[We tend to forget that every person will experience a game in a different way. We’re all unique people with unique pasts, after all. It was this consideration that bred the idea for this series. Like the name suggests, I’m going to use this series as a platform to simply talk about my experiences playing certain games in the hopes that you can share in the experience through my eyes.]
This story starts in a generic gaming magazine in the late 90s. To be exact, it starts in the back of these gaming magazines – the place where you might find an advertisement for a peripheral that doesn’t work, a contest that requires you to send in a bunch of entries each costing progressively larger sums, and, of course, cluttered pages devoted to Japanese import services.
On long flights from New Mexico to Florida, equipped with little else but a portable CD player (remember those?) and a stack of gaming mags, I would often be forced to get every little bit of enjoyment for my money – sort of like wearing an extra thick condom with a prostitute. No, I have no idea why that’s the analogy I’m going with here.
What I am sure of is that I soon became obsessed with those little import sections in the back of magazines. Coupled with the Internet in the late 90s and its constant fapping over anything from Japan that wasn’t available in the States, I began to read enjoy those pages with a heaping glob of jealously smothered all over. All of those PlayStation games in Japan seemed so damn…Japanese. I needed to have them.
There was just one problem: I didn’t have a Japanese PSX. While my PlayStation huddled in the corner of my entertainment center feeling inadequate and looking into truck balls to get back a semblance of its self-worth, I was learning about a little nugget of glory offered by my local game store: a mod chip. They promised me that I’d be able to play all of those Japanese games to my heart’s content. I paid their ridiculous fee, surrendered by PlayStation (which by this point had installed not only truck balls but spinners and glow), and waited for Japan to come right into my home.
What followed was a comedy of errors – of error messages, actually.
Part 1: Tobal 2 and a first foray into Japanese imports
With my PSX back home and outfitted with a considerable amount of Japaneseness, I ordered up Tobal 2 from the admittedly shady service in the back of the magazine. The Internet had told me that Tobal 2 was the greatest game ever made, and because it was so amazing it would never come to America because America doesn’t get any of the good stuff. Since it was the Internet talking, the veracity of these statements couldn’t be denied, so I ordered that shit hard.
It came like two months later.
Nevertheless, it came. Its crazy Japanese jewel case arrived on my doorstep, and its Japanese-filled manual filled me with confusion. I threw that nonsense aside and popped it in my PlayStation, hoping that my console had become significantly Japanese to handle the awesomeness that I was feeding it.
Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Tobal 2, let me take a moment to give you a bit of info about the game. If you’ve heard this all before, feel free to skip ahead.
Tobal 2 is the sequel to fighting game Tobal No. 1, which saw a release in both NTSC and PAL regions in 1996. It was published by Squaresoft, which was a big deal for a couple of reasons. For one, it was the first time that Square had anything to do which a fighting game, and people flipped their shit over this. Secondly, it included a demo for Final Fantasy VII. I’ll give you one guess, based on this previous post of mine, whether I was excited because it was a Square fighting game or because it included that demo. Still, I played it and enjoyed it, I guess. I honestly don’t remember much about it.
Anyway, Tobal 2 was released only in Japan in 1997 following disappointing sales of the game in other regions. By all accounts, it was a much better game, straying into territory that no other fighting game of the time had done.
Indeed, even the most basic details of the game make it sound pretty impressive. While most fighting games sport about 20 fighters, Tobal 2 ups the ante tenfold, offering 200 fighters. Of course, many of these were characters that you would never actually want to fight with, but the option was there, and it looked amazing on paper.
In addition, the game offered a robust quest mode, which was a huge expansion over the quest mode in Tobal No. 1. I suppose that it can best be described as a fighting game mixed with Pokemon. Basically, you choose a character and start out in a town area, where you can buy items, rest, and do the basic things that RPGs allow you to do in towns.
The real fun starts in one of the six dungeons that players get to fight through. Here’s where things get very RPG-like: you progress through the floors of the dungeon, defeating monsters and looting their corpses, gaining experience, and leveling up your character. You can choose to develop your actual body parts and your basic skills: punching and kicking with both the right and left limbs, throwing moves, guard, etc.
Players also have the option of capturing monsters by beating the crap out of them and throwing purple stones at their faces. Sound similar to something? Indeed, just like Pokemon, you’re able to capture bunches of monsters, most of which being weak and uninteresting, but some of them being unique and kind of awesome. You could capture a chocobo and use it to fight in battles, which, for some, was worth the price of admission in itself. Developing characters was also great for the arcade and versus mode thanks to the stat progression – there’s nothing quite like taking a boosted character up again an unaware friend in the versus mode.
