Popularity of Mushroom Videogame Grows Like a Fungus in Japan
An Understudy in the Kitchen, the Nameko Becomes a Star; Lunch Boxes, Music VideosTOKYO—In the culinary pecking order for Japanese mushrooms, the nameko, a gelatinous, light-brown, tack-size variety for the ordinary Joe, doesn't carry the meaty versatility of a shiitake or the high-price allure of the seasonal and fragrant matsutake.
But in the world of smartphones, this slimy mushroom—often found in miso soups and soba noodles—is an unlikely videogame star. The trilogy of games entitled "Nameko Saibai Kit," or "the kit for cultivating nameko," is one of the most popular smartphone games since its June 2011 debut with 32 million downloads. That falls well short of Angry Birds levels of more than one billion downloads, but it is about twice the level of its nearest Japanese competitor.
The game sounds mundane but it is addictively simple. The goal is to grow and collect different (and fictitious) varieties of nameko. Harvesting—done with a swipe of the screen—more mushrooms allows users to upgrade virtual cultivation equipment such as heat lamps and humidifiers. Better equipment results in more rare types of nameko, such as the Kebab fungi (named so because of its skewer-ready shape) and Capless (no cap, only stem).
The game's sprouting popularity is the latest example of Japan's preoccupation with the mushroom, or kinoko in Japanese. The country's forestry agency calls mushrooms "a blessing of the forest," while even humdrum supermarkets routinely sell a dozen different varieties of mushrooms. Certain types of fresh matsutake, or pine mushrooms, sell for as much as $800 per pound in Japan, and one of Japan's most popular snacks—Kinokonoyama (mushroom mountain)—is a mushroom-shaped cookie with a chocolate cap.
"In Japan, even kindergartners can name several types of mushrooms. The fact that everyone is so familiar with mushrooms may contribute to their popularity," said Yuto Ban, who helps promote the nameko game for software developer Beeworks.
Long before the nameko game, Japan's most famous videogame character, Mario, ate mushrooms to grow larger, handled his business in the Mushroom World and chilled with his mushroom-cap wearing buddy Toad—short for Toadstool. Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's 7974.OK +6.29% legendary game designer known for creating "Super Mario Bros.," said he loves not only eating mushrooms but enjoys how they often appear in "strange or weird" stories.
Takashi Murakami, a contemporary Japanese artist known for his pricey handbag collaborations with Louis Vuitton, often depicts mushrooms in his paintings and sculptures. Even in corporate marketing, Japan's biggest mobile carrier NTT DoCoMo Inc. 9437.TO +5.69% uses a family of cartoon mushrooms to promote its family data plans.
Because of Japan's mountainous terrain, the Japanese are in proximity to many varieties of kinoko—translated literally as "tree's child"—and hold a deep affection for them, says Web designer Kinoko Toyoda, a pen name she uses on a blog she writes about mushrooms in art and fashion.
Every few months, Ms. Toyoda hosts "kinoko nights"—an event that draws about 100 people to exhibit works of art depicting mushrooms or show off unusual mushroom goods such as her own prized possession: an aroma candle that gives off the scent of a morel mushroom.
"The acceptance of Nameko as a game character is because the Japanese are a mushroom-loving people," said Ms. Toyoda, who celebrated her wedding with mushroom-shaped cake and added mushrooms to her flower arrangements.
The nameko game's popularity was largely happenstance. Beeworks created the amorphous, bucktoothed fungi with a short stem and spindly arms and legs as a side character in "Touch Detective," a 2006 game for the Nintendo DS. In the game, a young girl detective keeps the mushroom as a pet while solving mysteries.
When Beeworks decided to make "Touch Detective" into an iPhone game, it decided to promote the title with a simple, free app featuring the fungi character. In three weeks, the company created "Nameko Saibai Kit." Almost instantly, the game was a hit, and its main character became a multimedia sensation.
The nameko song—which begins with the bulb-shaped mushrooms dancing under what appears to be Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night—has been watched on YouTube over 10 million times in less than a year. A promotional video for the game cracked YouTube's top 10 most-watched videos in Japan for 2012. An illustrated encyclopedia of the different nameko characters—of which there are more than 200—was Japan's second best-selling book in the last week of April, trailing only acclaimed author Haruki Murakami's latest novel.
The game's popularity has spread beyond Japan, with a following in Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong.
Beeworks has launched a nameko merchandising blitz covering 1,400 items such as a battery-powered bicycle emblazed with nameko, a fungi figurine wearing a sumo outfit, and cola-flavored nameko candy.
On a recent weekend, the sixth floor of a large toy shop in Tokyo received a nameko makeover as part of a one-month promotion. The floor was plastered with wallpaper featuring mushrooms, while the nameko song played on continuous loop. Shoppers snapped photos in front of a plastic nameko, looking over the hundreds of nameko products. "They're so cute! I love them," said Megumi Shinohara, 16, clutching a letter set, plastic files and a lunch box featuring an array of the mushrooms.
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"I'll be happy if the game can influence sales of our kits," said Mr. Takayama. "But playing a game is different from growing real nameko."
Write to Daisuke Wakabayashi at Daisuke.Wakabayashi@wsj.com and Mayumi Negishi at firstname.lastname@example.org