Post-TGS 2009: How to Be an UFO-Catcher Master
Next to video games, the most floor space in Japanese arcades is dedicated to "UFO Catchers." Callously referred to as "crane games" in the United States, these machines beguile you with fabulous prizes—or sometimes less-than-fabulous prizes—that look terribly easy to snatch up in the catchers' big metal claws.
Of course, you should not be fooled. Japanese UFO Catchers are almost never won by grasping something and dragging it over to the prize chute. Fifteen-year-old Catholic school boys have better pickup moves than the claws inside an UFO Catcher. If your strategy is to make a desperate grab, you might as well flush your 100 yen coins down the toilet. Although that seems pretty wasteful, too. And it could damage the plumbing. OK, that was just a bad idea.
Anyway, if you want to hit paydirt with the UFO Catchers, you have to head in with a plan. Preferably this one.
1. Evaluate the prizes. A good-sized arcade will usually have at least a couple dozen UFO Catchers. Take some time to survey the landscape before you jump in. You should be looking for not only what prizes but how difficult they seem to be. Heavy things in boxes are tough. Stuffed animals and plastic toys stacked on top of each other in a mishmash are easy.
You can get of how desirable different prizes are by observing the setups. If a prize is in demand, the operators will raise a little wall around the prize chute to make it harder for you to get one. They know you really want those little brown "Relax Bears," so you'll fight for them despite the obstacles.
Conversely, the less coveted prizes have no retaining wall, indicating that the arcade doesn't care whether you win one or not. They're probably happy that you're taking this unwalled junk off their hands.
You'll find the same stock over and over in various arcades' UFO catchers, but be persistent and you will find some oddities. Here's a machine I found in Nagoya that was stocked with vintage Super Famicom (i.e., Japanese Super NES) games, right next to a machine full of cheap Super Famicom emulator knockoffs. Nice synergy.
Here's an UFO Catcher full of joke toilet paper featuring some of Japanese TV's most delightful comedy duos.
I won a couple rolls of this stuff to give away in Crispy caption contests. I know, you can't wait, right?
2. The grabber is a useful tool, just not for grabbing. Observe the way your machine's claw goes through its motions and figure out how you can use the thing to your advantage. Typically, the two arms spread out, the mechanism descends until it encounters resistance, the arms make a feeble attempt to close, and the mechanism returns to its "home base" to release the goodie that it has, in theory, picked up.
Like I said, this thing's not going to do any heavy lifting, but there are other ways to get the job done. One strategy you should always consider is to position the claw off-center over the item you want so that only one arm gets underneath it when it descends. I call this the "sidearm" technique because I like naming things. When the claw comes back up, it will throw your precious plastic frog (or whatever) tumbling off balance, and tumbling often means an instant win. Chaos is always good in the land of the UFO Catcher.
True masters of UFO-fu will position the claw so that one of its arms—preferably the one farthest from the prize chute, just barely catches the edge of whatever you're trying to grab. If the claw comes down on the corner of a box, or on the cheek of a stuffed animal, it will tilt the item up, allowing the other arm to get underneath, thus creating creating more CHAOS. This can send the prize sliding into the chute or perhaps even land it on the claw's, in which case you've backed your way into an honest-to-goodness pickup.
3. Strategize for the long term, not on a coin-by-coin basis. Not every prize can be won in a single go. If you try to get something in one shot, you'll usually accomplish nothing. Instead, maybe you need to pinpoint a few sidearms in a row in order to nudge your prize toward the hole. Work out a strategy, plop in a 500-yen coin (which usually gives you a bonus play), and pursue your holy grail over a few attempts.
And remember that you're not alone. One lesser-known fact about the UFO Catchers is that arcade staff members sometimes help you win. If you look desperate enough, or if you ask for help by pointing out the prize you want, they will often open up the machine and rearrange it so your desired item is on the brink of the prize chute.
You can't simply walk in and ask to have the machines rearranged according to your whim, though. They'll only help you out if you've been throwing some yen into the machines for a little while. So when you first arrive, put some 500-yen coins in a machine that's close to an attendant. It will pay off later in the evening because they'll know you're a high roller, so they'll be happy to help you out. (This works better if business is slow. At 7 p.m. Saturday in Akihabara, the staff isn't going to lift a finger to help your sorry UFO-Catching ass. But on a weekday afternoon in a area with less foot traffic, they'll usually lend you a hand. Unless they're jerks. Which some of them are.)
With these tips, you can know approach UFO Catchers with confidence, and with a little luck, you'll only end up paying four or five times what your crappy little prizes are actually worth! Gambatte!