So, yes, Tobal 2 was a pretty good game, but was it worth installing a mod chip and paying out the ass to have it imported? Probably not. I didn’t get that much play time out of it, as fighting and capturing the same bland monsters got old pretty fast. Sure, I imported a few other games like some of the Beatmania games, which I really wish I still had. Still, I quickly started to think that I had made a pretty expensive mistake.
I hadn’t even begun to pay for my folly yet.
Skip ahead now to late 1999. Rumblings had begun about a sequel to a certain game starting a certain group of evil pigs and a certain shirtless, pink-haired hero. If you know what game I’m talking about, feel free to skip ahead again. Otherwise, you owe it to yourself to read about the awesomeness of Tomba! 2.
Part 2: Tomba! 2 and an abnormally expensive brick
One of my absolute favorite games from the era of the PlayStation was Tomba!, a game that dripped with more charm and pure fun than nearly any other platformer that I can think of. Made by the extremely short-lived studio Whoopee Camp, Tomba! was a mission-based 2-D platformer with plenty of great adventure elements that allowed you to travel around a beautiful island and beat the crap out of evil pigs. Its mission design was the stuff of legends; every mission was unique and extremely fun.
So when Tomba! 2: The Evil Swine Return was released in late 1999, I was understandably stoked. Early coverage of the game made it sound like everything about Tomba! had been improved: there was now movement in the background to create a pseudo-3-D experience, much of the backtracking necessary in the first game was made easier through the use of teleportation, the graphics were made even more awesome, and Tomba himself chose a new way to attack pigs: by jumping on them and humping the crap out of them. OK, there wasn’t actually any humping, but the combat in the game was still hilarious.
Moving on, I picked up Tomba! 2 early in 2000 and unwrapped the hell out of that jewel case, practically throwing the disc into my PlayStation. I closed the console’s lid, sat back in my beanbag chair, and waited for the game to load.
It never did.
Instead, I was treated to an error screen. I don’t remember its exact words, but it looked something like this:
“Software terminated. This console may have been modified. Please contact Sony Technical Support.”
“Fuck,” I said. Here was what could perhaps be the greatest game ever made sitting in my console, and that son of a bitch wouldn’t let me play it. I hopped on Metacrawler (haha) and crawled the Internet looking for answers. How could I get my beloved Tomba time?
Answers were few. Basically, Sony had started requiring games to check for mod chips, and if one was installed, these games wouldn’t boot. No way around it other than getting the mod chip out of there (or so I thought at the time; apparently the Gameshark had a way of getting around it).
So I sat for weeks on end being unable to play Tomba! 2. The temptation was excruciating. The pink hair called to me; the pig humping was an image that I couldn’t force from my mind. My console’s self-worth plummeted, and I saw it’s longing stares at the truck balls resurface. The time for a decision was nigh: live without swine-killing, or revolt against the Japaneseness of my console and restore it to its utter Americanness.
Part 3: Other famous seconds
The path that I took was one of untruth—or half-truth, at least. At this point, I was still living at home and relied primarily upon my parents for game purchases. Sure, some of my own summer job money went toward games, but I still rather often dipped into my parents’ wallets.
So, one day in the year 2000, I declared, “My PlayStation is broken.” Entirely truthful? Perhaps not, but its function was indeed impaired, and I figured that this was the easiest way to get my Tomba fix. So after a few weeks of badgering, we ran out and picked up a new PlayStation: my second of this particular console, third if you count the original’s Japanese rebirth.
It seemed like a perfect plan. I got home, swapped out the consoles, and set the Japanese guy aside until the next time I needed his Japanese services. Tomba! 2 booted up like a dream, and I played the crap out of it. It was glorious, and I had gotten away with an epic double-console purchase.
Or so I thought. I had been so focused on Tomba! 2 that I had forgotten entirely about my original console. I had stuffed it somewhere in my room, and now it had disappeared. I looked through my closet, but no amount of searching turned up even a hint of my console’s location.
“Where did my old PlayStation go?” I asked my mom.
“We threw it away,” she said. “It was broken, right?”
“Uh, yeah,” I replied. “Yeah, it was broken.”
In reality, I was broken. My plan had failed, and my Japanese game collection was now worthless. They say that even the best laid plans often go astray. So when you’ve got a shitty plan like this, I guess the outcome isn’t so surprising.
Regardless, I was back where I started, only now my parents and I were out a considerable amount of money. Whether my original decision to get an import mod chip was a good one or not is questionable at best, but it stands as yet another era in my gaming history, and one that I can look back on and smile. It was a hilarious first – and last – journey into the world of imports.
And thank the gods that I was eventually able to play Tomba! 2. Too bad so few others did. What, did pig-humping not appeal to you?