On Saturday, consumers queued up at retail stores in Japan as Microsoft launched its Xbox 360 game console in its third major market, following high-profile launches in North America and Europe. The Japanese launch, however, was a less frantic affair, with shorter lines and--surprise--readily available Xbox 360 consoles. The North American and European launches were somewhat marred by product shortages.

Despite its relatively diminutive geographical size, Japan is the third-largest video game market in the world, and an important one for Microsoft because its previous-generation Xbox was so soundly beaten there by Japanese video game makers Sony and Nintendo. To date, Sony controls about 80 percent of the Japanese video game market, compared with just 5 percent for Microsoft. This time, Microsoft hopes that a more elegant form factor and its early arrival will help Xbox 360 succeed in the Japanese market where the original Xbox failed.

While Microsoft hopes for a stronger showing in Japan--perhaps even market dominance, which Microsoft officials say is imminent--retail stores in the country described the Xbox 360 launch there as "subdued." Indeed, the fact that Xbox 360 consoles were available well into the day on Saturday suggests that Japan might be a hard nut for Microsoft to crack: Previous consumer electronics launches, such as those for the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) and Nintendo's game systems, were met with far bigger crowds and the devices sold out quickly.

In the meantime, Xbox 360 shortages continue in North America and Europe, though Microsoft insists it continues to ship consoles to retail outlets. For many consumers, the only recourse seems to be ponying up two to three times the retail price of an Xbox 360 to grab one from online auction house eBay. Microsoft tells me the console will be more widely available in retail stores by January or February.