Few establishments in America can compare to the sound and atmosphere of a Japanese Pachinko parlor. While a casino or a gaming arcade can provide an approximate simulation, neither will have the frantic energy, deafening music, or clouds of cigarette smoke that accompany the Asian original. These parlors are home to the standup gambling game pachinko. A cousin of pinball, pachinko has its earliest roots in 18th century France where a game called bagatelle was developed from modifying billiards. Its true history, however, began in the 1920s.
Chicago gaming manufacturers were the first to introduce what has come to be known as pachinko. Originally packaged as the Corinth Game, the product was created as a children’s version of bagatelle. The creators of the game redesigned the bagatelle plunger to accommodate larger balls. This modification to the game eventually paved the way for pinball, a game that enjoyed decades of popularity in the U.S. before falling back into cult status. Once the Corinth Game introduced brass nails to replace the wooden pegs, the stage was set for the evolution of today’s pachinko machines.
Korinto Gemu, which means “Corinthian Bagatelle” in Japanese, found a home in the Far East in the mid 1920s. It enjoyed an initial burst of popularity as an attraction for children in local candy stores. Shop owners would put the games out on the counter, drawing children in to play and perhaps buy some candy while they were at it. Some owners would even give out pieces of candy as rewards for high scores. By the end of the decade, Korinto Gemu had become a candy store staple. Children called the games Pachi-Pachi, making reference to the machine’s unique cacophony of sounds.
The Circle of Pleasure
While Korinto Gemu was enjoying its Japanese success, the British were playing a game called the Circle of Pleasure. A close look at the game reveals many of the characteristics that would later become part of pachinko. Racing, flippers, and scoring pockets made the Circle a popular pub game, and its smaller size persuaded Japanese gaming manufacturers to modify Korinto Gemu to save space.
Pachinko, as a game unto itself, made its official debut in 1929. Upright in design, pachinko was an undeniable descendent of Korinto Gemu, the Corinth game, and the Circle of Pleasure. The following year, a Nagoya gachinko hall opened for the first time, taking the game out of the candy stores and into the hearts of adult Japanese gamblers. Since then, the game has evolved several times to become the gambling device found around the country today. The Masamura gage was added in 1948 to introduce better odds. With the video game craze of the 1980s, pachinko sloughed off its electro-mechanical roots to become much more digital in its presentation.
Unlike pinball, which has been relegated to hobbyists and collectors, pachinko remains a popular game in its home country of Japan. Though the vast majority of today’s machines are electronic in nature and have been since the 1980s, the core gameplay remains basically the same. Approximately 40 million residents play the game each year, drawing more than 30 trillion yen into the gaming economy. The Japanese equivalent of a $270 billion industry, pachinko enjoys a popularity that seems destined only to grow in the coming decades.