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PACHISLOT A BIG JAPANESE HIT
But when will it appear online?
Pachislot, a fancier version of the classic slot machine is enjoying enormous popularity with Japanese players, begging the question which games developer will license and produce an online version first, a course Microgaming pioneered with it's Tomb Raider slot.
Machines featuring games like "Yoshimune" are similar to the familiar "one-armed bandit" in that the game starts when a lever is pulled or a spin button pressed, but in Japan's version, players also press buttons to stop the reels, adding an element of skill.
The pachinko industry, including both pachislot and the older pinball-like pachinko game, rakes in about 29-trillion yen ($315-billion) each year from specialised parlours throughout Japan, the government estimated last year. That's nearly four times the revenue from legal casino gambling worldwide, as estimated by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Yoshimune, is the longest-running hit in Japan's pachislot industry, where machines are normally replaced every two to three months.
Gambling is illegal in Japan, but pachinko and pachislot are not technically considered gambling because users can only win merchandise such as food, beer, shampoo or small appliances. But the great popularity of this genre clearly offers opportunities to offshore Internet gambling sites when and if the software providers translate the concept to the online arena.
Yano Research estimates that pachislot machine sales jumped 32.5 percent in 2003 to 525.5-billion yen ($5.7-billion).
The increase was spawned by two games: Daito Giken Inc.'s Yoshimune and Sammy Corp.'s "Hokuto no ken", despite the fact the former was not launched until July of 2003 and the latter came out a few months later. Of the 1.8 million pachislot machines in service, 45 percent operate one of these two games.
Most machines feature a video screen where animated characters hint at coming fortune. Yoshimune adds shutters that open, close, tremble or reveal shadows of characters, depending on how close a player is to a big win.
Hokuto turned a popular 1980s comic about a fighter into a pachislot game. Offering smaller but more frequent winnings, it lets players improve through experience. Yoshimune may be the longest-running game, but Hokuto is the best seller. Sammy, Japan's largest pachislot maker, has sold 620,000 of them. A game is considered a hit if sales reach 20,000.
Both companies sell Sony PlayStation and cellphone versions of their games, as well as branded merchandise ranging from cigarette lighters and action figures to instant noodles and mini refrigerators.
Daito Giken has released two Yoshimune CDs and contributes to a compilation CD of popular pachinko music.
"High-school girls who don't know the music came from a pachislot game are dancing to it," said Daito Kiken spokesman Yasuhiro Yamada.
The company's revenue last year was about 40-billion yen, most of it from Yoshimune-related sales. Mr. Sasaki said Sammy's Hokuto-related sales, including the machines, have earned the company about 300-billion yen in total.
The legal situation regarding the pachislot industry could persuade the originators to consider online deals. Under Japanese regulations, pachislot machines must be taken off the market after three years.