The time – the early 90’s. The place – the United Kingdom. Normal people were probably arguing about Britpop or whatever normal people did with their time but those of us with more unusual tastes were busy scouring our local newsagents for copies of Anime UK and Manga Mania; magazines that represented 99% of the UK’s anime and manga coverage in any medium at the time. Marvelling at Wil Overton's glorious covers and teased by gaming magazines like Super Play (there’s that final 1%) mentioning strange and mythical machines like the PC-Engine or showing off beautiful Super Famicom box art we all knew that we wanted to get our hands on whatever these Japanese games were… but with most of us being teens and younger paper round money was never going to pay the import bills, and leaving magazines lying around “helpfully” opened at the import shop pages for our parents to notice didn’t work either.
Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, and looking back European computer gamers didn’t do too badly on the Japanese side of things all in all – we had big names like R-Type, Strider and Final Fight as well as more esoteric titles like Dynamite Dux, Alien Syndrome and Dynasty Wars. The quality of these ports varied wildly, but we took what we could and played Street Fighter II on a two-button Competition Pro joystick with a (perhaps forced) smile on our faces regardless. The problem was that on the whole these games either didn’t look particularly Japanese to begin with or had their box art changed in case our delicate minds were somehow incapable of processing decent illustrations. Here are two eye-watering examples of “Westernisation” – I’ll leave you to work out which one’s the Japanese original:
So with gamers getting interested in this “new” area and publishers either hiding Japanese games behind hideous art or by editing or simply removing Japanese-looking in-game graphics (it’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t just on the Amiga – there are plenty of mangled console games from the same era too) European computer game developers did the only sensible thing and made their own “Japanese” games instead.
We even had a licensed Akira game (it’s awful)!
First (and Second) Samurai didn’t go down the anime route, but it was still aiming for that “authentic” Japanese feel.
Of course we can laugh at the awful attempts at written Japanese and fan magazine level artwork now, but back then for a lot of us this was as close as we ever imagined getting to playing a real Japanese game – and it’s worth remembering that these were the times when a Japanese “dictionary” at the library would be a travel phrasebook if you were lucky and import games had to be bought by phoning up a mail order company found in the back of a magazine; an impossibility for those of us relying on pocket money to pay for our hobby.
Some of these games I still enjoy today, while some of them are admittedly dire. But good or bad the one thing they’ve all got one thing in common it’s that nothing became of any of them once the Saturn/PS1 era hit and Japanese developers stopped treating the European console market mostly as an afterthought – in comparison to the previous generation, anyway; we simply didn’t need these “fakes” any more. That doesn’t mean they weren’t important though – filling a gap most of us had only just realised we were missing out on as well as getting us all hyped up for the massive shift into Japan-centric console gaming that was just around the corner. The enthusiasm these brave developers showed was infectious, and some of us still carry it with us to this day.