I bet most of us fellow Japanese learners like to play video games. For some of us it even may have been the reason to start learning in the first place. Throughout the “golden era” of Japanese video games, I wasn’t that much of a gamer. I had the old grey Game Boy and some classic games for it but didn’t touch anything on the Super Nintendo. When the PS1 hit the market nothing changed for me and even if I loved Metal Gear Solid, I mostly played western games like Crash Bandicoot and Tony Hawk Skateboarding. Good times!
A couple of years ago I got really interested in the concept of the Yakuza games by Sega and played the crap out of them. You could say that Yakuza was responsible for my growing love for Japanese video games. Today, most of the time I’m playing on handhelds. I just love to relax in my bed and play some video games. Sure the big screen has its benefits but within the last years more and more interesting titles (especially Japanese ones) came out exclusively for portable systems. It is no surprise if you consider that these are always the best selling systems in Japan and home consoles getting pretty much ignored by the Japanese audience.
If you’re just looking to start your long journey to learn Japanese check out my tips on how I’m learning, what I still use, and what worked best for me. Just thinking about how much time I wasted on crappy methods…
Japanese love handhelds and we do too
For us Japanese learners there is one major benefit from playing on a handheld: The writing is far easier to read on these handy devices than on the big screen. The Vita is one system that stands above them all. With its glorious OLED screen, it is perfectly made for reading Japanese. You can precisely see every little detail on a Kanji and it’s just a joy to play on the system. I own both a 3DS and a Vita. Even if I like the really incredible games-library of the 3DS, the Vita is the far superior system and just so comfortable for us Japanese learners. Unfortunately, with the exceptions of two Level 5 games (Danball Senki W & Time Travelers) there seem no titles to be available which offer Furigana support. Too bad and I really hope that changes within the next month to come.
But not let’s talk about some video games for Japanese beginners.
Most video games use strange Japanese
Like anime characters, the people in video games tend to speak a rather uncommon language. Not always, there are some exceptions of course, but it’s the same as in English. The protagonists in Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Shin Megami Tensei just talk some weird ancient language. And now imagine that in Japanese. Not the best way to get immersed in a new language. But there are some easier to understand video games out there which even contain Furigana. In the Super Famicom times, most games didn’t contain any Kanji and all text was strictly written in Hiragana due to technical limitations at that time. Text with Hiragana only is more difficult as one would think and that’s why I really prefer some Kanji with the much-needed Furigana support.
Nintendo 3DS: Sorry, it’s region locked.
Region-locked so unfortunately, you need to buy a Japanese system to enjoy Japanese games. Thanks, Nintendo. But the good thing is that you can pick up a Japanese system for great prices nowadays. And why not get the new Nintendo3DS for a great deal, swap some cover plates and just have a dedicated system for your Japanese gaming needs. Pick the LL one up in Tokyo and never did regret it. There are just so many fantastic Japan-exclusive games out there.
Note, 26.02.2015: Received my new 3DS yesterday from Japan and absolutely love the little machine. The 3D is finally amazing. No more weird “lines” when you use it. The smaller display in comparison to the LL makes everything look a lot more smooth and vivid. It’s finally a useable handheld even for Kanji reading.
妖怪ウォッチ (Yokai Watch) – 3DS
I’ve been a great fan of nearly all Level 5 stuff, especially the Layton games which I still love to play together with my girlfriend. Most of their games have their flaws though and lack in good gameplay but most of the time their charming stories make more than up for it. I recently got my hands on 妖怪ウォッチ (Youkai Watch) for the 3DS. You play a little boy who lives in a small town and loves to catch insects. He meets a mysterious ghost and in the end, he’ll change to catching ghosts instead of insects. Of course, there is more to the story but it all boils down to löevel 5’s very own version of Pokemon. The gameplay is not comparable but quite alright. It’s a Level 5 game and so you should play it for the story and in our case to read some more Japanese. The language used in Youkai Watch is fairly simple. The ghosts sometimes like to use honorific forms and a more polite vocabulary but nothing too fancy or stuff you wouldn’t need to learn sometime anyway.
Buy the game: Yokai Watch
Note: The franchise became a huge hit in Japan and the second entry in the series is slowly growing towards the 3 million in sales. Only rivaled by Pokemon and Animal Crossing Level 5 made the smart choice of producing two different versions of the game as well.
Note August 2015: Yokai Watch became a huge huge franchise in Japan and is nearly selling as much as the 3DS uber-game Animal Crossing. They are up to the third entry in the series now and are going the Pokemon route with two different versions of each game now.
Or just pick up the newer entry of the series (which I’m playing at the moment). Don’t the Nintendo Switch is region free.
