Ah the cornerstone of almost every game center in Japan, the UFO Catcher, or crane games as we call them in the US. Delightful prizes that seem just within your grasp for the low low price of 100 yen. It’s only hundreds of yen later as you watch the plush whatever-it-is fall back onto the playfield from a loosening catcher grip that you think maybe there’s a reason the game centers stay in business.
I was particularly lucky on my last trip and wanted to share some general best practices I found helpful when playing UFO Catchers in Japan. This is by no means a “you’ll win every time” guide, but it should help increase your win rate. May the odds be ever in your favor.
Where/what should you play?
I try to stick to the Sega or Taito Game Centers. They seem to be more ‘fair’ in that there’s at least an attempt to enforce some kind of return to player win rate. They’ll also be stocked with games that give you a lot more control over what happens rather than some of the sketchier places that rely on random chance mechanics like dice rolls or where a ball lands.
Just from my own personal observation, I’ve never seen anyone win the machines where you have to poke holes in paper with a spike and I’ve only seen one win on the ‘cut the string’ machines.
Would you buy the prize?
Seems reasonable, right? Ask yourself if you saw the prize in a store is it something you would buy? I’ll often see a family of tourists crowded around a machine where you can win a scantily clad anime figurine. There’s always winning things for the sport of it (I did that a lot on my trip) but it’s good practice to take a moment to decide whether you’d want the prize and how much you’d be willing to pay for it in a store. Take that into consideration before putting your money into a machine where you’re not guaranteed a win.
Watch someone else play first
If at all possible watch someone else play the machine first. You’ll learn so much about the machine on someone else’s yen and it will help you decide whether or not you think the machine is winnable at all.
Things to look for when someone else is playing:
How fast does the claw move? Does it drop and rise slowly or quickly? How much time do you have to make adjustments and how sensitive are the buttons?
When does the claw stop gripping? Look for what prevents the claw from closing. Some power through resistance and others stop when there’s a strong gust of air. This is particularly true of prizes like plushes that are often stacked.
When does the claw lose its grip? All of them do, it’s just a matter of how much strength is lost and often on which side. See if you can spot a weak and a strong side and factor that into how you position the claw. Very rarely does “straight down the middle” actually work.
Does the claw change position? You’ll often experience the claw twisting slightly and/or moving forward or backward while descending. Something else to account for when lining things up.
Keep your eye on the prize! How did it react when the claw hit it? Is it light or heavy? Very rarely does someone completely miss touching the prize, so by observing the ‘lose’ state you can start to look at different ways it might be winnable.
Downward pressure can be your friend
To put it another way, there are sometimes less obvious ways to win. For some machines the strongest push comes from the claw descending, not gripping or lifting. As an example, for the Kirby cell phone case I positioned one of the claw blades to hit the back edge of the case on the way down, flipping the whole thing over and into the prize bin. This also goes for a lot of UFO Catchers where the prize is balanced on something and it’s easier to win by banging on it with a downward claw blade rather than relying on a weak grip. Watch other people play and you’ll get an idea as to whether or not it’ll work.
Set a limit
Seriously, limit how much you spend on one machine. The Sunk Cost Fallacy makes people irrational and I’ve seen countless players pump tons of money into a game to either win at an insane cost or walk away frustrated and empty handed. Not everything is easily winnable and I’d argue in some cases winning is virtually impossible. My personal limit is around 500 yen which can net you 6 plays on most machines.
Watch the employees
There are always attendants around and occasionally you can spot one of them going from machine to machine, opening the coin door, and looking in. They’re checking to see how many plays there have been since someone last won. If the number is too high you’ll see the employee reset the prize in an easier to win configuration by placing it closer to the edge or shifting the prize slightly. Once they’re done you probably have a better chance than before.
Talk to the employees
This is very hit or miss and it depends largely on the person you talk to and your language skills. You can ask employees what’s the best way to win and they’ll usually give you a pretty good explanation, sometimes even opening up the glass to show you where to grip. For the bold you can even ask if they will place the prize so it’s easier to win and I’ve seen employees comply. I don’t ask a lot and have had mixed results, so your mileage may vary.
Become a vulture
Probably the most controversial of tips, but it is a strategy. There are some games that are impossible to win on one go and require a number of attempts to move the prize into winning position. Frequently players make progress but then give up after a few tries. It’s at that point you can swoop in and finish the job. Most often it’s machines where a prize is dangling from a platform balanced on a peg. You need to scoot the platform back and forth off the peg because the claw isn’t strong enough to pull it off the first time.
See the man or woman roaming around the game center with a bunch of bags full of prizes? They’re likely employing this strategy.
You have to get it home
While it’s exciting to win a giant plush Dragon Quest Slime the size of a beach ball, remember at the end of the day you’re going to have to find a way to get it home. Compression bags (space bags, packing cubes) can help with plushes but figurine boxes chew up tons of luggage space if they even fit at all. Also, you’re going to have to lug it around the rest of the day so now’s a good time to remind you of the rental lockers often found near metro stations.
Even if you don’t win a prize it’s playing the game and that anticipation, the experience, that you’re paying for at the end of the day. You’ll see a lot of groups playing in game centers helping to line up the crane, trading strategies, having friends around to cheer they win, and commiserate if they lose. I love seeing people win, especially if they're with little kids who get incredibly excited. UFO Catchers are a lot of fun and I’ve walked away from machines having just missed winning with a smile on my face.
Due to space limitations I gave away everything I won on my last trip but I got to keep the memories and these tips to share with you today. I hope you found this post helpful and good luck on your next trip to a game center!