Can Pachinko be Skill-based? Taking a look at Hanemono
When I looked at vintage pachinko, I speculated that pachinko isn’t as popular in the United States now as it was in the 1970’s because the automatic shooter made it too distant from pinball. But that’s just speculation; I have to try things for myself. And I’ve decided to look at a type of pachinko that doesn’t get as much attention in the west: the hanemono, or wing-type. But as for the question in the title, well, remember Betteridge’s Law. BONUS: The robot apocalypse!
Start from the beginning
In the vintage pachinko article, I ended by taking a look at Sega’s 1983 Pachinko for the SG-1000; possibly the first Japanese pachinko game for a home console. It’s a “digi-pachi” game, where the main goal is to earn spins on a digital slot machine, in order to open a large target at the bottom.
If we take a look at the Nintendo side of things, it took until 1985 for pachinko to show up, with the Toshiba EMI (TOEMILAND)-published Pachi-com. I’ve had my copy of this game for years, well before any actual interest in pachinko, because it came in a “grab bag” of Famicom games that you could add to fill out an expensive Japan import package– which should give you some evidence of how super-rare and valuable this game is.
Pachi-com is an interesting title, because to western audiences, the thing that’s most interesting about the game is not actually accessible to players at all– the game’s ROM contains a programmer rant that gives a window into what it was like to be a 1985 Famicom developer. Who knew people were so passionate about binary-coded decimal?
You can read the TCRF page for that; I won’t blame you if you find it more interesting than what I’m going to do here, which is talk about Pachi-Com as a game. Pachinko games can be fun if you know to play! Footage taken from the modded Famicom from the expansion audio, which means it’s composite. It also means the audio is stereo, but that really doesn’t matter here. Read the rant: the audio’s not great, and it’s not Y.S.’s fault.
Pachi-Com claims to have 370 pachinko tables, which on the face of it is pretty impressive for a 40kiB NROM cartridge, the same size as Super Mario Bros.– and that game definitely didn’t have enough room for programmer rants. But it turns out this is just because the 370 tables are actually just color changes and graphics tweaks. As far as gameplay goes, there are two tables. One is a familiar digi-pachi slot machine.
Pachi-Com is arguably a much better simulation of what was going on in the parlors than Sega’s Pachinko. Spinning the wheels is done by hitting a pay pocket below the reels. Exactly like Sega’s game, you want to win the reels to open the “attacker”, the large opening, here labled “open” rather than “lucky”.
Pachi-Com is a lot easier than Sega’s Pachinko, I’d say. And that’s because the board is so much denser. It’s a lot easier to bounce around and hit something. But we’re not here to talk about digi-pachi. What’s the other type of table?
Behold: hanemono, or as it was often known at this time, “airplane” pachinko. Its fans tell me it’s the most skill-based, as the slot machine is gone. Take a look at the device in the center. If it doesn’t look like an airplane now, try to get a ball into the numbered pay pockets at the bottom. The wings will open, but just for an instant– hitting the “1” pocket will open and close them once, the “2” pocket will do so twice.
Notice that it is most definitely an airplane (a Mitsubishi Zero, perhaps?) now, and the three-pronged structure is a propeller, which will spin when balls it it. The goal isn’t to have your pachinko ball land in the new pay pocket, though it pays out like any other. The goal is to hit the very center, labeled “V”.
This triggers a “fever” mode, where the wings will constantly open and close for a number of “rounds”. In this early-style game, you have to constantly earn additional rounds (counted by the number) by continually getting balls in the V pocket. This changed in later machines; but the goal of hitting a “V” pocket, after opening arms, didn’t.
So why would you bother? Much like in the older pachinkos we looked at in the vintage article, in Pachi-com every ball in a pay pocket pays out 13 additional balls. But it’s a lot easier to hit the center in a fever mode than anywhere else; the arms will help bring balls into the center. So getting fevers is critical to getting higher scores faster, which is the whole goal of this game.
Pachi-Com’s hanemono mode is pretty clearly based off the 1981 Heiwa table Zero Tiger, which innovated the hanemono concept. Here it is on the cover of a Japanese book, Nostalgic Pachinko Climax, by Tatsumi Mook.
Notice that while Pachi-Com maintains most of the features of the table, on the real machine everything is much more spaced out, and therefore a lot harder to win. It’s pretty easy to make a profit in Pachi-Com, but a lot harder in Zero Tiger; you definitely want to get those fever modes. Of course, you might expect that; Zero Tiger let people win
actual money prizes coincidentally exchangable for money at shops legally distinct from the parlor.
