In the last breaths of the 90s, a liminal space appeared, through which an illicit opportunity presented itself. At least for me, back when I was renting PlayStation games and getting my brother to burn them for me on his state-of-the-moment home computer.
They called them PCs, or “Personal Computers.”
Do they still?
Anyway, for a short window at the end of the decade, it appeared in my house that things had gone all open source.
I had gotten into import gaming, first with the Saturn and then quickly as far as I could spread my seed, which would be as far as getting my PlayStation chipped so I could get Tekken 3 from Japan. It turns out that chipping your PlayStation came with other benefits too. You could somehow, if you had the siblings to do it, mate the personal computer and the console together via one of those funky iridescent writeable CDs.
Do they still?
You’ve had your chips
I recall it was a hassle to have the PlayStation chipped. It involved going to a town further away from where I usually went and leaving the machine with them for the weekend.
Who were they? Some outer-local ‘shop’ with a local classified ad that ran something like: We will chip your PlayStation for Jap/USA imports and other benefits… call 0800 BIG CHIPPER. (Imagine the typos.)
It seemed legit so I was soon in and on my way to dropping it off.
It wasn’t the most salubrious establishment, but it was apropos of the visit and I handed the console over to a fella who assured me that I was going to be more than happy with the result. Fair doos, the fella wasn’t lying and even went as far as to supply me with a burnt copy of Tekken 3 when I went to collect. I spent the money that I had saved on the import buying a new television.
It was second hand but the SCART housing was still tight.
Immediately, as had been the case with the Saturn, it felt like the PlayStation was running on more cylinders. Tekken 3 did run amazing on console but it was that Cult of Japan vibe that really came through. Plus for extra cult, it was a burnt disk.
Winner winner, chicken dinner. Hmm.
Sega Saturn vs. Sony PlayStation
Much has been made retrospectively about the fullness of the import scene for the Saturn and I can tell you from experience that it was financially bulging with possibilities. It also got pretty lively on the PlayStation soon after and the pair of them were like twin bulges swinging around in my wallet.
On the Sega side was the continuation of all that Capcom and SNK fisticuffs while on the Sony end there was a particular area of interest for me in the American games which never arrived in Europe for reasons that remain surely bad business.
I had avoided role-playing games up to the point that hype began pouring in for then Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy VII and I could not ignore the scope of what was appearing to be achieved. In broad strokes to my eyes, it somehow looked like interactive Akira. That meant I was going to have to come to terms with turn-based combat. It had been coming for a while and I mustered genuine effort to come to a rudimentary understanding.
The role-playing thing wouldn’t hold out long term for me, but that game did spark a taper for a few years and coming off the tail end of it were a couple of other Squaresoft role players which inexplicably, despite having all the hard labour of their English translations done, did not even arrive in PAL regions. It kept the import mystique high for me, but how did someone from marketing not convince someone else to release Parasite Eve? I snuffled it up by post as soon as my snuffle could reach it.
But more alluring than that even would be Xenogears.
There was something in and about the air around Xenogears. An aloofness perhaps, and I am not really tempted to say a sophistication, but something that spoke to my bank card details and said, Yes, John is going to get along with this for a short time and it is wise to proceed. A good call on all fronts there, because for that short time Xenogears was my apocalyptic Patlabor.
I didn’t complete it, but there was already a lot of completeness about the game. I could tell it by the time I opened it in the post and the thick case, nineties anime-style cover called out for a getting-to-know-you. Then after that, a why-don’t-you-come-in-and-do-ancient-robo-theology-with-me?
Yes that sounds lovely.
Squaresoft were swinging absolute haymakers around at that time. Before Final Fantasy VII they had made inroads with the much enjoyed Chrono Trigger, jabbing at the expectations of role-playing for a new generation of console. Then after Final Fantasy VII, they took all competition to the ropes and pressed the bludgeon button.
Xenogears straight away gave you bright character sprites shuffling through supreme real-time environs. Pre-rendering was big at the time and Squaresoft had used the style themselves and defined it as much as Resident Evil, but Xenogears traded a little detail for camera movement and an attention to art design that charmed and impressed in equal measure.
The story was pitched just so between intrigue, compassion and adventure, and the combat had ideas on your expectations. Parasite Eve had the mood and style of its time and place, but Xenogears felt ancient of days. It was the great import send off for me with PlayStation. And still there were other benefits.
I was an avid renter of stuff as a kid. Less good at the giving back end of the renting, but who else was waiting for The Great White Hype on VHS? My signature was always the last one on the docket anyway.
Well, this place eventually got around to renting games that I really did have to get round to giving back. Which I did, and without problem once my brother started burning them onto writeables for us. We got it down to the point that we could have the rental back to the shop within a couple of hours of sauntering away with it.
A terrible practice.
It did allow quick entry into titles that I would probably have otherwise not bothered with, like Pocket Fighter, but it is a snake that consumes its own tail and by the time Street Fighter Alpha 3 came out, with a stack of uncased burnt games laying unplayed, I thought it was better when you just paid for it and put the effort into enjoying the thing.
Don’t mistake this for piety, I did play Alpha 3 to pieces, it was a pretty thing and the result of no petty effort in brining it over to the memory space of the console. I didn’t buy it though, as I was spending money with a high tolerance level on Japanese Dreamcast imports by then.
Do they still?
They don’t, do they. Chipping and importing would fade with Why2K and with it the annoying things that drove us to it in the first place; no local optimization, games that should have been localised, unfathomable waiting times between releases, the empty thrill of stealing something.
But in the end, whatever way gets you playing Xenogears.
John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90’s Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.