Set the Way-Back Machine for December 10, 2005… Hours from now, the Xbox 360 will launch in Japan. Almost a full year later, the PlayStation 3 hits Japan, followed closely by the Nintendo Wii. I covered the release of all three consoles in real time (or damn close to it) for game site Kotaku.com. Two of the lauches were thinly veiled disasters. One of them went off without a hitch. The gory details follow.
The train carriage smells of vomit and is practically empty. Still empty when I step off at Osaka’s Nipponbashi Station. There’s cabbage strewn all over the street. Cold scrapes echo through the boulevard as workmen shove heads of cabbage into a garbage truck. Some lady helps them. I’m trying to figure out what happened. There’s no over turned truck, no accident, nothing. Just cabbage.
Streetwalkers in puffy coats and blue jeans lurk in dark alleyways, trying to convince someone, anyone to take them into a heated hotel room. I glimpse one giving her sales pitch to salaryman. Her Japanese sounds terrible.
I cross the street, leading into Den-Den Town, Osaka’s electronics district. Everything moves in slow motion at this hour, including the man who is passing me on a bicycle. There are at least five heads of cabbage in the bicycle’s basket.
Turning a corner, I can make out a huge Kasumi (from Dead or Alive) poster above the retail store Sofmap. It’s 6:43 am, and I’m first in line. There isn’t a soul in sight.
There is a line forming, at the adjacent building. It’s a computer store. I make a beeline for the store and talk to a security guard monitoring the crowd of 30 or 40.
“What’s going on?”
“People are lined up, waiting.”
“There’s a sale.”
“A sale? What kind of sale?”
The security guard’s eyes light up, because here’s the best part of this gig-telling people what these folks are waiting for.
“This store is opening,” he continues, showing me a flier,” and they’re having a sale. All of these products right here are already sold out.”
“Really? What time did people start lining up for this?”
“I got here at 8 pm, and there were already like 10 people.”
There’s two guys sitting at the front of the line, both sitting in cardboard boxes with space blankets. I ask the one that looks like dough if he’s aware the Xbox 360 is going on sale at Sofmap next door.
“I don’t play video games,” Doughboy says. “I have zero interest in them whatsoever.”
Ah, a computer otaku. Different breed, same species.
A few minutes tick past seven, and somebody else has come to wait for the Xbox. He stands in front of Sofmap for a moment, awkwardly, and looks around. Nobody but him, me, and the vending machine. I make a quick inventory: tall, painfully thin, wearing a brown coat, black and gray backpack, looks like Ichabod Crane.
A woman in the nearby parking lot feeds the pigeons breadcrumbs. Ichabod watches her for a moment and leaves, walking down the street. For a second, I consider running after him, telling him not to leave me here alone. He does.
It’s inevitable. I will be able to buy an Xbox 360. It will happen. It’s like waiting for death. I hit the pavement and go exploring. There’s a TV crew filming, so I cross to check it out. A line stretches around the side of a building. Guys hold ceramic PSPs, Mircos, DSs. Ah, found the breed I was looking for. Game otaku.
The line’s length trumps the computer otaku’s. Perhaps this is my 360 promised land? I approach a guy in a navy blue trench, hair slicked back, smoking a cigarette. A cool otaku.
“What is everyone waiting for?”
“Figurine,” he says, snuffing out his cigarette.
“At nine o’clock, they go on sale.”
“There’s tons of people.”
“This is nothing. You should see the crowds when mecha or robot figurines go on sale.”
I don’t ask him about the 360 launch. Not even worth the effort.
My hands are cold, and I’m thirsty. A half a block up, there’s a maid cafÃ©. Moe something, the name is. A man sits out front waiting for it to open. The sign doesn’t list what time the cafÃ© opens, only when it closes. A man sits outside, patiently. Guess that’s why he’s waiting.
When I get back to Sofmap, there’s a car parked out front. I check on both sides, round the back, and under the automobile. No Ichabold and no customers.
Folks, we’re less than two hours before launch.
A man appears. A hose, too. In summer, Japanese people water the sidewalks. Strange, but it makes perfect sense. The water cools the asphalt, thereby cooling the heat emitted. But, I can’t figure out why this man with a hose is watering the sidewalk in front of Sofmap. It’s freezing.
