The Pachinko Machine - Japan’s Cross Between a Slot Machine & Pinball Machine

Japan is home to a lot of unique items, practices, and ideas that often come off as a bit weird to foreigners. There is no particular challenge when it comes to experiencing Japan’s culture, as its busy streets are often filled with countless opportunities for tourists to get an overview. From their naked festivals to their interesting fashion trends, a walk down Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto is absolutely far from boring.

However, on a hot summer day, it may not be that ideal to take a stroll under the blistering heat. Even the locals quickly duck in from one building to the next, looking for an oasis. More often than not, tourists will notice many of them heading into buildings adorned with bright and colorful lights known as pachinko parlors – Japan’s version of slot arcades.

The History of the Pachinko Machine and the Pachinko Parlor

Many of Japan’s pachinko machines are very modern and make use of state of the art technology. They are often referred to as vertical pinball machines by tourists, given their similarities in terms of mechanism and aesthetics. As such, it is normal to think that these mediums for entertainment only popped up in the last twenty years or so. However, the origin of the pachinko machine can actually be traced back to as early as the 1920s.

Based on the Corinth Game, a children’s toy inspired by the Western game, Corinthian bagatelle, pachinko (from the words pachin, which refers to the sound made by dropping balls, and ko, which means ball) machines were built to help both adults and children pass the time. These mechanical devices consisted of balls, pockets, and bells for the actual game and a few lights for indicating problems. Players would launch a ball using a flipper and earn points or prizes based on which pocket the ball will fall.

Initially, it was meant for home use but soon found its way into markets, festivals, and candy stores, offering prizes such as pencils, sweets, and fruits. By the 1930s, the game became quite popular and slowly adjusted to better suit the needs of adults, providing prizes such as vegetables, soap, tobacco, and soy sauce, instead. Pachinko parlors started popping up across Japan but got shut down during the World War II.

When the parlors re-opened in the late 1940s, pachinko became even more popular primarily because of tobacco. By the 1950s, pachinko further gained recognition as an addictive game after Takeichi Masamura, or the pachinko king, remodeled the machine to efficiently direct and control the balls using systematically placed turning wheels and nails.

Pachinko in Modern Times

With the rise of computer technology, pachinko machines were transformed to incorporate sounds and graphics for more excitement in the 1980s. In contrast to its prior models that required players to learn the right twists and tricks to win the game, a randomized system was integrated into the modern version to dictate winnings.

The pachinko machine has not undergone any drastic changes since then. Pachinko parlors are now quite prominent in Japan, showcasing colorful lights and going by baffling names such as Omega, Paradise, or Stardust. These establishments greatly contribute to Japan’s economy and are considered as vital components of local cityscapes.

Stepping inside, tourists will be welcomed by an overwhelming amount of noise from the machines and smoke from the cigarettes of passive players. The sight may raise a few alarms within foreigners, but other than the issue of getting addicted, pachinko parlors are relatively safe.

Playing the Pachinko Game

Pachinko parlors can be loosely described as legal casinos. Japan follows a strict law when it comes to gambling but pachinko survives on a loophole regarding prize claiming. The game, which is best described as a cross between slot machines and pinball machines, does not directly use cash but uses small steel balls, instead.

To acquire these balls, a player must insert money into the upper left portion of the pachinko machine and press a button located near its bin. One ball is usually priced at 4 yen, so the bin will be filled with the equivalent number of balls as the amount of money inserted by the player. The balls are the key elements of pachinko and are the only thing that a player can control using a knob often located at the lower right corner of the machine.

Each pachinko machine features a board with drums, gates, and pins. The game is played by launching a steel ball into the board and hoping it falls into a gate. More often than not, the balls end up falling into the hole at the bottom of the machine after a series of bounces across the board. On the occasion that a ball falls into a gate, a player may be rewarded with ten free balls or a spin on the pachinko’s virtual slot machine.

Winning at Pachinko

Pachinko is pretty simple, but its simplicity makes it all the more difficult and addicting. Furthermore, the game has a mode called Reach, which a player can enter upon getting two spins of the same number. When this happens, the LCD or LED screen of the machine switches to its corresponding reach mode which is often an animation of a good guy (representing the number needed to win) and a bad guy (representing any other number) battling each other.

Players often encounter the reach mode after four or more spins, making their emotions fly every time. The mode is quite repetitive in nature so the sight of something unusual, such as a change in a car’s color or a change in a character’s outfit, can make a player’s heart race.

These changes are sometimes used to ignite excitement and other times to dictate that the good guy will win in the reach mode. When these are followed by a series of bright and loud visual and audio cues by the pachinko machine, a jackpot is often expected.

If the animation ends with the good guy winning and the screen presents the winning combination (three spins of the same number), a loud ballad will be played by the machine and a flap underneath will open up to collect the player’s remaining balls. The machine will then convert each collected ball into ten new ones, which the player can dump into a plastic tray with the press of a button.

These balls may be used to continue the game or be exchanged for prizes. For the latter, a player must call one of the pachinko parlor’s staff members using a button on the machine. The balls will be carried by the staff member to a counter, which will automatically count how many balls the player has won.

