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Import gamers are a subset of the video game player community that take part 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 among import gamers, but some common reasons for importing include:
- Wider selection of titles. Not all video games are available in all countries, and a large fraction of games are not released outside 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 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/censorship of content, and/or other similar changes which often appear in translated versions.
- Collector's value. Sometimes, a die-hard fan of a series that is released in their local region will buy both the domestic 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, and for native speakers of Japanese who do not live in Japan. This is also occasionally done with games in other languages, though less commonly. Some non-students who import games would learn foreign languages (English and Japanese) just to be able to play these games. Additionally, the region provisioning in some regions does not make sense- for example, NTSC/J was assigned as the region for South-East Asia and many games were released in Japanese, despite the fact that few people in the region understood Japanese.
- Advance release. Some do not wish to wait for a game to be released in their local region, and import the Japanese (non-domestic) copies to obtain the game sooner. This is very common in English-speaking countries (i.e. UK and Australia) where games are often released later than in the USA. 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 high release-prices, it is often considerably cheaper for gamers to buy Japanese(non-domestic) versions of popular games that have already passed out of the "new release" phase of their marketing in the foreign country. Furthermore, because of variations in international exchange rates and international video game market demand, 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, however, the introduction of the Euro, new import games were commonly sold 40% more expensive by import shops than the European local edition. Similar price disparities exist between American and Asian markets.
- 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 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/60 Hz 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 60 Hz), 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-optimized). 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 and 1080i/720p exclusive to NTSC version of Microsoft Xbox), 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 Dreamcast - most software in PAL territories included the option to play PAL software in its original 480i/60 Hz format.
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[nb 1]
- Atari Jaguar
- Atari Jaguar CD
- Game Boy/GB Pocket/GB Light
- Game Boy Color
- Game Boy Advance/GBA SP/GB Micro
- Game Gear[nb 2]
- Neo Geo
- Neo Geo CD/CDZ
- Neo Geo Pocket Color
- Nintendo DS/DS Lite[nb 3]
- Nintendo Switch
- TurboGrafx-CD/PC Engine CD-ROM2 System
- Master System[nb 4]
- PlayStation Portable[nb 5]
- PlayStation Vita
- PlayStation 3[nb 6]
- PlayStation 4. Although Sony has said that it is possible to region lock titles, they strongly discourage developers from doing so.
- Super Game Boy (the SGB itself is locked for either PAL or NTSC SNES)
- Super Game Boy 2 (doesn't work with PAL SNES)
- Super NES (concerns only Japanese Super Famicom and NTSC SNES, cut out two tabs in cartridge slot)
- Nintendo 64 (concerns only Japanese N64 and NTSC N64, remove two tabs in the back of the cartridge tray)
- Vectrex Vectrex games, Controllers, 3D Imagers, and other accessories are not region specific. The box and manual language printing are the only differences.
- Virtual Boy
- Xbox One – Initially to be strictly region-locked by means of IP Geolocation through a mandatory network connection so that the console will not be usable outside its intended region, however Microsoft has retracted the function and the console is now technically region-free.
Note: Pre-third generation consoles are not listed because at the time there was little to no importing and consequently there was little reason to introduce regional lock-out. Sometime importing difficulties may still arise (e.g. Atari 2600 games from regions the console is not from may introduce some glitches, such as missing colors).
Most handheld video game systems are region free due to most of them having a built in screen, run on batteries and being much cheaper to produce if they do not have a region lock on the system or games.
Disk-based protected systems
The majority of disk-based home consoles released in more than one region feature regional lockout, the main exceptions being the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer and the Sony PlayStation 3.
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 launched by Codejunkies. However, the Freeloader boot disk was rendered unusable with the release of Firmware 3.3 for the Wii. Most Wii users have since turned to "hacking" their Wii instead using the "Twilight Hack", and when Nintendo patched the bug that allowed the exploit to take place in Firmware 4.0, users soon discovered another method, aptly called the "BannerBomb Hack". This, when combined with the Homebrew channel and a disk loader application, allows users to bypass region checks for Wii games. Aside from the Freeloader series, other boot disks include the Action Replay, the Utopia boot disk, Bleemcast!, and numerous other softmod disks.
