If you're going to stage a product launch and you want lovely pictures and videos of enormous queues to be beamed around the world, there's nowhere better to do it than Japan. Here, what we think of as the ancient British pastime of orderly queuing has been elevated to an artform, with access to everything from particularly good noodles to newly-launched plastic toys being carefully controlled with the deft application of traffic cones, tensabarriers and enthusiastically shouting staff members.
In Tokyo, it's not hard to generate an enormous, snaking queue for a product launch, and that's exactly what happened at several retailers across Tokyo on Saturday morning as Nintendo's 3DS prepared to make an appearance. With queues being almost universally seen as proof of a successful launch, the massive lines outside retailers such as Akihabara's enormous Yodobashi Camera were exactly what Nintendo's PR would have wanted.
Just one caveat, however, spoils the picture a little - namely the fact that rather a lot of those lines weren't actually for the 3DS at all. Invisible to western followers of the games business, Saturday morning in Japan featured a rather different reason for the geek contingent to take to the streets, namely the launch of a set of collectible toys from Kamen Rider OOO, the latest iteration of the live-action monster-battling Kamen Rider franchise which has been a staple of Japanese television for 40 years.
At many retailers which carry both toys and electronics (a pretty common combination in Japan, where large electronics retailers generally have a well-stocked toy section), the lines for Kamen Rider OOO's £20 badges dwarfed those for Nintendo's £200 console. Indeed, a number of retailers I visited in a swift tour of likely districts on Tokyo's Yamanote loop train line had no 3DS lines at all by breakfast time - having quickly exhausted the handful of units available for customers without pre-orders, they had exhorted the fairly small number of waiting customers to fill out pre-order forms and go home.
This isn't in any way a suggestion that the 3DS didn't have a successful launch, however. Rather, it had an exceptionally well-managed launch - customers with pre-orders strolled into retailers at their leisure over the course of the day to pick up their consoles, avoiding the necessity for big queues on launch day. The 3DS did attract massive queues - but they occurred back in January when pre-orders opened, and hundreds turned out at key retailers to secure their launch day units.
At one large electronics store near Shinjuku Station, there wasn't even evidence that there had ever been a queue - no cones, no tensabarriers, just a few small signs stating that they had no 3DS units for customers without pre-orders. "Apart from our pre-orders, we got less than ten units," a chatty member of staff told me while I bought a camera charger from him, feeling slightly glad that there had been no queues to try to take photographs of with my resolutely flat battery. "Of course, there's no reason for customers with pre-orders to queue up - we had some people here waiting when we opened, but only because they wanted to get their consoles on the way to work."
As if on cue, another customer turned up to pick up his pre-ordered unit just as I was leaving - a suited and booted Japanese salaryman in his late thirties, who was picking up a black 3DS with a copy of Super Street Fighter IV 3D, which has been heavily advertised on train lines around Tokyo all week.
"I think I own just about all of the consoles," he told me, before rushing back to the office from which he was meant to be on a smoke break. "I even bought an Xbox 360 last year. I like playing some of the Western games that you only get on the 360. I lined up to get a 3DS pre-order last month - I'm really excited about playing Zelda and Mario in 3D, especially."
According to the salesman, a majority of their pre-order customers were men in their thirties. "It costs 25,000 Yen, so maybe it's hard for younger people to afford. Also, this is Shinjuku, so we have a lot of office workers - maybe younger people would go to Akihabara or somewhere like that instead."
Indeed, a couple of stations down the tracks in the youth culture hub of Shibuya, I found a small group of younger 3DS owners standing around rather self-consciously playing the new console outside the station entrance. They were playing a few rounds of Street Fighter IV 3D - obviously one of the big winners on launch day - while waiting for friends, they told me, although the time-honoured Shibuya tradition of making sure you're seen in public with the latest fashionable gadget was obviously also being respected here.
The four of them were all 21 year old students at the relatively nearby Sophia University, and had queued up together to get pre-orders on January 20th. "We were going to queue this morning as well, and try to get the 3DS early," Hiroshi - the group's spokesperson thanks to his enhanced willingness to be patient with my halting Japanese - told me. "But we went drinking last night instead so we couldn't wake up in time." Sensible man.
Like the salaryman in Shinjuku, this group was also most enthusiastic about games that aren't even out yet - Zelda, Mario and Pokemon being cited as the titles they most want to play on 3DS. "I want to play Monster Hunter with 3D!", another of the group announced loudly in English when I asked what games they were looking forward to. Indeed, if that series, which has been the backbone of PSP sales in Japan in recent years, were to make the jump to the 3DS, it could make serious waves in this market.
By the time my trip brought me back around to Akihabara, even the Kamen Rider OOO lines had evaporated, and I managed to find another salesman willing to talk about the morning's launch. "We did have some units for people without pre-orders," he said, "but they were gone very quickly. Maybe people thought they'd be lucky if they came and lined up. A lot of them filled out order forms so they can get a unit when Nintendo sends us more."
And when will that be? "Soon, I think. It's already a very popular system. Do you want to pre-order one?"