When it launched alongside Sony’s first handheld game system in December 2004, Ridge Racer for PSP was a game out of its time. It was Namco’s attempt to recreate the technological leap that the series had signalled a decade earlier on the original PlayStation. It was also the Japanese development team’s chance to push against the current in the globalised racing market and reclaim its relevance. And it was a proposal that simple, neatly executed ideas were the ones that would work best on Sony’s powerful handheld.
There are plenty of big name Japanese franchises – Super Mario, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil – that are showing no signs of slowing on these shores. But these aren’t the ones I’m concerned about.
Games like Valkyria Chronicles, Everybody’s Golf: World Tour, Gitaroo Man Lives! and Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! – innovative, refreshing, culturally defining games – are being given limited shelf life by their cautious publishers. These games may be outwardly peculiar – thus only appealing to a small niche – but that’s what makes them so great. They’re a world part from the raft of generic shooters and third-person action games we see every day.
These days it feels like quirky Japanese new releases are there one minute and gone the next. Take Eternal Sonata for example. This JRPG, from Namco Bandai, was released on Xbox 360 in 2007 and on PS3 in February this year. When the PS3 version arrived in stores I saw a very small number of copies on display. Eight months later the game has all but disappeared from stores. It’s still out there, but with demand being so low the game remains full price, and I’m positive retailers will have been given a finite number of copies.
Of course, things are much better on the import side these days. Global economy has encouraged game companies in every region to sell their products worldwide. And new releases can be imported from sites like Play-Asia at a relatively low cost price. Plus, PS3, PSP and DS are all region free, meaning you can buy that copy of Ni no Kuni: The Another World and play it without importing a whole new piece of hardware.
Importing games has opened up a new video game paradigm to me. Ingenious genre mash-ups, distinctive characters, art and music, and bewildering menus filled with so much Kenji and Engrish that it would be easier to find your way to the lavatory blindfolded then navigate your way to the options screen. So, if there are no longer any PAL releases in sight for Klonoa (Wii), Me & My Katamari, Zack & Wiki, Yakuza 3, Okamiden: Chiisaki Taiyo and BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger I can try importing them.
What’s more, actually having the opportunity to play import games has encouraged me to seek out even more press coverage of international titles (who’d of thought geriatric monster torment, Demon’s Souls, would be such a hit with critics?).
Unfortunately, foiling EU trade restrictions won’t help me in my quest to attain the ultra rare Space Channel 5: Part 2 for PlayStation 2 – a region locked Japanese copy will refuse to give me the scoop if I play it on an EU console.
If some Japanese new releases are getting pulled from UK shelves early then there’s even more reason for open-minded gamers to snap them up while they still can. I, myself, am still hunting for several Japanese titles I missed over the years – perhaps not by coincidence, a lot of them happen to be from Namco. After all, where else could you witness a gigantic mess-ball rolling up everything in sight?