Even though I had plenty of access to PC games and consoles as a kid (ah, the amazingness that was the Super Nintendo Entertainment System), I loved going to the arcade. While I probably spent way too much time trying to master titles like Smash TV and Cyber Sled—and, of course, side-scrollers like Golden Axe and The Simpsons—I also spent a some time with the games that required a bit more physical skill: Skee-Ball, countless basketball games, or that game where you had to throw a football through the holes.
I don’t get around to the arcade very much anymore, but when I do, I prefer to spend my time trying to earn tickets for novelty prizes instead of broadcasting my poor Dance Dance Revolution skills to the world. I always forget to research what I’m going to play before I go, though.
While learning some tricks for mastering miniature free throws might not make me the Steph Curry of the local mini-golf centre, at least it will help me not burn through my through my cash/tokens/credits with little to show.
The next time you’re hitting up the local arcade—or gaming-themed bar, or whatever—here are a few pointers for getting better at the games you might find there.
First, try to pick a basketball-themed game that’s easier by default. Don’t go for the one where you have to shoot what amounts to a free throw at an unconventional angle—or worse, a three-pointer (if such games even exist).
Also, look at the ratio of the ball you’re shooting against the hoop you’re trying to put it in. Tiny ball, gigantic hoop? You’re golden. Regular ball, regular hoop? Trickier, but not impossible.
And does the hoop move at all or do anything else weird? You can still find plenty of shooting success, you’ll just have another variable to contend with.
What’s most important about these games, I think, is to establish a consistent rhythm. Don’t grab one ball at a time, line up a shot, and let it rip—you’ll waste valuable seconds. Think quantity over quality. You are a shooting machine, not a sniper.
Use the first few shots to gauge how much force you’ll need to put the ball in the basket (nothing but net is easier and faster than banking the ball off the backboard), and then make sure you’re queueing up a new ball the second you’ve released your shot.
Repeat as necessary for however many seconds the game runs. Celebrate your insane score.
And if you really want to impress your friends with your arcade-basketball skills, there’s always the two-handed approach:
This one gives me anxiety, as I have always been terrible at Skee-Ball and will likely always be terrible at Skee-Ball. While I feel like mastering this game is all about practice and repetition, apparently bending your knees while you throw is a good method for ensuring you aren’t bouncing the ball on the lane—affecting the accuracy of your shot—instead of gently rolling it up. When in doubt, make like Lil Jon and get low to the ground.
While some people simply aim for the hole, I’ve found that others like to bank the ball into the hole by targeting a specific spot on the wall near the hole you want. It’s a lot easier to see this in action than visualise it, so here’s an example of what I mean:
As always, maintaining a consistent form is key. The more you play, the more you’ll start to figure out the pattern for exactly how far back you’ll want to bring your arm, how much force you’ll want to apply to the ball, et cetera.
Your stance is critical, too, as Skee-Ball team captain CarneyVorous wrote last year:
“You’d never think it, but skeeball is 80% lower body. Your stance is the most important part of your game. Everyone’s stance is unique so figure out where your feet need to be in order for you to be most comfortable and get the velocity you want.
For my stance, I need my left foot firmly planted and lined up with the inner edge of the left bumper. My right leg crosses behind my left and my right foot is up on the tip of the toes, so I’m balancing a bit with my core and also pushing myself forward a bit.”
Also, when you’re just getting a feel for the game, don’t be afraid to go for lower points. Tempting as it might be to start tossing your ball at the hardest corner spot—a hundred points, or however your game counts it—going for the top spot in the centre, or the one slightly below it (for fewer points), is a fine strategy.
You don’t want to burn yourself out by consistently missing the hardest shot when you can build your muscle memory and earn more points, in general, by targeting something a little easier.
Air hockey also gives me anxiety, because I invariably end up playing one of my friends who likes smashing the puck like an angry Hulk. Speed is important to winning at air hockey, since it’s a lot easier to block a turtle than a bullet, but mastering the game involves two words: control and offence.
While you can probably get away with just slamming straight-on shots at novice players, better air hockey players will be able to defend against that pretty well—unless you’re great at fake-outs. Attacking on the angle is trickier to block.