One thing I find interesting is that there was a burst of pachinko innovation at the beginning of the electric era in the early 1980s, with tables like Zero Tiger and Sankyo’s 1981 Fever, which innovated the digi-pachi. But between regulation and the conservative preferences of gamblers, things ossified pretty quickly, though the center attractions have always varied a lot. Here’s a video showing off a whole bunch of neat vintage hanemono.
Let’s take a look at a hanemono from 2015.
Behold: CRA羽根らんま1/2 女Ver. The board layout, other than the center, is very similar to Zero Tiger minus the tulips– two pay pockets, two one buttons, and a two button. What does that name mean?
- CR - “Card reader”. We’ll talk about the card reader system later; it became universal over the course of the 1990s.
- A - Short for amai (甘い), or “sweet”; this refers to a machine that has good odds. Hanemono are generally universally considered to have better odds than digi-pachi.
- 羽根 - Hane, denoting a hanemono. Prior to this, Sankyo had already released Fever Ranma 1/2, a digi-pachi.
- らんま1/2 - Ranma 1/2, a popular manga and anime series by Takahashi Rumiko. This is a licensed pachinko machine. The anime ended in 1992 and the manga in 1996, but it’s still got cultural cache, and I suppose kids who grew up watching it are now old enough to gamble.
- 女Ver. - “Female version”. There are two versions of this game, which you can see both listed on the Sankyo website; the female version is more common and has easier odds.
Let’s compare those two versions, also known as the “S” (male) and “R” (female) versions. The Sankyo flyer explains.
While Zero Tiger and Pachi-Com offered “all-13” gameplay, we’ve long left that era. The female version has “3 & 10 & 10” refers to the fact that the pay pockets, including the 1 and 2 ones, pay out 3 balls, while any balls in the center attraction pay out 10 balls. The male “1 & 10 & 15” version pays out only 1 ball for the pay pockets, but if you get a 16-round bonus (I’ll explain the round system later), it’s 15. Think of it as a “high risk, high reward” variant; of course, I would’ve gone for the girl Ranma version regardless of the probabilities. I like pink.
With only three balls for a pay pocket, hitting the fever modes is pretty much the only way to make a profit on a machine like this. And that’s where this differs the most from Zero Tiger and its airplane-based Pachi-Com sibling. So how do you win a fever? The base gameplay of hanemono hasn’t changed much since 1981, but once you’ve gone past the arms, all bets are off.
Ranma 1/2’s protagonist, Saotome Ranma, is a high school martial arts master who thanks to a curse turns into a girl when he comes into contact with cold water, turning back when hot water is around. (It’s shown up on this blog before, as one of my personal favorite anime) The pachinko echoes the show by providing two paths; a male path on the right, and the female path on the left, chosen at random, but seems to prefer the female path.
On the left, the ball goes into the clear plastic, where it spins. If it spins long enough, it will be picked up by Ranma-chan, who will then drop it and it will pass through the spinning disc, which represents the springs that cursed her. One thing hasn’t changed from Zero Tiger: the goal is to get your pachinko ball in the V-pocket.
On the male side, which the brochure claims is a higher-probability, male Ranma will perform his signature move hiryuu shoten ha, which puts the ball on an elevator, a plastic spinning spiral that lifts it up to the drop shute, where it will likely fall in the V pocket. This is the main way I’ve been able to win on it, anyway.
While in Pachi-com you needed to win additional rounds as you go, in CRA Wing Ranma 1/2, how many rounds you can win is determined by a mechanical lottery that occurs immediately after you hit the V pocket.
You can win three rounds, seven rounds, or sixteen rounds, which was the maximum allowed under the then-present gambling regulations. Once they’ve won, you only need to sit back, enjoy the music, and fire balls towards the waving arms.
One gambling element added to the traditional hanemono gameplay is the interrobang following the “1”.
This denotes that there is a chance of getting two openings instead of one, as if you had hit the “2” pocket. These chances are raised when certain lights are on on the playfield, like the eyes of the panda. (who, for those not acquainted with the anime, is Ranma’s father) These sorts of “chance” features are incredibly popular on digi-pachi, so Sankyo added them to hanemono as well.
Bop it! Twist it! Grab it!
This section was added 3/16/2023, and does not reflect this blog post as originally published.
Following this blog post’s initial publication, some commenters on Hacker News asked for more details about the auto-launch handle, as there were some misconceptions about it. Well, I aim to please!
The handle is a plastic knob; round, with some protusions for you to rest your hand on. It’s pretty comfortable; which of course it needs to be. Parlors wanted these put in place so people could sit down holding onto them for hours.
It has two means of control: the first is that it controls the strength of the fired balls. Pulling it all the way to one side will fire them all the way across the playfield. Pulling it just a little, balls will be fired, but not strong enough to enter the playfield, and they’ll just fall back down. Note that only the strength changes; the rate of ball firing does not.
