I’m a keen retro gamer of many years – more than I’d like to admit – but 2020 has been a challenging year for anyone wanting to expand their retro games collection, especially if you’re keen on getting hold of Japanese-exclusive titles. In any other year I’d have jumped on a plane and headed for the fine retro stores dotted all over Japan, but this year, I had to think a little differently.
Back in January, I actually was in Japan, having a rather excellent little holiday with my family, as well as engaging in just a little light retro games shopping. It’s long been my habit and preference to do so, because the reality if you’re keen on gaming on older platforms is that Japan is your go-to destination.
The choices are wider, the stock is in way better condition and while prices have steadily crept up over the years, it’s still going to be generally less expensive than trying to score retro games, and especially Japan-only titles any other way.
My own collection isn’t the biggest amongst Australian retro game fans that I know, but it’s grown over the years and encompassed a lot of the titles I remember reading about in magazines such as the iconic Super Play back in the day, plus more than a few simple “hey, it’s only 108¥” games that I’ve taken a punt on.
What struck me back in January was that I had most – by no means all, but a lot of – the games I wanted for my all-time favourite retro gaming system, the Super Famicom.
I’m very much in the situation where the few things I want are the more expensive ones, and while I can still shop around for them, nowhere in Japan is still throwing those titles into the 100¥ junk bins.
I had to consider what to buy next, and where I wanted my retro gaming to head next, because while I have a collection, I’ve always been of a mind that I wanted games to play, not sit on a shelf encased in solid plastic slabs. You do what you like with your money, but while I like owning the physical games, I like playing them even more.
Expanding my choice would mean picking up a new retro console, and at the time I didn’t give it much more thought than that, because I figured the odds were good that I’d be back in Japan in 2020 again, and able to make my choices at that time.
Then 2020 happened, and you’re probably all too well aware of what that means in terms of international travel.
While it’s an absolute, 100%, total and utter first world problem, my plans to revisit Japan were entirely scuppered by COVID-19, and the odds of that changing any time in the next 12-18 months don’t look that great right now.
What that also meant – and again, I’m well aware that I’m very lucky to be in this position right now and that there are plenty of folks with way bigger problems – was that the budget I’d had allocated to travel could be shifted around a touch.
Yes, Mother, I’ve used some of it to pay my bills and such, because again, sigh, 2020, but it also meant I could change my strategy from thinking about a Japan trip and some retro game browsing to looking at my online buying options.
First of all, though, I had to make some choices.
Which retro game system to buy?
Every good retro gaming decision needs a soundtrack, and this is both on topic and retro in its own right!
I’m pretty well covered for the obvious candidates – Megadrive, Saturn, Dreamcast, Famicom, Master System and so on – but there’s still plenty of systems I’ve never owned, and I had to weigh them up.
3DO? Nah – while oddly I live near where the only Sydney store I ever knew of to import 3DO games used to do business, I’ve only ever bought one 3DO game, and that was for a Jurassic Park obsessed former GameSpot editor who was very much going to turn it into a statue, because even he didn’t actually want a 3DO.
Properly vintage Atari console of some kind? I’ve already got an Atari 7800 (and it was, astonishingly, completely free), and my Lynx is still going strong.
Virtual Boy? Look, I will admit that I have a kind of morbid curiosity around Nintendo’s biggest console failure. However, I also have to admit to myself that my own eyes can’t even handle 3D movies for more than a few minutes, so buying the Virtual Boy would be a rather expensive way to make myself throw up. Something tells me a vomit-coated Virtual Boy is going to be worth less afterwards.
Apple Pippin? Nah, while I work on Apple gear professionally, its only venture into console gaming may as well be a statue by now in terms of playable games worth pursuing.
Neo Geo? I did give that one some serious thought, before I remembered that I’m on a journalist’s salary, not that of a mining magnate. Neo Geo games were spectacular back in the day, and I do have fond nostalgic memories of the cabinet in the Armidale cinema foyer, but they started life expensive, and have only gone up in price since then.
Atari Jaguar? Look, it has a Highlander game, so that’s a plus. However, my only actual game time on a Jaguar was at last year’s PAX Expo, and that was playing Downfall of all things. The library has some classics, but only a few and that makes it a tougher system to justify unless I could score a bargain.
That did leave one very obvious candidate, and it’s one that I had a small amount of personal history with, even though I’d never owned one. That’s the NEC PC Engine and its many, many variants.
I’ve never owned a PC Engine (or if you really must, sigh, a TurboGrafx), but I did have a period in around 1989-1990 where I’d play one pretty much every weekend. It wasn’t owned by a friend of mine, however.
