Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

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So now you want to import consoles and games, do you?  Well you’ll be happy to know that it is entirely possible on most consoles, however there are some things you’ll have to be aware of before you do it.  This article discusses the different things you have to do to both the electric and video signal of various imported consoles.  It will also briefly discuss how to get foreign games to play on US consoles, if possible.

Electricity Differences
No matter what console you are using, it’s important to know the differences between electricity in the US, Europe and Japan.

Japanese Consoles in the US
As you’ll see plenty of times in this article, Japan is quite similar to the United States in many ways, including power.  We use 120 volts as our standard for power.  Japan doesn’t appear to use a ground (or at least none of the Japanese consoles I’ve ever gotten do, never been to Japan itself), so all plugs from Japanese consoles will be two-pronged and fit in an US outlet.  Also fortunate is the fact that most consoles, especially retro ones, will use AC adaptors that work in the US.  Never interchange US power supplies into Japanese consoles, you could fry the console or worse.  For example, if you import a Famicom, use that console’s AC adaptor and not an US NES one.  For newer consoles like Japanese PS2s and PS3s, you may want to check the back of the console, but I think those are good for AC 100-240 volts for worldwide distribution, but I could be wrong.  Basically if it generates heat, be very careful and do a search for advice from a reputable source (no, Yahoo! Answers is not a reputable source).  Also if you want to be completely safe, there are Japanese voltage converters that allow use of Japanese products here.

European Consoles in the US
Europe is quite a bit difference than us.  Not only are the plugs different, but the voltage is significantly different.  They use 220 volts in their AC power and the plugs look like the one on the left.  If you import a European console, like a Mega Drive for exampleyou not only need to adapt the plug for the US, but also the voltage (assuming the console doesn’t automatically do that, check the AC adaptor).  Since they need 220 volts, simply adapting the plug and plugging into an US outlet will most likely simply not work.  The unit won’t get enough power or it will run at low efficiency.   If for any reason you were to go to Europe and plug in an US console using a mere plug adaptor instead of a voltage converter, your unit will most likely fry instantly.  It will be zapped with nearly twice the power without conversion – of course this is assuming the AC adaptor doesn’t do it for you, which many do.  Either way, play it safe, grab a voltage converter.

Broadcast Differences
This is where things get a little shaky and probably the most difficult part of getting consoles to play when imported.  These concepts are also useable going the other direction (ie: importing US consoles to Europe) as well.

Japan Television Standard (NTSC-J)
In Japan, like in the United States, the analog broadcasts were in National Television System Committee or NTSC standard.  Japan’s version, NTSC-J, is slightly varied with a higher black level, but when displayed on US televisions the difference is hard to notice.  In addition, the correction isn’t worth the effort for a simple Famicom game, so just go with it.  This standard runs on 525 vertical scanlines interlaced and refreshing at approximately 29.97 frames per second and 60 hz (sometimes referred to as 480i).  It may be all just numbers for you right now, but once compared to Europe it explains a lot of the differences.  To put it simply: US/Japan have lower vertical resolution than Europe, but the picture moves smoother.  From a video signal standpoint, you can basically use any Japanese console on any US television without an issue.

European Television Standard (PAL)
Europe instead uses Phase Altering Line or PAL standard for its analog broadcasts.  This is completely incompatible with NTSC televisions and thus requires some work if you’re going to get your retro consoles to work.  The reason being is that it uses 625 vertical scanlines interlaced and refreshes at 25 frames per second and 50 hz (sometimes referred to as 576i).  As previously stated, this signal has better color saturation and vertical resolution when compared side-by-side with NTSC but the picture moves less smoothly.  On occasion games would be migrated from one region to another without adjusting the framerate and resulting in awkward changes.  My favorite example is Back to the Future III on the Genesis wasn’t properly adapted to NTSC so it tries to run the PAL standard 25 frames per second at a speed of 30 frames per second.  Anyone who knows basic filmmaking will tell you that this increases the speed of the game, making the opening sequence with Doc Brown nearly impossible.  Thanks to emulation you can play the PAL version, which is about 20 percent slower.  It’s also well-known that Sonic the Hedgehog was purposely left unconverted for PAL regions, which makes him run slower when the situation is reversed, because Europeans felt he was too fast in the US version.  To get a PAL console to work on an NTSC television requires a PAL-to-NTSC converter.

