In a galaxy of video games boasting state-of-the-art graphics and prohibitively complex play, an offering with the surprisingly simple object of beating a drum has been a long-running smash hit.

The unexpected popularity of “Taiko no Tatsujin,” or master of the Japanese drum, has many in the domestic game industry questioning their quest for ever-more complicated games amid a shrinking market.

“Taiko no Tatsujin” was developed by Namco Ltd. and first introduced as an arcade machine in February 2001. Some 4,500 units have since been installed in 3,000 arcades across the country, making it one of the industry’s biggest hits ever.

It was introduced to the home video game market a year ago, where more than 1 million copies have flown off the shelves. The company is scheduled to release the third title in the series for the PlayStation2 later this month.

The player beats the drum-shaped device in sync with the rhythm of the game’s music, ranging from J-pop to classical. A red or blue circle appears on the screen to denote whether the drum’s center or rim should be struck. The percentage of hits in time with the music is shown at the end of each round, which run about three minutes.

The simplicity is attractive to many people who normally wouldn’t have anything to do with video games, such as the elderly.

According to Yuji Tsuyuki, head of sales and promotion at Namco, skepticism was rampant throughout the game’s development. Music simulation games were on the wane.

Yet in-house game artists insisted people would get a kick out of beating a “taiko” drum, which many are familiar with but few have touched.

As apprehension over the simplicity factor lingered, the Namco artists considered adding more moves, such as beating one stick with the other. These, however, never materialized because of technical problems.

“But looking back, the simplicity lowered the threshold for potential players, including small children and the elderly” Tsuyuki said.

Another unintended blessing is its approximation of a real drum, both in appearance and the player’s physical sensations.

Like its rivals, Namco had developed other music games, but most of them flopped. Truncating most of the featured instrument’s functions, they looked downright cheap to players.

“We had this guitar game, in which players just brushed strings of a guitar-shaped device. But it was obviously a fake,” Tsuyuki said.

“In this game, though not exactly a re-enactment of the Japanese drum, people can pretty much enjoy what they would do with the real thing.”

He said its success prompted the firm to rethink what makes for a good game.

Indeed, analysts and the industry’s top officials, including Nintendo Co. President Satoru Iwata, are now saying that highly complex and time-consuming games turn off a potential pool of players.

The concern is grave, given the shrinking domestic market for video game software. According to the Computer Entertainment Suppliers’ Association, the market is estimated to have dropped 8.6 percent year-on-year to 336.7 billion yen in 2002.

“In a sense, ‘Taiko no Tatsujin’ symbolizes the trend of the day, ” said Hirokazu Hamamura, president of Enterbrain Inc., a publisher of video game magazines.

The game addresses an aversion to committing a lot of time to a single activity amid a highly fragmented lifestyle, in which our attention is directed at a huge number tasks throughout the day, he said.

Yet, Hamamura is skeptical that the title’s success will cause a counterrevolution, a return to the era of “Space Invaders,” which flourished in the late 1970s.

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