Game centers, arcade and pachinko.

Japanese obsession for arcade and pachinko games makes these stores one of the biggest entertainment markets in the world. Pachinko parlours in particular get an extraordinarily high income, bigger than the gambling capital of the world – Macau. In fact, yearly revenue from pachinko is equivalent to over 4% of the Japanese GDP. Popularity of arcades in Japan is yet another phenomenon. Even though game consoles have become an affordable item Japanese game centers and slots never lost their clientele. Number of customers is still very is high. Sight of people lining up, awaiting the start of stores’ business hours, is not a rarity.

Business tradition for some arcades and pachinko parlours is almost 100 years long and that is why Japanese people often treat them as very familiar places. For some its nostalgia, for others socializing with friends that brings them to play and have fun. Games changed over the years too and some stores have very new equipment and machines, which customers want to try out. Few brands also have special memberships for the regulars that allow for getting points and discounts when playing. So let’s jump into one of these arcades to see what is that fuzz all about.

Ground floor of almost every arcade is filled with claw machines (here usually reffered to as crane games), which can give this cheap thrill of winning, that is if you know how to correctly play them. Japanese youtube trending page is often filled with many tutorials on the correct technique for every type of claw machine. Games have recently become way cheaper, with 1-play costing between 100 and 200 yen. Some of them may seem rigged but in fact they are fairer than their Western siblings. They require much training and luck, and there is no other way to learn than trial and error. So unless you have amazing luck on your side, you are probably going to spend a bit before your first catch. Prizes vary from very useless and cheap plushies to well detailed and expensive figures, there are also some accesories such as towels, pillows, posters (good luck on decorating your house with things won from claw games, cause it is definitely going to save you some money) and lastly, you can catch food too, including sweets, savory snacks, breakfast flakes, chewing gum and last time I also found canned tuna, yum.

Learning the correct technique for claw games is not easy, but I recommend on spotting claw game experts on their work as well as asking the staff on tips where to aim for each and individual game. That is because even the same type of games have different sized and shaped prizes and cranes’ strenght and grip rarely are set to maximum power. Ultimately claw machines make for a cool fun with friends because they add a bit of competitivity to a game that otherwise can be quite frustrating. Be careful of overindulgence, because not every item is worth spending several 100 yen coins to get (especially not a lollipop or a beforementioned can of tuna).

My personal favourites are the music related games. One of them recently stood out in popularity, because of its very satisfying mechanics. That game is called taiko no tatsujin. This rhythm based game requires players to play a single drum, called taiko drum, and get enough points to fill the spirit gauge by playing well enough. Playing taiko no tatsujin is very stress-releasing in my opinion and becomes even more so if you get better and better at it. Compared to claw machines on which you can spend few thousand yen in a duration of several minutes, taiko allows you to play two whole songs for only 100 yen if you are playing alone, 200 yen if you choose multiplayer.

Another rhythm based game I love is dance dance revolution. Japanese game centers would not be complete without those machines and different places have different models. Modern ones have better touch sensitivity and easier controls, but I still prefer the old ones because I am a sentimental type (also there are less people waiting to use the older arcades, so be sure to take an advantage of that). In 2018 those games had their 20 year anniversary, so game publishing company Konami created their newest machine. Look for it in Japanese game centers, because it is a blast.

Then there is the horse racing simulator. Or simulators, because these machines too have their variations. To understand the hype of this particular game one must know a bit of Japanese history. Horse racing was introduced to the Japanese by Europeans in 19th century. It quickly became a very popular gambling form, one that was not later made illegal, like for example many card games. To bet on horses you can even use your computer or a smartphone app. Attention horse racing got was the reason why it finally made an entry as a video and an arcade game. As for the games themselves the most popular are not just luck-based betting games. Players can make decisions that give their horses big advantages during the race, such as buying horses better quality feed or petting them (to be honest I do not know how much petting affects winning chances, but it is a feature in those games). Depending on a machine races are displayed either on a big screen or simulated by plastic horse figures actually racing on a very large table that looks like a stadium. I personally prefer the latter because it is funnier to watch. Both games will also display races on individual players’s screens, so following the pace of the race is not a hard thing to do.

Overall I think horse racing simulator games are the hardest ones to play, because newcomers can struggle with understanding the rules at first. However, it is one of the most impressive looking games in a game center. Even people not playing stop to look at races and their results.

Nevertheless, all those games are far behind pachinko in popularity. As mentioned before, pachinko is undoubtedly the king of Japanese games due to the amount of revenue parlors get from it every year. First machines entered Japanese stores in 1924 and were supposed to be an amusement for children who would win candy if they get a high enough score. Kids called them pachi-pachi because of the sound silver balls made when hitting smaller parts inside the machine. It was in the 30. when the machine was remodeled to dispense coins for players who managed to get a good score and it was then when pachinko became a national trend. Producers of pachinko games released a great number of models throughout the years, but the pachinko we now today (the ones with blinding LCD lights and deafening music) first around around 1980.

Pachinko inside pachinko parlors is a form of gambling and available only for people above the age of 18 (also people are allowed to smoke inside), but playing inside a game center is available for everyone. This is because you cannot win money in a game center and balls won can be exchange only for some kind of a prize. Parlors on the other hand have prizes that can be exchanged in a nearby building for money, therefore making use of a loophole in a Japanese law on gambling.

Rules of playing pachinko are fairly easy. Even if a machine one is playing is extremely intimidating due to amount of strange characters and lights same rules apply for every machine. The goal is to hit the jackpot which will cause the machine to spit a big amount of balls you will be able to exchange later or immediately use to play longer.

Pachinko is considered a solitary game and players do not like being disturbed. If you ever went to a pachinko parlor you may have noticed that most of the customers are very focused on their screens and prefer being given their personal space. Inside the parlor music and different sounds make it very hard to hear another person, but you rarely hear any conversations between the players. Take this under consideration if you decide to go and play for yourself.

What you can get from this blog entry is that people in Japan enjoy their games and arcades very much and that they are in fact a fun way of spending your time alone or with friends or family. Playing (spending) in moderation is advised and with that advise applied you are sure to have a good time. Definitely give it a go on your next trip to Japan.

Wojciech Zukowski

Writer and arubaito for Japan's trusted wi-fi rental company, Lucky Wi-Fi. Sanguine personality nerd, addicted to learning japanese and going to karaoke.

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