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Look Out, Japan Is In Grips of Animated Beetles

Mushi King, the latest video game craze, is based on playing cards, pitting domestic species in deadly battles against an evil foreign legion.

October 09, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Bug fight!

And the kids in this arcade sure are excited by it, judging from their jostling to eye the action in the ring. Facing off: a saw tooth stag beetle and a Thailand five-horned beetle, each trying to kill the other with a crunching bite, pincer lock or body slam.

This is not cruelty to insects. It's child's play. The beetles are animated. The fight is taking place on a video screen in a Tokyo toy store. And the warring insects are computer-generated from playing cards, all based on real beetle species and collected by kids who have succumbed to the lure of Mushi King (Bug King), Japan's game craze of the year.

Introduced to video gameobsessed Japan in 2003, Mushi King has become electronic manna for preteens. In toy stores and arcades, children as young as 4 crowd around Mushi King machines for a chance to match their card collection of 3-D beetle warriors against rival beetle armies. On weekends, they choose between thousands of Mushi King tournaments across the country, carrying their decks of beetle cards from arcade to arcade, towing parents by the hand.

Executives at Sega, the Japanese game company that developed Mushi King, say they have sold 256 million of the colorful beetle cards and more than half a million copies of the software that allows you to play at home on a Game Boy or PlayStation. With a complete Mushi King set totaling 856 cards and with cards available only from the arcade machines at 100 yen -- almost a dollar -- a pop, it's enough to send shudders through a parent on allowance day.

The gamers at Sega, on the other hand, can't stop smiling. Japan now has 13,500 Mushi King arcade machines in 5,200 locations, and the collectible card game shows the kind of explosive sales numbers that lead executives to dream they might be sitting on the next Yu-Gi-Oh! or Pokemon. The original card game has already morphed into a TV series, with a feature movie due out in December.

"Mushi King fever is the same as Pokemon's in its original game and TV stage," says Hisakazu Hirabayashi, a leading game analyst and consultant in Tokyo.

Hirabayashi is not convinced that Mushi King can sustain the momentum, arguing that the game's story line lacks the narrative power that enabled Pokemon to grow and diverge endlessly.

But the principle of collecting and customizing the set of fighting characters is the same. In Mushi King, every card contains a number measuring the beetle's strength and stamina, which can be supplemented when combined with special "skill" cards.

Mushi King's twist is in the rules of combat: a combination of the classic child's game of rock, paper, scissors and -- you'll have to let your imagination well out of the box for this part -- fighting maneuvers patterned on the mayhem of Japanese pro wrestling.

Each beetle has a special Finishing Attack, the killer move borrowed from the pro wrestling milieu: the Tornado Throw, the Rolling Smash, the Running Cutter and so on.

Whether Mushi King can transcend cultures like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! remains to be seen. Sega has launched the game in other parts of Asia and is currently test-marketing it in Dallas arcades to see whether American kids will bite.

But it already boasts the collateral marketing gear necessary for any game with ambitions of global conquest. What's an animated TV series or movie without the tie-ins to plastic Mushi King beetles as well as lunchboxes, pajamas and, in this case, a ready-to-serve curry?

The search for the "next Pokemon" is the game industry's equivalent of pop music's search for the "next Beatles" or "next Britney." A certain curse. The challenge may be even tougher in the children's game industry where, as in Mushi King's case, the audience is very young and by definition likely to be fickle.

But the Japanese do love their bugs. Dropping live beetles into a makeshift ring and watching them try to tip each other over or push the other out of the ring is still a popular summer pastime here for children.

Japanese collectors are also big importers of bugs from around the world. Insect imports have soared almost tenfold since regulations were relaxed five years ago.

The hobby now worries many environmentalists who fret that the foreign critters may overwhelm domestic bugs and drive some to extinction.

That's exactly the sort of apocalyptic thinking that went into the creation of Mushi King.

The back story to the game involves bugs that were brought to Japan and then abandoned in a mythical forest. They are recruited by an old man named Adder who, disgusted by deforestation, has turned the foreign bugs into a Foreign Legion of Bugs to wreak revenge.

Other, "good" Japanese beetles go into battle to try to subdue them, advised by an animated Peter Pan-like boy named Popo.

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