UFO Catchers

Around the beginning of this year a Round1 opened up in Towson, Maryland (a town on the northern edge of Baltimore), so a friend and I drove over to check it out. I figured we’d go there to play some games, but instead we just walked around, cynically comparing the place to Chuck E Cheese, until we decided to waste all our money on UFO Catchers.

This was my first time playing UFO Catchers, or any kind of claw game, in real life. At a young age I had already absorbed the general consensus that these games are all a scam. My only real exposure to them had been through Yakuza.

But wow! The real world UFO Catcher experience was nothing at all what I expected it to be. Essentially, you’re not trying to pick up the doll inside the machine — you’re trying to push it down. If you’re a person who cares only about winning, a big part of the game is walking past all of the machines, looking for dolls that are in prime position to be knocked over. There is such bizarre physics involved. Despite being so unintuitive, it _feels_ like something that can be mastered ( I’m not 100% convinced though). A big part of my drive to keep playing is to see how the doll reacts to me pushing on it from certain positions that I hadn’t tried before. Unfortunately, each try costs money. I wish there was a mode where I could, like, play at a discounted price, without the chance to collect the doll when I win.

Something really terrible happened during that first UFO Catching experience that messed up my brain forever: I won. And not just did I win, I won three times.

What happened was that after having failed a few times my friend and I walked past a stuffed cat in a coffee mug. I said to my friend, “I wonder what would happen if I got the claw through the handle and lifted it up.”

”Uhhhh... You could try that. I feel like that would require too much exactness to get right though.”

So I swiped my card, tapped both buttons about a tenth a second each, the claw descended and went right through the handle, picking up the doll and dropping it into the collection compartment. Both of us were screaming.

We of course couldn’t just stop. My friend pointed out that one of the employees was resetting the prizes in a few machines. “They’re easiest right after being reset,” he said. He’s a big boy who’d (presumably) played a whole bunch of UFO Catchers in Japanese arcades, so I deferred to his expert opinion. We walked over. One of the machines had a Rilakumma in a beaver outfit. Again, somehow, we got this one to fall down on our first try. The second was another Rilakumma, holding a coffee cup with a little handle. This handle was way smaller than that first coffee cup cat. It took us three tries, I think, to get the claw to go through the loop, but again it worked. The Rilakumma fell down into the compartment, and now I felt like a weirdo for carrying around three big ol’ children’s toys.

At that point I realized something was happening in my brain. If I didn’t get out of there right that moment, then I was going to end up spending several hundred dollars on UFO Catching. It was terrifying.

So we left.

About two weeks later community transmission of Covid-19 was discovered in the United States, and very shortly afterwards the life of never leaving the house began. So no more UFO Catchers for me.

Until yesterday! I succumbed to the temptation. For some reason, I don’t know why, UFO Catchers has been on my mind for the past few weeks. With Covid-19 cases rising like crazy again, I figured this might be my last chance to engage in those weird UFO Catchers physics. So I drove over at 2pm on a rainy Thursday, walked into the empty arcade, purchased $30 worth of credit, and proceeded to win nothing.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around UFO Catchers. It’s clearly an evil and dangerous thing, but it’s so incredibly fascinating to me, from how unintuitive the physics are, the happiness exuded by all the dolls, trapped in those machines, and the weird feelings this game is awakening inside of my brain. One clear lesson from this is I should probably never allow myself to do any _actual_ gambling, because clearly that will lead to horrible self destruction.

So with that introductory story finished, I want to ask if anyone here has any UFO Catchers stories. Like, I’ve never been to Japan. Has anyone had some Japanese UFO Catching experiences they want to share? Has UFO Catchers ruined anyone’s life?

Along those same lines, I’m curious if there are any video games that itch the same scratch that UFO Catchers does, without the opportunity for financial ruin? I don’t mean gatcha games or anything like that. I’m thinking more about the unintuitive physics aspect of UFO Catchers. It’s completely different from how UFO Catchers in Yakuza feels. I guess I want to play a game about going through some painful, bizarrely technical, even incomprehensible, process in order to reach out and grab some cute delightful objects that can be mine forever. Most importantly, endearing, immaculately tuned physics has to be a big part of it.

Do games like this exist? The closest that comes to mind is Katamari Damacy, which I think comes from a similar place. But I’d like less quantity of the objects I’m collecting, and weirder controls.

As a side note, right after my first time playing UFO Catchers I tried making a realistic simulation of it in Unity. I gave up! Getting softbody collisions to work anything at all like they do with actual stuffed dolls and claws was way too ridiculously hard. That was almost a year ago. So maybe I’ll try again.

Anyways, I’m curious about any and all UFO Catchers/general claw game related thoughts and experiences people might have.

kind of a lateral thought but those foddy games have a similar “I should be able to do this, why is it impossibly difficult” feeling. Also capture the feeling of having something precisely lined up, thinking you've succeeded, then everything spiraling into failure

@yeso#9252 Yeah, that’s a good point! I’ve only played QWOP, but it definitely has all that in it. Foddy’s games are so… grotesque though. I want little brightly-colored, cartoony, giant-eyed imps, cute enough that the parents of a pre-teen girl might buy one for her to dangle from the bottom of her backpack, to stare and laugh at me every time I fail.