The shutter lifts halfway and out comes a young guy in a Sofmap jacket to watch the street watering. I leave my vending machine hangout and head over.
“Good morning,•bCrLf I say.
“Good morning,•bCrLf the young guy answers.
“What time do you open?•bCrLf
“In an hour, at 10.•bCrLf
“There sure aren’t many customers.•bCrLf
“No, there aren’t,•bCrLf he says, smiling and flashing coffee-stained teeth. “I even came a little early to check it out and see how many people showed up.•bCrLf
“Just me. And some other guy.•bCrLf
The man with the hose squirts a flock of pigeons, causing them to fly away.
The young Sofmap guy puts out a blockade to mark the beginning of the line. I go over and take a look. We’ve got less than 30 minutes before the Xbox 360 goes on sale. For a moment, I think about getting in line. Sofmap employees wheel out 360 displays and kiosks for me alone to look at.
A teenager in a knit hat shows up. Could this be the elusive third customer? (Still no sign of Ichabod, seriously considering putting an all-points bulletin on 2channel.) Knit cap stands in front of a sign, reading something. He then walks over to the truck that’s being unloaded and fixes his hat, checks his skin for pimples.
Then, he goes over to a Sofmap employee, asks something. The Sofmap employee gestures to the PC shop next door where the computer otaku’ve been waiting. We’re still only at two Xbox 360 customers. Rats, rats, rats.
Fifteen minutes before the Xbox 360 goes on sale in Den-Den Town, two guys in puffy coats walk over to a 360 display. And get this: they stay.
From down the street, I see a familiar face. It’s Ichabod. He passes me by and goes over to look at some PC porno game posters and then stands behind the red tape. He’s first in line. I want to give the guy a hug. Celebrate.
“Jingle Bells” kicks in over the loudspeakers as the guy next to me snaps off pics with a Canon hand-cannon. The camera is enormous.
A small crowd has assembled, large enough to count on two hands, but not three. One of guys in a puffy coat fires up a cigarette. He’s got facial hair growth, baggy khakis, and a skullcap. This the second cool otaku I’ve seen this morning. Cool otaku smoke.
Ichabod’s s getting giddy. He plays with his parka, running his fingers around the collar. He squats, then stands up and squats again. He takes out his cellphone, which has an Ayumi Hamasaki charm dangling off it. He then wipes his nose and smiles.
A exactly 10 sharp, the doors open, and the crowd floods in to buy an Xbox 360. All 19 of us.
November 10th, 2006. The console was promised months earlier. Tomorrow morning, the PlayStation 3 will launch in Japan. After a false start, the console has finally arrived, months late. It was originally scheduled for spring 2006.
Earlier, I swung by Sofmap in Den-Den Town to see what the status was. No line. Drawing for consoles tomorrow morning, come back then, a clerk told me. Come early. Bic Camera in Namba, likewise, empty-save for some dude smoking. At around 4 pm, not a single person lined up. And earlier I’d heard the same thing: Tokyo’s Yurakucho was dead. The PS3 launch was looking to be a bust.
And that’s when I see the line. It’s about 200 people strong, and the first guy has been here since 7 am. That’s what he tells me.
In front of Yodobashi Camera in Osaka, there are at least 15 or more of these types waiting in line. The youngest looks to be 50. They are all grouped together in a line that goes from otaku, otaku, otaku, old man, old man, old man, old man, otaku, otaku, otaku. They stick out. Bad. A nearby tree, three of them congregate, talking to the others in line.
I approach one in line.
ME: “What are you waiting for?•bCrLf
OLD MAN: “Dunno.•bCrLf
ME: “Are you waiting for the PS3?•bCrLf
OLD MAN: “Dunno.•bCrLf
ME: “Are you going to buy it?•bCrLf
He looks at me hard.
We dig in as the crowd grows. Considerably. A round security guard holds up a sign marking the end of the line, which now is segmented into three compact zigzags. Yodobashi Camera staff, wearing white sweaters and khakis circulate.
“It’s only one per person. Sir. One per person. If you cannot understand that, I will have to ask you to leave the line,•bCrLf a peanut-headed Sweater says.