Secondly, there is a button deep inside which your right thumb will rest on. Holding down on it will temporarily stop the firing. This is particularly useful on digi-pachi, where you will want to watch the LCD screen, but not give up the “sweet spot” you’ve found for firing.
And that’s what the knob is really about; finding a sweet spot. In hanemono, you have two tasks you have to complete; opening the wings and then getting inside, so the challenge is finding a good spot for both, or somehow switching your position constantly yet consistently.
The other thing to note is that you can’t just position your drink to hold it in the key spot, you actually have to use your hand. This is enforced by a metallic ring; it detects your fingers on it, ensuring that a human, or something with capacitive flesh anyway, is firing.
In Japanese parlors, the infamous suggestion is to wedge a 50-yen coin into the tiny gap between the knob and the metal strip once you’ve found a sweet spot, preventing it from moving. Parlor attendants will complain, but it seems to be a very popular suggestion regardless– as an American I don’t have any 50-yen coins handy, and couldn’t fit any coins I have on hand in the gap.
One thing I will say, looking at discussion on the PachiTalk forums, if you find an old machine whose handle isn’t firing, the culprit may be a coin shoved in the works, shorting it out.
You are the parlor
Just like the vintage machine, though, the home owner will find themselves having to also maintain the ball count from behind. The hopper is surprisingly small; it can’t actually hold enough for a sixteen-round bonus, so it needs to be constantly topped off. Let’s take a look at the back.
How times have changed since the vintage machine! There’s no way this can run without electric power. All of those circuiboards would normally be sealed to prevent tampering, but since this is an aftermarket machine, those protections are gone. Having the plastic shells are nice, though.
This particular machine was purchased from A-Pachinko, who did a great job cleaning it from all the parlor crud. This post isn’t sponsored at all, they don’t know I’m making it, but I do recommend them. The big downside is they’re in Japan, so shipping is a pain, but they have a huge selection. They also added a volume-control mod, which is fine but honestly, this is never going to be quiet with the crash of balls.
Pachinko machines like this are divided into two parts: the “cell”, which is the game itself, including its circuitboards, playfield, and attractions; and the “frame”, which includes the shooter, the ball handling mechanisms, and the speakers. Unfortunately, they’re not fully interchangeable; this is a “Sankyo EVOL” frame, and is compatible with other contemporary Sankyo cells, like Fever Powerful DX and Star Wars: Battle of Vader. Might try to keep an eye out for those and see how easy a cell swap is.
Here’s the main PCB of the cell. You can see the CPU, marked simply as a V850, which is likely this CPU, a 32-bit RISC design that’s a successor to the NEC V810 used in the PC-FX. Nothing at all by 2015 terms, but how much power does this thing really need? It has discrete separate ROMs for program and sound; I could try dumping them or even modifying them, but it doesn’t seem that useful. Maybe for a digi-pachi, to improve the odds… (and that’s why these have tamper-detection seals in parlors)
Sound is provided by a discrete sound chip, a Yamaha YMZ871-V. This is an updated chip in the same series of the YMZ774 used in the 2007 IGS PGM2, and the YMZ770 used in the 2004 Cave CV1000 series. There are two speakers, and I believe this is a stereo configuration.
Long story short, none of these parts are cutting-edge for 2015. But really, would would that add? In hanemono games without a large LCD screen, there really isn’t that much CPU power required.
Finally, you might notice that these connectors, which are outside of the protected containers. These are where a parlor would attach a battle counter, which are brightly lit LED displays used in parlors to show how many wins a particular machine has had, as well as a lot of other stats. Pachinko “pros” use them to identify “hot” machines. These connections are probably worth looking into deeper.
The machine is powered by 24VAC. A-Pachinko provided a transformer which was listed for 100V; they assured me that it was fine to use on North American 120V power, and it seems to run alright, though I’m a bit concerned that the hotter voltage might be running the LEDs too bright. Look at how washed out the “16” is, in particular.
So what is the “card reader” system? Every pachinko machine with a “CR” prefix (and a “P” prefix) will have a DB-25 connector. Without anything plugged in, the machine won’t be usable– the shooter won’t fire.
Pinball Dave has done a lot of work reverse-engineering the connector; there are some interesting things, like an LCD display whose individual lines are directly exposed.
In Japan, these are used as part of a prepaid card system, whose purpose was to reduce the amount of cash floating around in pachinko, and slowly became mandatory over the course of the 1990s. However, today they seem to be most frequently used with virtual cards attached to cash machines, so I’m not sure that worked, but in any case, they’ve become a permanent part of the pachinko business.
