Many people would like to be able to integrate video games into their Japanese studies, but it’s often easier said than done. It’s very easy to feel like you are in well over your head when it comes to most games. There are a lot of different factors that can make things more difficult than you would imagine, so I would like to discuss some of these things, and talk about what you should look for when trying to choose a game to get started with. And before we get into this, lets be honest here–most games are fairly difficult. Your Japanese ability needs to be at least equivalent to JLPT N4 level before even a small handful of games will begin to be accessible to you. For the majority of games, your Japanese probably needs to be at least at N2 level. But the purpose of this article is to try to break down some of those barriers, and open up more games to less advanced learners. So, if you are ready to learn Japanese through video games, let’s get to it!
Choosing a game
First of all, the most important thing is to choose a game that is on your level. If you can’t understand the majority of the game without having to look things up constantly, then you won’t learn much. If you feel lost, then it will only make you frustrated, and you will start trying to play the game without even reading most of the text. As I said above, your Japanese level probably needs to be about equivalent to JLPT N4 level before you even begin to think about playing through anything in Japanese, and N3 equivalency is probably more realistic. So in other words, you should be fairly proficient in Japanese before you can even hope to understand a real game! Prior to that, you will be stuck just using a handful of games specifically designed for learning Japanese, though the effectiveness and entertainment value of most of those is rather questionable. And when you do get to the point you can begin playing games, you are likely going to have to focus on games aimed at children first.
If you are still in the very beginning stages of learning Japanese, you might want to look at Influent, which is a game designed to help teach you about 400-500 words of beginner vocabulary. The Nintendo DS also had a Japanese learning game called My Japanese Coach, which teaches beginner level Japanese. Some critics have said that My Japanese Coach does contain a few errors, primarily regarding kanji stroke order, but I believe it should be alright for the most part. The real question though, is whether you should even bother with these as opposed to learning through traditional means? Since I learned through traditional means, I really can’t answer that for you. But, give them a shot if you like.
Now, when your Japanese ability starts coming together and you think you might be reaching the point where you could try playing something, you are going to have to think very carefully about what you will be able to play. If you are going to be spending money on a game, you definitely want to do your research before plopping down a large sum on something that might be way out of your league! First of all, you want a game that has a fairly large amount of text, and is of a reasonable length. This cuts out a lot of the classic games from the NES era, and cuts out several genres of games almost entirely. We are mostly going to be limited to things like RPGs or adventure games. You also want to make sure the game displays the text onscreen, and lets you advance it with a button press. This cuts out many things like action games which might have a strong story focus. After all, if you don’t have time to read the text, what are you hoping to gain from this? The difficulty of the language used in the game is also critical. A tactical RPG based on historical storylines or a sci-fi epic might not be the best choices to start off. But something that has a simplistic story involving more typical everyday things might be a much better option. Look for something where you have about 80% or better comprehension.
Many older games have technical limitations that can make learning from them difficult. For instance, in the NES/Famicom era, cart sizes were too limited to display kanji most of the time, or even a large amount of text in most cases. Things would also sometimes have to be written strangely in order to fit in limited space. Throughout the 16-bit to 64-bit eras, things improved a lot, but games were still often produced at low resolutions. This means that though they began using kanji in most games, it can often be extremely difficult to read, as the strokes often just blur together. If you need to try looking up a kanji in a dictionary, you might not even be able to do so, because you are unsure exactly what it’s supposed to look like. And don’t even expect furigana!
More modern games bring a lot of improvements that often make them better to learn from. Higher resolution text, furigana on occasion, and even voice acting all serve to make things easier on the learner. As good as that sounds, these newer games can bring their own problems as well. For instance, the 3DS system is region locked, meaning that for many people the only options to play a Japanese game on it are to either buy a separate Japanese system, or utilizing piracy, which could possibly get your system banned from Nintendo’s online services. This is a real shame too, because it has several games which are quite nice for learning from, such as Youkai Watch, which not only uses mostly simple Japanese, but has furigana as well.
Choosing a good game for learning Japanese turns out to be a pretty difficult task. After all, game creators are definitely not making their games with language learners in mind! But a little research up front will go a long ways towards stopping a lot of frustration down the road. Now, lets move on to how to actually go about playing and learning from Japanese games.