Place-holder tickets are being passed out. One by one. It’s not quite 10 pm.
“How many of those tickets do you have?•bCrLf I ask a Sweater.
My previous question of how many consoles are coming in didn’t jive.
“I don’t know.•bCrLf
“How can you not know? You work for Yodobashi Camera, right?•bCrLf
He inches away slightly.
“The end of the line is over there,•bCrLf he points out.
“You can’t tell me, right?•bCrLf
Inches become feet, and I hear screaming.
“Do your ****ing job! It’s because you’re not that this is happening. You listening? You idiot. You disgust me.•bCrLf
That’s the tail end of an ass chewing I hear. The droopy face to go with that droopy mop of hair in the white jacket has just unleashed on a security guard. The security guard doesn’t even have a night stick. Just a walkie-talkie. And a hat.
The peanut-headed Yodobashi staffer rushes over, threatening to boot people from line.
Here’s the deal. We have tons of people lined up, ready to shell out $600 for a game console. It’s late, and we’re all tired and bitchy and tired. Droopy is pissed because two women are “cutting” in line.
Rain hits. And hard. We weren’t let in, and the throng dispersed, rather, the throng with pre-reserves. They hid under umbrellas. In doorways. In convenience stores. Watching Yodobashi Camera across the street. Intently.
Everyone seems to be chattering away in Chinese or Portuguese. They’re exchange students, paid off by exporters, blackmarket retailers, and supposedly the yakuza. They’re here to buy the PlayStation 3, which can be turned around for a high profit online or abroad. So they thought.
Wet, impatient people are pushing. I find myself shoved off to the corner in a picture booth. And that doorwary to Yodobashi Camera, it looks tiny.
The security guard’s head-count puts them at 300 strong. All without tickets. Over a thousand of those tickets have been passed out, long away. Each of those ticket holders have been ushered into the store to purchase the PS3.
These 300 have been standing in the rain for hours. The security guard at the end of the line continues to usher stragglers, inviting them to wait it out.
I’m coming up on Sofmap in Den-Den Town. There’s a line, doubled up, of about 80. At the front of the line, there are a handful of guys with orange hair, pierced faces, playing cards. Otaku, these are not. To not interrupt their game, I ask a pimply faced guy right behind them what time he arrived. Half past six, he says. That’s when I see the hat-wearing college students. One’s in a baseball cap, the other in a bucket hat.
“Hey,•bCrLf they say.
Likewise, they’re just soaking up the atmosphere. “It’s like a festival,•bCrLf Baseball points out.
“Seems like everyone who wanted a console went to Yodobashi Camera,•bCrLf Bucket says.
“There really aren’t that many here.•bCrLf
Comparatively, yeah. He’s right.
“Have you checked out Yamada Denki?•bCrLf
“You should. You’ll be shocked what you see. It’s sad, really.•bCrLf
And with that, I’m off.
Rumor has it that after Yodobashi Camera, Yamada Denki will be getting the second biggest shipment of PS3s in Osaka. And there’s nobody here. ‘Cept for me. And the cleaning lady.
A businessman appears, and I ask if he’s waiting for the PS3. He says he is. “There’s no one here.”
“Everyone’s lined up at Bic and Sofmap. They’re going to register for those lotteries to see if they get a PS3 and then come here, I guess. The Yamada lottery is later.”
And nobody, I mean nobody, is here. The otaku in Den-Den Town are that organized.
At 6:59 am in Tokyo, exactly 557 kilometers from where I stand, Sony Computer Entertainment president and “The Father of the PlayStation” Ken Kutaragi takes the stage at Bic Camera in Yurakucho. The first customer? A Chinese national with low-level Japanese ability. He bought a PlayStation 3 and no games. Games can’t be resold at a premium. Consoles can.
December 1, 2006. Early evening. The first floor shutters crash down, and Yodobashi staff in blue jackets, holding signs and mics, come out. The announcements commence.
“For those purchasing the Nintendo Wii. Please take a ticket and go up to the 11th floor.”
The 11th floor? We’re not lining up outside. We’re lining up inside.
An elevator, wrapped in steel. Two women in front of the door. Both young. Fashionable.
