It was nearly a decade ago that I imported my first game. Earthbound had miraculously managed to set a lot of things right in my emotionally rattled mind, and I celebrated my newfound acceptance of my hobby by importing Mother for the Famicom. Riding the emotional high that came from my introduction to Earthbound, I basked in Mother’s incomprehensible scribbles of Japanese text.
I get a different kind of thrill from importing games these days. Japanese script is no longer just scribbles to me (though still, like, 75% incomprehensible), and my Famicom collection has expanded to games that I bought because I actually wanted to play them. Playing a game that never got localized makes me feel like I’m in on a secret. That’s not the only reason for playing foreign games, however, as I’ve even done some double-dipping by importing versions of games I already own.
In the industry these days, regional games are largely equivalent. We’ve had recent brushes with censorship, and maybe we don’t always get the same collector’s edition, or something superfluous like that, but back in the early days of Japanese dominance in the market, things could be extremely different. We could buy Super Mario Bros. 2 over here, blissfully unaware that it’s really a reskin of Doki Doki Panic, because a suited someone up in their lofty office decided that the real Bros. 2 was too hardcore for us.
That little switcheroo is on the extreme end of the spectrum, however. Sometimes, the changes are less extreme, but no less appreciable. For example, just look at the saving capabilities of the Famicom Disk System.
The original Metroid had long been something of a white whale for me. Since my introduction through Metroid Prime, I had kept a strong appreciation for the franchise, but I was never able to gather the willpower to topple the original title. When I finally did try in earnest, I did so by importing a copy of the Famicom Disk System version. Why? Mostly because you could save your game directly to the disk, rather than being forced to enter a 24-character password every time you started the game back up.
More interstingly, however, the game also taps into the Famicom’s wavetable sound channel to provide a richer soundtrack and additional sound effects. There’s also less slowdown, especially during boss battles, which makes the game feel a bit smoother. The FDS version also has an even more hilarious broken English outro, so that’s pretty great. You still have to make your own map, however.
None of this is exactly groundbreaking, so if you prefer the NES version, then shine on, crazy diamond. I hope you relish entering that 24-character password.
Before I even considered toppling that game, I found myself double-dipping on another beloved title, Castlevania III, known as Akumajou Densetsu in Japan. Most Castlevania nerds are aware of the Japanese version’s expanded music. Like Metroid, Akumajou Densetsu adds an extra sound channel to its music, creating a fuller sound. Whether or not it’s actually an improvement over the North American soundtrack is largely subjective, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless.
The real reason for playing the Famicom version, however, has more to do with the difficulty curve. In the Castlevania III, everything causes the exact same amount of damage when it hits you, so a fireball will do about as much harm as a bat flying into you. This increases over time until you’re having about a quarter of your health bar hacked off every time you brush up against someone in a supermarket aisle. Akumajou Densetsu, on the other hand, has damage vary depending on what hits you. This makes the game more manageable, since, especially in the final areas of the game, since you’re not falling to pieces every time you get a paper cut.
To this day, I’ve still only conquered the Japanese version, which leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it feels like I’m playing on easy, while on the other, I enjoy basking in the snobbery of playing the more obscure version.
Stashed away, I’ve also got the Famicom versions of Crash N’ The Boys, Super Dodgeball, Nintendo World Cup, and River City Ransom, all of which were part of the Kunio-Kun/Nekketsu series, which had a tremendous number of titles in its homeland of Japan. I keep them more for reasons of fandom, but there are some minor differences when it comes to sprites. The North American versions are heavily Westernized, going as far as changing character outfits or switching the default team to USA.
Likewise, there’s Ganbare Goemon: Yukihime Kyuushutsu Emaki, otherwise known as Legend of the Mystical Ninja over here. Admittedly, there’s not much reason to play the Japanese version over the localized one, aside from the fact that onigiri were changed to pizza for westerners, and Goemon and Ebisumaru are offensively renamed Kid Ying and Dr. Yang, respectively. Even with those changes, the game retains its starkly Japanese identity in the localized version.
I’m not done double-dipping either. Did you know that the Famicom version of Contra has slightly enhanced graphics, cutscenes, and even a stage map? Did you know that Battletoads was actually made easier in Japan by providing more lives and reworking some of the hazards? Those may be small beans if you’re just looking to hop into a game and have fun, but those sort of differences are absolutely tantalizing to me. So, if you’ve never plumbed the Famicom’s library, I can’t recommend it more highly. It was basically a completely different world over there.