The Angry Gamer 08.29.03: Turning Japanese

Many people know that a lot of Japanese video games never see a US release. But, we also don’t get a lot of the hardware that our Asian counterparts receive. It may not seem like much, but believe me…US gamers get shafted on some really great pieces of gaming technology. Hardcore gamers who know about this stuff tend to be climbing the damn walls, and swearing profusely, the latter due to the amount of money we often have to shell out for these electronic wonders. Today, I’ll outline a few of these lovely hardware gems for you:

NEC PC-FX (picture)

Anyone remember the Turbo Grafx 16? Known as the PC Engine outside of the US, the system sported cool 16-bit graphics, even though the main CPU was only 8-bit. Later, the system evolved into a CD-based console called the Turbo Duo, but it could still play the older games. While the TG16 had decent success in the US, it was phenomenally popular in Japan, and had hundreds of titles released for it. In 1994, NEC released another console known as the PC-FX. The thing looked like a lil’ computer tower, and was designed that way on purpose; it had three expansion ports, and could even be used as a SCSI CD-ROM drive for your computer if you had the proper adapter! NEC also made a series of computers under the PC-9800 banner, and the PC-FX could be connected to them for even more expandability. There was a mouse available, and the system was capable of playing CDs, CD+Gs, and Kodak Picture CDs. Games for the system were released up through 1998, and featured the arcade quality that NEC’s fans had come to know and love.

BANDAI WONDERSWAN, WONDERSWAN COLOR, SWANCRYSTAL (picture)

Designed by Gunpei Yokoi, the same genius who thought up the Game Boy and Game & Watch systems, this portable gaming console was Bandai’s answer to Nintendo’s handhelds. Powered by a single AA battery, the console is small, lightweight, and has a great library of games. First we had the Wonderswan, which featured grayscale graphics, but much sharper resolution than the GB; the graphics were on par with the Game Boy Advance. Later came the WS Color, which featured a full-color screen. In addition, this system was backwards compatible with grayscale Wonderswan games. Finally, the SwanCrystal showed up; this system had a much-improved LCD screen (a TFT screen, just like the GBC, GBA, and NeoGeo Pocket Color), slightly more powerful processing power, and full backwards compatibility with WS and WSC titles. Since Bandai made the system, there’s piles of Gundam and Digimon games for it; Digimon Battle Spirits in particular proved so popular that it was ported to the GBA, and even released in the US! Other recognizable franchises on the system include Rockman (Mega Man), Guilty Gear Petit (super-deformed versions of Guilty Gear X), and the highly-acclaimed Final Fantasy remakes; in fact, the remakes of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II were later ported to the Playstation as Final Fantasy Origins, albeit with all-new music. Bandai recently announced that they’d no longer be producing the Swan, but systems and software (which still gets released) are still fairly easy to come by.

PANASONIC Q (picture)

Also known as the GameQcube. Why no ‘Nintendo’ tag? Because Panasonic built it, not Nintendo. This novel idea solved a problem that many gaming fans had complained about concerning the original Gamecube: “How come it doesn’t play DVDs?” Well, the Q can do just that. As a result, the system is considerably larger than the standard GC, but peripherals still work with it, and they’re currently working on a Game Boy Player adapter specifically for the Q. Aside from a slick-looking stainless steel case, the system also features a backlit display and VCD/MP3 support.

GAMEPARK 32 (picture)

Alright, so this one’s not actually Japanese; it’s Korean. It’s slightly larger than an original GBA, and has more features than you can shake a stick at. The screen is monstrous (320×240 pixels), there’s 8MB of RAM onboard, and rather than using cartridges, the GP32 uses standard SmartMedia cards (often used in digital cameras and MP3 players). Games come on the cards, too, but they’re encrypted, so people will have a hard time ripping them off. The system can also play MP3s, link up to computers with the included USB cable, and play movies (if you buy the inexpensive GP Cinema software). The GP32 is available in regular and frontlit versions, but all of this stuff pales next to one fact: the GP32 is completely open-sourced. That means all of the development tools and whatnot are free. As a result, homebrew programmers have gone crazy, programming all manner of emulators, games, utilities, operating systems, and other cool software for the system. At any given time, you could be playing NES games, Game Gear games, PC Engine games…or even emulating an old Atari 800 or ST computer! Pick a classic system, and there’s most likely an emulator for it, and they’re constantly being updated and improved. Hell, I bought one for the specific reason of playing NES games at full resolution anytime, anywhere.

So why don’t US gamers get localized versions of this stuff? If they work in a small market like Japan, why wouldn’t they work in a much larger one? The answer’s simple: companies in the US like to keep a stranglehold on their fanbase. Nintendo’s Game Boy alone has been the downfall of countless handheld competitors, and many of them were much more powerful than the GB (the Game Gear, Lynx, Turbo Express, and NeoGeo Pocket Color). As far as the home console market, it started with Nintendo, then balanced out with Sega, then Sony took over. Niche markets work well in Japan, but in America, it’s all about forcing out competition by any means necessary. It’s a shame, but welcome to the world of capitalist economics. Bitch and moan all you want, but in the end, importing will have to suffice.