Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Generation Gap: Import Edition

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So you’ve decided you may be interested in this import scene, huh?  You may want to see what the other regions have to offer?  Perhaps you just don’t know what’s out there and you’re just curious.  Well here you go – a wrap-up of some of the most popular consoles overseas that didn’t quite it over here.

Sega SG-1000 – Released in: Japan, Europe – Launch: 1983
Sega and Nintendo have been up against each other since day one, literally.  While we didn’t see the NES over here until at least 1985, Sega’s first console, the SG-1000, released day in date alongside the Famicom (NES) in Japan.  A cartridge based system that had nearly identical hardware to the ColecoVision, Sega’s first outing is most notable for having a solid Donkey Kong clone (Congo Bongo) and some of Sega’s top arcade titles.  I’m fairly certain that Flicky made its first home appearance thanks to the SG-1000 as did Monaco GP.

SG-1000 Mark III aka Master System

The SG-1000 would undergo plenty of changes in its life, including the redesign SG-1000 II that allowed you to add a keyboard attachment and “MyCard” reader in Japan.  It was an attempt, like the Famicom, to make the console more computer-like.  An expensive computer version, the SC-3000 (retailing for over $350 in Japan compared to the $175 price tag of the SG-1000 II), came with it a whole new library of games.  Surprisingly enough, all SC-3000 games are compatible with the SG-1000 models.  Eventually the MyCard reader would get added to the console along with video and RAM upgrades in the SG-1000 Mark III, also known as the Sega Master System.  If you’re interested in trying out the SG-1000 carts without importing a console, try searching for the Telegames Personal Arcade, which released in the US and plays both SG-1000 and ColecoVision carts.

Nintendo Famicom – Released in: Japan – Released: 1983
Most of us refer to the Famicom as the Japanese version of the NES, which is technically true, but in many ways it is a completely different piece of hardware.  For starters, the controllers are permanently attached to the console, making it much more difficult if one goes bad on you.  In addition, the second controller contains a microphone that was used for limited karaoke function in some games – which is why even if you adapt certain Famicom games to work in an NES they are essentially unplayable.  The cartridge slot is top loading, which helped prevent the Famicom from having the lovely blinking issue that plagued so many NES consoles.  Famicom carts have a 60 pin connection, whereas NES carts have a 72 pin connection, which is why games require adaptors to work in the other console (assuming there’s no internal lockout chip).  In addition, all licensed NES carts in Europe and US had the same boring grey boxy design (save for the shiny gold Zelda carts), whereas Famicom titles come in various colors and shapes.

Another significant difference is the 15-pin expansion port for accessories (like a keyboard) and an add-on port on the bottom for devices like the Famicom Disk System (FDS).  The FDS released in 1986 as a 15,000 yen (around $125) add-on that used re-writeable floppy disks to play Famicom games.  Disk system games were cheaper ways to get your hands on titles.  At about $20 per title, nearly half the price of a cartridge, not only were they enticing for initial buys, but you could visit a Nintendo kiosk and re-write the disk to a different game for a mere $5.

Famicom with Disk System add-on

This sounds like a great idea at first, but both consumers and developers were quite displeased.  First of all, companies would have to decide whether or not to release a game on the Famicom, the Disk System, or both and pay the manufacturing cost.  Also, if you had a hit on your hand and it was on the Disk System exclusively – Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Super Mario Bros. 2 (known as Lost Levels in the US) and Yume Koji Doki Doki Panic (which was converted to Super Mario Bros. 2 in US) were all exclusive – your audience was extremely limited.  Eventually some games would get ported, Doki Doki Panic would re-release on the Famicom as Super Mario USA due to its popularity, but in Japan the FDS is the only way to play some of these classics.  Not only that, the console and its disks were extremely fragile.  If you plan to import a console, make sure it has been refurbished with replacement rubber bands otherwise it most likely will not work.  FDS disks are easily broken as well, meaning that many you may purchase won’t work when you get home.  If you plan to import, it’s important to purchase consoles and games from a reputable (read: more expensive) shop either in the US (Pink Gorilla in Seattle, WA) or Japan (Super Potato and so many more).  FDS versions of games do have some subtle but great differences like Doki Doki Panic allowing you to save your progress, extra sounds and sound effects in  Simon’s Quest, and a more manageable version of Zelda 2.  There is also a hybrid console, the Famicom Twin, which is your best bet when buying today but still requires proper refurbishing and band replacement.