To set the scene, I was living in London at the time, and pretty much every weekend, I’d head to Oxford Street to take in a few specific shops. Forbidden Planet for my geeky comics fix. The big (and long-departed) Virgin Megastore on the corner of Tottenham Court Road to check out the new games and VHS sales.
After those two, I’d sometimes hit up Selfridges because they had one of those NES multi-cart store display deals and I could get in a few minutes of Super Mario Bros or Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, but past that I’d head to iconic toy store Hamleys, because they had a PC Engine set up and running in their games department. Not a Turbo Grafx, the US model, but the Japanese variety.
Why? I’ve no idea, and my memory suggests they only ever had two games on rotation; either Fighting Street or Kato Chan & Ken Chan. Fighting Street is of course Street Fighter I, and even then it wasn’t a cracking game. Kato Chan & Ken Chan was perhaps the first overtly scatological platform game I’d ever played. I never got terribly far in either game, the truth be told, but I had some fond nostalgic memories, as well as an awareness that the system is home to some really classic shooters, platformers and of course a scattering of unusual games that never made it outside Japan.
Well, unless you discount monolithic UK toy stores that largely just sold enormous teddy bears, that is.
How Do You Buy A Retro Console In The Middle Of A Pandemic?
There is an easy way to do this, and it’s called eBay. At the time I started considering a PC Engine purchase, however, the worst of the lockdowns was in full effect, and the prices even for loose consoles with no connection cables or chargers were pretty damned ridiculous. eBay is a bit of a moving feast, but I wasn’t about to drop $1,000 for a console that I knew could be had for around 17,000¥ pretty easily in most Akihabara games shops.
So I did what many have done, and looked into the world of Japanese shipping agents. Japan is a wonderful and engaging place, but it has this weird relationship with technology, and especially with Internet-age technology when it comes to online shopping.
It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but pretty much none of the big players do a lot in terms of international sales, if you can even jump the barriers around international credit card usage. At least in that area there’s been a rapid upscaling if you’re on the ground in Japan, thanks to the now-delayed 2020 Olympics, with more merchants actually accepting credit cards not forged within Japan.
I wasn’t within Japan however, so a shipping agent it would have to be, but again another problem reared its ugly head.
Normally every single one of them will utilise the highly efficient and affordable Japan Post service, because it’s typically quite reliable and affordable. However, very early on Japan Post declared it was blocking off international shipping of any kind. Over time it has relaxed those barriers, so for example it will now send parcels to New Zealand. So close… and yet so far away.
While I was already accepting the fact that I’d have to put up with the middleman fees you pay with any shipping agent, this created another wrinkle, largely due to the considerably smaller number of international flights actually landing into Australia.
Japan Post wasn’t doing this just for spread containment reasons, but simply because the quantity of available shipping space was considerably reduced on an almost immediate basis.
For the shipping agent I chose, I had two options; I could use very slow sea mail, or very expensive private courier shipping. I eventually settled on the latter, largely because my “new” console purchase also counted as my birthday present for the year, but also because I figured that a shipping container might not be the friendliest place for a 25+ year old console known to be prone to leaky capacitor issues as it was.
Did The PC Engine Actually Arrive?
It did! Entertainingly, it took longer to make its way through customs and out of a warehouse in Sydney to my own Sydney domicile than it did from Japan once it was all boxed up and sent my way, but a very large and heavily bubble wrapped package arrived by courier, and I set to unpacking it and sorting out what I actually had.
Aside from the console, I also bid – and won – a few “junk” lots of mostly Hu Cards (the credit card sized “cartridges” of the PC Engine) and some Super CD Rom games. There’s an absolute risk in buying “junk” games from Japan, although even there I’ve seen retro games shops in Australia sell games in conditions that wouldn’t even merit space in a Japanese junk bin.
My logic here was that I didn’t want my shiny new PC Engine Duo R to arrive with no games, so getting a few of the more common games to play on it made good sense, even though I knew I’d also end up with a few doubles and some games that I either could play due to my own limited Japanese, or that hadn’t aged well, like most sports games.
So I only bought a few.
Well… I say a few, but in the end the two junk lots I won amounted to 57 PC Engine Hu-Cards and CDs in total, because I miscounted what was in one of the lots. That does include one Tennokoe Bank memory card, but astonishingly in that lot, I only ended up with six doubles for around 10,000¥, or about $133. That’s just $2.30 per game, which ain’t bad.
Did The PC Engine Actually Work?
Yes… mostly. One quick tip that you really should know already is that for most Japanese electronics, and especially those of a retro flavour is that you’re going to need a step-down transformer, because they were largely built around 110V power only. Putting 240V of Australian climate-damaging energy through them will give you a dramatic gaming experience… for all of about four seconds before they catch fire.