I went camping once when I was under 10 or thereabouts, and the lodge/campstore had a claw game that I had HUGE eyes for. I forget who it was, it wasn't my parents, but one of their “cool” friends gave me an entire roll of 40 quarters to drop into it.

I didn't catch a single thing! But it was the most fun, addictive thing ever. As an adult I don't understand gambling (have tried it and would just rather game) but I can still remember the WICKED HIGH of that machine. OMFG I think a Safeway near me has one and I'm gonna check it out in the next few weeks.

It might be part of why I love Flamin Finger so much, because its obviously rigged.

@saddleblasters#9244 this was a good read!

one of the most sad experiences i've had involved meeting up with a friend whom i don't see much at a japanese arcade and watching him dump 2000 yen or so into a UFO catcher. he's sort of this willfully happy guy and so watching him try again and again, just pumping money into the machine, trying to keep the smile on his face while hemorrhaging cash, made me feel insanely empty.

and that's the last thought i'd had about UFO catchers!

i think it would be hard to make a game version feel good, it‘s hardly believable how those things work in real life when you are seeing it with your own eyes. many times you’ll claw a plushie‘s round head as perfectly as possible, and midway through lifting it up, the claw will just… let go, veery slightly, just enough for the plushie to drop. i think you’d have to make it a bit more abstract. or maybe have a stamina meter for how long you can hold on… anyway i hope you do try to make it cuz it scratches a very particular itch. and yeah the cuteness is not an irrelevant factor, “get through something evil to get something cute” is appealing in a very different way than a simply masochistic endeavour.

The most UFO catcher stuff I‘ve done in my life is in Yakuza. It’s pretty achievable there even though you can‘t always see it from all angles. I’m quite sure it's a lot easier than real life UFO catchers, and is helped by the fact you can just reset the toy positions whenever you want.

As for why it's addictive/fun, I hate to say it, but it's for the same reason gambling is, or rigged carnival games. Small risk with potential payoff with just enough of a hint of skill that you feel like you can master it even if the odds are stacked against you. And similar to slot machines, you can capitalize on other people's failures - somebody failing at one machine for long enough makes it feel like if YOU go and spend money on it then surely things will be lined up for you to win something.

Anyway don't get into gambling

Ah man Round 1 is where I finally got to get my crane game degree too!! I went with a couple friends who knew The Stuff about them. They gave me a crash course on how to actually win stuff and spot the ones that are ready to drop. Between the four of us we walked out with like 10 plushies. It really did feel like such a mind expanding moment when you realize that picking up the thing is absolutely not what you're supposed to do, learning about how the machines have strong and weak claw arms that you use to target different parts etc. Getting my first win with this knowledge felt very good.

Since then I've been into this app called Crane Game Toreba which is this app that lets you virtually play real crane games through streaming footage. It's fun and they give out a couple free plays per day. Like @exodus says though they really really really want you to spend money so you have to be careful! I only spent money on there once and it's because I saw a clear path to victory and knew I could do it. But that confidence cost me a lot more money than I wanted to spend, even if it was well founded and I eventually got the thing(a huge DQ slime plushie). Still, it wasn't super cool to see how easily the justifications for your downward mental spiral come when the prospect of winning is in front of you. It was a good lesson. Now I just log in every couple days to see what new stuff is there and futz around with my free plays.

@exodus#9379 This is more or less the opinion that I had before actually trying UFO Catchers in real life!

The thing that I have to really reiterate is that, like @sabertoothalex said, in real life the claw is 100% incapable of picking things up under normal circumstances. This makes it completely different from Yakuza UFO Catchers. You have to do all sorts of weird non-intuitive techniques to get the prize to fall into the compartment.

The beginning of this video shows some good examples of how you’re “supposed” to play it:


Depending on the layout of the machine and where the doll is, you might have to do something completely different. For me, coming up with a strategy and seeing it actually work is the real fun part. That’s why I think the comparison @yeso made to Foddy’s games was really accurate.

What really seems to make the game tense and interesting, I think, is how big the time gap is between when you enter in your inputs and when you find out whether or not they were a success. It’s just such an inversion of a normal experience of picking things up, which is very natural and easy for us since our hands are in direct contact with what we’re picking up, giving constant feedback and allowing for microscopic adjustments.

I’m pretty sure the game would feel a lot less deep to me if it didn’t cost so much! The issue is that there’s no real way to practice. I can’t just try the same technique over and over until I’ve mastered it, since that would be incredibly expensive.

Anyways, to be clear, I completely agree with you that the gambling is there and is 100% the reason why it’s addictive. But I do think there is something beyond the gambling that’s interesting to think about.