When it comes to playing games in Japanese, scripts are your savior. Having a text file containing all of the Japanese text from the game you are playing makes things so much more comfortable, as it’s a lot easier and quicker to look up words and phrases that you might not know. But… there don’t seem to be a whole lot of Japanese scripts out there! This post on the Koohii forums links to a handful, but many of those games aren’t using the easiest Japanese to begin with. If you want to try your luck at searching for Japanese scripts online, the word for “script” is セリフ集.
If you can’t find a Japanese script, then the next best thing is an English script. While it doesn’t make looking up words any easier, it will help you to understand the storyline and give you some hints as to the meaning of some words and phrases that you have difficulty with. Loading up an English script into your tablet or phone and keeping it by your side while you play through a game can be a big help. You can sometimes find game scripts on GameFAQs, but it’s fairly hit-or-miss.
Another cool site is Learning Languages Through Video Games. This site has translated scripts for several games, mostly for the NES and SNES. Most of the games covered have very small amounts of text (Mario 3 isn’t exactly known for its intricate story!) so actually playing these games in Japanese probably won’t be terribly beneficial. But it can still be cool to go back and look through the translations for games that you might have played in your childhood.
But what if you can’t even find a script for the game you want to play? Well in this case, we can turn to “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube! While you play the Japanese game, you can follow along with a Let’s Play of the English version of the game. Or if you are lucky, you might find someone playing through the Japanese game while translating it to English in realtime, such as on the RisingFunGaming channel. Many Let’s Play videos tend to have a lot of commentary over the gameplay, so if you prefer not to hear that, you might also want to search for videos with “longplay” in the title. These videos generally don’t have commentary.
If you really aren’t that keen on actually playing games, you might find that watching other people play through them is just as satisfying. By simply watching a Let’s Play or longplay of a Japanese game, you can pause and rewind in YouTube to take things at your own pace, and learn from a game just as effectively as you would by playing it on your own.
And for improving your listening skills, maybe you want to watch some Let’s Plays done by actual Japanese gamers? Just search on YouTube for the word 実況 along with the Japanese title of the game you are looking for!
Or maybe you are more into the competitive side of gaming? The YouTube channel Shi-G features Japanese Smash Brothers tournament play, sometimes with commentary, sometimes without. Adding 大会 into your YouTube searching can bring back results featuring tournament gameplay, through many of the videos tend to be from tournaments outside of Japan, so they may not be useful.
Visual Novels are games too! Sort of…
Ah, visual novels. The finest pornographic literature that the world of gaming has to offer! If you are over 18 and have become fairly proficient in Japanese, then these might be a good option. While most of these really aren’t suited to be classified as “games”, they usually do tend to offer some amount of interactivity and branching story paths. And to be fair, they aren’t all pornographic, and some of them even make their way onto mainstream gaming consoles. Furthermore, these types of games are great for learning Japanese, not only because there are a ton of them and they all have massive amounts of text, but there are also some amazing tools available to make reading them so much easier!
By using Interactive Text Hooker and Translation Aggregator, you can extract the text into a copy/pasteable format and get dictionary and translation assistance in realtime! A newer application called Visual Novel Reader also looks like it has some amazing features, including many of the things you can get from the previous two tools, in addition to other features like crowd-sourced translations!
To get started with setting up the software and choosing some easy visual novels, you might want to check out this article at Visual Novel Tea Party, or the visualnovels subreddit, which has a list of easy VNs to start with, and a guide to getting your software set up.
Remember to Have Fun
Trying to play games in Japanese, especially when you aren’t that good at Japanese, can be really stressful. If it’s not working for you, don’t force it! Step back for a bit and study some more, and maybe you will be ready later on. Games are supposed to be fun, so don’t let learning take all of the fun out of them!
And every now and then, you just need to unwind and relax. Here are some things to check out when you need a break:
Game Center CX
Most gamers will probably enjoy watching Game Center CX, a Japanese television show dedicated to retro gaming. It’s been going for over 10 years, and most of the episodes have been fansubbed! While the Japanese tends to be on the more difficult side in my opinion, its a fun distraction that gives a lot of insight into the Japanese viewpoint on retro games.
Legends of Localization
A cool website that I stumbled across is Legends of Localization, which takes a look at various questions regarding the translation and localization of games, and goes back to look at the original Japanese, to see what the games were really saying. It also has some in-depth comparisons between the English and Japanese versions of several games, including Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Earthbound, Final Fantasy IV, and more!
Alright, that’s it for now! In my next post, I will be listing my top 11 games for Japanese learners!