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The Un-mod Squad

If you’re serious about import gaming (and have the space as well as sufficient funds) then owning original equipment is a must. Any shmoe can get a system modified, but it’s the true hardcore gamer who’s sensible enough (or just plain nuts, depending on who you ask) to have a system and/or games shipped directly from Japan or another on or offline importer.  While I’m not against emulation (under self-controlled conditions, it’s a perfect way to try games you’ve always wanted to), getting to see an actual console setup and game packaging is a very important step in appreciating the medium.

For those of you who need to know, I’ve put together a freeform listing of systems and what’s needed to run imports on them with alternates for those who don’t have space for everything. Of course, while this list assumes that you’re living in an area that supports NTSC format televisions, games and software, you’ll see that a number of PAL titles are also accessible on certain consoles, which just means there’s some more games for you to track down!

Beginning with Nintendo, one important thing to know about Famicom games is that the cartridges came in many different shapes and sizes, which makes playing some on a front loading NES with a simple cart converter impossible. The best setup that will let you play most, if not all US and Japanese games is a Famicom/Famicom Disk System combo or the rarer Twin Famicom (an all in one unit that plays cart and disk titles), and a NES top loader with a cart converter. You can keep the front loader for those 4-player games and when you need a flashing red light to put you to sleep at night (or give you Pokemon-style seizures). As the US carts are a lot wider than their Japanese counterparts, there’s no reliable way to run US games on a Japanese system without a ridiculous amount of modification.

With the exception of some FX chip enabled games, most Super Famicom games will run on a Super Nintendo with a cart converter. Naki made a somewhat unwieldy GameSaver + Converter that stuck out of the SNES like a small building, but it allowed you to play imports, enter cheats, and save anywhere (provided you kept the unit supplied with fresh batteries). Along with a wide selection of excellent titles, there are some unusually oversized carts (like Hudson’s Same Game and Bandai’s SD Gundam Generation Next) and add-ons (like the Sufami Turbo) that make the system worth tracking down.  If you’re short on space, you can also try to nab a Super-8 by Innovation, which allows Famicom, NES, SNES, and Super Famicom games to be played on your SNES.  Some folks swear by the Tri-Star 64 for the N64, but I wasn’t pleased with the washed-out picture quality and occasional signal interference I saw when I tested it.

Speaking of N64, you’ll find a number of different converters for Japanese and PAL titles, some which require a US game to boot up the import you want to play. Owning a N64 DD requires a bit more of an investment, as it’s an expensive collectable even in Japan. Of course, the Game Cube, being Nintendo’s first major non-cart console with a worldwide release presented no problem for early adopters willing to install a simple switch modification. But the purists who held out (and those who still want any sort of warranty or repair service) can now use a handy disc called a Free Loader, which boots up any game with no troubles at all. Finally, it’s fairly common knowledge that pretty much any older Game Boy title will play on any newer Game Boy system, and yes, the not so portable Virtual Boy is also universal. The recent release of the GB Player for the Game Cube opens up a whole new world of collection options for me, but that’s a subject for another column. 

If you’re interested in the Sega SG-1000, SG 1000 II, Mark III or Japanese Master System, be prepared to hopefully locate games from the same place the systems are coming from. The three earlier systems were never released here, and US, European, and Brazilian SMS carts (which work fine on a US SMS or SMS II) are wider than their Japanese counterparts. Some of you may be interested to know that the Japanese Master System is at first glance the same huge slab of black plastic that we got here. Interestingly enough, Telegames’ Dina system (which plays Dina and most ColecoVision software) is visually similar to both the SG-1000 II and Mark III, which makes me wonder if the Sega games would also run on that particular system.  As for you handheld fans out there, all Game Gear titles are universal, a great thing to know if you’re traveling and come across any titles you don’t have yet (or are looking for a cool gift or three).

I’ll admit to taking a hot X-Acto knife to one of my Genesis systems back in 1992 to play my first Mega Drive games, Shining and the Darkness, and Vapor Trail, but I hastily grabbed these games from a used record shop that didn’t sell MD converters. Shortly afterward, I discovered Die Hard Game Fan magazine, which opened my eyes to a wider world of import choices. There are a number of MD/Genesis converters available, but the most reliable are the carts with region switches, sometimes called Mega Key or Super Key. These allow a US Genesis to play NTSC and PAL carts from any region, and are worth the time and effort to track down. Of course, I later picked up a MD for my growing collection, which came in handy when I finally got a working Mega CD peripheral. You’ll need either a Mega Drive/Mega CD combo, a converter cart or a Japanese Wonder Mega or Wonder Mega II (released here in limited quantities as the JVC X’Eye) to play MCD games, but both US and Japanese Ram carts will work for game saves. The 32x only adds to the confusion, as its bulky shape and odd setup method means there’s no simple way of connecting it no matter what model Genesis/MD you’ve got. Then again, there were no titles that were released in Japan that weren’t released here, so feel free to pick up whichever unit suits you.  By the way, some folks swear by Majesco’s Genesis 3, which does allow you to play some import NTSC and PAL MD games. But it doesn’t connect to any of the CD peripherals and certain wireless controllers, nor does it correctly support the weight of the 32x, which makes it good for quick MD fixes only.

