In the gaming world today, we have grown used to importing games from around the world. While most manufactures prefer to keep territories separate, Sony is fairly unique in not enforcing locked regions on their PlayStation 3 hardware, instead leaving it up to the developers to chose if a specific game is locked. To date only Atlus has chosen to use this feature, and despite a public outcry, Persona 4 Arena remains region locked to this day. In the past though this practice was more commonplace.
During the sixteen bit era, when Sega and Nintendo ruled the world of video games, imports were often hard to come by and usually command a hefty price. As many regulars to this site will know, I live in the UK and as such did not have the opportunity to play some of the amazing titles that remained in Japan and the US. Today, when I speak to people who imported games during that era, they often comment on how much import vendors in the UK charged for their precious cargo. It was not unusual to pay over £100 for a much wanted game, such as Chrono Trigger.
Even games that had a later release in the UK (as was often the case at the time) could fetch a small fortune. Specialists selling a US copy of Street Fighter 2 just days after its release could charge around £120 to those unwilling to wait another five months. Playing these games was not even a simple affair as in the US. A special cartridge adapter was required to bypass the lockout on UK systems. The US had no lock, requiring only the removal of a couple of tabs to allow the game to be inserted.
When internet shopping became a trend, import prices came down somewhat. Physical stores could still be charging up to twice what their online competition would. I bought a US PlayStation 2 from a specialist a year after the machine was released. I had a decent collection of games for the original PlayStation, but was missing some of the classics that never made their way to these shores. eBay soon became a site I visited almost daily. Even after filling out my PlayStation collection, I started purchasing PlayStation 2 games ahead of their UK release. A game would often only cost a fraction more than in the UK, but be available two to six months sooner.
Today, most games enjoy a worldwide release, or they come out within a few days of each other. Compared to the PlayStation 2 I have imported relatively few games, mainly the Disgaea series. Having multiple PlayStation network accounts across the regions means I can choose the best price, whatever currency it is in. Owners of Sony devices have never had it so good, though sadly the same cannot be said for Nintendo.
The SNES was the last console Nintendo released that was region free (in the US at least). Their handhelds have traditionally been region free, though this came to an end with the 3DS. Nintendo have long disliked the importing of their games from other regions, though have often turned a blind eye to it. Pokemon Diamond and Pearl got their release in the UK three months after the US, during this time Nintendo threatened any retailer selling import versions with cease and desist letters.
I should not leave Microsoft out. Neither of their consoles are region free, but publishers can choose to make their games region-free. PC games are difficult to lock down, though surprisingly Valve managed to enforce the lock on The Orange Box using their Steam service. Blizzard keep Warcraft and Starcraft 2 regions separate as well. Annoyingly, this also means that achievements are not shared between regions, even if an account holds the same game on multiple regions. These are rare occurrences, but it would not surprise me if Origin or Uplay decided restrict their own games somehow.
Region locking suited the industry when it was more expensive and took longer to sell games in other territories. With digital downloads readily available, companies should be doing all they can to ensure that games are only released once the appropriate ratings (and any other legal matters) have been secured across all major regions. Games should not cost the world.
Readers! Have you ever imported a game? Are there any games you wish you could play that were not available to you? Let me know in the comments!