Discover Vintage America - SEPTEMBER 2018

It's not a pinball machine, but pachinko

Q: I was at an estate sale and bought what I thought was a pinball machine. Pinball machines sell for a lot of money on the reality TV shows. Due to my excitement, I really didn't look it over. I paid for it, asked for the base and was a bit surprised when they told me there is no base. Took it home and figured out that it is a pinball machine that must hang on the wall. Any information you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

A: What you have is a very popular, Japanese gambling device called a pachinko machine. People go to pachinko parlors to play this game; imagine more than 200 people and machines lined up side-by-side and almost back-to-back. That is what a typical pachinko parlor looks like. The noise is almost painful.

The pachinko machine dates back to the 1920s and early machines did have legs and looked similar to today's pinball machine. Production stopped during WWII then re-emerged in the late 1940s and has been going strong ever since.

To play the machine the first thing you need are the small steel balls. These balls are "rented" from the parlor and they serve as the active playing piece as well as the prize and the bet. You load one or more balls through an opening at the top of the machine. The player then presses and releases a small handle and the balls fall into the active playing field and it is game on.

Machines made through the 1970s were mechanical, meaning that the player has no control, such as flippers, to guide the direction of the steel ball. I guess you could call it the luck of the fall. The ball travels down the machine bouncing off of brass pins and other obstacles, while the player's one desire is that the steel ball will fall into one of several tiny holes or catchers which will send it down a chute in to the win tray on the lower front of the machine.

The player's only recourses are the automatically controlled flippers over the top of the catchers. If one can time the ball drop just right it will come upon the catcher while the flippers are open. The object of the game is to capture as many balls as possible. These balls can then be exchanged for prizes.

Pachinko machines were originally strictly mechanical, but modern machines have incorporated extensive electronics, becoming similar to video slot machines. Even though the earlier machines were mechanical and the player had little control over the path of the ball, there were bells, flashing lights, the sound of the ball bearing hitting the glass front. Smoking is allowed in pachinko parlors and each machine has its own little ashtray on the bottom front. Add the smoke to all the noise and one big headache is in the making. Nevertheless, the Japanese people love it.

When you are ready to "cash in" you take the steel balls won over to a counter where they can be exchanged for small token gifts such as lighters or key rings. The player then exits the parlor and goes to another shop where their prize is exchanged for money. This was how things were done before gambling was recently legalized.

Pachinko may sound like a silly game even with the new flashy video gaming experience. Yet, it brings in $200 billion nationwide and has 3.2 million people addicted to the game. Sounds like the only winners are the parlor owners and the government.

Gambling has recently been legalized in Japan. In 2023, the big fancy resorts will be allowed to establish in Japan gaming tables, slots and all the wonders of a big casino. With the popularity of pachinko, the gambling palaces want a piece of that pie. The pachinko parlors also have to rebrand themselves as gambling parlors. In pachinko's heyday in 1995 there were 11,000 parlors. Already, the country has seen 40 percent of their pachinko parlors close, so legalized gambling is already taking a toll on this longtime, much loved form of gaming.

Most of the pachinko machines on the market are from the 1970s; this applies to your machine. If your machine were fully functional with the steel balls, lights and bells it would sell for $150. If the background is colorful and overly elaborate this will increase the price by as much as another $100. The primary reason that these aren't more valuable is that the market is glutted with pachinko machines from the 1960s and 1970s. The older machines do have more value

If you have a pachinko machine that needs to be repaired, like mine, parts are readily available online. I have even located a book on how to get the lights and bells working again with a 9-volt battery.


Note: All prices given are for sale in a private sale, antique shop or other resale outlet. Price is also dependent upon the geographic area in which you are selling. Auction value, selling to a dealer or pawnshop prices are about half or less of resale value.

Michelle Staley is a Lenexa, KS-based dealer and researcher with 35 years of experience in the antique trade. Send questions with photos to Michelle to publisher@discoverypub.com. Please keep queries to one question; questions without photos of the item may not be answered. Michelle is also available for consulting and extensive research work beyond this column. If you would like an appraisal on an antique or collectible please go to www.michelleknowsantiques.com for a one-on-one appraisal.