel to Japan to buy these exclusives, new. The sale is taking place in the country of its origin, the residuals are going to the right people. The transaction is completely identical to a native Japanese person buying the game. In the Internet age, its no different. If I were to go to Play-Asia or buy this from a Japanese vendor on Amazon, the financial transaction is still taking place overseas. (That said, it’s easy to unwillingly buy a pirated copy, which is illegal, but that’s another story.)
So, why have a regional lockout chip? Remember, its purpose was to discourage the sale of unlicensed games or the sale of imports outside of their country of origin, which starts to bring up legal issues. By making an imported game not work, people are less likely to sell them, since customers would be outraged and try to get their money back. In my opinion, if you, the consumer, have the means to acquire the game legally, the methods of which to circumvent the region lockout, (if necessary) and the courage to brave the language barrier, you should be able to enjoy some of the great games that never left the land of the rising sun.