Otaku USA Magazine
Live from Japan

It is pure nerd heroin.

THE iDOLM@STER doesn’t star rocket-launching giant mecha or sword-slashing metrosexual heroes. No, it features something far more addictive: J-pop singing, Para Para dancing, and 10 teenage girls. From Tokyo’s Akihabara to Osaka’s Den-Den Town, THE iDOLM@STER has been nothing short of a phenomenon with a rabid Japanese fan base willing to even purchase the dying-in-Japan Xbox 360s just to play the game.

Yes, it’s really that popular.

Affectionately called iM@S, the Namco-created toonshaded game was originally released in 2005 as an arcade-only title. It’s a simulation game in which players become a music producer who must whip his would-be girl idols into shape. Fans spend literally hundreds of dollars and countless hours in smoky arcades trying to create the perfect pop princesses and post high stats on the ranked leader-board.

To climb the ranks of popdom, the would-be idols “audition,•bCrLf competing against other producers via nationwide network battle. These Pokémon in knee socks battles are shown on a monitor in the arcade. Come out on top, and watch your idol hit the big time! To get there, the idolmaster must guide the would-be star through a series of touch-screen mini-games designed to level up skills like singing, dancing, and posing. Countless 100 yen coins are fed into the arcade cabinet, and progress is saved on an IC card. Other responsibilities include selecting the idol’s wardrobe and dealing with her fan mail! While all this is going on, there are dating-sim like segments in which the producer and his protégée converse, even having the player caress the touch screen to increase “good communication.•bCrLf

The original inspiration for the arcade version was e-mail. Men like getting e-mails from women, so wouldn’t it be great if there was an arcade game in which players could get in-game e-mail from the opposite sex? From a 13-year-old?!!?

Players receive in-game e-mails from their talent, which helps build a rapport between the two. “The bond between the idolmaster and the characters is strong,•bCrLf says Youzou Sakagami, producer for the Xbox 360 version. “They’re like doting parents, and think that their idols are the cutest.•bCrLf According to Sakagami, some players even started crying in the arcades when their game was over. How touching.

With the arcade wars already won, a home invasion of iM@S was in now in order. With Microsoft Xbox Live networked play and a next-gen console, Namco moved forward with an Xbox 360 version. But while the Microsoft-created console surged ahead in Europe and North America, it was DOA in Japan. The rap was that it didn’t have any software that appealed to Japanese consumers, who were biding their time waiting for the PS3 and the Nintendo Wii. A special bundle, limited to 7,650 sets, was announced for the Xbox 360 that included figurine versions of all 10 idols, a plastic stage for display, and the game software. Fever pitch hit when Akiba retailer Gamerz wasn’t able to meet the demand and was forced cancel orders taken after October 2006.

The 360 version of iM@S went on sale the following January, entering the top 20 on the domestic sales chart. In an age where Pokémon Diamond and Pearl can sell half a million copies each on launch day, THE iDOLM@STER was hardly a blockbuster hit. But, it had legs. Right after the game went on sale, Xbox Live’s sign-ups to console skyrocketed in Japan, making it the highest in the world. From kimonos and athletic shorts to horsetails (!) and chocolate hats, a slew of virtual clothing items for sale hit Xbox Live. As of this writing, those items totaled 23,400 Microsoft Points. Screw Disney Dollars, how much is that in real money? 35,100 yen (US $299). Keep in mind, that’s outfitting just one character with all items • and there are 10 idols in all to take care of!

While the PS3 floundered, THE iDOLM@STER picked up serious nerd cred. Display cases in Osaka’s electronic Den-Den Town district originally slated for the PS3 were changed to promote iM@S. As soon as new costumes appeared on Xbox Live, gamers would post their idols wearing them while performing. “It’s like parents showing off pictures of their child,•bCrLf points out game producer Sakagami. THE iDOLM@STER song “Go My Way•bCrLf got countless Internet covers by everyone from dorks wearing Gundam helmets to guitarists in bandanas. iM@S concerts with the singers who voiced the in-game tunes were quickly sold out. A manga and an anime called Xenoglossia featuring the idols as giant robot-piloting high school students debuted in the spring. While Namco’s tight lipped about a possible PS3 port, Sakagami does say, “I’d love to release THE iDOLM@STER abroad if there’s a demand for it.•bCrLf

It’s now up to you, America…