And even if your opponent is successful, you might have a shot at a quick straightaway (or another angled attack) on the part of the goal they’ve left expose. That’s especially true if they weren’t able to add much power to their block and you can capitalise on the ricochet.
Exploiting your opponent’s natural tendency to move their defence in the same direction as your offence can also be a quick and easy way to win:
While you can’t ignore defence in air hockey, I think you’ll find more success—especially against more amateur players—by going after them like a sith. If you’re taking four times as many shots on goal as your opponent, you’re going to have much better odds of scoring and, with luck, you’ll wear them out from the barrage of flying pucks.
If, or when, you need to take a bit of a breather, use the triangle technique to protect your goal:
One thing I haven’t addressed in this brief roundup of tips is your grip. That’s a highly personal choice, so I don’t have any great strategies for you there, other than noting that whatever grip you use should give you lots of striking power via the fingers, wrist, and arm.
Don’t grip the centre of striker like you’re grabbing the emergency break on your car; try placing a combination of fingers in the curved groove between the centre and the edges, which should help your speed, striking, and subterfuge.
How easy it looks. You stare at a screen, you tap a button to align a block on top of the block below it, and you repeat this a bunch of times until your stack touches the top of the screen.
You then win a huge amount of tickets, some amazing prize, or the validation that you defeated one of the harder games your arcade offers.
First off, let me offer this sobering advice: If it’s a digital game, those who manage it can mess with how the game works—be it the game’s overall difficulty, the payouts, et cetera.
That’s why I stick to games that require more physical skills, but it’s hard to deny the incredible payouts some of these trickier titles can give out (if you win).
I am terrible at Stacker (and similar variants, like the game where you’re balancing blocks on each other), so I’ll leave it to the pros to help out with this one. As one Stacker enthusiast wrote:
First trick is never listen to the music. It sounds like the beat matches the movement of the blocks, and it does- at first. But the closer you get to the top, the more and more slightly askew the music is to the movement, it’s meant to throw you off.
Secondly, never build in the centre of the screen. When the blocks move from side to side, they slide right off the screen, then “bounce back” onto the screen. That “bounce back” time can VARY, even slightly, and can throw off your game. By picking one side -for me, I pick the right, as I am left handed- and build the stack there, as it gives me the longest time to prepare for my next strike as the blocks move across the screen.
Building the stack in the centre is the WORST idea, as it gives you the least amount of time after a “bounce back” from the edge to react, but everyone tends to use the centre thinking it’s the best place. Every win I’ve had is by building a tower against the side of the screen.
And third, examine the large prizes. Is the machine stocked right up? If so, odds are it was recently refilled, and the odds of a win are lower. If you visit the same machine twice a few days/weeks apart, and the items are the different/missing, a win has occurred, also resetting the win counter. However, if you visit it a few days/weeks apart and the large prizes are the same, your odds are much better as there’s been plays, but no wins.
Sounds easy, right?
You’ve surely seen this game (or some variation of this game) before. If not, here’s the basic setup: There’s a big circle with a bunch of lightbulbs (or LEDs). You insert your quarter/token/whatever, and the bulbs or LEDs cycle to create the illusion of a single “light” spinning around the circle.
When you hit the button, the light stops on whatever bulb or LED its on, and you get a certain reward. Your goal is to stop the light on the jackpot spot, which is a lot easier said than done.
This game appears like it’s all physical skill and timing—certainly true—but that doesn’t mean that it’s locked down. Again, those who set the game up in their establishment can adjust the game’s difficulty as they see fit.
As one Redditor describes:
“Back when I played, the difficulty setting for the jackpot was 6 milliseconds. To put this in perspective, a few things: The timing window available to the operator is between 2 and 20 milliseconds. The out of the box factory setting for Spin-N-Win is 5 milliseconds. And back then I was able to hit roughly 1 out of 4 games, and ‘Captain Fecktard’ – the AP that is not in good graces at our store, was banned previously and then allowed to return – was often averaging closer to 1 out of 3. At this point, AP was viable on Spin – but TOO viable as there were people that didn’t have any sense of what makes for a reasonable payout limit hammering it elsewhere.
