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In the 90s and in Western countries, you were able to buy import software for pretty much every video game system, for instance, Super Nintendo, Mega Drive, PC Engine, PlayStation and so on.

To run them, you generally needed either an adapter for cartridges or a modchip for CD-ROMs.

But most importantly, the language barrier didn't have to be a problem, especially Japanese.

Of course for a video game, this was mostly acceptable except maybe for RPGs with a lot of text.

Question:

But what about for computers ? (let's say the PC platform for instance)

Was one easily able to find out import software for it as it was the case for consoles back then?

Edit:

I don't consider something like Microsoft Office being an "import" software because even though it came from the US, locally you would find it in the language of the region you live in and at a regular price, i.e. it has been localized.

Say for PlayStation, suppose you live in a PAL region, import software would be NTSC-U/C and NTSC-J. In other terms, software that isn't supposed to be distributed at all in your region, but that you can still buy from few local shops that import it from overseas.

In short, was software for US-only region commonly available in EU as import? And the other way around as well. Maybe let's say, between US, EU and Asia.

The best analogy I can think of would be VHS tapes, you were able to buy imported ones but at your own risk, language barrier, no warranty but also compatibility issues, but quite a few people did it because you had some sort of 'exclusive' content for the place you were in.

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    I'm fairly certain the question is about grey-market or black-market importing – Matthew Barclay Dec 26 '20 at 2:22
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    There was almost no importation of Japanese PC software into the west, partly because there wasn't that much Japanese PC software, and mostly because the language barrier was a big problem. I did see some grey market importing of European versions of PC games into Canada but that was only after about 2000 or so. – user722 Dec 26 '20 at 9:14
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    @another-dave The word "import" is being used in the same sense as "import" CDs and records, where it's only a import if it wasn't packaged for sale in the importing market by the publisher. For example, a game developed and published in the US and imported by the publisher into Canada wouldn't be an import by this definition, but the same game published in the UK and then imported into Canada by a third party would be an import. A key difference between the two versions is that the former would have an ESRB rating on the box, while the second would have a PEGI rating instead. – user722 Dec 26 '20 at 9:35
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    Do you mean imported from the West into Japan, or imported from Japan into the West, or imported between Western countries, or imported from the West into the East? As far as "imported software for the PC into Germany": Most software was imported. Some software was translated, some wasn't. There was few German-made software geared towards the generally market; software written in Germany was mostly for a specific customer (or small group of customers). – dirkt Dec 26 '20 at 10:10
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    Not really, most terms used, like 'import', 'export', 'region' etc are arbitrary without a definite assignment. Global terms like 'the West' do not help either, as markets differ quite a lot, Germany was different from GB which again was something else than France or Italy. Not to mention even more variations when including places like Brasil or Canada. – Raffzahn Dec 26 '20 at 16:19
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Preface: The question is a bit complicated as it revolves around issues that were not present at every time and in every area, like

  • Direct protection by different interfaces
  • Direct protection by encryption
  • Direct protection with region locking
  • Indirect protection due video standards
  • Sales restrictions
  • etc

Similar the the distinction 'the West' isn't really useful. What constructs 'the West' ? Is Brasil part of it? Or Yugoslavia? Or South Africa? Cold war propaganda terms aren't as useful in a serious setting as one may think at first. The 'West' is way more diverse than that.


So while I think the question as such can not be answered in a serious manner, I think it may be useful to add some personal views over the years - as IT professional and gamer who was never big into consoles, but spend way too many hours playing on my Apple/Atari/PC.


General

In general, the most relevant point here is that on the computer side there was never a concept of regional locking or separated markets, like it was on consoles - and ever there it took time to evolve.

Of course did NTSC games for the Atari VCS not work on a PAL unit straight away. Or better, they did, as the console didn't care, but a strict 50 Hz PAL TV's would not display the generated 60 Hz PAL picture (*1) . But that was only a minor hurdle, as already in the late 70s TV sets (at least many German produced) were able to synchronize at 60 Hz as well (*2). They were made for export and build to carter to many standards and combinations thereof. If at all, one had to get a second decoder module for the TV, which were easy available.

