If you are interested in videogames, you may have heard of importing. Bordersdown is a premier website for gamers who are interested in playing games from abroad (Imported consoles are also called NTSC consoles, hence the site's original name "NTSC-UK").
Importing grew from a tiny collective to a thriving scene, even if the need has dropped off with the advent of HD and global releases. But why? Why do people import videogames to the UK in the first place? What are the benefits? And is it for you? This guide attempts to strip away some of the myths and take a no-nonsense view of the world of video games imports. If you want to learn more about what it’s all about, this is best place to start.
The big question: Why import games and consoles?
There are three main reasons why many people choose to import. These are choice, timing and peace of mind. We will look at each in turn.
Fact: A large number of high quality videogames are never released in the UK.
Given that the UK is in the top five largest videogame markets in the world, it may be surprising to read this, but the truth is that a lot of games are never released here for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it can be because games are tailored for a specific region or they are deemed to fall into genres that are un-popular in the UK. Sometimes it can simply be that a UK company fails to pick up the publishing rights.
Sometimes these games are titles that will not be missed, but there are also some important titles that are never released in the UK. Here are a few examples:
Initial D Special Stage – PlayStation 2
Based on the popular Japanese anime, Initial D follows the fortunes of a young tofu delivery boy who learns the mountain roads so well, he starts illegal drift racing and beating the competition. A brilliant arcade racing game, it never got a Euro release on the PS2, even though both the arcade versions and the live action movie made it over.
Daigasso! Band Brothers – Nintendo DS
Awarded an 8/10 review this sublime early Nintendo DS title never saw the light of day in the UK. As well as showing good use of the stylus, this rhythm action game also features an innovative collaborative performance mode and a full edit mode.
Final Fantasy XI – PlayStation 2
Series XI has no confirmed UK release date. It’s one of the few games to earn an impressive 10/10 review from Bordersdown and it demands your attention. A major departure for the series set in an evolving online world, the game has been heralded as a major success by fans and critics alike. The only way to play this game is to import and with Sony of Europe’s current attitude to online games, this may sadly remain unchanged.
Winning Eleven Six Final Evolution – Gamecube
Or as it is known in the UK, Pro Evolution Soccer 2, part of the greatest football series ever made. Yes that’s right, a Pro Evolution game was released for the Gamecube. But due to Sony’s exclusivity agreement with producers Konami in the UK, the game could not be released here. Non importing UK Gamecube owners lusting after a Pro Evo game either had to buy a PS2 or do without.
Taiko no Tatsujin – PlayStation 2
AKA Drum Expert. Another 8/10 review on this site and one of the best rhythm action games ever. The game comes with a large drum shaped controller that plugs into the PS2 and players must drum in time with the rhythm. An excellent post pub game and an absolute blast with two players. A release in the UK has never been on the cards, despite the popularity of dance games in the UK.
This is but a small sample of games that have never been released. Other key games over time have included Einhander, Mario RPG, Drill Land, Chrono Cross, Sin and Punishment, Xenogears, Armored Core Silent Line and many others. These may be games that you’ve never heard of, but a cursory search around the internet will reveal that these are not simply niche games, but essential titles that belong in any game lover’s collection. UK gamers are being denied these classic titles.
In the 360 generation, often the only way to play Cave (and similar) shmups was to import, with only small subsets being localised and the awesome Raiden Fighters Aces only ever got localised in the US, without being region free - a travesty.
In addition, there are many titles (especially Japanese games) that do not see a release over here because they are deemed too strange or ‘quirky’ for a UK audience. It is a claim that is sometimes true; however some gamers thrive on these oddball titles. Games like Animal Leader or Tokyo Bus Driver, strange titles that provide something very different to the usual shelf filler. It is worth remembering that sometimes companies mistakenly decide a game will not be suitable. It took Nintendo five years to release Pokemon in the UK, because they thought we would not ‘get it’.
‘Choice’ not only relates to the number of games that are released, but also to the way they are released. Many games of Japanese origin are released in their home country with special edition packs. Music CD’s, figurines and DVDs packed in with special edition versions of games are not uncommon, in a similar way to the ‘Two Disc Special Edition’ that accompany many DVDs.
