One thing that any geek will notice when they visit Japan is that there are gaming arcades everywhere. While arcades in North America seem to have fallen out of favour, their eastern counterparts are still frequented by teens and even people in their 40s. Something that seems common to all Japanese arcades is that the first floor is always full of UFO catchers, also known as crane machines.

 In North America, these machines usually contain some lollipops that aren’t even worth the money you put in, or they have some stuffed toys that are impossible to win (like the one shown below) because the crane isn’t strong enough to carry the toys to the opening.

However, in Japan the UFO catchers actually give you a decent chance at winning prizes, and usually the prizes are much cooler than that little dinosaur toy in the machine at Wal-mart. Japanese machines will usually have one prize set up so that it is winnable, don’t even bother with the others, they’re just there for show. Take, for example, the Hello Kitty machine below. One of the prizes is flipped over so that the crane can grab onto the plastic flaps at the bottom of the packaging. If you win the prize and want to go for another, just ask the arcade workers to “restock” the machine.

While machines that actually pick up the prize are the only types you see in North America, Japan also has machines that make you roll the prize into the hole. Once again, there will only be one prize that is set up to be winnable, but it’s almost always the one right next to the hole. Depending on the setup, there are two ways to win with these: drop the catcher off-center so one claw nudges the prize over, or drop the catcher off to the side so that one claw pushes down on the edge of the prize and causes it to roll towards the claw.

Stuffed toys are definitely the most common prizes you find in these machines, but there are also ones that have things in boxes placed on a platform. The boxes will usually have a ring taped on top of it or holes punched into the sides to try to convince you to grab onto the box a certain way. Don’t fall for this trick though, those UFO catchers have nowhere near the gripping power needed to lift up the box. The way to win these prizes is to nudge the box close to the walls of the platform (while making sure the distance between the wall and box is about the same as the height of the wall) and then tip it over by having one of the claws land at the very edge of the box. While the catchers are very weak when it comes to grabbing things, they push down very hard and are able to tip a box onto its side and over the platform wall. Below is one such machine and a diagram I drew to make it the steps clearer.

Another type of UFO catcher are the ones with pillows and pillow cases sitting on some metal rods. These ones are tricky because at first glance, you would think that you could slide the prize down by picking up the top part. Unfortunately, there are little pieces of rubber on the lower rods that prevent the prize from sliding down (shown below). To win with these machines, you have to pick up the bottom part of the prize (resting on the rubber pieces) and have it fall down bit by bit. It takes a lot of tries to finally win, but considering some of these pillow covers (especially the anime ones) sell at over $100, they’re not going to make it easy.

One of the UFO catcher types that require more dexterity than others is the prize hanging off the end of a metal rod. As usual, the catchers are too weak to life the prize off the rod, but most people manage to figure out that you have to turn the ring 90 degrees (parallel to the rod) so that it just falls off. While this is the right idea, it is usually impossible to turn the ring completely 90 degrees. Your best bet is to turn the ring as much as possible and start shaking the rod. How do you shake the rod without smashing the machine, you ask? Simple, you just have to land one of the catcher’s arms directly on top of the rod. As with the tipping of the box, the catchers push down very hard and are able to shake prizes off the ends of the rod if the ring has been turned enough. In older machines, you can even see scratches on the rod from people that have done this.

The next type of machine is my personal favourite. If you take a good look at it, you’ll notice that the prize has a large head and body but small neck stuck between two pieces of plastic. At first glance, you might think that you have to nudge the prize to the opening in the middle. While you could spend $50 nudging the prize bit by bit, there is an easier way to win. A lot of stuffed animals have little strings on the top of their heads allowing you to hang it from someplace. To win at this machine, you simply have to hook one of the claws around the string and it’ll drag the prize to the larger opening, often only in one try.

This last type of UFO catcher is similar to the pillow cases resting on the two rods, except it’s exponentially harder. There are also pieces of rubber underneath the prize in order to keep it from sliding, but it is far too heavy for the catcher to do anything except push down on it. I have not won or seen anyone else win from one of these machines before, so if any of you have any tips, feel free to share.

These are just a sample of the types of UFO catchers that you can find in Japan and a few helpful tips when it comes to winning. I know there are other machines out there and more experienced UFO catcher players, so if you have something to add, just leave a comment.

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