Woah, wait! Hear me out!
OK let’s make one thing very clear before I carry on: No, I didn’t bang my head before I sat down and wrote the bizarre title you see at the top of this page. Hang on… that makes it worse, doesn’t it? Anyway, please just let me explain what may sound like a weird point of view before you rush to leave a “What the heck are you talking about?!” message in the comments section.
I am not defending some of the awful things those of us who lived in PAL-land had to put up with back when PAL/NTSC designations had any meaning (to clarify: the period I’m talking about here covers pretty much every game for every console and computer released in PAL regions before the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 came along): The constant struggle to get the mysterious and unreachable people in charge of deciding what saw a PAL release to understand that yes, we do like Japanese RPGs very much and they would probably sell quite well if only the publisher dared to manufacture more than five copies, three years too late. To have the excitement surrounding a big E3 or Tokyo Game Show feature in a magazine always tempered by the knowledge that some of the biggest and best games in there would more than likely never officially reach our shores. Straight USD-GBP currency swaps (ex: something sold for $60 would cost £60 in the UK) ensuring we consistently paid more for the same products. Huge blockbuster releases all the way up to PlayStation 2 behemoths such as Devil May Cry and Final Fantasy X offered without PAL optimisation or even a plain 60Hz option at a time when virtually all PAL Dreamcast games were either already optimised or offered users the choice between 50/60Hz on boot (the Xbox even went one step further and had a display output toggle built into the dashboard).
This last scenario whinged about above was the worst of them all – and also the most common. Games running at an unoptimised 50Hz (and remember, that was most of them) – were vertically squished and ran about 17.5% slower than their NTSC equivalents. Slower music, slower animations, slower everything. Games played like this didn’t look or play the way they were supposed to and if the developers forgot to adjust for the speed difference some time-based challenges could be rendered nigh-impossible too. It wasn’t a creative choice, it was just wrong and we had to put up with it partly because that’s all we were offered, but also because being realistic the number of people who had access to imported hardware and the games to go with them, never mind TVs capable of displaying such luxuries at the NTSC refresh rates that’d make this expensive endeavour worthwhile, were a distinct minority. So in spite of my bold title it’s fair to say those who survived PAL gaming’s past don’t want to go back to the bad old days when games looked worse and played like the lead had just got out of bed.
Happily we all now live in an era where PAL and NTSC differences are nothing more than a relic of the past, something for a few dedicated retro gaming fans to fuss over as they hook up their ageing technology to battered old TVs or overpriced PVMs. Full speed re-releases and aspect-correct retro collections are rightly welcomed with open arms, people all over what were once PAL territories now able to play games as they were originally intended – US style.
In most cases these aren’t the games an entire continent (and beyond) grew up with, and we need to seriously consider how successfully the industry’s caring for its past by so quickly and easily throwing out the likes of Castlevania: The New Generation (Bloodlines), Shin Megami Tensei: Lucifer’s Call (Nocturne), and Kirby’s Fun Pak (Kirby Super Star). For millions of us there is no preservation to be found in these otherwise excellent re-releases nor any chance to revisit a childhood favourite – because the games we played often aren’t even mentioned, let alone included.
Is it that big of a deal? Well, yes. By always making the US version the modern banner under which all other localised releases gather, by treating them as the sole “true” historically significant and commercially relevant non-Japanese rendition of a classic game, it gives the region an outsized place in the hobby’s rich timeline and turns one country’s past into everybody’s retro “facts”. Remember the NES’ utter dominance of the 8-bit era? Or the terrible video game crash 1983? I don’t and unless you’ve lived in America you don’t either; but you’ve no doubt been repeatedly told about the importance of these epochal events even though they are about as relevant to PAL gaming history as fierce playground arguments over the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga are to anyone reading this outside of Europe. This repeated belief that a retro collection’s complete so long as it includes both the US and Japanese versions of a title reduces the gaming history of all of Europe and many other countries (Korean and Brazilian localisations can involve anything from simple name changes to full sprite edits) to somebody else’s mildly interesting footnote, a pedantic aside to bring up before we all get back to discussing “what really happened”. It pushes huge swathes of important, successful, and creative aspects of the gaming industry to the side, the entire libraries of the Spectrum, C64, ST, Amiga and more (even the Master System to a certain extent) just those funny things with weird controls Europeans used to make do with while real mainstream gaming got on with another round of Super Mario Bros; and relegates the huge improvements and additions to games such as ICO and Metal Gear Solid 2, or even the creative censorship of Probotector‘s robotic playable cast (and personally preferable to Contra‘s more mundane not-Arnie/Stallone alternatives) to a niche subject best covered by a wiki sub-page. As well intentioned as much of it is – many of these compilations only exist because someone, somewhere, fought tooth and nail to make them a reality – more often than not these retro ports and remakes aren’t “our” collective gaming history any more than memories of carefully peeling the Cannon Soccer disc off the cover of Amiga Format are for anyone who grew up in the US.
I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out that PAL games were often the worst way to play only to go on and then contradict myself by claiming they are important and shouldn’t be swept under the rug – assuming anyone remembers they exist in the the first place. So what the heck do I want to see happen? What changes could make things better going forward?
- Choices: Licensing and tech-related emulator hurdles permitting, at least give people the chance to experience these PAL versions “raw” for themselves alongside the usual selection. Maybe they’ll laugh at what they once had to put up with and feel all the more grateful for the included international alternatives, maybe they’ll spend the weekend revelling in nostalgia, or maybe it’ll simply satisfy a few minute’s worth of curiosity. What does it hurt by giving people a choice? Storage space – even for multi-disc PlayStation titles – isn’t exactly an issue anymore.
- “Force 60Hz? Y/N”: Some – but not all – PAL titles are this one option away from looking and playing exactly the same as their NTSC cousins. As I’ve already mentioned, some of them even had it built in.
- Pride: Good things came out of PAL gaming, and PAL libraries contain brilliant games everyone should want to play. Imagine if PAL exclusive ports of Japanese games were treated with the same reverence and given the same quantity and quality of coverage as titles that were only released in English in the US? Imagine if someone could talk about walking into a shop and buying The Firemen, or Alien Soldier, or Keio’s Flying Squadron 2 in their past as if it were a common and universally shared experience and not framed as an alternative history? We even made our own games too. Games worth playing. Games like Midwinter, which boasted an entire 3D island to ski, snipe, handglide and drive around all the way back in 1990. Or The Lords of Midnight‘s grand fantasy wargaming within a free-roaming world, all contained within a tiny cassette. PAL gamers are currently in danger of judging our own past to be so undesirable we see it pushed out of internet history and don’t even try to stop it from happening.
- Recognition: PAL territories existed. PAL territories mattered. PAL games are worth saving. PAL games are worth sharing. And if that’s all too much even just a consistent acknowledgement of the names of PAL
variantsofficial releases or the use of PAL covers in compilations would in many cases be a significant improvement over what’s currently available.
Gaming history is a wonderful thing filled with a rich variety of experiences but it could easily be even greater (and more truthful) than it already is if only our increasingly frequent loving gazes backward and repackaged versions of past delights actually included everyone. It’s going to take extra work, a few headaches, and sincere effort from all of us to highlight these games and understand why they are worth keeping (especially as nobody else will), but the end result can only be better educated players with more games as their fingertips – and how can that be anything other than a win for all of us?