Sega executives insist that nothing xenophobic should be read into the fact that the bad bugs threatening the purity of the forest are foreign. "We don't depict foreign bugs as bad," says Rei Sugiyama, Sega's spokeswoman. "They are not bad by nature. They were brought here and abandoned in the forest. They were manipulated by evil spirits.
"Many of the foreign beetles are very popular," she adds.
The battles begin once the players input their individual beetle's power and skills into the video console by swiping the bar code located on the side of each card. It's then up to the players to choose when and how to attack.
Sega was tapping into something deep in the psyche when it developed the game.
A fascination with insects is found in Japanese literature dating back a millennium. The famous story "Mushi Mezuru Hime" centers on a free-spirited young princess who loves bugs while other girls are interested only in butterflies and flowers. Her obsession arouses the curiosity of otherwise indifferent boys.
The Sega gamers who developed Mushi King were targeting boys too.
"We knew beetles were very popular with boys," Sugiyama says. "And those who pay for the cards -- the parents -- can relate to them as well. Fathers remember catching and keeping beetles when \o7they\f7 were kids."
Furthermore, Sugiyama says, Sega already had the computer graphics and information on beetle species in its data banks.
"We use real names, and the cards explain the size and habitat of each one," she says, making the pitch for Mushi King's entomological value. "It's the real thing."
Sega also had data on fish in its computers. And, for a while, the development team considered a fish-based game before going with the beetles. Fish are only capable of limited action, Sugiyama explains.
"But beetles actually fight."
Naoko Nishiwaki of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.