The Sega Saturn has a fairly unusual workaround; while a disk-based console, it has a cartridge slot generally used for backup memory, cheat cards, and other utilities. This same slot can also be used for cartridges that allow imported games to run. Some of these cartridges include regional bypass, extra memory, RAM expansion(s), and cheat devices all in one, while others feature only regional bypass and cannot play certain Japanese Saturn games that require RAM expansion cartridges.
The Xbox is not very restrictive due to the console being capable of "softmods" which can do things such as make the console region-free, allowing for burned games to be used and homebrew and multimedia functionality
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:
- NEC PC-FX
- Bandai WonderSwan
- Bandai WonderSwan Color/SwanCrystal
- Fujitsu FM Towns
- Fujitsu FM Towns Marty
- Casio Loopy
- Daewoo Zemmix
- Sega SG-1000 Mark I
- Sega SC-3000
- Neo Geo Pocket
PC-based import gaming
The PC 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. Another method of importing is using a region-free disk drive.
- 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 not being present on non-Japanese 3DO. 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.
- The Game Gear contains an I/O port that allows the software to detect whether or not it is a Japanese console. However, it is not known to have been used for region-locking purposes.
- However, the successor to the Nintendo DS Lite, the Nintendo DSi, is region locked for DSi and newer DS games, although it will still play older DS games of any region. Also, games for the Chinese iQue version of the DS/DS Lite do not run on non-Chinese Nintendo DS systems due to the more complicated firmware chip required to compensate the large Chinese alphabets.
- The Master System is not region-locked directly, however there are several differences that create compatibility issues between Japanese and western consoles. Japanese consoles (released in different variations as the Sega Mark III and the Master System) use differently-sized cartridges. Western consoles have bi-directional controller ports, while Japanese do not. Some software will check this functionality to determine if it is running on a Japanese console or not. Some games will display a different title screen, and Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap is known to refuse to play the FM soundtrack on a western console (even if a hobbyist-produced western FM sound unit is installed). Also, the BIOS in western consoles will check the game code to see if a Sega-defined header is found. This is done to check which of the Master System's media slots have a game inserted, and which to boot. Japanese consoles do not have this requirement, so Japanese games do not contain a header, so a western Master System will not be able to detect inserted Japanese software.
- While the PlayStation Portable is usually region-free, regional lockout is used to an extent in the console, and it is up to the producer of the game to implement it. For example, some have claimed that the PSP version of Battlezone in some countries are region-locked. Likewise, UMD movies are also region-locked. Additionally, the firmware is programmed to detect the region of the console and only display some features in consoles released in certain countries. For example, the Asian version of the PlayStation Portable series will not display the Extras option in the XMB despite the user upgrading the console using a copy of Firmware 6.20 that is obtained from the US site. Sony disables the function on Asian consoles because non-game applications for the PSP has yet to be released in the region despite applications being already available for download in other regions. Likewise, the US version of the PlayStation Portable will not enable the TV option to allow live streaming of TV channels from PlayStation 3s that are equipped with the optional USB tuner accessory that is only sold in Japan and the UK.
- The PlayStation 3 is region free for all but one PS3 game, however it will honor the region-coding of Blu-ray movies, DVD movies, and PS and PS2 games. The PlayStation 3 also supports regional lockout using a system based on the region-coding of Blu-ray movies. Also, many games for the PS3 enforce server-side lockout for online play and additional content download. At the moment the only game that enforces a console regional lockout is Persona 4 Arena. Additionally, each PSN store is region-locked so that it will only accept local credit cards or gift cards, and is tied to the region of the user's PSN account. However, with a few exceptions (Notably, Joysound Dive, which is only available on the Japanese PSN and refuses to work if downloaded onto a North American PS3 from a Japanese user PSN account), most content on all PSN stores, including PSOne and PS2 classics, are region free.
- Ashcraft, Brian. The Import Gaming Gift Guide. Kotaku. 27 November 2008.
- Bozon, Mark. Japan's Most Wanted: We dive into the world of import gaming, and return with some Japan-only gems. IGN. 2008-05-06.
- Newman, James (16 March 2007). Videogames. Routledge. pp. 52–54. ISBN 0-415-28191-1.
- The PSP FAQ: The facts and the future of PlayStation's portable. IGN. 2004-05-28.
- Wiley, M. Action Replay for GameCube. IGN. 2003-03-19.