Western countries have online entertainment platforms packed with various machines, gaming tables and more. Japan has pachinko parlors, where a ridiculously popular and very addictive pinball-style game is played by millions of Japanese people. This game, pachinko, is in fact so popular that it once managed to generate as much as 5.6% of the country’s GDP. What’s even more remarkable is that pachinko generates more revenue than three major gaming markets – Las Vegas, Singapore and Macau – combined.
Though it’s faced a lot of competition in recent years from different forms of gaming, in particular, mobile gaming on smartphones and tablets, pachinko is still big business in Japan. Parlors up and down the country continue to welcome keen players, and the demand for these games is still significant. If you’re interested in this national obsession and want to learn more, keep on reading. We’ll go through the basics of the game and show you why this simple yet compelling game has become one of Japan’s major pastimes.
Think of a pinball machine. You pay, launch the ball up the side of the machine, and it falls down through the playing field, hitting various things on its way and potentially earning you prizes and other goodies. Pachinko is similar to a typical pinball game, except for a few key differences, which are summarized in the table below:
As you can see from the table above, pinball is played with a titled playing field, and only a few balls are used; these balls are stuck inside the machine and can’t be taken out. As for pachinko, its playing field is vertical, and its balls are smaller, more numerous and can be removed from the machine. In fact, the balls get removed from the machine during normal gameplay so that players can determine their ‘winnings’ and prizes.
Pachinko parlors typically have many rows of pachinko machines lined up. To play, you first of all have to pay for pachinko balls to use. Then, you load these into the side of the machine and use a spring to launch the balls up the side of the machine – you can launch one at a time, or one right after the other if you like.
Once a ball reaches the very top of the machine, it falls to the bottom, hitting pins and other things along the way. It can either end up in a catcher, or it can drop into a hole at the bottom of the playing field. If it ends up in a catcher, you’ll win and will get more balls – these are deposited into a tray in front of the machine. If you win, you’re free to use any number of the extra balls you receive to keep on playing.
Many modern pachinko machines have tulip catchers – these are catchers that open and close either at random or in a pattern. These add a lot of excitement to playing pachinko because if they’re random, you never know when they’re going to open or close; on the other hand, if their opening and closing are regular, you can time the launching of the balls to boost your chances of the balls landing in the catcher.
Pachinko machines come in a wide range of themes – anime characters and shows are particularly popular, as are international IPs. Some of the many brands that are licensed to appear on pachinko games include the following:
Though brands that originated overseas make for popular pachinko themes, its franchises that originated in Japan have enjoyed the most success. In terms of estimated sales revenue, the biggest pachinko brand by far is the Japanese manga series Fist of the North Star, which follows the hero Kenshiro as he defeats enemies in a post-apocalyptic world.
You can play pachinko online games that vary greatly in theme, they also vary in their features, payouts and general gameplay.
In Japan, gambling for actual money is illegal. However, playing pachinko can technically be considered a form of gaming that’s permitted through a legal loophole. When you play pachinko, the only thing you can win is more balls. Once you’re done playing, you press a button on the machine, and an attendant then comes by, confirms how many balls you have left, and gives you a receipt as proof.
Each pachinko parlor has its own exchange center where you show your receipt and can earn prizes. There are two main types of prizes: regular ones, which include everyday items such as sweets, pens, electronics or even supermarket vouchers; special prizes, which are small tokens of silver or gold. What makes special prizes particularly attractive to pachinko players is that they can be exchanged for real money, though not at the pachinko parlor itself because this would be considered illegal.
To get around Japan’s strict laws, people take their special prizes to nearby establishments that are separate from pachinko parlors. Here, they’re allowed to effectively sell their prizes for cash. These establishments are usually just a short walk away, though sometimes they can be as close as the next building down.
Pachinko is exceptionally popular in Japan, but why? There’s the fact that it lets you win real money, albeit by circumventing Japan’s laws. There’s also the game itself: it’s very easy to play and is mostly down to luck (some would say there’s a skill in launching the balls, but others would disagree), so anyone can play it. Most parlors forbid children from entering, so the vast majority of players are 18 or older. People from all walks of life enjoy playing pachinko, especially those who have some money to spare.
The name ‘pachinko’ comes from the sounds that the machines make when the balls are launched. The game itself can trace its roots to the 1920s when Japanese companies started releasing children’s toys based on billiards. By the 1930s, it had spread throughout Japan and was a lot more like the game that’s played today. Development of the games came to a halt during World War II, though once the war was over, the game experienced a surge in popularity.
Up until the 1980s, pachinko machines were entirely mechanical. As technology advanced, machines started incorporating electronic features, such as video screens and high-quality animations and sound effects.
It’s estimated that there are some 9,400 pachinko parlors in operation throughout Japan. This figure is a decrease from 2012 when there are nearly two-and-a-half thousand more. As we mentioned in the introduction, the game has suffered a slight decline in recent years, though it’s still regularly enjoyed by millions of Japanese people.
Pachinko could be threatened if Japan ever decides to formally legalize online gaming. Should land-based entertainment platforms become common across the country, this could take away business from the pachinko industry. Or, it may be that the two industries could co-exist without gaming having too much of a negative effect on pachinko.
It is possible to play pachinko online, even though it’s mainly a real-life game played throughout Japan. You’ll find digital versions of pachinko at quite a few online entertainment platforms, including many that cater to the Japanese and broader Asian markets. Despite the fact that pachinko technically isn’t a risky game, when you play online, there is an element of risk for real money. There’s also the option to play pachinko for free, though at most online entertainment platforms you’ll need an account to play free games.
If you like the sound of the pachinko machine, be sure to visit one of Japan’s many pachinko parlors if you ever visit the country. Visiting one of these is an experience in itself and is a must-do for anyone looking to get a taste of contemporary Japanese culture. It’s estimated that as many as one in eleven Japanese people visit pachinko parlors at least once a week – see what all the fuss is about, and it may be a highlight of your Japan trip!
To see what the game’s like for yourself without having to travel all that way, play it online at a top-rated gaming site. Take a break from playing games such as Starburst or Game of Thrones online and see what makes this Japanese game such a big hit. You may even find that you really enjoy playing pachinko.