Back in 2011, a video game was introduced late into the Nintendo DS’s lifecycle, with little fanfare. That game, 「えいごで旅する：リトル・チャロ」(Little Charo Travels in English) would end up being an absolute gold mine for Japanese learners looking for a game with language on the easier side. But, for whatever reason, the game went almost unnoticed among Japanese learners at the time. In an era when the Nintendo DS was seen as a great tool for Japanese learners, and many sites were posting lists of the best DS games for learning Japanese, it seemed odd that this game never got a mention. The Nintendo DS was on it’s way out by the time this game was released, and more and more people were getting smartphones, so maybe people had already stopped seeing the DS as a useful tool for Japanese study. Even I ended up getting sidetracked and stopped playing the game after a few episodes. But now, a few years later, I’ve decided to give it another go and make my way through to the end.
What is Little Charo?
Little Charo was originally an educational television series that aired on NHK in 2008, and was designed for teaching English to Japanese viewers. The show featured short anime segments, accompanied by people discussing the English used in these segments. Charo is a super cute little puppy, which makes it very appealing and fun to learn with. The Nintendo DS game, released a few years later, is heavily based on those anime segments, but with the storyline fleshed out a lot further. The game is basically like a storybook or visual novel, with the main focus of the game simply being to read the text.
What makes it so good for learning Japanese?
There are a lot of reasons why I think this is the best video game for Japanese learners. For one, this game is fully bilingual, allowing you to change the text from English to Japanese at the touch of a button. This is way better than trying to follow along with a separate script as you play a game! The translation is quite accurate, as it was designed for the purpose of education. They didn’t take a lot of liberties with the phrasing like you see in many other translations. This means that when you encounter a Japanese word that you don’t know, you can generally figure out its meaning by looking at the English translation.
But speaking of scripts, those are available too. I actually dumped them from the game’s rom myself, and will be posting up new episodes weekly, right here, as I work my way through the game. And you will probably need the scripts, because the one thing that this game doesn’t go easy on is kanji! There are about 1,300 kanji used in the game, and there is unfortunately no furigana. But by using the scripts, you can easily look up the readings of the kanji via rikaichan. Having to play without furigana is actually a good learning experience though, as annoying as it may be. When furigana is available, we tend to rely on it instead of actually learning to read the kanji. Many words will be used repeatedly throughout the game, so you can definitely count on learning to read some kanji by the time you get to the end!
As far as the difficulty of the text in the game goes, it doesn’t really get any easier than this. The game was originally written so that the English would not be excessively difficult. As a side effect of the game’s English being easy, the Japanese translation also ends up being easy as a result! I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a pushover though, because for a learner, this language can still be somewhat difficult, especially when you encounter words that you are unfamiliar with. But in the grand scheme of things, I really don’t think you would find any other game out there that has Japanese on this same level of difficulty. I would strongly recommend that your Japanese ability be at about an N4 level (in JLPT terms) before attempting to tackle this game.
Also, this game is long. Like as long as a novel or an RPG. This is fantastic, because learning material on this level is so rare, so its great that it will last you a long time. The game does not get progressively more difficult as you go. The first episode of the game is probably a good representation of the entire thing. Some episodes will be easier, some episodes more difficult, but overall, there is not a huge amount of variation between them. Theoretically, the later episodes should be easier, because you will have picked up a lot of vocabulary and kanji early on.
If you would like to see the level of difficulty of the Japanese presented in this game, I have recorded a video of the entire first episode.
I have no intention of doing a recording of the entire game, because if you want to learn from it, nothing really beats playing it for yourself so you can take the text at your own pace. So then, you might be wondering…
How can I play this game?
As a Nintendo DS game, it is region free, meaning that the cart will play on Nintendo DS and 3DS systems from all around the world. The only place I have found to purchase it currently is from Amazon, where you can get it for about $35 at the time of this writing, which I think is well worth it considering the length of the game and the amount of content it has.
But if you aren’t having any of that, the game plays perfectly on the DeSmuME emulator. You do just need to change one setting to make the sound work properly though. Go to the “config > sound settings” menu, and set the Synchronization mode to “Synchronous”. Don’t ask me where to download the game rom, but if you can’t find it in the first page of Google search results, you are doing something wrong.
If you get stuck while playing, here is a walkthrough in Japanese!
Let’s Do This
It’s always more fun to play with a buddy than to play alone, right? And studying is more fun in a study group! So, for about next 30 weeks or so, I will be posting up information on the game one episode at a time. I will include scripts and frequently used vocabulary words. If you have questions about any of the Japanese in the game, post your questions in the comments, and me or other readers can try to answer, and then I can archive the questions for everyone to benefit from!
I have already posted up a page for Episode One of the game, so check it out, and spend one week studying the content of that episode as much as you can! I will then continue to post a new episode each week, so we can all go through at the same pace! Be sure to bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed so you can check back here each week. If you have arrived here a little late to the party, that’s okay too, you can just go through the game at your own pace!