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Modern Pachinko machines often feature intense graphics and digital sound. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — During an afternoon lull, with only a few people playing in his Pachinko parlor, Leo Daniels spoke at a regular volume.

“The factory settings on the machines are essentially ‘loud, louder and loudest,'” Daniels said. “I’ve had to go in and physically dampen some of the speakers, because they’re just so loud.”

Pachinko machines, which once resembled upright pinball games, emerged as a cultural phenomenon in post-war Japan in the late 1940s, are typically found in parlors of dozens – or hundreds – of machines. The machines still rely on the same metal balls – which act as the wager, playing piece and prize for the game – but are now made with digital screens (some of which are 3-D) and sound systems. The cumulative sonic effect can be deafening.

A prize at the parlor – and also a nod to the game’s origin.

Pachinko World, Daniels’ parlor, is the only one of its kind on the North American continent. It is also a little more laid back, “except during Thursday night tournaments, then things can get a little loud. Fun, but loud.”

The Pachinko games at Daniels’ parlor feature a variety of themes, styles and what he calls “games within games.”

Daniels says his parlor is host to an eclectic group of people, ranging from “a lot of retirees and seniors during the day, from around 11 a.m. to 1 in the afternoon,” to college kids, who come later in the evening. For all of his guests, “it’s a place to have fun. They can win prizes, but it’s challenging too, it’s different than just sitting around pulling a lever.”

Daniels, whose father was in the Air Force, saw his first Pachinko machine as a child.

“We traveled all over, around Europe and Japan – that’s where I saw my first one. I’ve been passionate about them ever since.”

“The first Pachinko machine in the United States, was here in Carolina Beach,” Daniels said. “I’m dating myself, but this was in the 70s. I was a teenager. I was a ball runner, and I’d race up and down behind the machines and collect balls from them. When that one closed, there wasn’t another one until I opened shop about a year ago.”

Daniels said the intricacy, and constant evolution, of the Pachinko machines has kept him hooked.

“The ones I saw when I was young, they were just mechanical, the sound was just the balls physically hitting little bells inside the machine. I really liked them, but I might have gotten bored. But the thing is they keep developing, add new things,” he said. “Now, with the digital screens, they’ve got games within games. There are joysticks for playing some of them. There’s just so many different aspects. They’ve come so far.”

Brandon Terrell, one of Daniels’ regulars, manipulates the ‘launch speed’ of the metal balls, similar to the plunger on a pinball machine.

Brandon Terrell, one of Daniels’ regulars, agreed.

“It’s a lot more complex than the gambling games they used to have [before the 2007 statewide ban],” Terrell said. “You have to watch the screen, listen to what the game is asking you to do. You have to pay attention.”

That complexity is also a draw to Daniel’s lunch crowd.

“Between 11 and one there are a lot of seniors,” he said. “This is just more engaging than a slot machine. There was actually a study in Japan that showed people who played this a couple of times a week were up to four times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.”

[Daniels referred to a 2008 study, published in the Journal of Gerontology, which focused on a broad range of interactions between physical and cognitive leisure activities among patients 65 and older. The study does include Pachinko as an activity which the study suggests may deter “cognitive decline,” which includes Alzheimer’s, senile dementia and other age-related cognitive disorders; the correlation is not as strong Daniels’ suggests.]

The difficulty of the games also separates from them slot machines legally. Daniels, who posts the North Carolina gambling law on the wall, told Port City Daily:

“For one, it’s not a game of chance. And two, there’s no cash pay-out. It’s a redemption game, just like at Jungle Rapids or Chuck E. Cheese. Instead of tickets, you’re redeeming the metal balls for prizes. You can get a gift card, but also lots of other prizes.”

“If they shut down this, they’d have to shut down Chuck E. Cheese!”

Daniels says men he believes to be undercover law enforcement agents do occasionally come into the parlor.

Lee Daniels, proprietor and Pachinko enthusiast.

“They’ll come in and play a few games and then ask me, ‘hey, man, can I get paid under the table?’ It’s funny because I would never do that anyway, it’s just not something I would do. But also, they’re really not very subtle about it. They’re going to have to up their game if they ever want to catch anyone.”

Pachinko World is located at 5101 Dunlea Court, across New Centre Drive. from Target. For more information, visit them on Facebook or call them at (910) 859-6603. Daniels noted that parlor will be open a little later – “until about 11 p.m.” – on New Year’s Eve, for those looking for an all-ages activity. “I was going to stay open until midnight,” Daniels said, “but people do like to get a drink or two when the ball drops.”

Below: A taste of the Manga-themed style featured on many of Daniels’ machines. The metal balls entering the slot at the bottom of the screen is the objective of the game.