Push a sword into one of the 24 holes in a barrel and a pirate figurine could come flying out. Those are the simple and straightforward rules of Pop-up Pirate (Japanese title: Kurohige Kiki Ippatsu), a party game that first made its appearance 40 years ago and has since sold 12 million units.
Developed by Tomy Co., a Katsushika Ward, Tokyo, toy maker known for its miniature Tomica car line, the game was born in an old residential area and continues to be popular with people of all ages and nationalities.
The game was thought up when about 40 Tomy development staff members held a brainstorming session in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1974. Sales began the following year.
It is unclear who named the game or why the character is a pirate, but one explanation is that it occurred to a developer as he was looking out at the sea.
Gen Ikeda, 40, currently responsible for Pop-up Pirate promotion, was born in 1974, the same year the idea for the game germinated. He has played the game at Christmas parties or family gatherings since his primary school days.
"I never imagined I'd have this kind of responsibility," he said.
The game, now in its sixth edition, has undergone minor changes, such as changing the pirate's beard from a goatee, as seen in the first version, to a full beard and making the barrel about two centimeters larger in the later version. The game is sold in more than 10 countries, including the United States, and some couples reportedly use it to decide who apologises first in an argument.
The corporate culture of the "meeting of ideas," which produced Pop-up Pirate, has not changed at Tomy even now. Once a month, the developers meet in a conference room from morning to night and engage in free discussion and brainstorming. They say the majority of new products come from these types of creative meetings.
Ikeda said: "Surprise is universal. We want to keep protecting the worldview we've inherited while incorporating popular trends. Our desire is to make a truly 'national' toy that can be found in every home."
Quiz show appearance
From 1976 to 1988, the Fuji TV network's show "Quiz! DoReMiFa Don!" had a popular segment in which contestants would try to catch the pirate with a ladle when it popped up.
In Pop-up Pirate, the story is that a pirate captain was captured and bound with rope, and it's the player's job, as the pirate's henchman, to cut the ropes with a sword to try to free the captain. Therefore, in the game's original rules, the winning player was the one who sent the pirate flying when they pushed in their sword.
However, the original rules were reversed on the show. The contestant, whose sword made the pirate pop out, might have their points reset to zero, or might miss out on the prize if they failed to catch the pirate with a ladle afterward.
As a result, Tomy was flooded with a barrage of questions from customers asking how the game was actually won, and in 1979 the company changed the format so that the players themselves decided how the game should be won.
From 1995, however, the rules on the box have clearly stated that whoever makes the pirate pop up loses.
Toru Moriya, the director of the show, said: "The three things the show was most famous for were the intro quiz, the X-mark mask, and Pop-up Pirate. That heart-pounding, fist-clenching excitement was indispensable to DoReMiFa and became synonymous with the show's image."
'Three in a thousand'
"You don't need to explain the rules, and there's no advantage or disadvantage for experienced or new players. Those are the two basic principles of the game."
This is how the game's popularity for Pop-up Pirate is analysed by Kazuyoshi Wakabayashi, president of Omocha no Pony, a toy store in the Nakano Broadway complex building in Nakano Ward, Tokyo.
Wakabayashi has been at the store for almost 50 years, and he recalls demonstrations of the product held after the game was launched. Children would cry out "wow" and "amazing," and the game was so popular that it would quickly vanish from store shelves. "Sales were unprecedented," he said.
A common saying in the toy industry is "three in a thousand," meaning that even if a thousand different new products are shipped, only three or so would survive the fierce competition. The products that he recalls continuing to sell for more than 40 years do not exceed 10.
"Everyone can play and be surprised, regardless of their age," Wakabayashi said. "It's a model of what an excellent toy is all about, and it's precisely that which makes it the original party game."
With 40 years since its release, Pop-up Pirate was, and continues to be, Wakabayashi's go-to game recommendation for families.