['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which documents the history of video game magazines, from their birth in the early '80s to the current day.]

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Part of the reason why game magazines in the US -- the entire print industry in the US, in fact -- are on the ropes is the associated costs that are wiped out by the Internet, the distribution and printing and postage fees and so forth. In Japan, like in every European country, these costs are a far, far smaller part of a publisher's financial expenditure. Why? Because there's far less square mileage to those nations. Simple.

One side effect of this is that magazines in Japan can last for years and years with a really limited scope and an equally tiny readership. Such is the case with Game Labo ("game lab" in Japanese), a mag devoted to console and computer game hacking that -- believe it or not -- has existed in one form or another since 1986, just as long as Famitsu.

Game Labo began its life under the name "Applied Backup Techniques" (Bakkuappu Katsuyou Tekunikku); it was published by Sansai Books, a Tokyo-based outfit founded by Yoichi Wada (no relation to Square Enix's president) in 1980. Sansai was established so Wada could publish Radio Life, a monthly mag devoted to shortwave and amateur radio, and this title began as an occasional one-off produced by Radio Life's editors.

Although these one-offs covered the then-popular Famicom now and then, much of its content was similar to Hardcore Computist's over in America -- discussions on cracking copy protection on computer games, hacking save files, making cheats and trainers, and so forth.

Like with Computist, Applied Backup Techniques claimed that it was not encouraging its readers to pirate games. It just wanted to give users the opportunity to back up their protected software, in case the original disk goes bad (as they tended to do a lot back then). Also similar to Computist, the mag's main audience wasn't out-and-out pirates but hardcore home-computer hardware/software nerds, people who liked to get down to the silicon with their 8-bit systems and saw cracking obscure protection schemes as a fun game in itself.

This power-to-the-gamers approach remained fresh as the magazine evolved with the times, changing names to Game Labo in 1994 and finally going monthly in 1998. Today the mag concentrates mainly on console and portable system cheats and hacking, with some (but not much) coverage of computers, the arcade scene, Japan game-industry rumors, and other "underground" topics.

Sansai claims a circulation of 100,000, but considering I didn't even see a copy on sale anywhere last time I was in Japan, I'd say the actual number's a lot lower. Yet it's enough, apparently, to keep the mag in business, despite the decline of Japan's PC game scene, the fall of the hardcore game otaku, and game-publisher efforts to criminalize the purchase of DS flash cards and similar devices.

My Game News Flash, a popular Japanese game blog, published an interview recently with Game Labo EIC Shinji Okuie and vice-EIC Tadahiro Oikawa. I've taken the liberty of translating some of the more interesting bits:

"Q: Game Labo prints all kinds of stuff about hacking and cheating, right? Has that ever been a problem?

Okuie: There was a cheating tool for the NES called the Game Genie that Nintendo of America filed a lawsuit about, but it was ruled legal by the courts over there. There's never been a similar legal precedent in Japan. It's been an issue if people change the characters in video games to something the company doesn't approve of [ie. releasing "Nude Raider"-style hacks], but that hasn't translated into hacking itself being a problem.

Q: This isn't exactly a hacking question, but what do you think about game copiers and flash cards?

Okuie: The devices themselves are not a problem, but downloading commercial games off the net and using the devices to play them for free is a gray area. We at Game Labo have never recommended that anyone download anything illegal.

Q: Really?

Okuie: Really. We talk about a lot of crazy stuff in our magazine, sure, but we've never had a feature titled "Download all the commercial games you want!" or anything.

Oikawa: The way we see it, if you spend money to purchase a game, the ownership rights to that game are yours. After that, you're free to play it any way you want. That transaction doesn't happen, however, if you pirate the game, so that's why we've never suggested that.

Q: Well, yeah, but Nintendo holds official Pokemon tournaments and stuff. Have companies ever complained to you about publishing save-hacking guides?

Okuie: We've never gotten any complaints like that, no. We state plainly in the magazine that you should never use hacked data in online games or tournaments.

Oikawa: Doing what you like by yourself is one thing, but selling it or using it in a public place is another."

There used to be many magazines like Game Labo in Japan back in the 1980s, but nearly all of them shut down as copyright law was applied to software and became recognized by the general public.

Looking at it from that perspective, Game Labo deserves praise for surviving so long -- but looking at more recent issues, I can't deny that the content of each installment is pretty same-y these days.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a really cool weblog about games and Japan and "the industry" and things. In his spare time he does writing and translation for lots and lots of publishers and game companies.]