Once import gaming meant trips to dusty basement game stores to pay over the odds for a limited selection of titles. Now, thanks of course to the internet, English language sites like Play-asia.com mean you can browse a huge selection of titles and merchandise, at prices that often come in at less than those for UK games.
Of course, most consoles are still region locked, but with the handhelds able to play import games hassle free, and dozens of titles each month featuring easily negotiable language barriers, there's no better time to have a look at the scene, in what is hoped to be the first of a series of regular Pro-G import round-ups.
First up this month is the import sensation Slitherlink. Look at the screenshots and you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a half-baked Sudoku clone, but before you discredit it, think back to one of the most played games in the world: Windows' Minesweeper. It might be embarrassing for gamers to admit, but that was one addictive logic game. If you found it hard to put down you should certainly take Slitherlink for a spin in your DS. A grid filled with numbers dictates how you should draw a line with your stylus, that makes a complete loop around the screen, touching each number as many times as the figure denotes.
While it sounds simple stuff, the hundreds of grids available are designed with enormous cunning, and Slitherlink, which is part of Hudson's huge range of co-branded puzzle games, really is one of the most addictive games since Tetris. If it gets its hooks into you, you won't just be playing on the train, but in the bath, and on the loo, and in the commercial break, or under the dinner table, or perhaps like me, you'll lie to friends at a house party you are hosting, and sneak off to do a grid under the assertion that you are off to the shops buying more alcohol. With a minimal language barrier in the form of some basic menus, Slitherlink really is one of the year's most desirable import games.
Stafi 4 in action
Also on the DS is Densetsu no Stafi 4, the latest platform game from Nintendo's Legend of the Starfish series, which has never seen a UK release. If you like super-cute, sugary sweet Japanese artwork, and simple, stress free platform jumping pleasure, then this little treasure is one for you. It might be a little sickly for tastes toughened up by tech-thrillers, and there are the occasional pages of dialogue between levels, but the Japanese text never impedes on the gameplay for stubbornly English speaking tongues. If you're looking for something a little like the original New Zealand Story, or just fancy loosing yourself in a underwater world so syrupy it makes cotton-candy seem sour, Denetsu no Stafi is worth a look.
Next on the list are the bit Generations games, which are a range of obscure, minimalist titles that come in at around the £10 mark. Packaged in sleek cardboard boxes that look more like they might contain an expensive bottle of perfume or a tiny, desirable gadget, they are in fact GBA games, though they have the simple appeal of DS games.
Soundvoyager is an extremely unusual title that must be played through headphones or a stereo sound system, and has the incredible premise of being a game you can play with your eyes closed. The compilation collects together a handful of sparsely illustrated games that gradually lose their visuals as you play, replacing pixels with sound effects.
One game sees you blindly careering the wrong way against a stampede of cattle or horses, demanding you use the sound coming from either the left or right speaker to time when to dodge, letting the angry mammals pass by you on either side. Another puts you in control of a drifting target, that must sweep above noisy pixels picking them up and moving on. Again the visuals are superfluous to the sound effects, which can be used to hunt down the whereabouts of the musical hotspots.
Digidrive is another bit Generations title that stands out. This far more traditional game sees you hastily dividing shapes into categories and sending them down corridors. Far easier to play than explain, it is one that will appeal to fans of Tetris and its many clones, and this is certainly one of the freshest takes on the 'falling block' genre. Like Soundvoyager, almost every word of every menu is in English, making these the most accessible import games of the month.
The final game comes in the form of Mawashite Tsunageru Touch Panic, which mixes the mechanics of forgotten classic Pipemania with the largely forgotten block-sliding toys that saw you moving around squares of plastic to arrange an image. Using some nifty stylus input, blocks with various grooves cut into them can be moved about a grid. On these grooves, which interconnect, run balls that happily follow any prescribed route. While at first rather bewildering, Touch panic quickly becomes instinctive, and collecting the balls into long, interconnected lines is a challenge few puzzle fans will be able to resist. Again, the language barrier is of minimal concern to those who cannot read Japanese.
Moving on to the merchandise, this month there's a feast of affordable Mario collectables on offer. The best are the pull back plastic Mario Karts, which feature Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, Bowser and Wario. Combining the cheap kitsch of a Happy Meal toy with the stylised cool of vinyl art toys like Kubricks, they would make a great addition to any gamer's desk.
There are also some great Super Mario phone charms, that hang neatly from any mobile or DS. Costing less than a pound, they all feature Mario leaping beneath a block or tucked in a classic Mario Land tube. Once tied to your gadget of choice pulling them on their strap makes a coin or similar bonus leap from a block, or sends Mario out of the top of his tube.
Finally, the Super Mario Brothers Sound Drop Gashpons are all sturdy plastic, dewdrop shaped key rings, with a big irresistible button and simple Mario image in their centre. Pressing the key ring creates a famous Mario sound effect, such as the portly plumber's leap, or the joyful sound of picking up an extra life. They might get a bit overwhelming if one lives in your pocket, but it does seem that however many times you hear these sounds, they still keep their charm and appeal.
The following prices are based on the prices at Play-asia.com
Slitherlink - £15.16
Densetsu no Stafi 4 - £12.62
Soundvoyager - £7.55
Digidrive - £7.55
Mario Kart toys - (currently unavailable)
Super Mario Bros. Phone Strap - £1.01
Mario World Sound Drop Gashpons - (currently unavailable)
Touch Panic - £10.09