Early Computer Games - ca. 1980

For machines that did essentially not differ between markets, like the Apple II, or Commodore PET / TRS-80 due bringing their own display, the issue wasn't copy protection or sales hurdles - foreign manufacturers were eager to sell to Germany - but taxation. I remember when I once tried to bring a bunch of brand new Apple II games in from the US. Must have been 1979 or 1980, so really the beginning of commercial computer games. They twice across the pond until we figured out how to do it. There was simply no import duty category for software at that time. So we finally settled on them as being promotional items without commercial value - which required them to have it clearly marked, so they got returned, someone in California put a stamp on each disk cover 'DEMO' and send it again over. This time flawless. I still have the covers :))

Fun part aside, at the time the second mailing arrived I already had most of these games as pirated copies ... Yes, pirating has always been faster, even way before the Internet.

8 Bit World

Now, there were also machines that differed between markets, most notably the C64 with it's ~4% lowered clock rate for European models (0.985 MHz vs. 1.023 MHz). But again, like with the 2600, most (early) games simply worked. Maybe a bit slowed down when counting frames for speed effects. Later, when games got more sophisticated, using raster effects and alike some did show glitches

With the C64 the problems were more prevalent when using a PAL game on a NTSC machine due having less border space and equally faster action. But again, a large number of games simply worked.

In general the same issue happens with the Atari 8 bit series. Due it'S way more powerful graphics system games used many effects already early on, creating incompatibility. Here again the use of NTSC games in a PAL system results in (usually) less glitches than the other way around. Again most based on the higher resolution offered by PAL due the lower frame rate.

Of course, machines that were mostly sold in Europe didn't had anyone outside suffering, like the ZX80/81/Spectrum series. Similar the Amstrad CPC avoided it by using their own displays (*3)

When it comes to Japanese computers, their market was rather limited in Europe. Sharp did make some good sales with the MZ-80 series, but they again not only more business orientated, but as well all in one units, so compatibility was a given thing.

The Brave New 16 Bit World

For the Atari ST, software is mostly agnostic of the frame rate and modulation (with the *m models) is done according to either standard. Again, top end games (like XENON) may or may not work on either frame rate. Resolution is, unlike with previous generation, less of an issue and stable per mode. Also, most users didn't use a TV set at all, but dedicated CRTs (*4). In general software companies did take this into account and made single versions for all markets.

For the Amiga it was a bit more complicated and simple at the same time. Machines could be switched by hardware modification between both video standards, or, units with 1 MiB chipram, could do so in software. With AmigaDOS 3 and higher the mode could be set with a key combination during start up. In the end it came again to each game if it did run in either or both modes.

Finally the PC

With the PC all of this became obsolete and hardware differences vanished. Not only due displays independent of TV standards, but as well due software layers like DirecX.

In fact, why should a manufacturer restrict sales at all? The whole idea of regions and locking is more that of console manufacturers trying to control market access. With the PC there is no single manufacturer guarding the machine but independent developers of hardware and software - and the later do have an interest to sell as many as possible.

If any manufacturer wanted to restrict access at all, it became a complicated game of guessing, as neither Windows version not IP addresses or any setting does really reflect where the PC or its user is located. Even more, all of that are software settings.

Long Story Short

On computers regional/market locking was never a real thing, more of an anoyance to be overcome.


*1 - Even with a US game the output would still be PAL encoded, but 60 Hz and 525 lines.

*2 - Heck, even the old (late 1960s) B&W TV I had in my room could show US-TV from a nearby base (with some fiddling of an 8 year old). Only for the sound I had to ask for help.

*3 - There was a Power/TV Modulator unit available, at least from Schneider, but I'm not sure if many were sold.

*4 - In fact, the TV-ready models did only come rather late, when Atari tried to expand downwards to low end users - mostly in the US, as the ST was considered more of a professional computer in Europe.