Edit: The other really big thing I forgot about UFO Catchers is that it’s a super technical game that people who don’t normally care about games can get super into. It’s extremely accessible. Of course, with the gambling and all, that’s not necessarily a good thing... That’s one of my reasons for wishing for a less gambley UFO Catchers that is still super technical.

imagining a remake of california split but with ufo catchers

yeah, the floppiness of it is interesting, as is the way the game plays counter to your expectation (i.e. the claw is weak as heck). I‘ve played some real UFO catchers in my day and won a couple things! nothing I wanted to keep though - I think that’s the biggest challenge for me with UFO catchers, I just don‘t want the stuff that’s inside!

I did see one in a grocery store in Croatia that had a PSP in it in 2017 though, that ruled.

@exodus#9402 My friend who dates a professional UFO Catchers addict says, “No one who puts a significant amount of time into the game actually cares about the prizes. They just sell them and use the proceeds to fund more UFO Catching.”

It makes me imagine a dystopian near-future where all manual labor has been replaced by robots, and the only hope those who weren’t born into wealth have of making an income is playing UFO Catchers all day and selling the dolls they win to rich people.

Though, heck, there are probably already people alive right now living this particular dystopia as we speak.

Edit: I hadn’t read what @yeso wrote when I posted this, which seems to be a similar direction of thought!

@saddleblasters#9405 I'm playing Death Stranding right now and this is extremely close to the actual backstory for the marauding gangs of package-delivering addicts you have to keep from stealing your cargo

This kind of sounds even more like gambling to me the more it gets described, ha ha.

Humans will apply gambling to any game regardless of the skill/chance mix. Pinball evolved into a pure skill game with no gambling involved from its origins, and it's interesting to see the mix in the UFO catcher genre.

I never played them extensively, (I would rather play fighting games and didn't care about the redemption games) but in the Wunderlands that used to be in the Greater-Portland area, there were coin pusher/coin buldozer games. You'd drop a token into the top and it would push more coins down into the chute. Any coins that dropped into the bottom chute would be converted into tickets at Wonderland. But there is clearly [a large gambling culture around them on YouTube](https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=coin+buldozer).

I had a brief brush with UFO Catchers on my 2000 trip to Japan - I pulled 3 prizes that I kept to this day, and found winning to be both easy and a very economical way to acquire momentos from my trip - the plush toys I won were of surprisingly good quality, and a UFO Catcher run with my son (who is 9) was part of our planned (and cancelled) Japan trip, which would have started next Tuesday…

…oh, heck. I'm tearing up now.

I‘m not a redemption person primarily because I know a lot of Western arcade operators and, yeah … I wouldn’t trust random claw games you find at pizza spots/theaters/etc. I was kind of shocked to walk into my local Round 1 and not just see a gawd damned palace of UFO machines, but instructions posted on how to win?!? It's a totally different, much more friendly philosophy compared to what I am use to.

Anyways, I meant to come in here and ask: did you guys play around with the [SEGA Catcher Online](https://segacatcher.com/en) app? I installed it and messed around with it for a day or so when it first launched about a year ago, but checking in on it now it looks like they suspended the service back in June! :(

What did you hardcore UFO players think of it? For me it was laggy as hell and difficult to control, but it still seemed like a cool idea. Especially just controlling something physically located in Japan, from my couch in California.


@exodus#9415 yikes. I was gonna say.

Check out the top tier prize for becoming a SEGA Platon Platinum Member (spending lots of money). Sounds exactly like a casino rewards program. (but damn do i want that jacket)


yeah, similar to some folks here, the most i ever played UFO Catchers was when I visited Japan (which…oof, has now been about 10 years ago ;-; ). i landed in Tokyo on my birthday and my friend and i dropped off our stuff and headed to Club Sega in Akihabara. i ended up spending about $100 and won some stuff, which amazed me, because i was really used to crane games in the US that are essentially impossible to beat. i was also super shocked that you could call attendants over to move the prizes back into somewhat-winnable poses if you knocked them over trying or whatever. definitely more addictive because the chances of winning seem actual.

i tried some of the UFO Catchers at the Round 1 that opened on Long Island and found that, while they're better than the usual, they were definitely not set up to be winnable. i feel like this is something that's specific to that location, though. the Round 1 i went to in CA (Lakewood, maybe?) had a muuuuch better vibe.

edit: later in the trip, one of our friends, who lived in Kichijoji, wanted to show us how to play Pachinko (we had asked). little did we know, though, that this guy had umm....well, what seemed like maybe a problem? we spent the next 3 hours watching him unload a loooot of yen into crane and pachinko machines. oops :(

but i know how to play Pachinko, now.

@isfet#9523 I went to Japan for vacation for a few weeks in 2005 and just made some chain-smoking salaryman's day sitting down next to him at the Pachinko machine. In broken English he directed me to a few different machines and was like, “stop - this one no good, change to this machine”. It was fun and I was only out 1000 yen.

I know this is an impossibly stupid question "because they are all the same", but what Pachinko game should I try for PS2? Anyone have any suggestions?