NEC PC-Engine – Released in: Japan – Released: 1987
Okay, this has a bit of controversy because technically, like the Famicom, the PC-Engine released in America as the Turbografx-16.  From a hardware standpoint the two are identical until you get into later enhancements (which I’ll get to), but from a game standpoint, they couldn’t be more different.  There are literally three to four times the number of games on the PC-Engine than the TG-16, which makes sense given that NEC and Hudson decided what released in the US from Japan.  Most of the heavy hitters made it over here, but there are plenty of rare gems, especially shoot-em-up (schmups) that never saw our shores.  The only version of Street Fighter II released on the PC-Engine along with a special 6-button controller, both of which are extremely rare today.  Getting PC-Engine games to play on the Turbografx-16 is really rather easy – a simple conversion cart can do the job for you – but the price these days is severe for authentic ones and plenty of knockoffs are still on Hong Kong sites.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said the other way around, PC-Engines have a hardware detection for TG-16 (US) games that won’t allow them to play if inserted.  Basically if you want to import, just get the conversion cart and buy any game you want for your TG-16.  I also recently found an amazing web site that contains random PC-Engine facts.

When it comes to the CD version, however, you’re going to need to do some more work when importing.  It’s worth it, though, because the import scene on the PC-Engine CD are much better than the poor US releases.  There are 3 types of PC-Engine CD systems: regular, Super CD (SCD), and Arcade CD (ACD).  The biggest differences of the consoles is that there is additional allocated RAM specifically used with these games.  If you do not purchase a PC-Engine Super CD or Arcade CD, you can easily insert a RAM cart (either SCD or ACD respectively) into any PC-Engine or TG-16 console to play these games.  There is no region lock or encoding on any CD, SCD or ACD title.  Basically, again, the best bet to play all forms of PC-Engine games is to get a Turbografx-16 CD (or Turbo Duo, the two-in-one system) and grab an SCD and ACD cart.

Finally there is the hardware update for the PC-Engine/TG-16 known as the SuperGrafx.  I didn’t want to give it a separate console slot because basically it’s a PC-Engine with four times the extra RAM and an extra video RAM chip that could be combined with the traditional video card or combined for varied effects.  I do believe that a SuperGrafx hooked to a Turbografx-CD or PC-Engine CD will allow SCD playback without a cart.  The SuperGrafx will play any PC-Engine game and enhances a whopping two titles: Darius Alpha and Darius Plus.  As for the library, there are only five (yes, you read that right, five) games available for the console: 1941: Counter Attack, Aldynes, Battle Ace, Daimakaimura (Ghouls N Ghosts) and Mado King Granzort.  Due to the rarity and expensive retail price, a SuperGrafx will run you $200-$300 and about $200+ for all five games.  If you want to save yourself some time and money, you can be talked out of this purchase by viewing this amazing video from Wired.

Nintendo Satellaview – Released in: Japan – Released: 1995
Sega brought every accessory for the Genesis/Mega Drive out in the US so we all get to balk at the crappy “Frankenconsole”¹ to our heart’s content.  As you can see already from this article, Nintendo was just as guilty but it was smart enough to hide these add-on failures in Japan only.  The Satellaview didn’t come over here mostly because it was a console based on broadcasts that would have been expensive to set up in the US.  Basically you would buy the add-on as well as a BS-X cart that would receive weekly or daily broacasts of all kinds of content.  For the most part there were Best Selection Games (BS games) that could be everything from direct ports of Super Famicom titles to updated versions of Famicom games (the BS version of games basically got the same treatment as Super Mario All-Stars).  There were also BS Original titles, applications, contests, and even digital magazines offered in the service.  It was also compatible with carts that utilized the additional hardware to run limited games and applications.

It’s almost useless to purchase the console today, even in Japan, unless you want it for collection purposes.  The Satellaview network shut down in 2000 and can no longer be used to download anything.  Granted, I’m sure there are some used consoles with some decent software still in the memory, but most items in the console expired or deleted after a certain number of plays or period of time.  Of the content that was most cherished, the text-based novel Radical Dreamers: Nusumenai Hoseki (translated “Radical Dreamers: the Unsealable Jewel”), which was a side story of the plot from Chrono Trigger and laid the groundwork for Chrono Cross.  This was one of the few bits of content that didn’t expire, making it a coveted and rare piece from the 90s and still fetches a high price in Tokyo’s Akihabara district.  Another gem, the BS version of Zelda no Densetsu, which looks like an updated version of the first game despite Link not being the protagonist (technically an offshoot and the 5th Zelda title).  Although I’m fairly certain that the game deleted itself and it required SoundLink cues broadcast live, there are ways to play the game in all four episodes, in various languages, via emulation.  It won’t be the same, but purists still keep it alive anyway.  There were additional titles in this series on Satellaview, all preserved and playable in emulation, but for obvious reasons remain in underground cult status.

