For many years, the only legal gambling in Japan related to racing: speedboats, cycling, and horses. However, that never stopped the general public from pursuing a gambling-like pastime called “pachinko,” which the Western world has characterized as “vertical pinball.” It may not be played for money—not directly—but the game is every bit as lucrative for its owners as slot machines are for any casino.
The game is played by shooting silvery metal balls that look like ball bearing into the “flippers” and win slots of a board arrayed with protruding pins. When a ball drops into a winning slot, more balls are released into a tray below the pachinko window. The object is to accumulate as many balls as possible. If all balls are used up, more can be purchased by inserting a coin into a slot on the machine face.
Of course the obvious question that comes up is “What does one do with all the balls?” The answer is to collect them in a bucket or plastic trough and turn them into at a cashier’s desk. The number of balls is counted and a receipt is issued, which can be exchanged for prizes ranging from food products to clothing, household goods, and jewelry.
Those who play regularly know that the items they win are not the real prize. Just around the corner from every Pachinko Parlor is a small store that buys back the goods for cash. The store then sells the items to the parlor and the circle is complete. No laws have been broken and the winners walk away with cash.
Uniting Pachinko and Slots
Enterprising pachinko parlor operators came up with the idea of using the same process with slot machines. They would set up gaming halls that accepted only tokens, not cash. Winning tokens could be redeemed for prizes. Prizes could be sold for cash. On the face, it seemed like a great idea.
But attempts to introduce slot machines to the island nation were met by a cold shoulder from Japanese authorities. They reasoned that pachinko involves a certain degree of skill, while slots do not. There was no attempt to close the slot halls, but they were watched very closely for any evidence of impropriety, such as staying open after posted hours.
Then, Japanese game machine manufacturers came up with a solution. If slots had to be a skill game to pass muster, they would make it so by introducing the “Pachislo” (Pachinko+Slot). The machines look almost exactly like classic slots, but they have a button for each reel that allows the player to decide when a reel should stop. Unless the button is pressed, the reel will just keep spinning indefinitely.
Today, there are more than 1,600 different Pachislo in production. They have themes like Baseball, Aliens, Pink Whale, Volcano, Halloween, Samurai Giants, and much, much more. A skillful Pachislo player can drop jackpot symbols onto a payline as if they were simply meant to be there.
In the United States and elsewhere outside Japan, Pachislo is mainly a recreational device that can be purchased via the Internet for home use. The machines do have a strong following, however, especially among expatriate Japanese and those who have stayed and played in the Land of the Rising Sun.