Turning Japanese: How The Mega Drive Got Me Into Import Gaming

Hello, my name's Damien. You might be familiar with my work for Retro Gamer, Eurogamer, Pocket Gamer (all the gamers, basically) and elsewhere, but my day job is wearing a badge that says "Editorial Director" at Nintendo Life, which – as I make sure to tell everyone when I'm queuing for stamps at the Post Office – the world's biggest independent Nintendo-centric news, reviews and features site with more than 2 million unique visits a month (as you can imagine, everyone avoids catching my eye at the Post Office).

Guest article by Damien McFerran

I love Nintendo, and I therefore love my job. The company's history in the video game arena is peerless, and I'm totally and utterly addicted to my Switch – how could I not be; you can play it on the toilet, for pete's sake.

Nintendo Switch

However, Nintendo wasn't my first love; like so many people thundering towards the terrifying age of 40 in the UK, I started my gaming obsession on home computers, playing the ZX Spectrum with my child-minder's son before almost soiling my He-Man underpants on the Atari ST version of Dungeon Master. I loved my ST at the time; the colourful visuals, catchy music and stupidly massive game boxes packed with everything from paperback novels to audio cassettes really got me hooked on gaming, and I also couldn't get enough of the seemingly endless procession of arcade conversions from companies like US Gold, Elite and Ocean.

However, something felt a bit off with these ports. Compared to the coin-guzzling originals they were perfectly passable, and my only real option at the time; I had about as much chance of owning an Operation Wolf arcade cabinet as I did of waking up to find a shiny new Lamborghini Countach on the driveway. But still, the difference was clear; while arcade games were all about fast movement, smooth scrolling and loads of sprites on-screen at once, the ST conversions – despite looking the part – had jerky scrolling, sluggish gameplay and often unresponsive controls. There were exceptions – I loved the ST port of R-Type, for example – but on the whole, these were pale imitations of the real thing.

Around this time, my dad – who still plays video games on his PC at the ripe old age of 65 and can be credited with getting me into the world of gaming – began talking about this new breed of hardware called "a console". He explained that prior to home computers becoming popular in the '80s, he'd owned systems like the Atari VCS and ColecoVision – machines which used bulky carts, offered fast gameplay and didn't get slowed down by annoying loading times. These gaming-focused platforms were making a comeback; the Sega Master System, Nintendo Entertainment System and NEC PC Engine were gaining traction and getting more and more coverage in magazines like Computer & Video Games, and my dad simply couldn't ignore this paradigm shift any longer. Using the pretence of Christmas 1990, he purchased a shiny new Japanese Sega Mega Drive from our local importer, Telegames, and that's what I found waiting for me beneath the tree that festive morning.

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It's strange what memories stick with you over time; at the age of 38, I've had a lifetime of notable events to reminisce about, but the details of some are becoming increasingly hazy as the years roll by. However, I can vividly recall the moment I gleefully tore open the wrapping on that Mega Drive like it was yesterday; I can even remember being slightly annoyed upon seeing the plastic game cases for the first time – I assumed they were VHS cases, and that my dad had purchased a console but no software. Thankfully, I soon realised I in fact had a generous helping of titles to tide me over: Golden Axe, ESWAT, Super Monaco GP, After Burner II, Thunder Force II and Herzog Zwei. I don't think I've had a better Christmas since.

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They say you always remember your first love, and in the console gaming arena, that was the Mega Drive for me. Sure, the SNES had some killer games – some of the best ever made, in fact – but if I had to choose one system to take with me to a desert island (one which presumably has electricity and a television) it would be Sega's 16-bit baby. The fast-paced arcade-style action titles really appealed to me – especially after enduring the slow nature of many ST games – and I became a Sega fanboy almost overnight. Throughout the years, as Sega lurched from one hardware disaster to another, I doggedly kept the faith; during the PlayStation era, I bought a Japanese Saturn – everyone loves the underdog – which I then traded in when the Dreamcast was available on import. I died a little inside when Sega announced it was abandoning hardware soon afterwards to focus on third-party publishing, but the flame has never really gone out.

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In fact, I've kept the flame alive over the years by amassing a collection of Japanese Mega Drive games to remind myself just how incredible that system was. I started this during the mid-'90s, at a time when 32-bit and 64-bit systems were all the rage and everyone was frantically dumping their 16-bit consoles in order to upgrade. The flood of old hardware and software caused prices to bottom out, even for relatively rare games (remember, this is before eBay arrived and made everyone an expert on software value). A local indie store in Nuneaton, Warwickshire was selling fully-boxed Japanese Mega Drive games for a £5 a pop – I picked up Daimakaimura, MUSHA Aleste, Gynoug and Strider Hiryu all on the same day (games I'd owned previously but traded in) – and returned over the next few months to buy many other classics. Over the decades I've slowly but surely added to this haul; when I moved house for the second time a few years ago I sold some of the collection off to raise a deposit, but have since re-filled the gaps.

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So why Japanese Mega Drive games, you may ask? It's simple – the box artwork is incredible. Unlike European releases, Japanese Mega Drive games didn't have a uniform cover design, so artists could allow their imaginations to run riot; artwork would often wrap around the entire box. Covers for titles like Aero Blasters, ESWAT, Jewel Master, Gunstar Heroes, Shadow Dancer, Super Shinobi II and many more besides were leagues ahead of what was used on the UK versions; in fact, western boxart for this period is almost always much, much worse than the Japanese equivalent; it's like western publishers were challenging one another to see who could come up with the most toe-curlingly bad cover illustrations. The manuals were also printed in full colour (European manuals were in black and white and each page was translated into about six different languages), and despite the fact that I couldn't read a single word of them, I'd leaf through them endlessly, inspecting the gorgeous artwork and detailed screenshots.

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This began an obsession with import gaming which went all the way up to the aforementioned Dreamcast; nowadays the import scene is all but dead, but I still get a kick out of sourcing Japanese retro games online or ordering them direct from The Land of the Rising Sun, saving myself a few pennies in the process. I owe this compulsion to wander off the beaten track of PAL software because of that fateful Christmas in 1990; it really was a game-changer, and it's the reason why the cupboard under my stairs has Mega Drive games stacked all the way up to the ceiling, much to my wife's chagrin.

Guest article by Damien McFerran 

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Japanese Sega Mega Drive Games 

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