Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: The Yodobashi Shinjuku PS3 Launch Massacre

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Yodobashi Shinjuku PS3 Launch Massacre

A view from the queue.

Sure was a hell of a way to start a holiday. I had flown out of Sydney on Thursday night, arrived in Tokyo on Friday morning, got a bus through the gridlock from Narita to Shinjuku, dropped my luggage off at the hotel and started making my way to the nearby Yodobashi Camera as the sun began to set. With only 80,000 Playstation3s available for launch, getting one was not going to be easy. Most japanese retailers don't take pre-orders, particularly when there are so few units to go round. A lottery system was being implemented at most stores, meaning that getting the chance to buy one came down to sheer luck. I didn't like my chances. With many retailers being allocated less than ten units, even camping out overnight at one of the few non-lottery retailers was no guarantee of securing one.

I had heard that Yodobashi weren't going with the lottery system, and were likely to have a decent amount of stock - rumour had it they were getting 100 units. I had decided early on that the queue at Yodobashi Akihabara would be a nightmare, so I figured the Shinjuku outlet would be a safer bet. Given that people in the US had started camping outside the Best Buy in Burbank several days earlier (even though the US launch was still a week away), I wondered how large the queue would be at Yodobashi Shinjuku when I got there on the eve of the launch.

Arriving at the Yodobashi games store in the narrow street behind the main Yodobashi Camera building just after 5pm, I could see there was no queue at all. The front of the store was dominated by a large Playstation 3 display with three demo units connected to gorgeous new 1080p Bravias. Only the middle PS3 was actually playable; the other two were running long demo loops and had no controllers attached. There were less than thirty people standing around, and most of them appeared to be just passers-by who had stopped to take a look at the display. No-one was even playing the PS3. I was pleasantly surprised by the apparent lack of interest. I spotted another couple of gaijin checking out the displays, who turned out to be an American exchange student and an English, but now Kyoto-based, writer for Joystiq, GameSpy and *cough* Spong. He told me that there wouldn't be a queue until the Yodobashi staff announced where the queue would actually start, and that probably wouldn't occur until closing time - 10pm.

I considered wandering off to find some dinner and returning closer to ten, but with every passing minute, more people were arriving. The beginnings of unofficial queues were forming, and being quickly broken up by a few police who were making sure that traffic could still get down the lane. With five hours to kill, I decided I'd pass the time while holding my position right at the front of the store by getting hands on with the four playable demos and watching all twenty rolling demos.

Devil May Cry 4 was a joy to play and looked fantastic - very reminscent of DMC1. It's framerate occasionally dipped, but only during cutscenes. Gran Turismo HD's alpine course ran smoothly and looked good, but much to my surprise, the conspicuous lack of rumble in the new Sixaxis controller actually did detract from the experience. When you drive across a bridge or slip off the edge of the road, you expect to feel it. The screen was shaking, but the controller was dead in my hands. I hadn't expected I would miss rumble at all, but I did. There are certain games where it adds to the immersion, and Gran Turismo is one of them.

Ridge Racer 7 was, well Ridge Racer...again. You know what you're getting with Ridge. At 60fps in full 1080p it was truly gorgeous, and the drift gameplay is as satisfying as ever. Slipstreaming seems to be the one significant new addition to the game. Sega's tennis game Power Smash 3 was the fourth playable demo, which looked good but didn't really grab me. Of the rolling demos, the standouts were Motorstorm, Final Fantasy XII, Lair, Heavenly Sword, Ninja Gaiden Sigma, Virtua Fighter 5, Eye Of Judgement, and of course, Metal Gear Solid 4.

By 8:30pm, the street was full of people waiting to queue; a few hundred at least. Unfortunately, the main loading dock for Yodobashi is directly across the road from it's games store, so every so often a large truck would squeeze down the street and perform a tight reverse turn into the dock. No-one wanted to lose their position, so with the help of the police, each truck ended up slowly navigating the sea of people, crushing them against the storefronts and hitting them in the head with their side mirrors. It was going to be a long night. My feet were killing me already from just standing in the jam-packed crowd for a few hours. Several other gaijin had arrived, one of them being a friendly Welsh bloke who, with his Japanese wife, had attended several previous console launches here. With a little help, he'd bought 22 PSPs at launch and made a small fortune selling them on to international buyers. The guy was a pro. He had no interest in the games. It was strictly business. He had convinced several of his non-gamer mates to come along and queue up for him this time too.

