By Elaine Lies and Megumi Lim
TOKYO (Reuters) - Eager Japanese rushed to their phones on Friday to start hunting as Pokemon GO, the hit Nintendo-backed smartphone game, finally launched in Japan, home of the colorful cartoon characters.
The game has been an unexpected, runaway success from Spain to Australia, doubling Nintendo's value since the game's launch in the United States earlier this month.
Japan, however, had been made to wait, as Niantic, the developers behind the game, and Nintendo sought to ensure servers would withstand the game's popularity. Finally, after days of rumors, it launched on Friday.
"Everyone was talking about why we couldn't do it here, since Pokemon is Japanese," said Maho Ishikawa, a 16-year-old high school student who said she had already captured a monster.
"Since I really wanted to play, I'm very, very glad."
The augmented reality game has players out in their real life neighborhoods 'capturing' monsters on their smartphones as they turn up even in ordinary offices and taxis.
In a video address to Japanese fans, Junichi Masuda, head of development at Game Freak and co-creator of the game, apologized for keeping players waiting so long.
"From today you can go out and find Pokemon to your heart's content," he said. "We hope the game enables users to see the world in a new, fulfilling way. Obey the rules and have fun."
University students in Tokyo on their last day of classes before summer holidays did just that, jumping into the fray within moments of the launch, capturing monsters as a frenzy erupted between classes.
"This game is just as I imagined it to be, it's really fun," said Toshinori Ishibashi, 18, who was seen playing the game near a Pokemon goods store in Tokyo Station.
"It's also a great reason to go outside, so I'm really enjoying it."
The game was created by Nintendo, Niantic and Pokemon Co, part-owned by Nintendo. Both Nintendo and Pokemon Co have undisclosed stakes in Niantic.
As retailers and brands vie for a piece of a hit that takes players from place to place, fast food chain McDonald's Holdings Co Japan Ltd said its nearly 3,000 shops across Japan would serve as spots where Pokemon can be battled or "trained" in the game - within limits.
"Ultimately, McDonald's is a restaurant," said a company spokesman. "We will call on players not to become a bother to customers who are eating."
The game has enthralled players and boosted investors' view of Nintendo's future, as they bet the group can cash in on a treasure chest of other lucrative cartoon characters, from Donkey Kong to Super Mario.
But the game has also prompted warnings, as players glued to their phones become prone to tripping over, crashing cars, getting mugged or wandering into dangerous places.
The Japanese government on Thursday became the latest to issue a safety warning. The country's National Center for Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity (NISC) told users of the mobile game not to use their real names and warned them about the risks of heat stroke in the muggy Japanese summer.
A number of other Asian nations still await the game, including China, the world's biggest smartphone and online gaming market. Niantic Chief Executive John Hanke has said it would be technically possible to launch there, but noted a host of complex rules and restrictions.
Nintendo shares, which have seen a meteoric rise in recent days, climbed in Tokyo trading on Friday but pared gains to close up under 1 percent. McDonald's Japan ended up 4.2 percent.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies and Megumi Lim; Additional reporting by Naomi Tajitsu, Lisa Twaronite, Makiko Yamazaki, Ritsuko Shimizu, Teppei Kasai and Kwiyeon Ha; Editing by Clara Ferreira Marques)