The Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Crane Games

Crane games, also known as claw machines or UFO catchers in Japan, are arcade games where you maneuver the claw to try and win a prize, usually either by grabbing it or knocking it off a ledge. A mix of skill and chance, often the thrill of getting the prize beats the prize itself (at least for me).

To be honest, for the longest time I never really bothered to play these machines, thinking they were rigged and just ate money. But I was proven wrong last summer, when I played one on a whim and actually won a prize! Since then I have been on a mission to master them, and here is what I have garnered so far.

A typical game arcade in Japan with a floor full of crane games

Play crane games remotely for free

To avoid blowing too much money, I recommend first practicing remotely using the Taito Crane app. While nothing beats playing in real life at an arcade, it really helps you get a feel of how the claws move and grip.

The Taito Crane app has practice machines you can play for free, as well as machines you can actually win a prize and they will ship it to you (within Japan). While you need tickets or Taito Coins to play the prize machines, you can get three free play tickets if you install the app through the link below and register your phone number:

Taito Crane app logo
https://onlinecrane.page.link/DC5NCnpMFP958q5y5

Main types of crane games

Three-arm claw

The most fundamental crane game of all, known as 3本爪 in Japanese. You move a three-arm claw to grab the prize and drop it into the opening. There are two main types of claws: The UFO Catcher Triple (shown below) and the Deka-Kure (デカクレ), which is a thinner, twisty type claw. There are also various setups for the “get zone.” Some only have an square opening in the corner, while the smaller (easier) ones can have the entire front section as an opening.

Strategy: The first thing to know about these machines is that are almost all 確率機[kakuritsu-ki]. This means that the claw is designed to be weak/let go until a certain “payout” value, when it will grip tightly until the opening. Nobody knows what value that is, it could be 20 plays or 60 plays, depending on the arcade and machine.

Since you will likely go bankrupt if you rely on the payout all the time, the key to these machines is either to 1) wedge the claw in a gap or tag or, 2) study how the claw drops the prize, so that you can grip it in such a way that it falls, or moves gradually, toward the opening. The smaller crane machines may be easier than the big ones, as the distance from the claw to the prize is less and therefore easier to estimate. The prize is also much smaller and lighter, improving your chances of getting a good grip.

However, the larger ones often allow you to make use of a “stop” function by pressing the button again while it is descending. This essentially tells to claw to stop its descent and grasp at that point. Many pro crane gamers utilise this function extensively to move the prize as desired or grab its tag.

Smaller crane game with entire front an opening

There are also some variations, where the claw has two pincer-like arms rather than three prongs. These are even simpler to position as there is no twisting, just an open and shut grip. However, their arm power tends to be rather weak, and if the prize is heavy it may fail to move it much.

Forward drop

In まえおとし machines, the prize is resting at a forward front angle on bars or a ledge, and the aim is to push it off.

Forward drop crane game

Strategy: These are not meant to won in one play, but rather over a few calculated movements. Rather than attempting to lift the prize:

  • Position the claw near the middle-front and off to a side to gradually turn it diagonally.
  • Keep turning until front edge hangs off enough diagonally                  
  • Use claw to push down the corner protruding off the bar in the front

Drop through bars

The aim of はしおとし machines is to drop the prize through the bars it is resting on. The prize is commonly in the shape of a rectangular box (figurine), a cylinder, or a plushie.

Drop through bars crane game

Strategy: The strategy differs slightly depending on the shape of the prize. Like the forward drop, these are not meant to won in one play but over a few movements. If the prize is rectangular, the general strategy is:

  • Grab at the prize from its middle and off slightly either left or right
  • (if the prize is resting flat) Grab at bottom edge leaning parallel on bar. Start from high up as claw may slide.                       
  • (flat) Once the bottom edge is leading delicately on bar, use the claw to push down OR go to the top and grab at it from off centre (the crane head should help to push it down)
  • (if the prize is on its side) Grab off centre multiple times until it turns almost flat or only a corner rests on bar. Then use same strategy as when it is flat.

For cylinders, you need to first create an angle, otherwise it will just keep rolling back and forth across the bars.

For plushies, the strategy is to grab at it off center to twist it into a position until the centre of mass is through the bars. You can also try to lift the entire thing and hope it drops in a favourable position. Once there, you use the claw to push it down.

Hanging prize 

There are few variations to this type (つりさげ) of crane game. The most common are a box suspended by two rings on its side with two other rings on the top (four ring box), or a prize dangling from a double ring configuration.

Strategy: For the four ring box, lift from the two top rings, with claw slightly toward the back and toward the direction of the wider bars (i.e. the claw’s home position). Then grab at a side ring until it moves into a delicate angle on the bar. Once there, use claw to push down the box, positioning it as close as possible to the delicately leaning side.