A quick poll of the gaijin in the area revealed that I was the only one who intended to keep the PS3. All the others were going to sell theirs immediately, even if they were gamers. Many of them weren't even buying any games. I found this state of affairs a little disappointing, but as a Tasmanian ex-pat explained to me, he was going to sell his in order to make some money so he could buy an HDTV. That way he'd be ready for the PS3 when the software catalogue improved. With only five titles available for the Japanese launch (and only a few being any good), I couldn't really argue with his rationale. Due to the ludicrous prices the PS3 was fetching on the international market, there was a good number of gaijin present, including quite a few Chinese and Thai, but the vast majority were actually Japanese, and judging by the number of DS's and PSPs in the crowd, they were indeed gamers.

Not long before nine, the playable demo unit crashed, leaving only a few scattered white pixels across the bottom of the screen. Not a great omen for the reliability of the first-gen PS3 hardware. About twenty minutes later, one of the Yodobashi clerks pushed his way through the crowd to the kiosks. I figured he was just going to reset the crashed one. Well, he did turn it off, but he turned off the other two as well. A moment later all hell broke loose.

Somewhere down the street, someone yelled out something and everyone ran. I didn't know where they were running, but I ran the same way. The flood of people came careering down the street, running in a blind panic, like Godzilla was after us. The wave of people I was in ran broadside into a bicycle, tipping it over, and leaving many people stumbling. I richocheted around it and using my height advantage over the crowd, I pushed and weaved my way forward through gaps I could see in the haphazard stampede. As I got near the front of this impromptu running-of-the-bulls I could see there were many innocent bystanders being caught in it's wake. Women were screaming and brave men were pulling them out of the way into nearby shopfronts. As I dodged another pile-up and rounded the corner of the block, I saw it. A queue growing as fast as I was running. A human serpant, four or five people thick, materializing down the street. I threw myself to it and was instantly crushed into a human terrine.

As the rush to join the queue continued down the block behind me, I took stock of my surroundings. The queue ahead was sizable. I couldn't see quite how long, as it seemed to have begun somewhere just around the corner near Club Sega. It appeared that there were easily more than a hundred people in the queue ahead of me. My heart sank. This was not an ideal outcome. I couldn't see any of my gaijin comrades. God knows where they (and their useful translation skills) had ended up. To make matters worse, I was stuck directly under a scorchingly hot floodlight mounted on a shopfront awning, just inches away from my head. It was only a few minutes before the sweat began running down my face and dripping from my eyebrows. Had I been able to move my arms, I would have wiped it away, and taken my jacket off too. The queue was so densely packed I could not move at all.

I wasn't feeling real good about the situation at this point. It appeared I would be trapped under this sunlamp for the next eight or nine hours, unable to move, unable to disappate any body heat (as I was in direct physical contact with all the people around me) and unlikely to get a PS3 for enduring this torture anyway.

It was only another five agonizing minutes before the police came along and started pushing the queue back, creating small breaks in it to allow people to get in and out of the other Yodobashi outlets we had queued in front of. That got me out from under the burning floodlight and gave me the opportunity to elbow myself a little more breathing space. The looping Yodobashi jingle that had been driving me mad for the last few hours stopped. To my bemusement, in it's place, the PA began playing Auld Lang Syne over and over instead. This was apparently a signal that the shops would soon be closing.

