UFO Catchers – Tricksters of the Japanese Arcade

Being good at UFO catchers isn't about how big your wallet is; it's how you use it that counts.

You’ve seen them around. A cabinet full of plush toys, and a single mechanical claw dangling inside controlled by a joystick or a pair of buttons. You already know that UFO catchers are a rip-off, a bygone product of the 80s and 90s, designed to ensnare the proud and the inebriated. “Why are these things still in existence?” you might be wondering. “Surely people must realise that these things never actually pay off, right?”

Oh, but they do, gentle reader. They do.

I never would have believed it myself were it not for my time here. University students, salary men, senior high school girls – I’ve seen all of them manoeuvre those claws with micrometer precision, as if they were docking a space station in low orbit. They used those pitifully weak claws to ever so patiently edge those prizes into the chute…and they succeed consistently, paying no more than a few hundred Yen per prize.

It isn’t rigged – you’re just playing a different game

UFO catchers prey on the softest, most malleable part of our psyche – our hubris. It all looks so simple, and we are suckered into the idea of an easy win. Maybe you’ve been burned by them once before, tricked into thinking that you can get yourself (or your hot date) a big ol’ plushie.

However, succeeding at UFO catchers requires thinking outside the standard idea of how claws are meant to function. The key reason behind this is that the actual grip force of the claws in UFO catchers is incredibly weak. The claws can’t lift the prizes into the air, because:

  • The prizes are too heavy or too big (oversized plushies, clocks or wastepaper baskets) for the claws to obtain a necessary purchase on the prize, so that prizes can not be lifted up;
  • The prizes are too small for the claw to make an adequate grip (mobile phone decorations, ice cream, chocolates);
  • The claws are poorly designed for gripping (no rubber extensions for grip, flattened tips to minimise grip surface area);
  • Other external factors that are used in the game (surfaces with high friction, inclines, modified claw pneumatics).

Despite these factors, prizes are far from impossible to get. All you need to do is use the tools available to your advantage.

The many ways to プライズ GET

Due to the popularity of UFO catchers, there are several different game types that go beyond the standard “claw pickup”.

I’ll talk about the different kinds you may encounter in Japan or your local arcade, and some strategies on how to succeed.

1) The Pincher
As the name suggests, this UFO consists of two arms that close in a pincer movement. The range of the arms opening is usually equal to the width of the UFO’s body. I also find that the tips of the claws stop at the same width as the bend of the closed arms.

Machines with Pinchers have prizes of all values available for winning.

The UFO will keep its arms open until it fully descends, then it will close its arms and then rise to its original height while repositioning itself over the chute. As is to be expected, the strength of the arms is far too weak to pick up prizes. There is also often no grip (in the form of rubber or something similar) on the ends of the claws, and they’re flat-tipped, which means there is less surface area to actually make a grip on something.

This is okay, though – the idea is that you utilise a combination of the prize’s weight and physical characteristics to move it closer to the chute. Round objects can be rolled, and cardboard objects can be dragged on smooth plastic. This differs from prize to prize, but the general idea is that you’re not aiming for a one-shot win – you’re looking to move the prize into the chute over several attempts. ¥400 for an exclusive alarm clock is still a pretty good deal, no?

Some games have a heap of smaller prizes, such as mobile phone accessories. In this case, it makes more sense to shift a mass of prizes so that gravity and inertia send them into the chute, rather than attempting to individually pick up a single prize.

2) The Single Finger
This is just like a standard Pincher, but with a claw removed. It operates in exactly the same way as one with two claws. One way this game operates is by adhering plastic rings to prizes, and requiring the player to move the prizes using a single claw and the rings.

Some machines, such as this one pictured, have a "dedicated" single finger. The mechanics are still the same.

Of course, the grip force of the claw is weak, so other tactics such as shuffling, dragging and pushing down are key here.

The single finger is also used in a number of other game configurations, which are described in detail below.

3) The Suspended Prize
Large, high value prizes are bound in rubber bands and hung from a plastic ring. The base of the plastic ring is then balanced on a ball of rubber at the end of a white rod. Prizes are kept in place by the friction caused by the rubber attachment. You are given a single finger to work with.

These games can be deceptively difficult, and requires a high level of precision to succeed. Capitalise on prizes that have already been moved by others.

Naturally, the single claw does not have the necessary strength to lift the prize off the rod. These games usually require a combination of see-sawing the plastic off the rubber attachment (which is a precise and potentially expensive process), or using the downward force of the claw to pivot the plastic in a certain direction. Alternatively, you can press the claw onto the rod itself, then allow the claw to snap back into the plastic, knocking it off the rubber attachment:

Attempt to swing the plastic at the black arrows, push down at the red arrows, and flick at the plastic from the blue arrow.

Continue on to Part 2

10 Responses to UFO Catchers – Tricksters of the Japanese Arcade

  1. Pingback: UFO Catchers – Tricksters of the Japanese Arcade | pseudo-macro

  2. corecorina says:

    I kicked ASS at UFO Catchers during my trip to Japan – literally won every prize available to the SEGA arcades. But for whatever reason, the locals seemed to find it hard to win and were enthralled by my winning streak. I find these games so easy… no idea why people have trouble winning.

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  8. Bratt says:

    Hey! Thank you for the advice! I’ll try tonight haha!

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