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Lines Form for Microsoft Xbox Debut

TOKYO (AP) _ Hiroki Watanabe already owns a Sony PlayStation2. But that didn't stop him from lining up for hours at a downtown store to get his hands on Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox video-game console.

Following a countdown event in a downtown Tokyo video store attended by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, the 34,800 yen ($260) Xbox went on sale Friday in Japan _ the home turf of video-game kings Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co.

Green ribbons streamed down, the crowd cheered for Gates and a Japanese rock star guest played a car-racing game with Gates.

``The Xbox looks like fun,'' said Watanabe, a 28-year-old Internet company worker. ``And this is a celebration.''

The U.S. company is hoping there will be more game fans like Watanabe. Nearly 9 million Japanese have bought the 29,800 yen ($220) PlayStation2 over the last two years.

Microsoft is confident about the appeal of the Xbox, which targets hard-core game fans with its superior graphics and built-in hard drive and Internet capability.

More than 1.5 million Xbox machines have been sold in the United States since they arrived in stores in November.

Worldwide, Sony Computer Entertainment has shipped more than 26 million PlayStation2 machines. Nintendo says 2.7 million GameCube consoles have been shipped worldwide, about half of those in Japan.

The 25,000 yen ($190) GameCube went on sale in September in Japan and two months later in the United States.

``The value of the Xbox may be hard to appreciate for the casual game player,'' said Soichiro Fukuda, analyst at Nikko Salomon Smith Barney in Tokyo. ``But Microsoft wants to make sure it stays No. 2 ahead of GameCube in the United States.

Gates pushed the Xbox as the ``new leader.''

``These people here today are the pioneers,'' Gates said at the countdown ceremony. ``Xbox represents a very, very long commitment by Microsoft to help revolutionize entertainment in the living room.''

Microsoft is not saying how many of the Xbox machines it wants to sell in Japan. Gates said only that the company has prepared 250,000 machines in the first shipment and is ready to send in more.

Analysts here expect a slow start for the Xbox in Japan.

Japanese tend to like different kinds of games than Americans _ role-playing fantasy titles are bigger here than shoot-'em-up arcade-style action _ and Xbox games that have proved a hit in the United States may not appeal to Japanese.

In one attempt to adapt Xbox to the Japanese market, Microsoft has scaled down its hand-held controllers for the Japanese, who tend to be smaller than Westerners.

A special-edition translucent Xbox is being sold that comes with a silver-plated key chain with Gates' engraved autograph.

It remains to be seen whether the Xbox will go the way of American brands that have met huge success in Japan _ like Coca-Cola, Disneyland and Starbucks _ or end up a big flop like Ford cars and U.S.-grown rice.

The decisive factor in the three-way war, analysts say, is the lineup of games. Signing up software companies to provide hit games _ preferably on an exclusive basis _ is crucial.

Yukie Saito, an analyst with Lehman Brothers in Tokyo, believes the Xbox doesn't have enough strong games yet to convince too many Japanese to buy it.

``If the games aren't attractive, people are going to wonder why they should bother buying it,'' Saito said.

Going on sale Friday with the Xbox are 12 game titles, including ``Dead or Alive 3'' from Tecmo and ``Project Gotham: World Street Racer'' from Microsoft.

PlayStation2 boasts a lineup of 400 games in Japan and can also play the more than 3,900 games out for the original PlayStation. Nintendo's GameCube has 13 games out so far.

Game fans say the Internet-ready Xbox will have the edge in online gaming.

While plans for broadband network services were undecided, they will be announced in the months ahead, Gates said. Broadband services have been promised for PlayStation 2 for April in Japan.

University student Daisuke Nakamura owns almost every game machine under the sun _ PlayStation2, GameCube, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo 64, even the discontinued Sega Dreamcast.

But he still bought the Xbox. He even asked Gates for his autograph.

``This is worth it,'' Nakamura said, clutching a bag with the Xbox inside. ``I wanted to see Bill Gates. He's so rich.''
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