Remember those games you really wanted to play that either took forever to localize or never even made it to English-speaking shores? If you're a fan of Japanese RPGs, you've already shed a tear. One franchise in particular that's very close to my heart is the Tales of series, and over half the games end up on a different console or never get translated to English. The only remaining option for those of us into these kinds of games is to import, but the idea is often outweighed with uncertainty.
Recently, I imported my first Japanese-only title, which is Tales of Innocence R on the PlayStation Vita, and looking from the inside out is more optimistic that looking from the outside in: importing games is almost liberating, and I intend to deteriorate your indecisiveness with a guide to importing.
A note on 'Region-Free'
The PlayStation 3 and PS Vita are almost unique in this gaming generation, because they're not region-locked devices; the Nintendo DS isn't either, but Nintendo changed its mind for its latest Nintendo 3DS. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that you can buy whatever games you want and play them, unfortunately. Some games are themselves locked, which means that those games have security basing them solely in their country of origin. Other games have region-locked online multiplayer, which allows you to play any single-player content but limits access to multiplayer servers. Don't be discouraged--very few titles are actually locked to a region. It's best to be safe than sorry, and quick Google searches can help clarify any uncertainty on this matter.
Where imported games are available
Like most good things, they can't be found at Wal-Mart. One very popular site to buy Japanese titles is Play-Asia, which is dedicated to distributing gaming content globally. Play-Asia is available in English, and all listed prices are converted, so the only negative is, like any purchase, coughing up the dough. Interestingly enough, Amazon offers a limited amount of imported games of all kinds, which is where I bought mine, though my Amazon Prime subscription helped seal the deal.
Why so much?
Imported games, as well as any imported product, have to include the original cost with currency conversion and import taxation, which makes the prices of most imported products nearly double. It's natural to look at a game's cost in your respective country and think they're already expensive, and this goes especially for games when they launch, so realistically it's almost ludicrous to buy an imported game at launch without having a Swiss bank account or 00 status. Patience is a virtue, and carries over into the next point: waiting a year may hurt your soul, but your wallet will thank you for it. Realistically, it takes about a year for a Japanese title to get localized. If it's not done in that time, the game cost is nearly halved anyway, so importing would be like buying the game new. The nice catch to investing in this manner is it shows Japanese developers that their games are desired overseas. If more gamers buy, Japanese games will make it to English speakers more often. It's kind of a financial extension of yourself, as numbers speak louder than forum posts to developers and distributors.
Dedicated fans often localize independently
The title above goes both ways. As a fan of games in the Tales of series, I know I'd be hard-pressed to find one of these games that I wouldn't enjoy playing. The same goes for many fans out there who have already imported it, considering that many have begun work on localizing the title themselves. A team right now is working on translating and applying English to the PlayStation Portable game Final Fantasy Type-0 and another group has managed to translate most of Tales of Vesperia; Tales of Vesperia is available on PS3 in Japanese but Xbox 360-exclusive in English. There's probably someone on the net that's already begun localizing games you pine for, and all you have to do is find them and support them; who knows, you might even head a project like this in a couple of imports.
Language barrier is no obstacle
The biggest factor in my decision to import Tales of Innocence R was if I could find an English script for it. I couldn't, which is especially unfortunate given that I found a translation project for Tales of Vesperia. However, I found Innocence R for ten dollars more than a new game, so I jumped on an impulse. What's really, really strange about playing it is that I get so lost in the experience of playing the game that the story, the names, and the places all become one grand experience that moves from place to place with nearly no rhyme or reason--and I've found it liberating. I can't read the menus, and I can't understand a word of dialogue, menus, or plot, but watching characters interact through actions and interpreting them is something that I've found I enjoy. Without going too deeply into the next couple of points, a background in Japanese entertainment can go a long way when playing a game this way.
Through the frustrations of others
Plenty of people have imported games, and Google can be your friend. Many different gamers have gone through this process, so you'll be a special case if you can't find someone online with your gaming preferences. Fans have sites dedicated to their endeavors, and forums are filled with stories and information regarding this very concept. Whether good or bad, all testimonies answer a question you may have. I lulled over forum after forum looking for justification to jump in, and so many spoke so happily about the fact that they were able to play Tales of Innocence R that it outweighed their lack of comprehension. Back and forth I went, reading different perspectives on the same issue, trying to determine if the investment would be countered by enjoyment. In the end, I applied what I'd read from others to attain a new, awesome gaming experience.
I promise you that if you want to play a game so badly it hurts, then you'll find a way to enjoy whatever you want to play. I tend to validate games that I buy, because I spent money on them and I'd feel wasteful if I didn't enjoy that which evaporated my extra cash. The same might be true for Tales of Innocence R. The beauty of it is that I'm still enjoying it regardless of intention or excuse. The universality of menus and controls, which often feel repetitive and uncreative, is liberating, allowing you to play naturally. Meanwhile, navigating a wall of foreign menu options is a quick bout of trial and error. Still, the limitations are there, and challenge runs right alongside them. Japanese games tend to have higher overall difficulty when compared to localized versions, which begs examination of your potential efforts and willingness to work for success. Again, you need to know who you are as a gamer before you start putting money into localization, since it brings all of your natural ability and comprehension to the surface.
Super Mario Bros. doesn't mark my origin as a gamer, but I've been playing games for a long time, and importing Tales of Innocence R was a pleasant first on a long list of firsts. I now plan to import Tales of Vesperia and follow along with the hard work that other dedicated, but more driven, fans of the series have done with their own localization. A fighter might be in my future, but I'm nowhere near versed enough to grasp the greater details. But when games are this fun, does it matter?
Those of you who have done so, please share your stories about games that you've imported and your experiences with those games; anyone who wants to import a title can use the same space below to mention what games they've thought of importing.