Friday, March 10, 2006

Nintendo Wins the Popularity Contest


9 hours on the cold, dark concrete sidewalk next to the city's largest electronics store buys you a DS Lite, the envy of the greater portion of the line that didn't make the cut, and a big fight with your exhausted gf. I'm not sure that I would actually recommend the experience I went through last night to anyone - even someone as hard-core about gaming as myself. It does leave you drained, feeling more tired than any trans-Pacific trips that I have ever taken.

The good news is you become one of less than perhaps 300,000 people on the whole planet to own one of the sexiest handhelds ever created. I'm not a die-hard Nintendo fan per-se. I love Sony and have attended both PS launches with an eye to continue the tradition in the near future. I have never purchased a Nintendo console beyond the SNES because I didn't feel Nintendo had the game catalogue to warrant such an investment. I still consider the original DS ugly in form but divine in function. There are tons of reviews online about the handheld, and my personal summary of it is that developers seem to caught on late just how many ways those dual-screens can be used. The brain training game in the photo is a good example of that. I actually saw two people in two different lines (more on that later) using this software while waiting for a DS Lite.

So I'd like to recap the experience in such a way as to fill a void of information online about the DS Lite. I spent the entire past week going through site after site reading the same garbage news story that ran something like this: Nintendo DS Lite sells out in Japan! Only 450,000 units to be available during the month of March. Lots of people waited a long time to buy one. Lots of people were turned away due to lack of supply. More news later!

Bollocks. Let me tell you how it is from an insider's point-of-view. Anyone who has camped a product launch, or a concert ticket sales date, or something where basically demand is going to outweigh supply so heavily that sleepless nights are welcomed like bosom friend taken in and greeted with intimate familiarity - will know (grammar teachers in my past are turning in their graves for the sentence I'm constructing here) - any of those people will know the feeling of strange looks from those passing by who may or may not be aware that such an important event is being heralded by the faithful few. You know the cold, uncomfortable night trying to do anything you can to make the time go by quicker. And yet the DS Lite launch may afford an experience like no other.

I had my final day at work yesterday (March 10th) and the weather seemed to be congratulating me - it was stunning outside during the day. So I looked forward to the evening thinking it might not be so bad to stand outside all night long. The night had other things in mind. When my gf came home from work, we immediately laid down and tried to take a 90 min nap to prepare our bodies. She fell asleep promptly, but I only managed a very trance-like state where I could still open my eyes and look around but could feel my body have that tingling heavy sensation of being shut down. I "woke" 90 mins later but decided to let her sleep for another hour.

9 pm rolls around. I wake her up, take a shower, get some layered clothing going on and pack some sweaters in a bag in case it gets colder. We're out the door by 9:30 pm and take a bus south into town where Yodobashi Camera sits behind the city's JR Shinkansen station - Hakata Eki. I'm 6'2" tall with a very long stride, and she's scurrying along beside me trying to keep up as we cruise through the train station at a breath-taking pace. Coming out the other side of the station, I prepare myself mentally for seeing a long line already hoping the whole time we're the first ones there. The first door to the building had no one in front of it, and my heart leapt a little as excitement rushed to my head - until I saw the far door. There were 40 people in line already. They had chairs, blankets, small lamps, huge bags of stuff I would see throughout the night, and looked as though they had been living in front of that door since the March 2nd launch. These were the hardest of the hard-core who very likely found themselves within 10 people of the March 2nd DS Lite launch, but walked away empty-handed. I ran to the end of the line.

The line grew steadily all-night long, it's important that I say that now so that you can imagine a trickling of DS owner-hopefuls much like a leaky faucet never completely comes to rest in the off position. We were haphazardly arranged in something of a straight line, and we settled in nicely as strangers passed on their way home from work. This is the busiest train station in the city, there are a ton of people commuting every hour the trains are running. The first interesting thing I noticed was the addition of no less than 15 gentlemen who were very obviously homeless. For the life of me I couldn't understand why they would be standing in the line, and the realization only hit me hours into our night-long wait. More on that later.

The gentlemen in the photo leaning against the wall on the right (after the lady in a white jacket) are all homeless. You can see a cream-colored blanket behind the standing guy in the center of a homeless man who has already hit the hay. This is the line from our position back to the end. You can see that the girl is playing on an original DS and the guy standing up and talking to her busted out a PSP shortly after this photo was shot. I had my own PSP along with Lumines that my gf loves playing. 1 round of Lumines for her can span multiple hours. She's pretty darn good at it.