After 10pm, when the shops had closed, the two Japanese girls next to me took the opportunity to sit down with their backs against the rollerdoors. I opened up the small pouch I had brought with me and pulled out the tiny Jackeroo folding camp seat that I'd bought at K-Mart shortly before heading to the airport on Thursday evening. I found just enough room to unfold it and set it down beneath me. It was small and uncomfortable, but as I finally took the weight off my feet, I decided it was the best six bucks I'd ever spent. Had I continued to stand, I would have seen it coming, but half an hour later, myself and the two girls were suddenly swamped as the wall of people began moving quickly backward. I scrambled to my feet but my pouch (with PSP inside) was lost in the incoming swell. Somehow it was returned to me by a chain of kind hands as the tide subsided and the wave of people compacted back into a dense immovable mass. While I wasn't happy about being packed like a sardine again, it became apparent the reason the queue was being moved back again was to give everyone enough room to sit. It only took another fifteen minutes before R2 shut down the Death Star trash compactor and we were all able to sit in relative comfort.

A couple of Yodobashi clerks were issuing the people sitting about fifty feet ahead with tickets. This was a reasonably good sign. On one hand, it meant that anyone getting a ticket was guaranteed a PS3. On the other hand, there were about 70 people between them and me. If the rumours of this store getting a hundred PS3s were true, then I was certainly too far back. As the clerks slowly approached, I could see they had plenty of tickets left in their hands. I breathed a deep sigh of relief as I accepted my ticket for a 60GB PS3: ticket #220. Looks like I'd chosen the right store - Yodobashi Shinjuku had evidently been allocated a whole lot of units.

My Welsh scalper friend came casually strolling down the street smoking a cigarette. "What happened to you?" he asked. Thinking back on the chaotic queue formation, I honestly didn't know. He had been tipped off about the queue announcement by some seasoned Japanese scalpers just before it happened and had scored ticket #54. His wife was holding his spot near the front of the queue. "So," I asked, "what news from the front?". Word from the front was that this Yodobashi had been allocated a thousand units, with an even split of 60GB and 20GB SKUs. He took a walk down past the twenty rows seated behind me to the corner and confirmed that the queue streched back at least another two blocks before it left his line of sight. Some of the other gaijin were ahead of me, others behind. At least none of us would be leaving empty handed. I got him to buy me a much needed drink from a vending machine before he headed back.

The reality set in that the excitement was over. I was in the queue, I was guaranteed a 60GB PS3, and now I had to sit here for another seven or eight hours. Sales would not begin until 6 or 7am. I hadn't had more than an hour's sleep since I woke up on Thursday morning and it was now almost Saturday. This Suntory Boss Black coffee in a can was really hitting the spot. Several blocks away and thirty-three stories up, my wife and baby boy were sleeping soundly. Lucky buggers. Out of nowhere, a fully outfitted stormtrooper patrolled past the line, keeping a watchful eye on us rebel scum.

It wasn't until midnight that I actually wondered why there wasn't a midnight launch anywhere in Tokyo. Midnight launches are de rigeur everywhere else in the world, so why not here? By 1am one reason became clear. The streets had been busy with young party people and drunken businessmen until then, but by 1am the streets were deserted. Most people in Tokyo don't have a car and the whole city relies on its ruthlessly efficient train system. The trains stop at 1am. If sales began at midnight, most people wouldn't be able to get home afterward.

2am. It was getting cold...and I felt what I hoped weren't the first signs of rain. A man in a suit and tie keeled over asleep in front of me. Apart from him, there seemed to be no-one sleeping. Well, there was another drunk businessman in an expensive suit who had clearly missed his train and was passed out in the gutter across the road, but the queue itself was awake. There was a whole lot of wireless Monster Hunter going on with the PSP owners, and the DS's were on fire. I've never seen Pictochat moving so fast. There was a surprisingly high number of girls in the queue, about one in five, though I wondered how many were actually buying one for themselves.

Not much happened as the early morning hours passed by extremely slowly. I watched episodes of Consolevania, On The Spot, and Good Game on my PSP to pass some time. I was pleased to hear I'd won a Good Game t-shirt for a review I'd written. I stepped out of the line to stretch my legs and chat with the other gaijin I'd met earlier. We had all made it into the first third of the queue apparently. Over a thousand people had turned up here, but only a thousand tickets were issued. We talked about everything we could think of, but time just seemed to drag on forever. By 5:30am there was nothing left to say. We all just stood around nodding knowingly at each other and looking at our watches.