One of the most celebrated games of recent times is Sega’s Rez. The game was fortunately released in all territories, but the Japanese also received a superb bonus. A ‘special package’ box was available for the PS2 which contained the full game plus an additional piece of hardware called a Trance Vibrator, a device that plugged into the PS2 and pulsed with the beat of the game. Given that the game is based around music, this additional hardware greatly increases the experience and may importers have deliberately sought out this special edition version.
The UK is not completely without special editions (the UK release of Ico was accompanied with a postcard set), but other regions regularly benefit from far more limited edition runs than the UK.
Finally, many gamers are also collectors. They see their games as prized possessions, not just simply games to pass the time. These gamers will view the packaging of the game as important as the game itself. It is widely acknowledged that the packaging and artwork of Japanese games is often vastly superior to UK releases and many gamers choose to import partly for this reason.
Fact: Games usually arrive in the UK after the Japanese and US have seen them, even UK developed games.
This is another truth that lends people towards importing. Is there a UK release that you are looking forward to that in the next few months? The chances are that some else in the world is playing a copy of this game right now and not a pirate copy either. A copy that they purchased legitimately from their own local store and possible cheaper than you may pay for it.
Why is this? Well, first you have to understand that the UK is not seen by publishers as single market. It is seen as a part of Europe which has many different languages. As a result, the UK can suffer whilst if publishers convert the game into other languages, even though you will never use them! There are also technical issues with different TV systems which are discussed later in this article.
The results of all this are that the UK usually gets games after other territories. Sometimes the differences can be a few days; often it is months and sometimes it can be years (Metal Slug X on the PSone was released nearly three years after its Japanese and US release).
Things have improved slightly, with some XBox and Nintendo first party games being released almost simultaneously in the US and Europe. Occasionally, the UK will see a release first as with Silent Hill 3, but this is unusual. UK gamers still have to wait for most titles.
This isn’t just about being impatient though, it can have consequences on the enjoyment of the game. With more games introducing online elements, UK gamers can find themselves behind the rest of the world. If Final Fantasy XI does ever receive a UK release, UK gamers will find many Japanese and US players with characters hundreds of times more powerful than their own and with far more experience.
Peace of Mind
By individual country, Japan and the US are the two largest markets for videogames. It is therefore good business sense to develop games with these two territories in mind, wherever the game is actually programmed. The problem with this from Europe’s point of view is that the US and Japan use a different television system to Europe, a system called NTSC. This is why imported consoles are often referred to as NTSC consoles (and interestingly enough, why this site is called Bordersdown).
This difference in television standards has a negative knock on effect for gamers in Europe. Due to technical reasons, when games are converted to the European TV system (known as PAL) without any optimisation (additional programming) the games run approximately 17% slower and suffer from a slightly squashed image with borders at the top and bottom. They also run at a slightly lower frame rate which means a less smooth picture.
These differences may seem small to go to the trouble of importing, but when comparing an NTSC game with an un-optimised PAL game side by side the differences are quite pronounced. In addition, arcade games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter run slower than their arcade counterparts, so any one honing their skills on the home version will find their timing completely out of sync when playing the game at the arcade.
The last ten to fifteen years have seen films being released ‘as the director intended’ and with cut scenes re-added. The attitude of the importer is the same, to play these games as they were originally intended. With games retailing at £30 or more, many gamers have grown tired with accepting an inferior version.
In fairness, the UK games industry has improved. There was a time when all UK games ran inferior to their NTSC versions, but now many are optimised. However, some games still leave the publisher in an un-optimised or only partially optimised state. Recent examples of games that had no optimisation at all were Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy X and Unlimited Saga, all big titles.
This is where ‘Peace of Mind’ comes in. In seems the only way to guarantee a game runs as the developer intended is to import.
In addition to the differences caused by the different TV systems, there are sometimes other differences that creep into UK games. There is no easy reason to explain this. Sometimes it can be a case of publishers cutting corners; other times it because of the language issues in Europe.
Whatever the reasons, inexplicably it seems to be Europe that often ends up with the short straw. Recent examples include the online gameplay being removed from Resident Evil Outbreak (a title specifically developed for online play!) and the wonderful script of Siren being replaced by ludicrously bad dub.
Occasionally, additional gameplay elements can be introduced the UK versions, but often these can be just as unwanted. Soul Calibur 2 was tweaked for its Western release, allowing two more playable characters. Sadly, the gameplay was also tweaked so that the single player AI was crippled. Pro Evolution Soccer are held as the premier football games by many, but those who have played both usually prefer the original Japanese version (known as Winning Eleven) because of unnecessary tweaks to the UK game.
