How Does Pachinko Work?

If you have only a passing familiarity with the name Pachinko you may simply recognize it as the name of an arcade game played in Japan. What you may not know, however, is that Pachinko is descended from the same Renaissance era board games that gave rise to billiards and pinball. The earliest Pachinko-like game was developed in France and was called Bagatelle. This game was adopted in England and took various forms in its evolutionary path. By 1819 a standardized form of Bagatelle was being played in England, France, and North America. Ivory balls were bounced off fixed wooden pegs with the goal of dropping them into pockets.

By 1910 a wall-mounted game called The Circle of Pleasure became a popular gambling device in British pubs. The game used a slingshot flipper to fire a small glass marble upward into the puzzle-like area. By the 1920s a child's version of Bagatelle had been developed in England and this was called Corinthian Bagatelle. Corinthian Bagatelle was imported into Japan in 1924 and became popular in candy stores, where the children called them Pachi Pachi (approximately meaning "clicking game"). The Japanese called these games Korinto Gemu. To save space, in 1926 game makers redesigned Korinto Gemu to be played on a wall-mounted position, adopting some of the features of The Circle of Pleasure. New innovations were added every few years to complete the evolution of these games into the modern Pachinko game.

Today's Pachinko games look and work like a blend of pinball machines, upright labyrinth puzzle boxes, and slot machines. A labyrinth puzzle box is usually made of wood (although plastic is common in cheaper models) and covered with glass (or transparent plastic in cheaper models). The inside of the box is divided into a maze-like pathway by small walls. Metal balls or beads roll around inside the box and the object of the puzzle is to get all the balls into a matching number of pockets.

A Pachinko machine is a game of chance and skill. Although Japanese law forbids most forms of gambling, lotteries, betting on horses, and Pachinko were grandfathered into exceptions for historical and cultural reasons. But a restriction was placed on Pachinko in that this game cannot be played for money. Instead, all you can win at Pachinko is pachinko balls. This is very similar to how children's arcade games work in North America, although the arcade games award tickets to players instead of balls.

The Basic Parts of the Pachinko Game

A typical modern Pachinko game consists of the upper hopper where you deposit balls, the lower hopper where balls you win are collected, the game controls, the vertically mounted maze into which the balls are fired, the video screen positioned behind the maze and completely visible in the center, and an inaccessible hopper in the back of the machine. The video screen plays clips from movies or television shows, usually associated with the theme of the game, until a gambling sequence is triggered. Up to four gambling sequences can be queued and the queue is displayed in the form of four lights next to the screen.

Pachinko parlors are set up very much like North American arcades. There is a "shop" area where prizes are on display and a service counter. The games are set up in rows and either mounted into walls or otherwise arranged so that players cannot get to the hoppers in the back. Only parlor employees have access to the rear hoppers.

How to Play the Game of Pachinko

A patron either purchases balls from the service counter or puts money into the Pachinko machine, which then dispenses a number of balls into the upper tray on the front of the machine. The player then turns a knob that adjusts the amount of force used to fire the balls into the machine. The player must also touch a metal ring or some other firing mechanism to initiate the game.

As the balls are fired into the machine they pass down through the vertically mounted maze. The player's objective is to get as many balls as possible into one of several pockets. The most important pocket is the centermost hole just under the video screen.

The secondary pockets award more metal balls to the player. The central pocket sends a metal ball to trigger a game on the video screen. Balls that drop into the pockets are lost. These are considered "played" balls. Balls that do not drop into pockets are returned to the player to be fired again. In this way if you do not win any more balls you'll eventually use up your initial supply of balls and either end your game or purchase more balls.

The balls you win are dropped into a lower hopper on the front of the machine. You can either use these balls to refill the upper hopper or you can drop them into a collection basket that holds the balls until you are ready to exchange them at the service counter.

How the Video Game Works

When a ball drops into the central pocket and triggers a game sequence on the video screen, the film clips that were playing are replaced by a video game that looks like a slot machine. Usually three randomly selected symbols appear. If a winning combination forms you are paid more pachinko balls. Whereas the secondary pockets may award you 10-15 balls, the video game winning combinations can award you a far greater number.

Some winning combinations trigger special bonus games. These bonus games may award you even more pachinko balls. The more balls you win the better. However, there is a twist to the bonus game feature. Every now and then the spin results in two of three numbers matching each other. You need a third number to win the bonus. The number you need must fight a duel with another number that foils your luck. The numbers may be represented by Samurai or characters from the movie or television show upon which the game is based. For example, Yoda may fight Darth Vader in the Star Wars Pachinko game. This pre-bonus duel is called The Reach.