Ring

As its name suggests, this type of crane game involves using the claw to grab at a ring attached to the prize in order to pull it into the opening. I have never played this type of machine because the prize is usually some jumbo snack or figurine I have no interest in.

Corner balance drop 

The prize in じかおき crane games is usually a plushie or soft object resting in the corner of a L-shaped ledge. The aim is to push it over the ledge. Sometimes there is also a bar diagonally across the opening.

Strategy: First, use the claw to the roll the plushie off the platform. You can achieve this by grabbing the skinniest part (or the fattest part the claw can successfully extend around) of the plushie to turn it at angle so it hangs more and more off edge. Once the prize is resting delicately enough on the ledge/bar, use the claw to push it down (and away) from the platform repeatedly until it falls.

Takoyaki balls

In this machine you have a round tray full of ping pong ball sized-holes resembling a takoyaki pan (hence the name), and another bowl full of balls. The crab-shaped claw can only move left and right. You move the claw to the bowl full of balls and attempt to grab as many balls as possible. The claw will then automatically move to the takoyaki pan and drop the balls. If one ball falls into the prize hole (circled in red) then you get the prize.

Strategy: The more balls you can grab, the more chances one will make it into the prize hole. I don’t really like playing this machine type because it seems more akin to playing slots to me, where it is more due to luck rather than any involvement of skill. Maybe there is a way to position to claw to grab more balls, but it seems rather uncontrollable.

Interesting setups 

Interesting crane game setups

These type of games (おもしろ台) feature random setups like a ball on chain you use to knock the prize off, or the prize resting on a balloon. Strategy obviously varies depending on setup, but most likely hinges on the general principles of centre of mass, how the prize falls, and gradually shifting into position.

Prizes won

Despite sounding like an avid gamer, I am nowhere near a pro either. I only go to arcades occasionally, and am still learning what works and what doesn’t. If you have better hacks, I’m happy to hear them. But here are the prizes I have won since August 2023 just playing casually.

Ebinyan Mofusand (3 plays)

The first prize I ever won at a UFO catcher was last summer, when I got this Ebinyan Mofusand plushie in 3 plays.

I had no real strategy except trying to grip the prize as securely as possible. It was kind of a fluke to be honest. But the thrill of it and dopamine hit from getting a prize set me off on a path to learn how to play these things properly. Especially since I still have yet to win a prize from the revered big crane machines.

Kirby (6 plays)

A few months later, I got this Kirby. My strategy was just to move Kirby to the opening bit by bit since I wasn’t sure how to grip it well. But I happened to grip it pretty well in the 6th play and it made it to the opening. Only thing is that it bounced into the machine below on the way down, so we had to call over a staff to retrieve it for us.

Mofusand x Sanrio (7 plays)

Have a soft spot for Mofusand since it was the first crane game prize I ever won. This one I played while trying to find somewhere warm while waiting for a dinner meetup.

Luigi pouch (1 play) + Cinnamoroll (1 play)

I got both of these after a week of practicing on the Taito Crane app, and I am happy to say it paid off!

Other wins

  • Foongus (1 play) – somebody had left it in a favourable upside down position to the right of the opening.
  • Sumikkogurashi (6 plays) – this one was won in a pincer-type machine
  • Namagaki Tsuburana Hitomi Japanese Restaurant (1 play) – This is a vibrating plushie!
  • Konezumi (4 plays)
  • Chiikawa (3 plays)
  • Mini axolotl keychain (9 plays)
  • Pompompurin (1 play)
  • Wooper Looper axolotl (12 plays)

Summary: General tips

Mini crane game machines
  • If you are a beginner, you should first trying playing at the small claw machines. Some arcades even have labels showing which ones are easy to get.
  • For the big claw machines, you can ask staff to reposition the prize to its start position before playing. If you are adamant about getting the prize, you can also get the staff to put it in an easy-to-get position after you’ve spent a certain amount of money playing for it.
  • Many crane games are not meant to won in one play. So you could save some money by buying a set of plays. For example, some arcades offer 6 plays for 500 yen, essentially giving you a free play. You can also save money by scouring the machines and seeing which prizes other people may have already moved into a favourable position before they gave up.
  • With the possible exception of traditional crane games, using the claw to push down and/or gradually position the prize is more often the key than lifting it up randomly and hoping for the best. Although the latter can also work at times, if you are lucky enough to get the payout.
  • Some games are not worth it; the claw is too weak or the prize is cheap. Know when to walk away. Also, almost every prize can be found resold on Mercari if you really want it.
Crane games at a typical game arcade in Japan

Not into crane games? Check out other gaming-related articles to see fun ways to spend time in Tokyo.

3 thoughts on “The Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Crane Games

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.