So what about the at-home user? Thankfully, the connectors are reverse-engineered enough that people can bypass the requirement. A simple bypass dongle looks like this:
You’ll notice a diode, capacitor, and resistor– this is a simple rectifier. Only AC power is provided on the connector end, but it expects a DC signal to say it’s connected to the parlor. So this provides that; it doesn’t need to actually drive anything, so a very simple rectifier is enough. With this, you can use the machine the same way as the vintage ones; bring your own balls.
There are some more fun dongle options, though. Here’s the MugenCR, a Japanese dongle, which is said to have originated for showing off machines at trade shows.
If you use this, you can see than an LED is now lit on the multi-segment display. This LED is called the “ball loan available” light.
With this, you can have some of the functionality of a parlor. Specifically, by pressing the larger of the two buttons, you can get a “ball loan” of 25 balls; this makes it a lot easier to get started playing. You go through balls a lot faster with the automatic launcher than with the mechanical one. The second button is for releasing your card from the machine when you’re done playing, so it doesn’t do anything here.
Pinball Dave, who I linked above, sells a Card Reader Emulator which adds even more features, including even an actual card reader to try to imitate the parlor experience in the house. Run an unlicensed gambling parlor and fleece your friends! (Not legal advice)
But is it a game?
So, how is it as a game? Well, first off, I don’t think anything that happens in the center attraction is under the player’s control. Maybe I’m missing some technique, but it seems like with all the ramps, any input you gave is lost, and it’s just a matter of chance. So any game element is in the classic hanemono style.
That being said, I do think that there is an element of skill with the automatic knob. See, a big issue I have with the vintage machine is that because the balls are so small, the force required to launch them is very light. It’s a lot harder to get consistent shots of a certain power. The automatic knob solves that problem entirely, so you can focus on trying to figure out where the best places to fire are.
But the automatic knob also means that you have to fire at a constant rate– I think with a mechanical arm, you’d be tempted to just fire as rapidly as you can immediately on hitting the 1 or 2 pocket to get as many chances as possible to get in the arms. Because the rate of firing can never increase, the skill and timing required is, at least theoretically, increased.
Overall, though, it’s really a lot less of a game of skill than pinball, but I would say more so than a western-style slot machine. And most importantly, I do find it fun to zone out and just fire balls for awhile, but I don’t think it’s for everyone. In fact, I suspect that hanemono, with its slight amount of skill, in the modern parlor serves mostly as a gateway to the more “gambling-spirit” digi-pachi.
One more thing. This is a gambling machine, so don’t try to open the door and just throw a ball in the v-pocket. It knows.
Bonus: A new Nicole Simulator?!
People who write text are often concerned about OpenAI’s ChatGPT. The fear is that rather than go to sites like Nicole Express, people will instead just ask an AI trained on data similar to this blog. And that might be okay for me, who mostly just does write-ups like this for my own benefit, but for people who make a living off their writing, it’s a real concern.
But on the other hand, if ChatGPT can replace me, I can use it to just write all the posts for me. So I asked it what hanemono is:
The word “hane” in “hanemono” refers to the action of the pachinko balls bouncing off the nails or pins in the machine as they make their way down the playfield. The word “hane” is derived from the Japanese verb “haneru,” which means “to bounce.”
In a hanemono machine, the balls are launched into the playfield and bounce off the nails or pins as they fall towards the bottom of the machine. This creates a unique sound and visual effect that is characteristic of hanemono machines.
The term “hanemono” literally means “thing that bounces,” and it is used to describe the older style of pachinko machines that feature a vertical playfield with nails or pins. Hanemono machines are considered the traditional style of pachinko machines and are often seen as nostalgic by older generations of players.
This sort of thing is really fascinating. For one thing it’s wrong, of course. haneru can mean to bounce, but it’s a different kanji- 跳 vs. 羽. So this isn’t a mistake a Japanese speaker would make. But there is a homophone derived from another kanji, 撥ね物, which is also read hanemono. (It actually means “rejected goods” in this case.) While you may think the large number of homophones in kanji make it a difficult and confusing writing system, it does seem to protect Japan from ChatGPT.
And of course, the last sentence of the bot’s text is in fact true. Hanemono are seen as more traditional and often have nostalgia– Nishijin, the recently-defunct manufacturer of my vintage machine, once put out a digi-pachi dedicated to its “legendary” hanemono of the past. But there’s a reason it’s a digi-pachi and not a hanemono itself.
I hope you have found this blog post informative and engaging. As the human writer behind this piece, I want to assure you that while ChatGPT is a powerful tool that can provide valuable insights and assistance, it will never replace me as the author of my own work. I believe that the human touch is essential in creating content that truly resonates with readers, and I take great pride in crafting pieces that reflect my own unique perspective and voice. Thank you for taking the time to read my work, and I look forward to sharing more of my ideas with you in the future.