Here’s the system: We have to wait on the 11th floor. A security guard tells me that we must stay there until 12:30 am. In effect, we’re locked in, missing the last train. We can leave the parking garage until 4:00 am. What next, not sure.
A wet, rainy PS3 launch, this is not.
The elevator doors open. Gray smoke curls in fluorescent lights. I’m in a parking garage. Filled with people.
Earlier in the day, I visited Yodobashi Camera. The guy at the front of the line told me he’d been waiting since 6 am. It was somewhere between 3:30 and 4:00 in the afternoon when I asked.
“What launch title you gonna buy?” I asked him. He was wearing a black puffy coat and a black knit cap.
There’s another 30 or so in line behind him. The first guy is quick to point out that people didn’t start showing up until noon. That’s after he had been in line. For six hours. Alone.
“Anything else you’re getting?”
“Nope,” he tells me. Black stubble covers his hard jaw. “That’s it. Just Zelda. You?”
By 5:00 pm, and the line in front of Yodobashi Camera grew to a sizable 50 people or so. Soft talk as people chattered among themselves.
Game corner. Fifth floor. Traffic was light, consumers looking at this, looking at that. The Nintendo Wii aisle wasn’t exactly a madhouse, but drawing a varied type. Just like Nintendo hoped. Across the way, the PS3 display was hopping. To be expected-there are demos. Top Spin. MotorStorm. Other stuff. The Wii is still you-can-look-but-not-touch. The PS3 is out in the wild for the assembled male crowd.
Heading back toward the elevators, I passed a sign that points out as playable as the PS3 is, it was still not purchasable. The console’s sold out. As is the DS Lite. And soon the Wii.
In the parking garage, there’s one line and only one line. It’s long, and it’s for the bathroom. Two toilets for me, two for women. Four total. The space is immense. There must be over thousand people crammed in here. Time is passed with DS Lites. Smoking. More DS Lites. And more smoking.
Cold air cuts straight through the exits. People cover themselves with space blankets. Old men play Japanese chess. We’re killing time, folks. Half past midnight. We’re being shuffled out en masse. Music proceeds an announcement that says we are now able to use the elevator. But, return before 4 am.
A herd of us hits the street. Wondering what we should do, where we should go. A cozy restaurant and a series of food and drink follow. Up, up, and back we go. Thin crowd filters through. The security guard is still passing out tickets. The one I received earlier is numbered 747. Now they’re over 1,800. Before we left, the tickets were numbered in the 1,600s.
Back upstairs, 11th floor, welcome home. More waiting. Endless waiting. Always waiting. Now they are splitting us up into groups of one hundred. I hear them calling numbers. No music. We’re at the 1,700s. One hour to go.
Somewhere between 6:01 am and 6:03 am, I hit a brick wall. Brain mush. Legs rubbery. Sligthly dizzy.
We’ve been broken up into groups of one hundred. Then filed neatly between red plastic cones, between which we’re expected to wait.
Earlier, I ran into a game producer, waiting with several employees. The start of the evening was spent shooting the bull. The lack of sleep and wear of being in a parking garage for hours has set in. Conversation has slowed. Cold air is blowing on my face, directly down my throat.
Row by row, one hundred customers stand up and head toward the glass doors. Feeling stir-crazy. Two thousand plus lined up in neat little rows. Toward the glass doors, we move. Together.
Everything starts moving fast. Showing my ticket, getting a new ticket, putting the old ticket in a yellow basket, and then being escorted to an empty elevator, getting in an empty elevator, which fills up like that and takes us to the 5th floor, where we are greeted by men in white sweater vests and stretched arms until things slow down.
I’m in another line. A short one with the register in sight, and I’m pointing to titles and accessories on a menu, which are then placed in a bag and paid for by credit card. Like I said, fast.
There is one way out. It’s a set of elevators. Which are currently stuck. All the consumers are carrying bags stuffed with Wiis and Wii games. All save for the old men pressing their way to the front of the line. In an elevator. Hit the ground floor. It’s morning. There’s a parking lot across from the exit. A crowd of old men stand. Waiting and not for the Nintendo Wii.
It’s 7:30 am, and it’s already sold out.