This weekend, Nintendo will be hosting a Pokemon video game tournament at PAX Australia, with the winners being flown to Vancouver, Canada to participate in the World Championships in August. Despite having a battle-ready team of Pokemon, however, I won’t be competing. The reason? Competition rules state that “players are restricted on which language Game Cards they can use, based on the country where they are playing”. In particular, only European game cards can be used in European events and only North American game cards can be used in North American events. While Australia wasn’t specifically mentioned, the country is traditionally categorised with Europe when it comes to gaming – a problem for would-be competitors like me who imported the North American version of the games. A quick call to Nintendo Australia confirmed this; importers will need to purchase a local copy of the game – or at least have the European version, which is the version sold in Australia – in order to compete in the Nintendo-sanctioned tournament.
It’s a strange rule to have considering it doesn’t contribute to increased fairness in the competition (the games are functionally identical and compatible) or clarify any contentious battle scenarios like the rest of the document. In fact, there’s only one thing that this rule communicates and it’s that Nintendo no longer supports the region-free approach it once took with its handhelds. Sure, the Nintendo DS may be a region-free system but, at least for the purpose of this Pokemon tournament, Nintendo refuses to see it as such.
Region-free gaming has become almost a necessity in recent years. Gone are the days where people had no choice but to purchase games from their local retailer, restricted only to the titles available on the shelf. With the prevalence of the internet in our daily lives, shopping online is now a valid option, and the reasons to do so extend further than just getting a cheaper price. Gamers choose to import as a way of obtaining games that don’t have a set local release date or in order to get games months (and sometimes even years) before the local release.
Of course, importing games from countries like Japan requires a console that isn’t region-locked. Removing this restriction encourages gamers to seek out interesting games which fail to reach their local market. A large number of gamers see the value in region-free consoles, making it a worthwhile feature for hardware manufacturers to support.
Previously, Nintendo had done just that with a number of its systems. Although all of the company’s home consoles have been region-locked, its handhelds supported games from other regions even before online imports became a big deal. For over a decade, Game Boys had the ability to play games purchased anywhere in the world. When that line was eventually retired and replaced with the Nintendo DS, the company’s tradition of providing region-free handhelds continued.
But the release of the Nintendo DSi in 2008 changed all that. While the system remained region-free when it came to DS games, any games specific to the DSi were region-locked. The introduction of this restricting ‘feature’ was a sign of things to come. In 2011 when the company released the Nintendo 3DS, the system was region-locked to each of the three major markets: North America, Japan and Europe.
Unsurprisingly, the release of the Wii U in late 2012 saw no change in the company’s policy of region-locking its home consoles, even despite the prevalence of homebrew on the Wii to allow gamers to play games from outside of their console’s region.
In 2013, it’s a strange position for Nintendo to be in. Both of its competitors, Microsoft and Sony, will soon be in the market with region-free consoles, leaving the company at a major disadvantage in this regard. Microsoft learned the hard way that regional segregation won’t win you any customers when it announced that the Xbox One would only be supported in 21 countries at launch. As part of its review of the Xbox One, the company quickly changed its mind and announced a region-free approach to gaming for their upcoming console; a major shift from the region-locked Xbox 360. Sony, on the other hand, has been well aware of the importance of region-free gaming for close to a decade, releasing the Playstation Portable in 2004 with the ability to play games from any region. The company’s Playstation 3 is also region-free – the only home console to have no regional restrictions for gaming this generation. With both the Xbox One and the PS4 touting region-free gaming come the end of the year, it leaves gamers with one more reason not to invest in a Wii U.
Even so, Nintendo still refuses to address the region lock plaguing its systems, much to the chagrin of gamers worldwide. A petition to make the Wii U and 3DS region-free gaming systems currently exists on Change.org but it seems to be falling on deaf ears. Wii U users have even taken to Miiverse, the console’s social networking platform, in an effort to remove the regional restrictions on the consoles.
Why hasn’t Nintendo removed region-locking on the Wii U? And why did it introduce these restrictions to its handhelds? I don’t know the answer to these questions. There is one thing I do know. Today, Nintendo’s stance on region-free gaming is clear; they don’t support it. But it’s a backwards move. The company now has more restrictive consoles than it did back in 1989. At least back then, gamers could pick up titles to play on their Game Boy anywhere in the world. Today, if you’re an Australian travelling to the USA, forget about picking up any 3DS games. That is, unless you’re willing to pick up a North American system to go with it.
It’s a huge shame that Nintendo’s attitude towards this matter has changed. Many people criticise the company for its overuse of existing IPs, but I think this is a much greater issue. If there’s one thing the Xbox One debacle proved to us in recent months, it’s that gamers want choice. Unfortunately, by implementing regional restrictions in the 3DS and Wii U, it’s this that Nintendo has compromised.