Japan finally blocks import of piracy-friendly R4 flash carts

Japanese R4 cart sales

For the vast majority of people, pirating console games is a seemingly impossible task. This is mostly by design, as while the actual process of pirating a modern video game isn’t all that technically complex, the various companies that publish games have been working for years to ensure that the ins and outs of gaming’s black market remain a mystery to the average person.

Of course, with a secret like this, it’s simply not possible for companies like Nintendo to ensure that people won’t figure out some new, inventive way to acquire their games free of charge. Thus, ever since the release of the Nintendo DS, those who promote piracy have been swearing by the R4 flash cartridge. We won’t get into deep technical specifics — sorry, but explaining how to steal games isn’t something we’re about to do — but in short, these are generally oversized memory cards, similar to those found in digital cameras, that can be connected to a computer via USB. Once attached, users are able to download ROM files to the R4 from the ‘net. These ROMs (which contain all the information one would find on a legitimate Nintendo DS game cartridge) can then be played in any Nintendo DS handheld, as the R4 can be slipped into and out of the handheld’s intrinsic, proprietary game slot.

Obviously this isn’t the kind of thing Nintendo wants to see spread any further than it already has, so back in 2009 the company sought the assistance of the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to make these devices illegal in the Land of the Rising Sun. The Ministry finally banned sales of the Chinese-made R4 in February of 2009, but unfortunately that wasn’t enough to stem the tide of R4 piracy in Nintendo’s native region. Thus, earlier today the Ministry also made it illegal to import R4 cartridges. Now, regardless of how you acquire an R4, if you find yourself in Japan you could face surprisingly intense legal repercussions.

To wit: In May of this year (read: well before today’s import ban was established), authorities arrested an electronics retailer in the Saitama prefecture. According to Kotaku, the 39-year-old man was charged with “selling [three] R4 cartridges over the internet between February 14th and March 9th for a total of ¥7,200 [about $91 USD].” Though it’s not specified what punishment the man faced following his arrest, he was taken into custody under the same law that backs the new import ban, so expect this move by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to increase the already rising number of piracy-related arrests in the island nation. Given that such arrests have been doubling year-on-year since 2009, we may be on the verge of an explosion of piracy crackdown.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that while both Japan and the UK have now outlawed R4 cartridges, they remain relatively legal here in the United States. We say “relatively,” as owning the cart itself is perfectly legitimate, but loading any ROM images of which you don’t also own a retail copy will bring you under the scrutiny of authorities. Bottom line: The only way to completely ensure that you don’t end up in court, staring down a posse of Nintendo’s high-powered lawyers is to avoid R4 cartridges altogether. We can’t tell you what to do, but we’ve grown fond of you over the years and would rather not see a prison IP address attached to your future comments.

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