Were Microsoft not launching its Xbox games console, the early morning scene in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district might have seemed unusual. A long line of gamers, queuing since before dawn, flanked by crowds of photographers, TV cameras and hundreds of Xbox flags hanging from light posts. But for launches of new game consoles and operating systems, the scene has become anything but unusual.
And so it was that Microsoft put on sale today its Xbox in Japan, the home turf of its two biggest rivals: Sony and Nintendo.
Several hundred people queued to be among the first people in Japan to own an Xbox and Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect, was also on hand to present the first customer with a console as sales began at 7am. The early birds also got a chance to walk away with a special edition Xbox, that includes a semi-transparent case and sells for ¥39,800 (just over £200), or ¥5,000 (£25) higher than the regular version. The special edition also includes a keyring signed by Gates.
The special edition isn't the only difference between the Japanese and US version of the console. The controller being shipped with the Japanese version is smaller because the company found Japanese gamers felt the US controller too big. However, once unveiled to the world, the smaller Japanese controller began finding fans outside of the country and Gates said Thursday evening that Microsoft is considering widening sales of the smaller controller.
"We may offer that controller outside of Japan because a lot of other users liked it as well," he said.
Gates said Microsoft had shipped 250,000 consoles to Japan for the launch and plans to ship new supplies weekly. With the hardware launched here, the company will now turn its attention to the European market where the Xbox will be launched on March 14.
Along with the new console, 12 software titles are available from today. They are: Double Steal from Bunkasha; Genma Onimusha from Capcom; Nobunaga's Ambition: Chronicles of Chaos from Koei, Airforce Delta II, ESPN Winter X Games Snowboarding 2002, and Hyper Sports 2002 Winter from Konami; Silent Hill 2: Saigo No Uta from Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo; JSRF - Jet Set Radio Future from Sega; Dead or Alive 3 from Tecmo; Nezmix, Project Gotham, World Street Racer and Tenku - Freestyle Snowboarding from Microsoft.
A further three games are expected to follow on Feb 28: Kabuki Warriors from Genki; Metal Dungeon from Interlex Panther; and Shikigami no Shiro from Mi-Pic.
During March a further seven games will launch: NBA Live 2002 from Electronic Arts Square KK and Bistro Cupid from Success on March 7; World Soccer 2002 from Konami, Gunvalkyrie from Sega, Panzer Frame J-Phoenix+ from Takara and Magi Death Fight! from Takuyo on March 28. ESPN NBA 2Night 2002 from Konami will also go on sale sometime during March.
Speaking at a pre-launch news conference on Thursday evening, Gates underlined the importance of software in the success of the new platform.
"It all comes down to game playing," Gates said. "The key is what people experience playing the games. It really is the word of mouth of gamers that will drive this platform to success."