Where Stars Are Born: In The Arcade

Teens go ape for a Namco video game offering a chance at fame

Satoshi Tsumabuki, 16, stepped into an arcade in the Japanese city of Yokohama one Saturday afternoon and left it with a shot at becoming a star. His means of propulsion: Japan's newest electronic game, Star Audition. Tsumabuki had merely deposited $2.30 into the slot of the arcade game, stepped behind the red flap, and had his photo taken reacting to a series of situations posed by the machine to test whether an aspiring performer has what it takes to make it in show business. Tsumabuki is now in talks with national talent agencies about landing an acting role. "I was so lucky," says the slim, telegenic teen with a dark tan and sharp features.

Earlier this year, one Japanese electronic hit, the Tamagotchi egg, swept the world by appealing to youngsters' desires to raise a pet. Now Star Audition plays off another basic human urge--to pout and pucker before a camera in the hope of becoming a star. So far, Japanese wannabe stars have made more than 3 million tries at finding Lady Luck through the gaming arcade since Star Audition debuted in September. Rather than take on the chore of writing resumes, sending photos, and making demo tapes, Japanese teens are happy to pay a small sum for a chance at fame. The game produces a scorecard, with three photos and a grade, which aspirants can send to designated talent agencies when the audition ends.

The game's creator, Namco Ltd., is itself winning fame as a result. The company, with $45 million in annual earnings on $770 million in sales, started out making video combat games such as Tekken, a 3-D game for Sony Corp.'s PlayStation. Although Japan's Nikkei average is down 17% this year, Namco's stock is up 8%. Chief game designer Yasuaki Matsuda says the karaoke craze in Japan made the transition to electronic audition games a natural one. Star Audition also plays off the recent popularity of an automated photo booth that prints photo stickers, a big hit with teenage girls. "People's growing desire to be expressive has been the most important factor," says Matsuda. "Young people are finding that self-expression, in and of itself, is fun."

QUIZZING. Would-be entertainers endure three minutes of quizzing. First, they are photographed with a digital camera reacting to three out of a possible 15 hypothetical circumstances: how they would respond if their favorite ice cream fell off the top of the cone; how to rouse passions in a love interest; how they look waking up in the morning. The auditioner must then mimic a complex rhythm, determine the best timing to insert a line in a climactic movie scene, and select a humorous answer to a random question.

The machine issues pass or fail scorecards, and high scorers are automatically eligible for a real, national audition organized by the nation's top talent-management firms, HORIPRO Inc. and Amuse Inc. By the end of an October deadline for the first audition, the companies had sifted through 120,000 scorecards and chosen 200 to 300 contestants to audition on stage. A final dozen appeared on television in a national event. "We hope that there will be as many talents as possible emerging from this game," says Yoshitaka Hori, HORIPRO's production director. And so, of course, do Japan's starstruck teens.

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