Because players can constantly fire balls into the game it is possible that more than one ball will enter the central pocket before the first video game has finished. The game records these triggering events in a queue of up to four games. After that point the machine simply ignores more successful hits until it has finished at least one video game. Players must therefore learn to stop firing the balls when their video game queues fill up.

Here is a little more about the Reach. Players learn to expect defeat in the Reach but they have also learned to watch for clues from the game that the next Reach may go their own way. When the player loses a Reach duel his character (number) may look sad or ashamed. When a new Reach is about to be played the game may become more exciting, louder, or it may display different colors.

If you win the Reach the game draws in all the balls still in play and rewards you with 10 or 15 more per ball. This can last for 1-3 minutes. After the win is paid out you enter what is called "Lucky Time" and you get 100 free spins on the video game. If the numbers that triggered the bonus were red you are guaranteed good luck. If the numbers that triggered the bonus were blue your luck is randomly determined.

How Pachinko Depends on Player Skill

Although all the player has to do is turn a knob and activate the firing mechanism, the amount of force that is used to propel the balls into the game's vertically mounted maze must be varied over time. This is because of simple physics. As the balls bounce around inside the machine they transfer their kinetic energy in the form of vibrations to the machine, thus affecting the perturbations of the balls as they fall through the maze. And if two balls hit each other they will both alter the other's trajectory. Hence, a constant flow of force achieved by holding the control knob in a single position will not achieve the same result for every ball.

As the game fills up with balls the player needs to ease back on the force used to propel new balls into the machine or to stop firing balls. At the same time the player must pay attention to how many video games have been queued so as not to lose any balls unnecessarily. Once the balls fall through the game's pockets they are lost to the player and either the player receives a prize in the form of more balls or a video game or the balls are wasted.

The player also needs to watch the receiving hopper so that it doesn't overflow. As players win more balls they either have to collect them into baskets or scoop them up and put them into the upper hopper to feed more balls into the game. This is a minor distraction that does not significantly impact game play but the more smoothly a player manages the balls the more experience he likely has.

Players press a button to request assistance from arcade employees in replacing the collection baskets, which are stacked on the floor beside the players.

How Pachinko Players Claim Prizes and Money

When a player is ready to exchange his pachinko balls for prizes he takes his collection baskets to the service counter where an employee dumps them into a counting machine. The machine tallies up the balls and prints a ticket which the employee hands to the player.

At this point the player may use his winnings to purchase any of a variety of prizes from the arcade shop. Prizes may include alcohol, cigarettes, or plush toys. Players can also purchase small plastic tokens with gold leaf in them.

These plastic tokens may be taken to a nearby Tokyo Union Circulation (T.U.C.) shop where they can be sold for cash.

Etiquette in Pachinko Parlors

It is courteous to match the bow or head nod of the attendant who is serving you.

Gloating and celebration are considered rude behavior. Whereas in an American casino people may laugh and light up a cigarette as their slot machines rack up huge payoffs, in a Japanese Pachinko parlor you are expected to sit there and suffer through your joy and elation in silence. Well, the polite thing is to not gloat over your success because other patrons are already feeling envious of your good fortune.

Expressing anger and frustration are also equally frowned upon. If you feel the need to burn off some energy it is best to get up and go for a short walk. Players who have been feeding the machine without much success may be feeling anxious or even ashamed if people around them have been winning. Remember, there is some skill involved in the play.

Because space is at a premium the floor space between rows of machines may not be very generous compared to huge American casinos. Always watch where you step because the players will not appreciate any apologies if you accidentally kick their baskets, which are piled on the floor beside them. Also, don't try to help clean up pachinko balls you scattered because that creates doubt about your intentions.

You should always call an attendant to switch out the baskets for you. Do not switch the baskets yourself (besides, where will you get an empty basket anyway?).

Finally, some players have figured out how to jam coins or other objects into the controls. Once they find a "sweet spot" where they are more likely to sink a lot of balls into pockets, they want to keep that magic going (which is foolish given how the video games work). This is, of course, blatant cheating. The attendants will ask you to stop, might ask you to leave, and could (perhaps) even have you arrested if you refuse to play by the rules.

Japanese culture places great value on courtesy and consideration for others' private space because people must stay so close together. There are crowds everywhere in the large cities and personal space may seem much smaller of necessity but it is just as important as in a western country where everyone has more room to themselves.