When Global Settings were introduced, shortly after Tippin’ Bloks had its software changed, the setting was changed to 4 milliseconds.
I could no longer hit 1 out of every 4 at this setting, and for the brief time I tried to play it like this was getting closer to 1/8.
That said, there are stores that are not set to the standard. I won’t say ‘set correctly’ because there are, in some states, legal regulations regarding games of skill that require them to have a higher window for the jackpot. Arcade laws are weird. NO, I will not mention specific stores, because I don’t trust this forum of (currently) 5,163 subscribers to not have at least 20-50 people that would either start going every night or possibly staying for 12 hours open to close on a Wednesday and go murder it.”
Is there a trick to Spin-N-Win? Yes. And it’s almost one-hundred per cent mental. If you’re having a slump or just not getting the timing right, the onus is on you to walk away.
It might not be your fault; the game might just be set in such a way that it’s incredibly difficult to nail the exact jackpot light you’re targeting. I’m sure you can get the win every now and then, but why waste countless quarters/tokens/credits on something so difficult?
Conversely, if you find a Spin-N-Win (or similar game) that you’re destroying, don’t assume that’s going to be the case for every iteration of that game you run into. If you can, stay on that game for as long as possible, because you’ve found the diamond in the rough that’s going to pay off big—I hope.
Again, another incredibly easy game—you position a crane over a prize, you hit a button, and the claw magically drops down and grabs whatever you want. Simple as that.
If you’ve ever sunk a few bucks into one of these arcade games, you probably already get the sense that they’re not what they appear to be at first glance. The claw on the end of your crane always seems to be about as strong as a newborn baby, and would probably struggle to lift a loofah, let alone the huge stuffed animal you’re hoping to win.
In this case, there’s no real strategy you can use to win the prizes you seek, aside from the obvious tips of “make sure your claw is landing where you want it to go” and “try to go for prizes that aren’t really packed in there.”
I think the best approach is to consider the line from War Games before you waste your time and money: The only winning move is not to play.
According to one arcade owner, who was quoted in a 2012 article on Smithsonian.com:
Most machines have a CMS (Command Module Settings) which allow the owner to change a couple factors:
* Chance of winning. Win/Loose, typically 1/12 In Cali or 1/15 In Nevada!
* PSI of claw. Most claws are 5-8 PSI requiring 10-13 to grab an item. Note, the setting module for the PSI is usually manual, there are springs on the claw that have little red marks. The module will tell you which mark to tighten the spring for the desired effect 🙂
* Cost/Accepted Money. Either DBA(Dollar Bill Acceptor) or Coin
Under California law my claws are set to 1/12 which means 1/12 players will have a chance to win. The example I used before is a ‘toy’ requires 10 PSI to lift. My claw during 11/12 tries will apply 4-6 PSI, or just enough to shuffle it or barely pick it up. During the 1/12 tries the claw will apply 9-11 PSI, sometimes picking it up and dropping, some successful 🙂
And, no, your “align the key with the hole so you win a prize” game isn’t much better. From that same Reddit thread quoted in the Smithsonian piece:
“When the tech came to install it he asked ‘’Do you want auto-lose installed?’
I was like ‘What?? Auto lose? Sounds fishy?’
Turns out that particular machine has an algorithm that knows each X/Y/Z of the key hole. So say in order to win a prize your key needs to be at 50/50/10. if you correctly line it up at 50/50/50 the position is relayed to a CMS that slight adds a 1 or 2 degree alteration to keep you from winning. The only way to fix this is aim low and left/right until you find the way the machine is changing it.”
The ‘Jump Rope’ game
Ah, Jumpin’ Jackpot. While this is probably one of the few arcade games that might actually cause you to break a sweat while you’re trying to win tickets, you don’t have to get a leg cramp to beat the machine on this one.
The premise of the game is simple. A light travels around in a circle. Your job is to jump so it doesn’t “hit” you—really, so it isn’t activated at the same time you’re standing on the pressure-sensitive pad.
The trick to win this one is easy. So long as the arcade’s operators don’t give you grief, don’t stand on the pad at all. Instead, use your hands to simulate jumping. You’ll be a lot more accurate—and a lot less tired if your plan is to park yourself on this game for some time.