Pachinko tutorial time

I don’t know how much you know about pachinko, but I’m… what’s the furthest thing from an expert? I’m one of those. But let’s pretend.

For those not in the know, pachinko is a popular Japanese gambling pastime. Legally, it’s not considered gambling, and any time someone suggests the authorities crack down on the very extensive and very notorious gambling culture around the hobby, it’s always met with sputters of feigned disbelief. Pachinko and crime are closely interlinked, but honestly it’s about as benign a front-end for organized law-breaking as you could possibly imagine. Does the Yakuza have ties to pachinko and the ease with which you can swap your non-monetary winnings for cold, hard cash? Yeah, probably. But Vegas has mob ties, too, and the main difference between a pachinko parlor and a Vegas casino is that the former is likely to be much better lit and generally less depressing.

But the idea is still the same. Pensioners drop coin after coin into games of random chance, hoping for a big payout. Slots and pachinko aren’t exactly the same thing, but they’re founded on common principles. Both boil down to sheer luck, yet both give players a vague sense of agency and control by allowing a moderate degree of interaction. With slots, it’s about when you pull the level that determines (in theory) the outcome of the reels. With pachinko, it’s where you fire the balls.

Actually, pachinko gives a little more control to the player. A pachinko machine generally consists of a decorative backboard embedded with hundreds of tiny nails that create paths through which steel ball bearings drop. If they drop into the machine’s gutter, too bad, they’re lost. But if they fall into specific holes, your score rises. If you’ve seen Plinko on The Price is Right, you’ve seen a tremendously simplified version of pachinko. The real thing, however, has much more elaborate nail paths and introduces many more opportunities for chaotic interactions between balls, nails, force, and gravity.

The player’s control over a pachinko game boils down to aiming the ball. This works a bit like pinball, as the ball shoots up a ramp and the amount of force you use determines where on the field it lands. The difference, however, is that in pinball you keep working with that one ball once it enters the field. In pachinko, it’s just one little soldier on a relentless onslaught as you plaster the machine with ball after ball in the hopes of landing as many as possible in the targets.

It’s not so difficult, then, to grasp the appeal of pachinko in its basic form. Sure, it’s all about getting lucky, but it does involve some element of skill based on your ability to keep the stream of balls on target. And there’s always the possibility that if you do really well, you can talk to some shady guy for a cash payout… unofficially, of course. And that’s probably why Tokyo’s pachinko parlors have a line around the block when they open up every morning.

But as with slot machines, once you render the experience into computerized form, the appeal becomes harder to explain. Remove the actual physicality of the game and replace it with a virtualized version, and suddenly it’s not about getting a feel for the machine and learning to hit the nails just so. Instead, it boils down to a mechanical process in which you hope the computer’s physics simulation works in your favor. It’s a fine difference, but an essential one.

Pachinko regret time

And so we have Pachinko Time, brought to you by the fine folks at Marionette and Coconuts Japan. Pachinko Time is virtual pachinko, and therefore fundamentally more or less pointless, so far as I can see. I say this not out of cultural ignorance because it’s a Japanese thing I don’t get; I also don’t understand the appeal of solo casino video games. Video poker against an online opponent? Sure. Imaginary slot machines? No, and please keep that stuff out of my Dragon Quests, thanks.

You have to give developer Marionette points for trying, at least. Pachinko Time aims big, offering up more than 100 different imaginary pachinko machines. Each machine possesses a startling level of detail — you can zoom in for a close-up view of the nail patterns — and the whole thing is tied together with a mini-adventure game framework in which you take control of a living pachinko ball who needs to complete at least three machines per region in order to move on to the next.

Unfortunately, that’s about the best I can say for Pachinko Time. Those more-than-100 “different” machines aren’t actually all that different; each nail pattern repeats several times, with only fine distinctions between them — so far as I can tell, some have subtle differences in the patterns, while other have different objections. But the “gameplay” boils down to holding the A button to launch a seemingly endless stream of pachinko balls at the targets.

The rules are simple: You have two numbers to work with. One is your finite number of balls, and the second is the score you have to whittle down by hitting targets. Your goal is to reduce the score to zero before your ball counter hits zero first. Each ball you launch deducts one from your stock, and if it rolls into the gutter the debit is permanent. On the other hand, if you hit a target you gain back a large number of balls for your stock. On the easier tables, it’s pretty likely that you’ll end up with a stock of balls several times that which you began with. Different tables assign different values to the targets, and others have modifiers that affect scoring as well.

But to be blunt, it’s all incredibly boring. Even the easiest machines take 15 or 20 minutes to complete, and literally all you’re doing is holding down the A button and fine-tuning your aim as the stream of balls drifts slowly over time. Meanwhile, it’s accompanied by some of the most irritating music you’ll ever hear, looping over and over, with shrill sound effects and flashing visuals that just add to the annoyance.

And yet it seemed to have done well enough for itself. This is only the first of many, many Game Boy pachinko titles to come. And it, in turn, appears to be a spiritual follow-up to Mezase Pachi Pro: Pachio-kun, a Famicom game previously published by Coconuts Japan. Although that particular title had been programmed by C-Dream rather than Marionette, and Pachinko Time doesn’t carry over the Pachio-kun name, the conceit of an anthropomorphic pachinko ball going through a lightweight adventure by flinging tiny versions of himself at targets remains consistent between the two. A great many of Game Boy’s pachinko releases came from the one-two combo of Marionette and Coconuts Japan, in fact.

There are some Game Boy games whose failure to make it to the U.S. seems fairly heartbreaking. But somehow, we managed to survive without Pachinko Time.


Pachinko Time

Japanese title: パチンコTIME
Publisher: Coconuts Japan
Release date: 12.8.1989 [JP]
Genre: Casino (pachinko)
Super Game Boy: None
Previous in series: Mezase Pachi Pro: Pachio-kun [Famicom, 1987]
Next in series: Onigashima Pachinko-Ten [1991]
Similar titles: Pachinko Kaguya Hime [1992], Pachinko Seiyuuki [1991], Pachinko Monogatari Gaiden [Atelier Double/KSS1995]




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