Nintendo Wii launches in Japan

Oh go on then: "Wii have lift-off!"

The very business-oriented district of Yurakucho isn't Tokyo's most popular weekend destination - especially at 5am. So when a large number of people turn up on the very first train of the Yamanote Line, you can tell something's wrong - or at least out of the ordinary. On Saturday, 2nd December, the Wii launched in Japan - and its draw turned out to be quite remarkable.

Because when they arrived at the Bic Camera mega store, the people bundling off the Yamanote Line were in for a surprise: the Wii was already sold out. Actually, they were more surprised to see huge queues, formed by people who had arrived the day before in an attempt to guarantee a launch-day console. The newcomers panicked, begging staff for information or using their mobile phones to poll their friends. Some stores were to open later in the morning - that's where those denied in Yarakucho would have to go, even if there were fewer units to fight over (between 150 and 600 per store).

Wii's dramatic debut had come as a surprise. Less technology driven than the recently launched PlayStation 3, and with a lot more units available (some 400,000), it should have been easier to buy. Pre-order campaigns were the first sign it wasn't going to work out like that. One of Japan's top e-commerce and auction sites, Rakuten, saw 300 units pre-ordered in less than five minutes, while Sofmap was caught by surprise when a sudden pre-order campaign generated a 300-man queue. Department stores quickly emptied their supplies, and in general the campaigns struggled to last very long, at least not for an entire day. Many medium-size shops opted to go for pre-orders only, to avoid the massive queues they were otherwise guaranteed on the 2nd.

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Some saw the DS Lite shortages as the main motivation for early Wii buyers, but others point to a huge influx of casual gamers - something that's arguably borne out in the early software sales. You might expect Zelda to be the most popular Wii title at launch, but as the console went on sale Wii Sports - sold separately in Japan - emerged as a serious competitor. Early estimates put the number of games sold with each console at between two and three, with a second set of controllers. The Wii had a record 16 titles available at launch, although the four most popular were Wii Sports, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, WarioWare: Smooth Moves and Hajimete no Wii (Wii Play to you and I - a tutorial game packed with a Wii remote).

Big retailers like Bic Camera or Yodobashi Camera enjoyed large shipments of the new consoles, with around 1200 to 1500 for each of their major centres. Bic Camera's Yarakuchi store actually had around 3,000. But in every case, they were mostly sold out by the early hours of Saturday morning - around 5am. Yodobashi Camera's Akihabara store was actually sold out during the night. The big stores that decided to open on launch day used a ticketing system to moderate the chaos. Those with a ticket could go home and get some rest, and then come back in the morning or during the couple of hours following the launch when the ticket was valid. So Tokyo by night was empty, in contrast with the PS3 launch last month. Instead, all the shops had a simple sign on the front door: "sold out". Bad news for people who assumed a 5am entry would guarantee them a unit.

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Meanwhile, there were fewer scalpers than there were for the PS3 launch, although there were still some - concentrated in areas like Ikebukuro's Big Camera, trying to get hold of units to flog second-hand. In Akihabara's Yodobashi Camera, the local homeless were at work helping to gather additional units for their employers. But elsewhere the Wii launch seemed to be more for the Japanese consumer than the exporter. 6500 units quickly appeared on the Yahoo Auction website with a price tag between 33,000 and 40,000 yen (145 to 175), but it's hard to imagine anybody securing a big profit. While none of the stores could offer a definitive estimate, most confirmed they were expecting regular shipments from Nintendo, with the Kyoto-based company expected to ship a million units in the country by the end of December. There's also a question of whether first-time gamers attracted by the marketing will be as willing to pay double the launch price in the manner of their sometimes-obsessive counterparts.

The one thing missing from the whole event, though, was an official countdown ceremony - something that Nintendo tends not to bother with, at least in Japan. So most of the big stores had to improvise. Yodobashi Camera managed to drum up a Luigi, but Bic Camera Yarakucho went in the other direction, with Sonic the Hedgehog - of all people, or hedgehogs - helping to get things off and running, and handing the first Wii to its first consumer. It was a peculiar moment, which store officials explained was designed to mark the future release of Sonic on the Wii, and nothing to do with putting the boot in for all that nonsense in the '90s.

But even if Shigeru Miyamoto himself wasn't using a Wii remote to cut an imaginary ribbon in the heart of Tokyo, there was still a lot to admire overall. With 600,000 units sold in the US and another 400,000 now out and about in Japan, that makes a million sold worldwide before the console pitches up in Europe at the end of this week. Sales appear to have gone beyond the expected numbers, and the challenge now for Nintendo is to ship sufficient units to avoid the shortages DS has experienced in the Far East. If they can do that, the people who stumbled, dead-eyed out of the Yamanote Line trains at 5am two days ago, might feel a bit better about their misfortune.

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