Nintendo’s region locking, possible future and past

In a recent QA discussion, Iwata of Nintendo touched a little upon Nintendo’s policies on region locking. Zelda informer has a translation on the bit that matters. Much like other similar sessions, Iwata’s comments on the restriction are rather empty. While he does make a proper comment on the worldwide troubles when it comes to global licensing and localisation, Iwata regards that there is too many problems on region free console despite its possible benefits to both customer and service provider.

Whether or not Nintendo will make a move towards region free consoles is an open question, but because it’s Nintendo I would not get my hopes up.

This QA sparked a small discussion on the ‘net about Nintendo’s region locking. Nintendo has a history for region locking when it comes to their home consoles as each and every has a form of region lock implemented in them. In handhelds however, the DSi was Nintendo’s first and this was simply because of the eShop.

In reality, there is no real problems with region free consoles in modern gaming. Any and all handheld consoles were universally produced to be compatible with one sort of software, and thus there was no reason to region lock anything. The whole idea of a handheld is to have it everywhere you go and have the software working on it on the go. The GameBoy line and the DS enforced this and you can find many stories where people travelled to other regions and buying games there for their own region GameBoys.

In this regard, Nintendo has stopped producing handheld consoles as they are perceived. The DSi, 3DS and Flanders all are home consoles in handheld form. The idea of a handheld console on the go is the core basic of it. With region locking, the core of portability takes a hit. Because Nintendo forces the user account to be locked to the consoles rather than on a server, losing or having the console breaking down essentially causes the consumer lose everything digital one that particular console. That is a risk Nintendo should have taken into account from the get go and remove such possibility. How Nintendo is handling their user accounts at this moment is horribly designed and against the benefits of the customer, and thus against the benefits of Nintendo themselves.

There are completely valid legal reasons to limit the user access to different region online stores on the consoles, that much is true. SONY’s PlayStation Network is brilliant in this regard that the store is tied to the account region, and has the gray area that allows the user create different region accounts if one knows what they’re doing. This benefits SONY and allows more sales software globally than what it normally would have. Microsoft’s account system is less flexible, as the consoles are tied to a region as is the online store, but the developers are able to select whether or not lock their games to a particular region.

In order to enforce the core freedom of a handheld console while enforcing the online region lock, one possible solution would be to lock the online store, eShop in Nintendo’s case, to the account region while allowing the physical cartridges, or the games themselves, to be region free. This causes some problems, such the inability to access add-ons and updates to the game software if they’re only available on the online store. This could be solved by allowing the games access their online store page and nothing else, thus allowing the customer to fully take use of their software while limiting access to any other part of regionally locked material on the store. It’s not a perfect solution, but the companies could also form agreements where the contents of the games are licensed for use in a particular software on a console without limitations. It would be a legal jungle to tackle and entirely possible feat to do. It would require a paradigm shift in the companies, however.

Earlier on, Iwata has mentioned that region locking is due to cultural differences and the aforementioned legal restrictions. However, to say that they employ region lock because one regional culture may deem certain aspects as offensive or something similar is outright stupid. If that was the case, every nation would need its own region code and localisation and that’s not happening. Iwata would actually have a good chance here to come out and say how Nintendo encourages people to experience others culture through video games and see the differences as well as the common things cultures share.

With the discussion of Iwata’s QA it became apparent that not all were familiar with Nintendo’s history of region locking. Many claimed that the Super NES and N64 were region free consoles. Let’s take a look what sort of locking mechanism Nintendo has employed through the years in their home consoles.

The NES had a chip called 10NES and physical cartridge differences to enforce region locking. The NES and Famicom cartridges were different in size and shape as well as having different pin layout. The NES carts had their own chip inside, which the 10NES checked. If there was a conflict between the chips, the console would refuse to run the software.

The Super Nintendo followed some of the NES’ practices. The US got a abomination of a redesign, making a physical lockout between NTSC carts. This physical lockout is easy to bypass in either US or JPN console with removal of pegs that prevent different region cartridge insertion. PAL region console has a CIC chip, which functions like an upgraded 10NES chip. The PAL region used the same superior design the Japanese had, but because of the physical differences with the malformed US carts and the CIC differences with Japanese cart, the PAL console can’t run either.

The N64 region lock is the same as with SNES at its basics, but due to common design worldwide, the US and JPN only had raised surfaces preventing insertion of different region carts. This is easily solved by removing surfaces. There are five different variations of the N64 CIC chip in both NTSC and PAL of varying rarity. For example, Starfox has its unique chip for whatever reason.

With the removal of cartridges, physical differences between regions died out. The discs are uniform across regions, but the consoles still have a bios chip that check certain pathways on the PCB. The Game Boy Player add-on is region free in itself, but the disc required to run the device is not, as per standard. The Wii has a region check routine tied to its IOS system. Wii U has similar system to it, but it should also be noted that the Wii U GamePad is also region locked for whatever God forsaken reason.

Most physical lockouts can be circumvented in a way or another. mmmmonkey is a good site to start with older console region modding, if you’re into that. Modern consoles are another thing, and often bring piracy with the homebrew scene.

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