Photo:Dick Thomas Johnson on Flickr

UFO Catchers in Japan

Crane games are very popular in Japan. They are called UFO catchers and are usually located in arcades and amusement parks with different kinds of prizes. And no, they are not actual UFO, as in space ships, but they are much fun.

You might be confused about why such an old-fashioned entertainment is still popular in Japan? Japan is usually presented as a country innovative in technologies including video and smartphone games. However, the UFO catchers are placed with other game machines of all kinds (dancing, shooting, etc) and the famous photo booths called purikura. All together they create an oasis of colorful game centers.

Photo: on Flickr

What are the prizes? Absolutely anything. It could be stuffed toys, jewellery, accessories, anime figures, and even food. What makes it attractive and long-lasting is the novelty of characters. There are of course some old rather classy toys like Mickey Mouse and Chip n' Dale. But most of the time there are popular characters from anime, manga, or for example the cute cats from the mobile game Neko Atsume.

One strange thing I discovered about the Japanese UFO catchers is that, there is an age limit to enter the game center. Children are not allowed to play! I wonder whether that is because neighboring pachinko parlors allow smoking indoors? Meanwhile, a discrete drink at the UFO catcher appears to be okay.

Photo: Philipp Knall on Flickr
AKB48 UFO Catcher
AKB48 UFO Catcher. Photo: Mun Keat Looi on Flickr

Could it be the gambling spirit of the games that makes them so addictive? Usually, one game costs 100 yen. You can often play 6 games at once for the price of 500 yen. These machines only accept 100 or 500 yen coins, and cannot return change. So for those lacking in coins while entering the game center, there are exchange machines with different options to convert a 1000 yen note into either 10 coins worth 100 yen each or 2 coins worth 500 yen each. Many machines accept Suica/Pasmo cards as well.

Photo: Stephen Nakatani on Flickr

How do you play? A UFO catcher in simple terms is a glass box full of toys. There is a device with a hook to lift a toy. You get two buttons to move the device and pick the toy. The machine then tries to lightly grab and lift the toy. If it succeeds, the toy is dropped in the bottom where you can reach it.

Is it hard to play? All depends on your skills and luck. The UFO catchers are designed in a way that the toys are either a bit too heavy or slippery to be lifted. Players need to consider the UFO catchers as an opportunity to find an unconventional solution, so to speak. For example, instead of trying to lift the toy one may prefer pushing it to the edge from where it falls to the bottom.  There are lots of articles online on how to win and which strategy to use for each particular case.

Photo: Danny Choo on Flickr

And one more thing to consider when playing UFO catcher. Avoid talking to the staff trying to make you buy toys. Yes, that actually happened to us once. In Osaka a staff gave us a ticket that was supposed to let us play 1 free game. Then he insisted on helping us by showing how to win. Finally, he offered to buy an item. That was an absolute waste of time, so be careful.  Not to say they can't be helpful, if you found the toy to have moved too many times and into an impossible position, you can always as an attendant to 'reset' the toy to it's general starting point and start over again.  They won't put it where you can easily get it, but they can fix an impossible situation.

Good luck!

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