Games vs. Consoles vs. HDTV
There are a lot of benefits with modern-day televisions, although they do make your old school games look even worse than before and don’t work with light guns.  One is that many HDTVs will work with NTSC, PAL and HDTV.  If it does, you’ll be able to locate that information in the manual or online in the TV’s specs.  This would allow you to hook up any console from any region into your television, although you may have to toggle this option in the television menu.  As far as HDTV, I haven’t yet tested a European console in HD on my US television, but I’m guessing since it’s a standard format that it would work.  Then again, only current consoles support HD and this is a retro site so I’m just dodging that bullet altogether.

As for games, this post contains information on getting European and Japanese games to work in US consoles.  Please note that while the games themselves are designed for a different region, the video signal that goes to the television is in the console, not the game.  This means that a PAL Mega Drive game that you get working on an US console does not need a video signal conversion.  On occasion there are some interesting effects when doing so, especially because these titles weren’t originally intended to work outside of their region, but its an unavoidable side effect.

Portables
Portable consoles are often valued highly by import gamers because until recently there was absolutely no region protection.  No matter where the game came from you can pop it into your portable and it will work.  Furthermore thanks to included screens and battery power there’s no need for electrical or video conversion.  Starting with the DSi and now in the 3DS, it looks like Nintendo’s portables will be region locked from now on, but this is a new development.

Playing Games from other regions on US Consoles

Famicom to NES
For the most part this is a simple conversion: just get a 72-to-60 pin adaptor and plug-and-play.  I used to be able to find these all over the place, now they seem to be nearly impossible to come by.  The only chance you probably still have is to find a Gyromite, Excitebike, Stack-Up, Hogan’s Alley or Urban Champion cart that works and open it up (a special screwdriver is required) and you should see that these NES games are actually Famicom carts with an adaptor.  There you go, a fresh 72-pin to 60-pin adaptor direct from the source, Nintendo of America (NOA).  Otherwise there are plenty of 72-to-60 pin converters, some as low as $10, but they are for playing NES on Famicom, so you’ll need a Famicom.

Sega Master System to Mark III or SG-1000
For the most part it’s all plug and play, with a few exceptions.  If you want to play SG-1000 carts, you need to get a Japanese SG-1000 Mark III due to BIOS issues, but there is no hardware region lock.  If you’re just looking to import Mark III European cards and carts for your US SMS, almost everything works with a few exceptions: Prince of Persia and Jungle Book seem to be janky, however when used in a Genesis with the Power Base Converter, Prince of Persia works fine.  It’s possible that Jungle Book will as well, but I have no confirmation on that.  Back to the Future III on Mark III will not work on any non-European console because it was never converted out of PAL and this game verified that the console is running at 50 hz upon booting up.

Turbografx-16 to PC-Engine
This was discussed in the Generation Gap: Import Edition post, but you need to get a HuCard adaptor.  These are harder and harder to come by these days, but for the right price I still see them on eBay every week or so.  Supposedly you could use a piece from an old sewing machine, but I honestly have no idea what machine or where to find it today.  On the other hand, playing Turbografx-16 titles on PC-Engine isn’t possible thanks to lockout hardware built into the console.  All CD games, on the other hand, are region free and work on all CD consoles (assuming you have the appropriate hardware or RAM carts installed).

Genesis to Mega Drive
There are actually multiple ways to get Mega Drive games to run on the Genesis, unfortunately most of them require money of some kind.

  1. The first is to simply buy the FireCore (unofficial Genesis 4), which is a 2009 recreation of the Genesis that includes pre-installed games and doesn’t use official Genesis parts.  As a result this console is naturally region free and will play any import, but it isn’t compatible with CD, 32x, power base converter or Virtua Racing in any region.  There are also occasional graphical glitches and sound issues on games.
  2. You could also get a Game Genie and simply plug that cart into the top.  If it has a code online, it will work.  Doesn’t work with everything, but heavy hitters like Golden Axe III are fine.  Here is a list of some import codes.
  3. Buy a Super Mega Key.  This is the rarest and best of the import converters out there and with so many options basically makes every game playable on the Genesis except for the Japan release of Alex Kidd.
  4. Modify your own Genesis.  This is the no-solder method that basically has you cutting into your Genesis cartridge slot.  European games will play no problem because they have the same slot type, but early Japanese carts had fully rounded edges and won’t fit in a Genesis cart slot.  If you heat a knife and cut the corner tabs out of the bottom of your console cart slot, the games will fit.  Please note this doesn’t work with any games that have region lockout chips.