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  • The only thing that could apply that I can think of would be expensive software where the licensing was enforced by a hardware dongle - you may have had a hard time getting that kind of software because buying it generally came with promises/guarantees of support and the companies selling it - whether the developer or some ISV (dealer, for example) - might not have wanted the difficulties/efforts of cross-country support. – davidbak Dec 27 '20 at 5:24
  • This is a good answer but it's technically oriented, I was expecting something more commercially oriented because I guess the lack of region A software in region B is more about economics than anything else. I could be wrong however. – aybe Dec 28 '20 at 10:35
  • @aybe Err, Economics are about delivering everything to everywhere. Any reason to not do so can not be based on economics. Same way no Japanese company really stopped sales of Japan only games anywhere else in the world. They used technical measures to stop that. – Raffzahn Dec 28 '20 at 21:17
  • That makes sense to me now! – aybe Dec 28 '20 at 22:44
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On the territory of the ex-USSR, in the turbulent 90s, it was possible from time to time, for the owners of the largest stolen fortunes, to find pure examples of software imports - that is, literally non-localized boxes from the United States, not intended for export, were exported and sold as item of status consumption.

In other cases - piracy. It cannot be said that the software was "imported" - it was still a slightly different process. Compilations on CD, with cracks, homemade amateur localizations ...

And I would say that it was a fundamentally larger market in terms of scale and influence.

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I made some comments but I think I'm going to go ahead and give you an answer. You are speaking of console games being imported, so you are speaking specifically of the Japanese market. At the time of the 8 and 16-bit consoles, games were almost EXCLUSIVELY made in Japan, yet the consoles enjoyed worldwide popularity. But if you added together ALL the other markets, they still wouldn't be as large as the market was in Japan at the time. So, games were developed in Japan, for a Japanese market with all other markets being addressed as almost an afterthought. This meant that games would come out in Japan and then not be available in the US for months or in the UK for years(UK always got the shaft). They did not even consider other markets while making a game and the only reason English was even included in a game was because it was "cool" in Japan to do so.

Since the only barriers to playing a Japanese console game on an American console were physical (SNES tabs) if they even existed at all and everything came out WAY earlier in Japan, importing Japanese games became a thing. I visited my friend in Japan at the time of the SNES and almost all I did was buy games in Akihabara.

As for importing PC games, if you mean from the Japanese market to America... well, there really wasn't much call for it because the few Japanese games developed for PC that were good were either RPGs with a language barrier, or released in the US market officially. Case in point- Sierra-on-line released games made by Game Arts, like Thexder and Zeliard. The PC games market was essentially the opposite of the console market, with most PC games being made in the US (or the west, whatever) for the western market with other markets being an afterthought if thought of at all. Games like Wizardry and Ultima WERE heavily imported; from the west TO Japan, where they inspired games like Xanadu and Dragon Quest.

When the Famicom(NES) was released, it basically took the place of the PC with regards to games. Heck, Fami-com meant Family Computer. After that, the only games (mostly) made in Japan for the PC were hentai (adult) games. So there really wasn't anything to IMPORT.

As for the consoles you listed, ALL of them could play Japanese games on an American console without any modchips or adapters. Now, the UK consoles are another story as they tended to lock those simply because of the difference between PAL and NTSC. Yet even still, if you could get the game to display in PAL, generally done with a "region patch" being applied to the game ISO which was ripped from the CD, there was nothing else preventing the game from playing. To apply a patch, one would have to burn a new CD of the game, which is where you might be getting the idea that a modchip was necessary from.

To sum up: if you lived somewhere that was PAL (UK, Europe), you got the shaft because you got the games last AND you needed some type of adapter or modchip to play games imported from either Japan OR the US, who are both NTSC. PCs displayed on monitors using VGA and simply did not have this problem. No one imported PC games from Japan because all they had was Hentai, though the Japanese DID import US PC games until the Famicom, which ushered in the age of Hentai for the Japanese PC.

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