Ever since the mid-80s, the vast majority of video game system and game developers have been Japanese. Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Capcom, Konami, Square, Enix, Atlus, SNK — these companies and many more all have their headquarters in Japan.
So it should come as no surprise that many games never see release outside of Japan. The reasons for this are varied. The game might be based on a popular Japanese TV show. The game might be deemed too weird for American tastes (like many of the simulation dating games in Japan). Or the game might have tons of text and be considered more work to translate than it's commercially worth. Whatever the case, there are hundreds of games, many of them very good, which American audiences are never going to see in their local gaming store.
This is starting to change though. Through video game emulation on the computer and the efforts of talented and dedicated hackers, many Japanese games are appearing for the first time in English.
Combine an emulator (a computer program designed to emulate a piece of hardware) with a game ROM (game information copied to a computer from the original cartridge or arcade board) and voila, you have a video game playable on a computer. Emulation started with the old arcade games of the '70s and '80s, but has since expanded to cover more recent games. In fact, accurate emulators for systems as recent as the Super Nintendo are available (even more recent emulators are available but are laden with programming errors). Hundreds of sites with emulators and ROMs to download are available on the internet and these sites tend to be extremely popular.
Since ROM data are easy to modify on a computer, talented hackers and translators can change the game's data so that the text is displayed in English. It's not easy and takes a long time, but several games have already been completely translated including such games as Final Fantasy V (with a better translation than the one found in the official PlayStation game Final Fantasy Anthology), Earthbound Zero, Sailor Moon: Another Story, Magic Knight Rayearth, and Tenchi Muyo, many of which are popular cartoons (or "anime") in Japan.
Downloading free games off the internet, some of which have never been seen in English before, may sound too good to be true and perhaps it is. Emulators are legal, but uploading and downloading game ROMs is considered a violation of copyright law. It might not seem to be hurting anyone to download an old game, especially if it was only sold in Japan, but what if the game is commercially released or re-released later? Also modern games (mostly Nintendo games since CD games are too big to be practical) can be downloaded as well; those with the desire would have no problem downloading copies of Pokemon Gold & Silver when it's translated and released later this year by Nintendo.
It's a shame that people who would rather steal games than buy them have ruined what could otherwise be a fun part of video gaming. A system could be worked out that would benefit both gamers and developers alike (players could pay a small fee to the creator to gain the right to play their old games on their computer), but such a system would require honest individuals. Unfortunately, since honesty and integrity sometimes seem to be rare traits, it looks like illegal game emulation will continue to cost the video gaming industry hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost sales each year.
This article is copyright (c) 2000, 2007 by Robert Boyd. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.
Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 22-May-00