Mother 3 – GBA
Maybe some of you still know Earthbound which is called Mother 2 in Japan. The next part of the series was at first developed for the N64 and after years on hiatus was finally made into a GBA game. It’s one of the more expensive ones but should be available for around 50$. The game contains Hiragana only and while that’s not ideal, the language is quite simple and the story really worth your time. There is also a really well-done fan guide available. Some time ago I purchased the hardcover version of the guide and it helped a lot playing through the game. Not to mention the beautiful illustrations inside the guide. These guys did a fantastic job. Mother 2 has been made widely (or not so considering the sales) available on the WiiU eshop. Even if I find the game damn difficult not to mention unfair, it definitely got the charm on its side. If you own a Wii U and haven’t bought Mother 2, shame on you. Really, just get the game, and if you like it give your Japanese a workout with the still Japan-exclusive Mother 3.
Professor Layton – DS & 3DS
It doesn’t really matter which Layton game you play, I love them all. But the later ones for the 3DS contain more visually challenging puzzles which are a lot easier to grasp if you’re still learning a language. There are tons of guides around on the Internet so when you’re not quite sure what the question is you can just look up a translation without any trouble. But you should always keep in mind that the Japanese Layton games contain some Puzzles which didn’t get translated for the Western versions. Even the European and North American versions are not identical and differ in some details.
A big plus is that you can currently get the game for super cheap (around 15$) which makes it a great choice to start with even if you won’t fully understand everything at the beginning.
Fantasy Life – 3DS
In both games Fantasy Life and Animal Crossing (とびだせ動物の森) you can have some sort of a “second life”. Plant trees, buy furniture, and catch some fish. But Fantasy Life combines this Animal Crossing approach with classic RPG elements, dungeons to explore, and different job-classes. It’s a really fun game and even if I couldn’t really get into Animal Crossing I still enjoyed Fantasy Life quite a bit. You can even become a cook and try to make the most extravagant dishes. The language used in Fantasy Life is not always easy to understand and a little more difficult than your regular Level 5 game. But there are several guides and wikis available. In Japanese though but it’s still very handy.
What makes Animal Crossing so attractive for the Japanese learner are the funny inhabitants of your little virtual city. You can speak with everyone in your new town of which you become the major by accident. You even have to if you don’t want that your residents are moving. Some will be easier to understand and some will give you a pretty hard time. If you ever played one of these games in English you can probably imagine that understanding an animal with a heavy pirate accent in Japanese isn’t the most comfortable way to start learning. But it gets better and even if I “only” played the game for about 30 hours there are a lot of parts in it even I enjoyed. If you liked it before in your native language you’ll like it in Japanese as well. If there was the possibility to automate certain parts of the game like watering the flowers or picking up peaches and shells from the beach it would be my type of game. But like this where I always have to do all the work myself, it’s not my cup of tea.
How difficult is Animal Crossing in Japanese?
Most people think that Animal Crossing is rather easy to play in Japanese but I found it quite challenging. Many of your villagers speak with odd accents and use some funny vocabulary which makes them hard to understand. But I have to admit that I didn’t get the appeal of the game. If you like the series, go for it.
Zelda: Ocarina of time
The N64 was released when I was ten. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to own a gaming console myself which is probably the reason why I’m hoarding handhelds in my late 20s. I always played with my friends on their consoles. Mostly Golden Eye which you had to import from Switzerland back then. And Pilot Wings. Which was really amazing. Loved that game. But we didn’t play any RPGs. None of my friends did and so I didn’t play any RPGs as well. Not even Zelda.
Nearly twenty years later I bought a 3DS and got Ocarina of time as a present from Nintendo for being such an awesome customer. The language is fairly easy and straight forward. There are furigana for each Kanji which makes playing the game really comfortable. Fairy wasn’t really part of my vocabulary in Japanese before. Many of you will already have played the game so you’ll already know what to do even if you don’t understand some parts of the game. If you haven’t, like me, there is a fantastic guide out there, paraphrasing the store and delivering tons of screenshots explaining every necessary action.
Just started playing it yesterday for about three hours and absolutely loved it. Received my new 3DS from Japan, the small, white one, and I really think it’s the perfect Nintendo gaming machine. I talked so much trash about the 3DS and its crappy display but now with the revised edition and the slightly larger screen on the normal version, it’s just perfect. You can read all the Kanji without any problems and things look nice and crisp. Not Vita crisp but perfectly alright.
Playstation Vita: Surprise, it’s region free.
It’s easily my favorite portable gaming system and despite what a lot of people are saying, the library of games is huge. There are a lot of quality titles out there and a lot of them even got localized. But these are not the games we care about obviously because we want to train our Japanese skills a little while playing video games. If you took my advice on how to start learning Japanese you probably signed up for Wani Kani. Good job because this will make playing Japanese games on the Vita a lot easier.
