Boxes of Oreo mini-packs and Ritz crackers as prizes and shrimp-flavored salted snacks on the right. (Click any picture to see a bigger one.)
For those who know it by another name, a "UFO Catcher" is often called a "claw crane" or "claw game" in English-speaking countries. It may be know by a great many names according to Wikipedia, but I have to say that the Japanese name is a bigger curiosity and a more creative choice. Incidentally, we say, "U-F-O" and the Japanese say "yoo-foe" (like a two-syllable word rather than individual letters). I hear Japanese folks use this word most often in reference to a popular line of ramen rather than the games I'm going to write about today.
Bags of 45 Tirol candies. This size Tirol is usually 10 yen per candy (10 unit packs for 100 yen).
I've always been curious as to why claw game are called UFO Catchers in Japan and one web site states that this is because the claw mechanism resembles an alien craft. This makes as much sense as anything I could conjecture, so let's just agree that they're right and move right along to the snack prizes that are supposed to be the focus of this post. (Yeah, yeah, move along grandma and get to the point....)
Large tubs of gum. These are full of tiny boxes of pea-size pellet-style gumballs that are marketed at children. I see them for about 10-yen a box in some kid's snack sections.
The truth is that my husband and I had little experience with these machines up until I developed an odd hankering for a debuneko (fatty cat) plush toy. Neither of us thought we could handle the machines but one day he decided to give it a shot, and he threw in a 500 yen ($6.12) coin for 6 tries. Oddly enough, he scored 3 (smallish) prizes and an interest in these machines was born. My involvement extends to watching him win things and then enjoying the prizes. He is learning the ropes and testing his skills.
The UFO Catcher KitKat prize box with plastic loop attached.
Not too long ago, my husband found himself waiting an overly long time for an order of yakitori to go and he decided to explore the UFO Catchers and decided to try his hand at one of the machines that offered boxes of KitKat minis as a prize. That machines was rather different than many which have plush toys as prizes because you have to grab them by plastic loops. Many of the snack boxes themselves are too big, heavy, or awkwardly shaped to be grasped by standard claws. My guess is that only places with specialized machines to accommodate the particular larger size of a prize do not have loops for grabbing.
If you view the box on end from the "bottom", it is designed to resemble a KitKat finger, which is rather nifty.
My husband had to take several tries just to get the plastic loop off of a rubber ball that it was lying on. He put in 500 yen for 6 attempts, and had to put in 200 more yen to finish the job. The KitKat box contains a bag of minis which can be had on sale for 200 yen, but is commonly sold for 260 yen. The bag of minis is in no way special or different from what you can buy at the average market.
The bag of KitKat minis that was crammed in the box.
Unless you stumble across a machine which has the object you desire in an advantageous position, you're almost certainly not going to get value for the money you put into the game. Mainly, the object being in a good position happens because someone before you tried to get it and failed enough times to give up. Note that I've encountered people at a local game shop rearranging the prizes so that they are in a more difficult position so you have to catch them at just the right time or they'll be tidied up by people whose job it is to convince you to put more money in the machine.
In my research, I turned up a blogger who claimed that you can ask the attendants to reposition things for you to improve your chances of winning or getting the prize you want, but I find this hard to accept as a general condition at all game centers. The blogger's contention was that you're supposed to be able to win the prizes and they "want" you to get them. This flies soundly in the face of all of the times when I've watched prizes that were close to the edge or lying at advantageous angles being tidied up so that they lay flat and are harder to get. If they want you to win, they aren't going to do this. That being said, as certain prizes run low and are close to being swapped out, I've also seen the remaining ones placed at an angle which makes getting them a cake-walk. And, I've had luck with certain game centers (Adores) when a prize we wanted was out of reach at the back of the machine. When they moved them forward, they put them in a really easy to get position. However, this is unlikely to happen with food prizes since they're all pretty much the same.
The main good point of the snack food prizes is that the boxes that the objects come in are uniquely designed (and you get to enjoy the joy of victory or the agony of defeat from playing the game). You can't really get the same type of packaging elsewhere and since they are so large, they could be considered ideal for sharing with friends or coworkers.
Karamucho spicy potato chips in large poster-size tubes. I'm sure that they're crammed full of 3-5 smaller snack-size chips and not a big bag.
The main market for these is young adults, particularly junior high school, high school, and college students. You don't tend to find UFO Catchers which offer these large and unique containers of snacks in the small game centers which tend to cater to kids, families and those who are casual players. And note that people of all ages will occasionally stop by small centers and give these games a try. There's one in my neighborhood which I witness all types of people playing on occasion. The ones that offer small stuffed toys are especially popular with women who look to be 25-35 years of age. You only tend to find machines with snack prizes in very large game centers. None of the ones at the two smallish places in range of my neighborhood offer food prizes.
A UFO Catcher with individual sizes of ice cream in a refrigerated bin.
One of the more interesting machines I found in a large game center was at Sega's Joypolis in Odaiba. It was selling ice cream in small sizes. You could have a try for an average of 50 yen per attempt. Depending on what you got, this could be good value since Haagen Daas individual containers cost about 300 yen ($3.67) in many places. However, I'm not sure how easy it is to snag one. The interesting point is not the potential value, but rather the fact that these are clearly designed to be a type of snack vending machine for the kids who are taking advantage of the attractions in Joypolis. In addition to the ice cream prizes, there were also games with individual packages of Hi-Chew. Unlike the machines in other game centers, which offer large volumes as prizes, those ones specifically were offering very small amounts.
I don't have any experience with these games back home so it could be that the food prizes I'm talking about are in no way unique to Japan. I did do a search on prizes for such games and all of the strange ones, including live lobsters, lead back to Japanese (or Asian) UFO Catchers. Claw games that seemed for the American market mainly focused on stuffed toys. The only candy claw games were tiny little mini games that looked like they were to be sold for home or party use. I would welcome comments about differences or similarities, particularly in regard to food prizes, in these types of games in other countries.