It’s not all bad. Sometimes tweaks can be welcome such as with the UK release of Luigi’s Mansion, but often this is the exception rather than the rule.
What are the disadvantages?
The main disadvantage is that importing means games being sent through the post unless you have an import shop near you (which may charge relatively high prices). The flexibility of being able to walk into your local Game shop and pick up the latest release is gone (as is their ten day return policy).
If you import a console, it may be difficult to play UK games which means missing out on UK special offers or renting games. However, there are usually ways around this.
There are also technical issues to overcome and you must have a TV that can support imported games (this is detailed in our various technical guides and FAQs).
There is little point hiding the fact that importing requires a little more ‘work’ on behalf of the gamer, but many consider the trade off to be worth it.
Debunking the Myths
The disadvantages stated above have to be considered by anyone thinking about importing. However, there are many negative myths concerning importing and it’s time to expose the truth.
Myth 1: Importing is expensive
Correction: Importing was expensive. There was a time when an imported console could cost you up to £1,000 and games could only be bought from high street importers at vastly inflated prices.
Then came the World Wide Web.
The web has made importing far easier and far cheaper. The days of astronomical prices are over. To be fair, importing a console from abroad is likely to be more expensive than the UK version, what with shipping costs, the price of devices like step downs etc. There is also likely to be a high demand for imported consoles when they are first released in Japan or the US which will force the price high for a limited period, but a patient person need not pay more than 20% over the UK price and will likely receive the console months before the UK release date. A good way to impress your friends.
The cost of imported software is often cheaper than the UK. We’ll use an example of a newly released game in all territories at the time of writing this article, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.
The RRP in the UK for this title is £39.99. www.gameplay.com
, a UK based internet site selling UK games sell this for £34.99. www.playasia.com
sell the Japanese version for £34.53, including postage. Not a huge saving, but a Canadian importer www.videogamesplus.ca
sell the game for an excellent £25.69 including delivery; Nearly £10 off the UK price.
This is a fairly typical example of the savings that can be made. There are also importers based in the UK that will send the game from within the UK, but these have to incur more costs and the price will be slightly more.
Myth 2: Importing requires a lot of technical knowledge
Some knowledge is required, but it is surprising how quickly this can be picked up. There are a number of guides on this site that a great many people have used to import for the very first time. There is also an Import forum where more specific questions can be asked. Joining the forum is free.
Myth 3: Importers are Pirates
No, absolutely not. Importing is about buying legitimate copies of games from abroad and bringing them to the UK. It is not about getting something for nothing. Bordersdown does not allow guidance on how to pirate anything. It encourages debate about the topic piracy.
Myth 4: You need to speak Japanese to understand the games
Firstly, importing does not just mean importing from Japan. Many importers buy from the USA, avoiding any language problems.
But there are times when importing a Japanese game is desirable, especially when it is the only version available (such as Arika’s superlative shooter Dodonpachi Dai-Ou-Jou).
Most Japanese games feature a degree of English text. Some feature no Japanese text at all. This may seem odd, but it is quite common in Japanese games. Those games that do feature Japanese text will often be easy to adapt to if they are arcade games. The text will be minimal and you can always use our Japanese guide to negotiate the menu and options screens.
Only games which rely heavily on text such as RPGs are unplayable unless you learn Japanese. Some gamers have even gone down this route; such is their passion for these kinds of games.
Myth 5: Importers are very cliquey
There are some who view non-importers as somehow inferior. We at Bordersdown do not. We simply feel that there are benefits to importing and wish to spread the word so that people can make up their own minds. As with any scene, there will be a few who will regard any newcomer with some degree of uncertainty, but you will find the majority of us very amiable and eager to help with any queries. The Q&A forum is widely regarded as an excellent source of information and you will find some very experienced and friendly gamers who are only too happy to share their knowledge.
Above all, importers have a passion for games. If that sounds like you, why not join in the discussion on our forums.
And so ends our explanation of what importing videogames is all about. We hope it was useful to you. You may still decide not to import. Despite all the advantages, importing cannot offer you the flexibility buying UK games. But we feel the advantages are worth it. If you do too, please come back to our site whenever you feel like a fix of importing news and views.
The Bordersdown Team
Text by Jez Overton