In addition you cannot play games from different regions in a Sega-CD/Mega-CD due to a BIOS region lock.  The only way to bypass this is to either install a flash cart that has the appropriate region BIOS (it will bypass your console’s built-in BIOS) or re-code the region on the game.  In order to re-code the region you will have to rip the ISO, patch it, and re-burn it (burned games work fine on a Sega CD).  There are plenty of guides on how to rip and burn Sega CD games, I prefer the bin/cue method and CDR-WIN, but the region changing tool can be found hereNote: It appears games convert better between Japan and US.  Europe has varying results in either direction.  32X games are region locked, but there is only one game in Japan not in the US, Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV: Wall of Fire, and one game, Darxide, in Europe that wasn’t in US.  FYI, Darxide is super rare and usually sells for $1000+, so don’t feel too left out.

Super Nintendo to Super Famicom
The answer to this is dangerous, but easy and free.  Some say that the Game Genie trick will still work, but unfortunately Nintendo started manufacturing consoles that won’t work with Game Genie.  The only difference between the Super Famicom and Super Nintendo is that there are two tabs inside the cartridge slot that need to come off.  Once removed, Super Famicom carts are plug and play.  The slots require either a hot knife to cut (be careful not to cut anything else), pliers to remove (be careful), or the old hammer/screwdriver combo (be very careful).  Feel free to look up YouTube videos on this.  There are also some clone consoles that do this, but they’re unreliable, and converter carts, which have a tendency to bend the pins in the SNES.

Sega Saturn
To play imports you just want to pick up an Action Replay 4M Plus, which plugs into your console and you’re good to go.  They’re still online and I know for a fact that play-asia.com still has them (although shipping rates from Asia are quite high).  I personally opened up the Saturn, disassembled the board and duct taped the drive door mechanism so that I could do the disc swap trick, but it was so annoying after a while that I just bought the damn Action Replay.

Playstation and PS2
There are many great reasons to unlock your PS1, although I’m probably the only one who feels seeing the original opening to Biohazard (Resident Evil) is one of them.  If you want to play imports you either need an old Playstation that has the parallel port in the back (it will be boxy) and you can install various 3rd party mod chips.  These chips are solderless and only require a spring in the lid (which comes with the mod usually) and has a disc swapping trick.

The other option, which is best and really easy to come by, is a region switching disc.  This works in both PS1 and PS2, but usually the discs are different.  Just put the disc in, select the region of the game from the menu, and it will eject the disc or allow you to pop open the PS1 drive door and insert the import.  Afterward it will just boot up like normal, no issues.  The biggest problem with this method that you’ll hear complaints about online is this doesn’t work with burned games for pirated software, backups or patched fan translation titles.

N64
Like the SNES, the N64 modification is simple and fortunately IGN has made a comprehensive guide that when followed step-by-step, has little to no risk.  Replacing an N64 these days is only a mere $20-$30, so that helps as well.

Dreamcast
Playing import Dreamcast games is limited to swap discs, and sadly the only one that seems to work very well is CodeBreaker.  Other swap discs, GameShark, and various 3rd party methods are hit/miss.  You can also burn region-free versions of the games onto CD-Rs via illegal ISO downloads online, but given the extremely high legal issue with this plus the fact that it’s basically piracy unless you own the game, make it a poor choice.  You can’t even rip from the proprietary Dreamcast format (GD-ROM) on any computer, so without illegal downloads it’s impossible to get copies of these games.  Don’t risk it, take the hit and get the CodeBreaker.

Whew.  That’s it.  That’s about the best options you have when importing.  As I said before, the guide in the beginning just tells you what to look for when bringing foreign consoles stateside.  If I didn’t mention a home console, it’s because it’s a region-free disc-based console.  I hope I’ve remembered most of them, if you have any questions or consoles I missed, just hit me up.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 29, 2011 at 3:25 pm

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