Get games early or get ones that were never released in the West.
Contrary to the domestic classic gaming scene, it’s easier to snap up retro imports now than it was when they were brand new. Back in the days of the Super NES, importing games meant dealing with some fly-by-night company that advertised in black-and-white in the back pages of video game magazines, paying exorbitant prices, waiting forever, and sometimes not even receiving what you ordered.
This can still happen to you today—but only if you’re not shopping smart. There are plenty of reliable, reputable importers who are upfront and honest about providing you all the information you’ll need before you order. And the prices can be better than you think; in great part the days of exorbitant markups are over. So if you’re curious about acquiring exotic games from foreign lands, I’m going to discuss two ways you can do it—through online retailers and through auction sites like eBay. Both have their pros and cons.
Based in New York City, NCS is widely renowned as one of the most reliable import game retailers around. NCS posts daily news updates on the current state of the Japanese game market, listing release dates as they are announced and posting box art and screenshots of the games that come in that day. Even those who don’t import many games read NCS’s daily news posts.
In the “Orphanage” section of their shopping site, NCS lists brand new games for the Super Famicom, Virtual Boy, Game Boy Color, Mega Drive, PC Engine, and Sega 32X. Pickings are understandably slim, but highlights of their stock as of this writing include Fatal Fury Special for the Mega CD, a Nintendo 64 Action Replay device that lets you play import games on your U.S. system and V-Tetris for the Virtual Boy (which is a different game than Tetris 3D, which was only released in the United States).
Separate sections feature games for the Saturn, PlayStation, and Neo Geo hardware (cartridge and CD-ROM both). And that’s not all—every few weeks or so, NCS will dig through its decade-plus warehouse storage containers and unearth all sorts of classic games, merchandise, and toys and offer them for sale on a first-come-first-serve basis in the daily news posts. (Yet another reason to read them regularly.)
When I lived in Kanazawa, Japan, there was a small shop near downtown that specialized in secondhand games. I noticed that the store rarely had any especially rare merchandise, though, and I soon found out why. I was searching on eBay for a copy of the Final Fantasy music CD Celtic Moon that was located in Japan, and found one being sold by the store, Yamatoku. Bear in mind that this was in early 2000, so I was impressed with the store’s brave leap into the age of Internet sales.
Five years later (note to self: I am aging rapidly), you can still get big deals from the tiny store. Only now they are certified eBay power sellers with nearly seven thousand positive feedback ratings. Their rarer items are still sold on their eBay store (http://stores.ebay.com/Used-Video-Game-Shop-Yamatoku), but the online shop at http://www.yamatoku.jp is home to hassle-free shopping for more common games. That’s the great thing about Yamatoku—they won’t rip you off by selling a dirt-common game as “rare.”
Some of the games available on the site as of this writing (all second-hand) are Final Fantasy III for the Famicom (NES), unreleased in the US, for $45; Nobunaga’s Ambition for the Famicom for $12; Fatal Fury Special for the Neo Geo for $20; and Valis III for the Mega Drive (Genesis) for a mere $2.
And if you can’t find what you want, Yamatoku offers an online request form (http://www.yamatoku.jp/request/request.asp) where you can ask them to hunt down titles especially for you. Of course, this will cost you more money, but if you’ve got nowhere else to turn it could make your dreams come true.
Hong Kong-based retailer Play-Asia is the import retailer of choice for many gamers, offering low prices, fast and inexpensive international shipping, occasional low-price deals, and a great selection of brand new retro titles to boot. They offer the Neo Fami hardware (a new Japanese clone of the original Famicom system) in two different color schemes, as well as the PokeFami (a new portable Famicom-compatible system).
Unfortunately, they don’t have any Famicom titles for sale, but do offer a selection of new and preowned games for the Super Famicom, Mega Drive, PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16), and other systems. You can also find the Action Replay 4M Plus that will let you play import Sega Saturn games, and as of this writing they have new copies of the ultra-rare Virtual Boy titles Ins-mouse no Yakata ($74.90) and Jack Bros. ($49.90).
What do people do when they find a little bit of retro gold lurking in their attic? If they don’t plug it into their TV and get hooked on the game, they might just try to unload it online.
It’s a familiar refrain: would-be import gamers post on online message boards asking where they can buy a certain rare item—“and don’t say ‘eBay',” they warn their would-be helpers. And why not? While it’s true that eBay tended to artificially inflate the prices of items coming from Japan in years past, as more and more sellers living in Japan start to post auctions, prices have begun to fall in line with what you’d pay on the streets of Tokyo.
- Check the seller’s location
You’d think this would be obvious. But remember, though auctions located in Japan might have lower final bid prices, the shipping will be higher. (You may also have to deal with customs duties.) Decide what your priority will be—saving a few bucks by going with a Japanese seller or the convenience of buying local. You’ll also want to make sure that the seller will ship the item to the country where you live.
- Check the shipping price listed in the auction
Some sellers may offer low Buy It Now prices, then make up the money with exaggerated shipping prices. Do the research beforehand and find out what you should expect to pay for express (EMS) international shipping versus standard airmail.
- Remember that games have different names in Japan
The game you’re looking for might be listed under its English name, but it might also be listed under a transliteration of its Japanese name. And that might be misspelled. In the early days of eBay I got some deals by searching for
famicon, a less popular Romanization of the name of the Famicom.
There are some items that are so rare you can’t even find them on eBay. In that case, you might want to turn to Yahoo! Japan Auctions, which is the preferred online auction site of the Japanese (although there is a Japanese version of the eBay site, Yahoo! hit it big in the country before eBay did).
But, uh, there’s one problem. In general, if a Japanese seller wants to deal with international, English-speaking bidders, he’ll post his items on eBay. If they’re up on Yahoo! Japan, you can bet that they only want to sell to Japanese-speaking buyers with mailing addresses inside Japan.
And yet, the miracle of the Internet can solve anything! Proxy services such as the one at PhotoGuide Japan (http://photojpn.org/proxy/yahoo.html) or Rinkya (http://www.rinkya.com/faq_url.php) will bid on auctions for you, buy the items, and ship them to you—for a markup, of course. Rinkya’s site will even automatically translate Yahoo! Japan’s menus and listings.
Of course, this solution can be pricey and complicated—not to mention the fact that it could take upwards of a month to get your items. I’d only recommend it if you absolutely can’t find what you’re looking for anywhere else.
Hey, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Economy plane tickets to Japan are getting cheaper and cheaper these days (a travel agency in San Francisco’s Japantown, at the time of this writing, is advertising a $399 round-trip ticket), and there are plenty of English-speaking hotels that cater to young travelers on a budget. Then you can just head to the game shops of the major cities and stock up on classic Japanese games at the lowest prices possible. And hey, if you want to know where to go for games once you get there, I just happen to have covered all that in my book Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life (BradyGAMES). (You knew I had to get that plug in here somewhere.)