Like I already mentioned at the beginning of the post most of the games out there (with Time Travelers and Danball Senki W being the only two exceptions) don’t sport any furigana. But this shouldn’t be a problem for us Wani Kani boys, right?!
Dream C Club Zero Portable
I know what you think. Just another one of these mindless pervy Japanese games. You’re not completely mistaken here but Dream C Club actually offers a lot more than some flirting and drinking. Depending on which girl you pick you’ll be confronted with some very different Japanese talking patterns and you’ll quickly understand what “talking like a girl” means in Japan. Some of the hostesses tend towards a more girly way of talking and other ones have a more natural or neutral way of speaking.
The best thing is that the whole game is fully voiced, with the exception of your own dialog of course. If you want to find out more about the game head over to my in-depth review of Dream C Club Zero Portable. Or just find out for yourself. If you’re not totally opposed to the idea of visiting a virtual hostess club this is a great game to practice your Japanese with.
Golden Time: Vivid Memories
I watched Toradora and thought it was equally cute and amazing. The same author did another series of light novels which was adapted into an Anime as well and eventually made into a Visual Novel. The same goes for Toradora. I really liked some parts of Golden Time but found the series was really lacking towards the end. Slice of life in Tokyo but why has every other Japanese character suffer from amnesia?
I imagine the writing process to be like this: The writer felt that the story was lacking somehow but couldn’t really point out what was missing. And then everything fell into place. A divine idea. The main character was suffering from amnesia all along. She finally found it, the missing grain of salt which makes a good story great. Amnesia.
You guessed the main character is suffering from Amnesia. And his old memories are with him all the time. He is kind of a whiny little bitch. Which isn’t too ideal for a great main character. But nonetheless, the story is quite fun and the rest of the cast makes a little up for the terrible amnesia/ghost idea.
Golden Time: Vivid memories tells an alternative story of the show where you can make different choices in regard to the story. You can even date the hell out of the other characters. No limitations here. What makes this visual novel so great for everyone who is learning Japanese is the fact that the whole game is fully voiced. With its original speakers. Which is awesome. If you liked the show you’ll love the game. And if you didn’t like the show for some parts you can make everything different in the visual novel.
I have a Vita so can you reccomend some games on there as easy as these?
It’s difficult to recommend something for the Vita because there are only two Level 5 games which support furigana. But I just recently made a post with some great (Kanji only) Vita games. Love the system btw.
Hi, Jakob. Please visit Book-Off in NYC! It is a fantastic place for Japanese language acquisition, especially through video games. They sell Japanese Nintendo DS systems and Japanese-language games, all at deep discounts. Some of the games only cost 1 dollar!
That’s amazing, love Book Off. unfortunately the next one from my place is in Paris which is a five hour car drive away. But you just really got me in the mood for some Book Off shopping :)
Come over and try out http://www.kanjigames.com !
facinating article, as an intermediate learner i am really excited about playing games in japanese to get the original flavour, not to mention i just love to visually see kanji during a game, im am currently playign chrono trigger in japanes and your write about a lot of odd language, but thats about 20 percent idsay they rest is plain old japanese and i love leqrning hose queer words. Its been hard, but its so rewarding evenif you only get an hour in a day, the feeling of comprehending a creative effort in its oringal laugnage cannot be expressed in words, cant wait till im flying through these games like a native, great article
Sorry for the late reply Laurence but I completely forgot about it. Great to hear that you are at that level with your Japanese where you’re excited about learning more ancient words and some obscure stuff as well. Awesome. Played Chrono Trigger on my DS and I know so any people absolutely love that game but I couldn’t really get into it anymore. Maybe it’s because I didn’t play it back then maybe it’s just not my game.
But you’re making a great point when you mention that you want to experience a game in its original form and wording. Makes such a huge difference. No matter what language it’s about a translation is always a compromise. Seeing that you wrote this comment a month ago, you still playing Chrono Trigger and how are things going?
hey i must return the apology for late reply haa, i can happily report chrno trigger isthe first game i ever completed in Japanese and when those credits rolled i was so happy, to be immersed in the culture to that degree to feel Japanese, to watch those beautiful kanji convey me the meanings of a culture separated by so many miles, what a world we live in ,
my Japanese is going amazingly, i am reading very fast the only thing that stops me is words i never saw but i can many tiems guess, 1 year ago it took me to hours to get through a a4 page of a fairy tale, and i would not know barely any words, now im on chapter 3 of alice in wonderland and transcribing interviews with my favorite singers!!
my entire life and how i perciv reality has changed after connection to this amazing language and i belive kanji are closer to how we actually experience reality, i.e symbolically, thanks for the support