This photo was taken after one of the peculiar things about the night had taken place. Two security guards had walked from the head to the tail of the line putting people in three straight lines single-file. I was a little tickled that an event like this had it's own security detachment, and I thought surely they were going to knock-off for the night at some point. They stayed up all bloody night doing head counts about every half-hour. At one point I felt very much like I was in a detention camp. Guards with those tiny little counting devices that make the annoying clicking sound walked up and down and up and down all night long issuing strict instructions to memorize the faces of those around you and notify security immediately if some daft @#%! tried to break the line. I should probably note that I was the only foreigner in this line as far as the eye could see, and being from a neighborhood in America where violence is not unheard of, I was well-prepared mentally to deal with someone cutting in line ahead of us in an unpleasant way. I should be ashamed of that - but we're talking about 9 hours in the cold for a gadget. There are limits to a person's patience.

At the front of the line you can see the smart ones that brought the chairs, and a guy in a white shirt who is playing on a Pink DS original. The Japanese of the sign goes something like this: "Yodobashi Camera - Multi-media Hakata. Southern Entrance, 'head of the line' or 'front'."

You can check out a few people walking and the interesting cone barricade that became our little world for that one night we all shared. There was a kind of air of caste-system when it came to that line. The further towards the front you were, the more you reeked of confidence, pride, and disdain for those who weren't as dedicated as you. I admit I felt a pang of this myself. But the guys at the very front in the chairs didn't even bother looking behind them once in over 9 hours. Like the monarchs of old, they knew absolutely they had bettered all opponents for a spot in the list of DS Lite owners. On a side-note, these two pictures were taken with my 2-year-old Japanese cell phone. Not bad quality considering how old the phone is. And I didn't even use the built-in flash.

There were various trips to the convenience stores all throughout the night. We would take turns holding down the spot, and at one point my gf manages to pick up the wrong plastic bottle of tea (because they only sell like two kinds it seems) and drinks some other poor couples' tea as they are sitting behind us watching her do it. She expired the battery in the PSP after beating her high score yet again, and I enjoyed some peaceful DMB on my iPod as I tried to lay down and rest my body if not exactly sleep.

And it hit me. I knew what the homeless guys were about. Scalpers. Those guys were standing in line to get one of the tickets they hand out before they even let you in the door, and then sell them to people at the back of the line for a premium. Clever bastards! Truly, that exemplifies the human survival instinct. Scalping DS Lite tickets falls under the "gatherer" part of the ancient job description. And if I can fast-forward to the morning quickly, it actually worked. I didn't get a picture of the deal going down, but I can testify to you that before my eyes I watched three younger Japanese guys come from the back of the line and negotiate with this homeless syndicate of ticket scalpers for ALL their tickets. At one point one of the young Japanese guys pulled out no less than 200,000 yen from his wallet and collected more from his two friends. I wanted to wait around in order to see just how many they could get, but it was not to be. Score one for the homeless for being clever. And push the legendary popularity of Nintendo's DS Lite that much higher. I'm sure it ain't the first time tickets have been scalped in that way - but man the Japanese guy must have had a second-hand shop to sell to because he dropped a huge amount of money on them.

To recap the rest of the night because I'm still exhausted after only 4 hours sleep and my hands aren't hitting the keys quite right, we gave in to the cold and called my gf's dad who works a graveyard shift to bring us blankets. He made three deliveries within 30 mins bringing us two coats, a bag full of blankets, and fried chicked from a convenience store. That guy is so funny ^_^

At around 5:50 am she takes a trip to the restroom and immediately after the security guard makes us all stand up and push forward. I'm crapping a brick thinking they're going to open an hour early and we waited all night for nothing as she won't be there to get a ticket! Thankfully some nice people around us said if she wasn't back in time they would totally vouch for her. She did make it back after 20 mins - 20 mins in the bathroom! - and everything was fine. They only let us in the store 9 at a time, and we were in the third wave to get our DS Lites. I dropped over 36,000 yen on two units and the game, and we were out in a rush, almost before I even knew the waiting had ended.

Easily more than half the people in line were turned away. Starting at the point where the tickets ran out, I would estimate that some of those people probably waited from about 2 am. That's a long night in the cold to walk away empty-handed. I had planned to make a trip to other stores and get as many units as possible - so we went to another store where 4 people were ahead of us. Waited 3 more hours only to find that the store had only received 2 bloody units. The first couple was gracious enough to only buy one and give the other to the second couple. I was the 5th person in line. So I had both a taste of victory and defeat in the same night.

I'll be on the lookout this coming week as smaller shipments should roll in more frequently, and I'm glad I had the chance to record the experience as a real item of news. All the major news reporting agencies really let me down over the past week with weak stories of "hundreds of people being turned away." I just wanted to let you guys know absolutely that those of us who go DS Lites put in the time to deserve them imho.

Congratulations to all the other owners. Sorry if this post doesn't have any pizzaz to it, I'm falling asleep sitting here typing.

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Ian Chamberlin said...

Hey, I forgot to read this before...interesting read. Heh, almost sounds like the guys who wait around whenever there's a new Star Wars movie. :)

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