Bandai WonderSwan – Launched in: Japan – Launched: 1999
Released in Japan to compete with the Gameboy and Neo Geo Pocket, the WonderSwan is one of the many portables that released initially in monochrome and less than a year later in a color format.  There was also a later “crystal” version that had a TFT liquid crystal display.  Aside from the games, the most noteable feature of the WonderSwan is that it could run 40+ hours on only one AA battery!  If you decide to import, don’t even worry about battery life, even if you get the color or crystal versions that can cut the life half.  Unfortunately all games are in Japanese only and given the heavy text in most games, the WonderSwan is has a limited audience of those that can read Japanese.

Of the games, the most notable are enhanced ports of Final Fantasy I, II, and IV, all of which are appreciated among the most hardcore collectors.  Among the others are Human’s original release of Clock Tower (now entitled “Clock Tower: The First Fear”), which never released in the US.  An addicting port of Beatmania that you don’t need to know Japanese to enjoy.  Japanese gems like Front Mission, Fire Pro Wrestling, Magical Drop, and Nobunaga No Yabou all got ports to the WonderSwan.  I have also heard from Kat Bailey, a longtime freelancer that spent some years in Japan, that the Super Robot Taisen series is quite addicting and fun for those compulsive Pokemon fans out there.

Nintendo 64DD – Released in: Japan – Released: 1999
It just seems like Nintendo always wanted to release a disk (or disc) based console but no matter how hard they tried, they just didn’t know how to do business when someone else is the manufacturer.  The 64DD, standing for “disk drive”, had two purposes: to expand existing games and to release new ones.  With 64 mb of storage on a magneto-optical disk, this potentially doubled the storage size of an N64 game (each cartridge had a max ROM size of 64 mb).  This meant that the a disk could be used to add the content stripped from titles like Resident Evil 2 or Mortal Kombat Trilogy ports on N64 or give a different option to potential customers.  Unfortunately, it really didn’t do either and failed so fast that it never left Japan’s shores despite an US release window in 2000.

There are only nine games, making it an easy console to collect, but given the limited run of only 15,000 consoles and less than that number of games, the price isn’t low.  Four of the nine games are the Mario Studio collection that have various multimedia creation software.  F-Zero X Expansion Kit basically added two new cups and a car and track editor.  While it still requires the cartridge to work, it basically gives you access to the very tool set the designers used and allows up to 100 tracks to be stored on the disk, not too shabby.  SimCity 64, which is not the same as the N64 game SimCity 2000, was developed by the talented group at Hal and overseen with Miyamoto himself.  It allowed night viewing of your city and street level exploration, factors that wouldn’t become playable until Sim City 4 in the US.  Doshin the Giant and its expansion Rescue from the Front by the Toddlers that Tinkle at the Large Meeting-Hall were both released.  It’s basically a god simulation game that saw a Gamecube release in Europe and Japan but due to some issues with Atlas, never came to the US.  Finally is Japan Pro Golf Tour 64, which I’m sure you can imagine is a golf title.

What’s more impressive is not the collection of available games, but rather the collection of games that should have come out.  Earthbound 64 was set to release on the DD, later being ported in Japan only to the Gameboy Advance as Mother 3Dragon Quest VII was set to be a DD game, but due to the cancellation of the console, ended up on PS2 as one of the few Dragon Quest titles not on a Nintendo console.  Final Fantasy VII, which had a life on N64 as well before the eventual Playstation release, was slated for the DD.  Super Mario 64 2, which may or may not have ended up becoming Super Mario Sunshine was slated for release.  Plenty of games were also converted to cart form: Super Mario RPG 2 was later released as Paper Mario, Zelda Gaiden (“gaiden” often stands for “side story” in Japanese) would become Majora’s Mask and explains a lot, Ultra Donkey Kong became Donkey Kong 64, Twelve Tales: Conker 64 became Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Banjo Kazooie 2 would become Banjo Tooie.  As you can see, there were some heavy missed opportunities that clearly forced Nintendo to consider disc-based gaming for future consoles, although I’m not sure GameCube was quite what developers had in mind.

Aside from micro computers, which will be handled in a different post, that’s about it for the non-US consoles.  If you are thinking about importing, there’s a lot to consider and in some cases you will only get the hardware instead of doing much “gaming”.  On the other hand, in cases like the PC-Engine, you’re basically good to go from the beginning.  If you have any questions about these consoles or other imports, feel free to hit me up in the About section of the site.  Coming up next, we discover how to get import consoles and games to work in the US and with your US consoles (if possible).

Written by Fred Rojas

December 28, 2011 at 2:34 pm

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