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Beetle mania takes hold as Japan's latest game craze

TOKYO -- Bug fight!

And the children in this arcade sure are excited by it, judging from their jostling to eye the action in the ring. Facing off: a sawtooth 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 is 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 children who have succumbed to the lure of Mushi King (Bug King), Japan's game craze of the year.

Introduced to video game-obsessed 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 an opportunity to match their card collection of 3-D beetle warriors against rival beetle armies.

On weekends, they choose among 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 a half-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 from arcade machines at 100 yen each, almost a dollar, it is enough to send shudders through a parent on allowance day.

But the gamers at Sega can't stop smiling. Japan 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.

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

Hirabayashi is not convinced that Mushi King can sustain the momentum, asserting that the game's story line lacks the narrative power that allowed Pokemon to grow.

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 complemented when combined with special ''skill" cards.

Mushi King's twist is in the rules of combat: an outlandish 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 demi-monde: the tornado throw, the running cutter, and so on.

Whether Mushi King can travel across cultures as well as Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh remains to be seen. Sega has launched the game in other parts of Asia and is test-marketing it in Dallas arcades to see whether children in America will bite.

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