A card or voucher indicating the total number of balls will be given to the player, afterward, and serve as the payout method. This card can then be used at the exchange center of the parlor to claim simple prizes such as pens, electronics, cigarette lighters, and chocolate. Special prizes are also available and often come in the form of a small gold or silver item.

Pachinko balls cannot be directly converted to cash, as dictated by Japan’s regulations but the prizes won by a player may be sold to establishments often located near the pachinko parlor. The Japanese government tolerates these transactions since the pachinko parlors are completely separate from the stores that buy the special prizes.

The Design of Pachinko Balls

Each pachinko parlor incorporates a symbol into the steel balls used for the game. This is done to prevent players from using pachinko balls from other parlors. Pachinko balls may have a unique design or simply be engraved with the parlor’s name. As such, some locals take home a few pieces and add them to their collection of pachinko balls.

Vintage Pachinko Machines (Nishijin, Sankyo, Pachinko Palace) - Value, Repairs, and Putting Them Up For Sale Online

When newer models of the pachinko machine were developed, many pachinko parlors sold their older models at relatively cheap prices. Today, these vintage pachinko machines are no longer playable as its corresponding balls have gotten lost but are great collector’s items.

Purchasing or selling vintage pachinko machines can be quite competitive given that tens of thousands of the product were produced since it was first invented. For example, on American online stores such as craigslist or eBay, about 300-400 pachinko machines are constantly available for sale. Prices for these items can range from $20 to over $1,000, depending on the following factors:

  • Age – the age of a pachinko machine often dictates how rare it is. The rarest ones come from the 1940s while the most common ones come from the 1960s and onwards.
  • Workability – the workability of a pachinko machine is a vital factor in dictating its price. If it can be played without a problem, a higher price may be put on it. For those that no longer work, they can be sold as parts machines, which buyers often purchase to acquire a certain part they need to repair their own pachinko machine.
  • Dirt and Rust – the amount of dirt and rust on a pachinko machine's frame, front panel, top side, and interior can lead to a lower price. These things make it look unattractive and can sometimes make the machine run faultily. If a pachinko machine has too much rust in it, it may be better to sell it as a parts machine, instead.
  • Playfield – the playfield refers to the glass, board, pins, and gates of the pachinko machine. If these things are not in mint condition, the machine’s value may no longer be that high.
  • Balls and Accessories – having the original balls and accessories of the pachinko machine are great bonuses and increases its overall value.
  • Mechanics – although many vintage pachinko machines rely on gravity alone, some do incorporate a few electronics. If a machine has too many missing or broken parts (lamp, wiring, power button, light, etc.), it may be best sold as a parts machine. 
  • Theme – many pachinko machines made during the late 1970s follow a certain theme (butterfly, sumo wrestling, tulip flowers, etc.). As such, certain machines may be more valuable to others. 
  • Manufacturer – there are a lot of pachinko machine manufacturers including Pachinko Palace, Diichi, Kyoraku, Monko, Monami, Okumaurayuki, Maurdai, and Heiwa; the most common ones being Sankyo, Nishijin, and Sanyo. Machines done by less popular manufacturers may increase its value in terms of rarity, but more common machines are just as valuable because of the ease of finding replacement parts.

For sellers, the number of repairs a pachinko machine would need should also be considered when putting a price on it. Simple repairs can easily be done at home but several online stores also offer repair services exclusively for pachinko machines.

Pachislots (Konami’s Metal Gear, Capcom’s Street Fighter, and Resident Evil)

Many of Japan’s video games have pachinko machine counterparts known as pachislots. These are also available at several pachinko parlors but are much more prominent at video arcades. They are referred to as recreational pachinko, offering more play time for the same amount of money. Unlike pachinko machines, pachislots are a bit more slot machine-like than they are pinball-like. The steel balls won by a player may be exchanged for tokens, which can be used for the arcade’s other games.

These pachinko machines are popular amongst children, casual players, and people looking to play the game in a smoke-free and less tense atmosphere. Some of the most common pachislots are:

  1. Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater Pachislot by Konami
    Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 3 is remade as a pachinko machine, featuring Snake Eater and his first duel with Ocelot, last duel with The Boss, and everything else in between. It also has a few mini-games that follow the same theme.
  2. Chun – Li Pachislot by Capcom
    Capcom’s Chun-Li Pachislot features the female character from their popular video game, Street Fighter. It features several missions Chun-Li must solve as well as appearances from other Street Fighter characters such as Cammy, Rose, Guile, and Zangief.
  3. Biohazard Pachislot by Capcom
    Biohazard Pachislot is based on Capcom’s Resident Evil. It follows the game’s Mansion Incident storyline but the characters’ fates are based on the results of the game.

“Pachinko” – A Book by Min Jin Lee

A lot of people, in and out of Japan, have questioned the purpose and essence of playing pachinko. Although it does not violate the country’s laws on gambling, trading the prizes for money makes the line between pachinko being a game and being a source of income quite thin.

Min Jin Lee uses pachinko in her book bearing the same name as a reflection of a Korean family’s experience with success, suffering, tradition, and prejudice in the Land of the Rising Sun. The story tackles 70 years of the family’s life, covering four generations. The book has little to do with the game but is highly recommended for foreigners to understand history, particularly Japan’s colonization of Korea, the World War II, religion, and the role of women in society.