Import Sega Saturn fans got a nice treat early on when the Saturn Game Shark allowed players to run many games without any special codes or modification. Later, a few different companies created converters (such as the Action Replay) that enabled gamers to run some titles that required an additional 4MB of RAM. There are a lot of PAL games that run perfectly on a US Saturn with a converter, and it’s the only way to play English versions of games like Deep Fear and Keio Yugekitai (Keio Flying Squadron 2).  The arrival of the Dreamcast made the waiting game for a successful non-invasive way to play imports stretch out for about a year and a half until a series of boot discs were created. Unfortunately, many were using these to play copied games that they bought from shady (and not so shady) on and offline sources. Purists settled for either a Game Shark or Freeloader, and there was even a disc made that allowed the DC to play VCD movies (which are sold legally in many territories outside of the US). One of the best things about having a boot disc is that you can play a great deal of PAL only DC releases that have a 60hz NTSC mode on the game disc. Games like Stunt GP, Evil Twin, Headhunter, Shenmue 2 (which plays a bit better on the system it was originally intended for) and more are out there if you’re feeling adventurous, and don’t mind the unusual European packaging.

Moving onto Sony, early models of the original PlayStation were able to run Japanese games via a somewhat unreliable swap trick that could end up damaging the system if done improperly. Soon afterward, a number of devices were created that exploited the I/O port on the back of the system, which allowed import games to be played. Sony didn’t take too kindly to these items, eventually altering the console so that the port was removed. Disc-based versions soon appeared, and thrived (with, unfortunately, a booming bootleg market), and the system was changed yet again. Unless there’s been a regular replacing of worn out parts, I doubt that there are very many 10001 series PS systems still active today. The best way to play Japanese games is either with a much smaller imported PS One, or a Japanese PlayStation 2. You can stack you US system atop your Japanese one if you’re tight for space; just remember to vacuum the back vents and use a CD-based lens cleaner every 10 or 20 hours, and you’ll be fine. I’d Imagine that the upcoming PSP handheld would most likely be universal, as it would be easier for gamers to pick up software on the road. Then again, I’m sure Sony has something up their sleeves to thwart those of you out there that snap up the system as soon as it’s released in Japan. 

The funny thing about Xbox imports is the speed that some of them have been picked up and translated for US gamers. Then again, this has given both first and third party developers time to make better second and third generation titles that are more than just graphics showpieces. There’s no doubt that the market for Japanese systems and titles is fairly small compared to PS2 and DC imports, but in a way, this could make the games desirable in a few years. That is, if Microsoft makes a smaller follow up or portable that takes up a lot less space than its current model. 

Don’t worry, NEC fans, I didn’t forget you Turbo fans! Depending on how deep you want to get into collecting imports for the system, there are a number of different configurations to go with.  If you’re a Turbo Grafx 16, Turbo Express, or Turbo Duo owner, for import HuCards you’ll have to make do with one of three different Kisado converters, which are hard to track down and somewhat expensive once located. It’s far easier to buy either a PC Engine Core Grafx with a CD-ROM attachment or a PC Engine Duo (preferably with System 3.0 installed or as a separate HuCard purchase).  The US Turbo Duo will play most Japanese Super CD games, with the exception of Arcade Card titles, which require an import machine and, yes, an Arcade Card. For on the road gaming, you’ll want your Turbo Express and its Japanese counterpart, the PC-Engine GT or the more expensive (and rare) PC-Engine LT. Although I’ll have to admit that once you do manage to track down either one or both of these units, you’ll most likely never want to leave your house with them. You may want a Super Grafx just for the excellent conversions of 1941 and Daimakaimura (Ghouls ‘n Ghosts), but remember, there were only 6 games released for the system before it went under in Japan. I’m planning a big PC-Engine column in the near future, so we’ll stop here for now.

Moving onto to “smaller” systems; Neo Geo owners no doubt know that the system plays Japanese titles with no problem, and the few that I’ve spoken to absolutely swear by the cartridge system over the much slower CD-based models. If you can’t see shelling out $40 -$350 or more for some cartridges and don’t mind excessive CD loading, go for the CDZ. All Neo Geo Pocket titles all work on the color system- the earlier black and white systems won’t play the color games, but the older model is a great collectable.  Most 3DO games will run on any system anywhere in the world, but there are small a number of Japanese games that require you to track down an import system. The hentai card battle game Twinkle Knights is one of these games, so watch out for this one if you see it. A while back I received E-mail from someone with a list of about 10 other imports that won’t run on a US system, but it was on my old computer (which is no longer among the living).  I’ll post an update in the forums here if anything resurfaces.

By the way, I’ve run into some Japanese gamers that collect US systems, mostly classics like the 2600, ColecoVision and Vectrex. But a few are into the Philips (or Magnavox) CD-I, any of Tiger’s units, and Atari’s Lynx, Jaguar, and Jaguar CD, which run games made for them from anywhere in the world. Don’t take this as gospel, however, and judge every Japanese gamer out there based on the above. Then again, you may want to stock up on that pile of discounted software you saw at Odd-Job. Finally, a lot of folks are a bit put off by the language barrier in Japanese titles, but I say what’s wrong with learning a new language if it opens a whole new area of enjoyment up in your life? You can poke around on the ‘net for some starter courses (try and hit a number of online shops for all sorts of books on writing and grammar and such. It’s not that difficult or time-consuming, and hell, there’s nothing at all wrong with being a bit smarter in this day and age now, is there?

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Last updated: Saturday, April 23, 2005 07:48 AM

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