At 6am the queue began standing up, so we all rushed back to our places. The lights in the Yodobashi storefronts came on. Stand up everyone! It is wait. Nothing happened, and everyone returned to their delirium. At 6:30am, I looked up momentarily while watching the 1UP Show and saw Phil Harrison (head of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios) walk right past me. No-one else seemed to recognise him at all. I was a bit slow pulling out my camera, but that's his bald head walking away in the photo. You'll just have to trust me.

At ten to seven, the Yodobashi clerks returned and began dividing the queue up into managable groups. By 7am, my group had moved toward the corner and some press photographers had arrived. I heard a countdown and applause from the store. Sales had begun. Five minutes later I saw the first guy walk away with a big Yodobashi bag.

It was then that the rain that had been threatening us all night decided to fall. Fortunately about one in four people had brought an umbrella, which was just enough to keep us all from being soaked. Having just bought his PS3, the Welsh scalper ran up to me and handed me his wife's Yodobashi points card. Yodobashi's generous loyalty program nets members ten percent of the value of their purchase, so chalking my sale up on their card would get them a free Sixaxis at least. I was happy to oblige. As I finally returned to the store entrance, a man wearing a sandwich board showed us the five games and accessories that we could choose from: Ridge Racer 7, Resistance: Fall of Man, Genji, Gundam, Sega Golf Club and extra Sixaxis controllers. The legacy memory card adaptor was also pictured but had already sold out (though I later picked one up elsewhere).

Just as I was entering the store, I heard someone call out my name. Turning around I saw my wife and son waiting across the road having braved the rain to come down and meet me. Better yet, they had brought food and coffee. Awesome. The queue weaved through the back of the store before reaching the cashiers, and with only three registers operating, it seemed to take forever to get there. I shudder to think how long the folks at the back of the queue must have waited before they got their PS3s. I finally got served and chose Ridge, Resistance and an extra Sixaxis. The 60GB PS3 was only 62,000 yen (roughly AU$680) and the games were about ¥4,500 (AU$50) each. Much cheaper than they'll be when they become available in Australia four months from now. I tried to put them on Mastercard, but despite having informed my credit card company in advance that I'd be in Japan for two weeks, the transaction was declined. As luck would have it, I had just enough cash to cover it. I wouldn't even have been able to afford the ¥1,200 memory card adaptor had it been available.

The rain eased slightly as I triumphantly stepped out onto the street and was greeted by the smiling faces of my wife and son. Fresh hot black coffee made the victory even sweeter. I gave the Welsh scalper his points card back, and he also gave me a coffee. Gah! It had milk in it. I told him it was okay as I already had another one, but he insisted on running off and buying me another black coffee anyway. I noticed a small man in a brown suit walk past me into the store. It was none other than "the father of Playstation", Ken Kutaragi, who had come to see how things were going.

With my day one PS3 in the bag and my family beside me, I headed back toward our hotel, basking in the glow of a mission successfully accomplished. You might think I'd have been keen to get back there and try out the PS3. You'd be wrong. All I really wanted to do was take a piss, have a shower and go to sleep. With the fifty hour ordeal behind me, that's exactly what I did.


Anonymous nomet said...

wholey fuckin shit...good work mate.

1:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow,good read,very immersive.

Gratz on the purchase!


2:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats Consoul.

Will you be posting reviews of the games as well ?


3:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great read, Consoul. Your keen-ness is second to none!


3:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We still read your column... :)

Nice work... you will have to invite peeps over though...

Hairy Primate

6:07 pm  
Anonymous hijak said...

thats awesome consoul! great writeup :)

2:13 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great read consoul. Give this man a job IGN.


9:01 am  
Anonymous revo said...

Consoul, awesome article to read! Sounds like you deserved the opp. to buy a PS3, it sounded like a tough night!


10:15 pm  
Anonymous BuRNZ said...

Love your work mate. :) After all the bad press about the PS3 you have put a little spark back into PS3 for me or at least made me want to visit Japan even more. :p

10:56 pm  
Anonymous TPot said...

Good writeup consoul.

1:09 pm  
Blogger Diesel said...

Awesome Write-up Consoul! hope the sleep was good afterwards! :P hehe. have fun playing your ps3!!

look forward to the reviews! :)

12:18 pm  

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