2020 being all… well… 2020… I also gave everything a decent isopropyl clean and a bit of sunshine time, just to be on the safe side. Nothing was terribly gunky outside one CD box that smelled like it had also been a cigar case, and the slipcases for most of the Hu Cards being mushy and sticky. Apparently that’s a common problem, so I was happy enough to ditch them for now.
While I’m aware of the PC Engine Duo R’s history of dud capacitors, it’s a so-far-so-good situation there, with decent screen images over even a composite connection to my trusty old Sony Trinitron TV. The PC Engine is odd in that it only has the one controller port, and my unit only came with the standard 2 button pad, but that works just fine too.
Even more astonishingly, in two lots of a total of 57 games labelled as “junk” – which can mean anything from “we haven’t tested them” to “the 30-a-day-smoking dog’s been using them as a chew toy for decades” there was only one single game that didn’t actually work.
That’s soccer title Power Eleven. I can totally live missing out on a near 30-year old football game if everything else works, I think.
What’s The Strangest Game Of The Lot?
I’m very tempted to call out the copy of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, partly because I wasn’t expecting it (it wasn’t in the auction pictures for either lot that I could see), but mostly because it’s a pristine boxed and manual-included copy… except for the actual “copy” bit.
My SF2 Champion Edition Hu Card wasn’t in the box at all, but instead it did contain the aforementioned dead copy of Power Eleven, as well as a copy of Space Harrier.
SF2: Champion Edition isn’t super-rare or anything, so I don’t think the shipping agent whipped it out of the box in transit, and I have loads of ways of playing that game. What’s more, I only have the two button pad, so Space Harrier is actually a total win in that regard.
That’s probably not what you mean, however, and while there were some nice surprises, like discovering I’ve now got all 3 PC Engine Shubibinman games, I’d probably opt for Yokai Dochuki, a hard-as-nails platform game starring a small boy who must make his way through hell, decades before the protagonist of Limbo had to do the same thing, in order to be judged by Buddha.
Even the advertising for this one’s a little… unusual.
Can You Get Nostalgic About Games You’ve Never Played?
Not nostalgic strictly speaking – although I guess if I do end up with copies of either Fighting Street or Kato Chan & Ken Chan that term would apply – but having spent the past few weeks playing little else other than PC Engine games with a few brief Hades breaks, what’s really surprised me is not just that I’m having fun.
It’s that the same bits of my brain that fire up all warm and tingly when I play classic games I do remember from my youth also fire up almost identically when I’m playing PC Engine games that date from the same era that I’ve never played before in my life.
It’s only a slight riff on the classic, but Galaga ’88 is a whole lot of fun, as are many of the other very common shooters I’ve now got, including Super Star Soldier, Ordyne and Dragon Spirit, a game which totally lets me live out my Anne McCaffrey reading youth in video game form.
Of course, I have also done a very dangerous thing, because I’m all too well aware that like any other retro gaming console, there are PC Engine games out there that attract some painful prices. My own well-known Bubble Bobble obsession means that at some point I’m going to have to scrape together the funds for a copy of the Parasol Stars Hu Card, and of course there’s Castlevania: Rondo Of Blood to acquire.
Anyone know if it’s possible to sell actual blood these days?
Does it have to actually be my blood in the first place?
Couldn’t You Have Just Done All Of This With Emulation Or The PC Engine Mini?
Look, I’ll admit that I’m very tempted by the PC Engine Mini and its very nice library of games. Or there’s the upcoming Analogue Duo, although hopefully they’ll make a few more of those than they did with the disappointing Analogue Pocket.
Equally I can’t ignore that many folks do emulate, and while that’s a copyright violation the probable risks are low.
However, in the case of the Mini while I’d like one, it’s yet to see a release here in Australia, and the efforts to hack that are still relatively nascent in terms of adding new titles. I’d still have to import one and deal with pretty much the same scenario that I did for my actual console.
What about emulation? Well, I’ve argued this before, and leaving aside the moral/ethical side of it, the biggest issue with emulation, especially for an unfamiliar system is that you quickly get overwhelmed with choice and either end up playing the same old titles you already know, or nothing at all. Instead of that, I’ve got the joys of working out if my rudimentary Japanese is up to the task of playing Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher in its original form, or delving into some great, mostly arcade-centric games that I can slowly and enjoyably discover one by one.
Except for The Kung Fu, easily the worst title of any that came in my bulk lot.
Yes, it has huge sprites, but that’s it. The broken copy of Power Eleven might even be better than The Kung Fu.