"The awful thing about life is, everyone has their reasons." It was true in Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game and it's true in learning a new language. People everywhere would love to learn a language "just because" or "why not?", but without a reason, without a need for Japanese, you'll never really learn. For me, perhaps embarrassingly, that need was MLB Power Pros 2008.
Power Pros Baseball is a Konami series of cartoony, arcadey baseball games that's been published every year in Japan since Bill Clinton took office. Year in, year out, Power Pros faithfully recreated the Japanese league rosters as near-featureless bobblehead-looking guys, with quick, polished gameplay and a "Success Mode" with a storyline and life sim elements. For two years, they tested the waters of the American market, releasing MLB Power Pros and MLB Power Pros 2008. I played these games obsessively, but they never came back. Once I found out I could import them, I gained not only a language practice tool, but a reason to learn as much as I could, so I could play more of that game. At first I could only play individual games, then I learned enough Japanese to navigate a season, and then I learned enough to read and enjoy the life sim and story mode. So, for any of you Japanese students interested in finding games to supplement your language study, here's a quick guide to importing Japanese video games.
Sony PlayStation 3, PS4, and Vita
The Sony consoles are your best bet for importing Japanese games because they're popular in Japan and have little to no region lock. Traditionally, game consoles bought in America or Europe couldn't play Japanese games without some sort of workaround or adapter. Many people still try to find first-run NES launch titles because they have a secret Japan-US adapter inside the cartridge which can be taken out and used for other games. Sony started to reverse that trend when they made the PS3 region-free, so Japanese PS3 games can be played on any region's console. (PS1 and PS2 games are still region-locked, even when played on a PS3.) So all you need to do to play Japanese PlayStation games is get your hands on the games themselves.
We'll talk about how to get disc games later on, but the PlayStation has another import-friendly feature: a freely-accessible Japanese PlayStation Store. By creating a new sub-user on your PlayStation, you can sign up for a Japanese PSN account and get access to the same download titles you could get in Japan. After doing that, any demos and free-to-play games are easily available to you, but paying for games is another hurdle. You will need either a Japanese credit card or Japanese PSN cards, which are sold on a number of websites but usually at a 70% markup. Ten dollars of Japanese PlayStation Store credit will likely cost you $17.
Like the PlayStation 3, the PS4 is region-free, so games bought from the UK or Japan or Australia will all work on a North American console. The PS4 doesn't launch in Japan until February 22nd, but when that time rolls around, there are a few Japan-only games you can import, including the strategic RPG Natural Doctrine and the new samurai-era Yakuza game.
The PlayStation Vita is also region-free, but in this case discs are much easier to deal with than downloads. The Japanese PSN Store isn't as easy to access on that device as it is on the PS3. It can still be done, it just requires backing up and resetting your Vita.
Games Worth Importing: Summer Vacation 4 (Boku No Natsuyasumi 4) (PSP), Ryū ga Gotoku Kenzan! (PS3), Yakuza: Ishin (PS3 and PS4)
Nintendo Wii, Wii U, and 3DS
The Nintendo Wii and Wii U don't make things so simple for you. Both are region-locked, so by default an American console will not play Japanese games. Importing a Japanese Wii or Wii U can also be frustrating because online features will check your IP Address, so you will need to resort to VPN trickery to do anything involving the internet on a foreign console. There are always a number of fixes circulating for the notoriously hackable Nintendo Wii which can allow you to play games from other regions, but because these hacks are always changing, potentially illegal, and occasionally prone to bricking your Wii, it is hard to recommend any given solution.
Nintendo's handheld consoles get a little complicated, but they are very good for Japanese study. The original DS is region-free, except for the online DSi store and the DSi-exclusive game cards (all four of them). The 3DS is region locked, so you've gotta buy a Japanese one to play Japanese games. We at Tofugu have gone over before why you might want to buy a Japanese 3DS one major reason being the great library of games with furigana options for those millions of us who are still working on our kanji. There are dozens if not hundreds of Japan-only, text-heavy DS and 3DS games, making both handhelds a terrific choice for an intermediate Japanese student.
Games Worth Importing: Captain Rainbow (Wii), Miles Edgeworth 2 (DS), Youkai Watch (3DS)
Microsoft Xbox 360 and Xbox One
Microsoft's game consoles have not yet caught on in Japan, so the selection of import games is limited and the selection of text-heavy Japanese games almost nonexistent. The Xbox 360's region lock operates on a game-by-game level. Publishers can ask that their game be region-free or region-locked. There are very few Japanese region-free games available, and there is no way to purchase DLC for Japanese games outside of Japan due to an IP Address check. Similar to the PlayStation, it is fairly simple to set up a Japanese Xbox Live account and try free games from another region, but you will still face the same difficulties in paying for games because Microsoft Points are region-locked. You can also migrate your account to a new region, but it will be stuck for three months, so setting up a new profile and adding it to your Xbox is almost certainly a better idea. Play-Asia has a reasonably complete list of Xbox 360 games and their region capabilities.
Xbox One will be region-free, contrary to Microsoft's initial announcements. However, Microsoft have yet to announce when their new console will actually come out in Japan, so it could be a year or so before you get a chance to import anything. Given the sparse selection on the 360, there likely will not be a large array of Japan-exclusive Xbox One games, but at least you don't have to sink your money on a separate Japanese console this time.
Games Worth Importing: Mushihime-sama Futari (Xbox 360 and region-free!) aaaand that's about it.
PC and Mac
Japan is very much a console gaming culture, but there are certain niches that live on the Windows PC. Japanese indie games (sometimes called doujin games) are often readily available on the internet, if you can find them, though not many of them work on a Mac. The Japanese indie game scene is often ridiculed for just how many train simulators and pornographic visual novels it produces, but a number of now-famous indie games like Cave Story and La Mulana started off as free-to-download Japanese indie titles.
It can be difficult to wade through everything available on the internet to find these gems, however, so I have another solution for Japanese study through computer games: I go on Steam and do an Advanced Search for games that support Japanese text or audio. That list (currently 185 games long) should only contain games that let you simply switch your language to Japanese, with no hassle of importing or creating a new account or anything. You probably already own a few.
Games Worth "Importing": Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale, Ys, Cave Story
Getting Your Disks
If you don't happen to be staying in Japan right now, getting your hands on Japanese games can get a little difficult and expensive. The simplest way is to buy from an importer like Play-Asia.com or YesAsia.com, but they mark up the price from what you would see in Japan. For instance, the latest Pro Yakyuu Spirits game costs ￥4820 or $48 on Amazon.co.jp, but will run you $65 on Play-Asia. So why not just buy from Amazon.co.jp? You can't, not directly. Amazon.co.jp won't ship games, game consoles, or any electronics to a location outside Japan. You have to use a shipping service like Tenso, who can forward your game from their location in Tokyo to your address wherever. But the shipping cost will still be $15-20, so you're not saving much money for your extra effort unless you buy in bulk.
Buying Japanese video games can be a pain, but it's becoming easier year after year. Eventually the download options should get better too. Hopefully they will ease up on restrictions and make it easier to buy and download games in the future.
The right video game can be a fun supplementary study tool and a great reward after your language ability has jumped ahead. But most importantly to me, now I can play baseball video games that don't suck.
If you're an importer (or wannabe importer), let me know what games you're a fan of the most. Anything in particular that will help with Japanese studies?