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Shopping for Pachinko Machines

After the family’s Atari 2600, my favorite childhood game was my father’s pachinko machine.

I don’t know how he came by it. I suspect he brought it home when his time in the service ended. Regardless, it joined the family before I did, and the sound of hundreds of little metal balls rolling into the reservoir and pinging around the board is on the soundtrack of my childhood. (A mixtape that also includes 8-bit Frogger sound effects and New Kids on the Block’s first three albums.)

A metal flipper sent ball after ball flying through the machine, bouncing between the pegs, not completely unlike the Plinko board on The Price is Right, which was usually playing on the TV in the other room. Occasionally those balls would fall into different “attractions” on the board—colorful tulips or white doves within the game, or maybe an owl. (Was there an owl? I’m pretty sure there was an owl.)

It was essentially vertical pinball with a physical payout at the end.

In pachinko parlors and arcades in Japan, the balls paid out by the game can be exchanged for prizes. If one were so inclined, one could then exchange those prizes for cash at shops outside of the parlor. But still, it's not viewed as gambling, which is illegal there. Pachinko is a family-friendly attraction.

We hit that flipper harder than necessary in order to launch tiny metal balls through the game, one after another in quick succession. And when the orange tub at the top of the machine was empty, and had nothing more to give, we would continue hitting the flipper incessantly, just for the sound of it.

It was a truly glorious sproing.

How it didn’t fall apart is beyond me. There were four of us kids, all hitting that machine as though gold coins, rather than ball bearings, would fill our bucket if we won.

My father gave the machine to my brother. I am bitter. I imagined us kids arguing over it years and years (and years and years) from now, after our parents passed away. I didn’t want to fight, but nostalgia is a dangerous drug, and I was prepared to do what it took to get my fix.

But that was a while ago. I’m at the “acceptance” stage of pachinko-grief now, and hunting for a replacement. Preferably the exact same machine I grew up with. Anything else would still be played incessantly in my home, mostly by me, because my own daughter would turn her nose up at this odd device that runs on gravity, rather than electricity. But if I did have to settle, my youthfully exuberant laugh, which would emanate through the house as I alone hit that flipper again and again, would contain a scoonch less whimsy, and just a dash of woe.

Finding the exact game I grew up with will be difficult, because our machine was completely unmarked, I’m told. And without those labels, the manufacturer will be difficult to narrow down, because the game’s attractions aren’t a good way to identify its maker. William Cardwell, who owns Pachinko Restorations, and specializes in restoring old pachinko machines said this is because most features are manufactured by a third party.

“I have seen the same main attraction on three different manufacturer’s machines,” Cardwell said. Some of the larger companies even had sub-companies making attractions under a different name, he said. At one time, there were hundreds of pachinko manufacturers, and the smaller companies would buy the parts to build the machines from the larger manufacturers.

Though features are plentiful and cross manufacturers, meaning I could conceivably find a game with attractions reminiscent of the ones I remember, the playfield (or background) of any given game was made for a very limited time—generally only a year.

So it’s likely I’ll have to settle for a different machine than the one I grew up with. But I’m sure with enough estate sale shopping, I’ll find one in working condition.

These machines often end up tucked away in closets and basements, and fall into disrepair. So to find one in working order, at a price I’m willing to pay, may take a while.

“When pricing a pachinko machine if planning to buy one, remember the 4 Cs,” Caldwell said. “Condition, Completeness, Cleanliness and Commonality.”

How does the game look? Glass covers get broken, and wooden frames get warped and cracked. Parts stick, or don’t operate correctly. Water damage can cause rust, which will affect the game both aesthetically and mechanically. The playfield can also fall prey to water stains and peeling laminate.

“How much work will it need to get back to a workable state,” Caldwell asked.

Related to condition: if you’re missing parts, you’ll need to find replacements. Balls can be ordered online, and the original collection tub can be replaced by modern plastic storage bin in a pinch, but if mechanical parts need replacing, or the attractions have issues, that’s certainly something to take into consideration, particularly as your budget is concerned.

“The most common problem with the machines that I get in are that they need a good cleaning as they have been in storage for over 45 years,” Caldwell said. But a dirty machine is more than just an aesthetic issue—it can affect the game mechanically. (See “condition.”)

In the 1970s, millions of these machines were imported to the U.S. and sold in department stores. Anything before this era is far more likely to be rare. “Some of the more rare machines are made in the 40s and 50s,” Caldwell said, and their mechanics are made almost entirely of metal. Most vintage pachinko machines run on gravity alone. The few vintage electromechanical models from the 1970s may command a higher price.

But a “rare” machine does not a “valuable” machine make. Functionality, frankly, is the key matter. Or, if it doesn’t function, does it have parts that can be used in other machines? The more common machines, Caldwell said, have the benefit of having more readily-available replacement parts, but a less common, non-working machine with usable parts will have more value than a functioning but common model.

It’s tricky. (I sometimes wonder if Run-DMC was singing about buying pachinko machines at estate sales, rather than rocking rhymes that are right on time...maybe it’s a metaphor.)

There are machines available for under $100, but before you take the plunge, consider what level of effort you are willing to put forward to have a functioning machine. Are you prepared to refurbish the machine yourself (which can require considerable time and hundreds of dollars, depending on the machine), or have someone do it for you? Or are you, like me, looking for something that already runs, knowing good and well that if you buy one that needs work, it will sit in a corner of your house until it decides to behave itself, which it never will, because it’s a machine and not a child? Caldwell reminds us, “a machine is only worth what someone will pay for it.”

Know what you want, know your limits, keep your nostalgia in check, and you should be okay.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.


Thank you to William Cardwell, for use of the picture featured in the header image.

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