That’s right. Playing video games help you learn Japanese.
In my opinion, you learn a lot more by playing video games because they are more interactive than watching a movie, anime, drama, or reading a book. They have a lot of repetition of words so you will learn their meanings quite quickly. And to top it off, they’re fun. 😉
Nintendo DS will be your weapon of choice. This is for a few reasons: The DS has no country lockout-protection-scheme-thing. Meaning, any DS game from Japan will play on any DS from any country. Also, the DS has a vast library of great games in Japanese, many of which implement designs which test your writing on the touch screen and your speaking with the built-in microphone.
Here’s a short list of Nintendo DS titles I can personally recommend, starting with easy enough for beginners up to intermediate and advanced learners of Japanese.
Anpanman AIUEO Kyoushitsu This teaches your basic alphabet in hiragana (and some katakana) and has a lot of cute, fun, and easy games to test out your reading, writing (with a stylus), your speaking (with the mic), and your listening. Has lots of beginner vocabulary and even some weird vocabulary you would only understand if you were a child growing up in Japan. Highly recommended. And Anpan man is just so Kawaiiiii (cute) 😛
Pokemon Pearl/Diamond. Yes, it’s Pokemon. You either hate it because it’s for little kids, or you love it because they’re great, well-designed games. A fun RPG with tons of text and playtime. There is Zero kanji used in the game, so it’s actually quite difficult for some intermediate learners who memorized all the 漢字 first using Heisig or similar. So it’s really good practice for your kana reading. Plus, you’ll learn all the common names for menu, saving, fighting, talking, inventory, etc that are used in almost every Japanese RPG.
太鼓達人, err Taiko Tatsujin! You know those crazy drum games you see in Japanese arcades and in the movies? Yeah, that game, so you can practice before hand and look really cool when you go to the arcade and impress your friends 😉 Also comes with little drumstick styluses, neat. Music games are great because you need very little Japanese knowledge to jump right into them, you’ll learn a lot of popular Japanese songs (so you’ll have something to talk about), and they’re damn fun.
Rhythm Tengoku Gold. So brilliant, I wasn’t shocked when they ported this over to the States. But so weird and terribly localized that I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t sell too well (370k in the States vs. 1.8million in Japan). If you played the English version, then you can jump right into this one and, enjoy the great music and design, read along with the karaoke on the idol stage, and then prepare for its way-better prequel.
Rhythm Tengoku. Not technically a DS game, it’s for GameBoy Advance. If you didn’t get a DSi, you’ll still be able to play it just fine on your DS or DS Lite. And I suggest you do, because it’s actually better than it’s sequel and was the major inspiration for the Catchy Cadence game I designed. Lots of Kanji, Katakana and Hiragana mixed in, so perfect for advanced beginners and early intermediates. One of my top 10 games of all time. Seriously.
Zelda Tensetsu: Mugen no Sunadokei (Phantom Hourglass). Great game in any language. But really great for learning Japanese. Tons of Kanji in the game, but there is furigana for any Kanji you’re not able to read in the game, simply by tapping on the kanji. So it’s great practice for advanced learners who wish to read without the aid of furigana. As a beginner or intermediate it can get a bit annoying tapping on Kanji readings you don’t know all the time, but you’ll find that many words are repeated quite often so you pick up the meanings fairly quickly. This is the first game (in Japanese) I learned 宝箱 (Takara Bako = treasure chest) from. It won’t be the last time you see it in a game either 🙂
Dragon Quest IX. I did a full review on Dragon Quest IX here with lots of reasons why it kicks ass for learning Japanese. It has furigana for everything (Manga style, directly above the characters), but your vocabulary will have to be pretty good by this stage. However, you won’t be tapping on Kanji the whole game, which is a relief from the Zelda games.
Tomodachi Collection. This game is hard to describe. Your Kanji reading will have to be at least at an intermediate level for you to understand some of it. But the interactions with the characters is brilliant and fun and there is a ton of stuff to learn simply by playing the game passively. If you’ve played Animal Crossing, you’ll find yourself right at home… except the characters are speaking actual Japanese instead of cute gibberish.
Zelda Tensetsu: Daichi no Kiteki (Spirit Tracks… weird translation) Just as easy to play, not-so-heavy on dialogue as the last Zelda game, and has furigana for everything. Unfortunately, it still has the tap on everything you don’t know as the last game, but it’s bearable because it’s such a wonderful game.
Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! This was the game Elite Beat Agents (also a great game) was based on. A bit harder than The above mentioned music games as a) the menus are a bit confusing b) lots of Kanji c) the reading is really fast d) the game is difficult and e) you won’t be familiar with any of the songs unless you grew up in Japan ;). However, it’s a great break into Japanese Pop standards though, and it’ll give you something to sing along to with your Japanese friends.
Chrono Trigger. What could I possibly say about Chrono Trigger that hasn’t already been said. If you’ve never played the game. Do it. I don’t care what language you do it in. But you might as well do it in Japanese as it’s just as awesome. No furigana though, so you might need a dictionary handy. Also, the tiny font hasn’t changed since it’s Super NES/Famicom days, so you may have a difficult time trying to figure out what some characters are, but you’ll pick it up (Japanese kids do, right? Right).
Final Fantasy IV. The reason why it comes last on the list is you will find no furigana anywhere. Sure, Chrono Trigger doesn’t either, but Final Fantasy IV uses lots of Archaic Japanese words (just as the English translation uses stuff like my leige: 陛下 and lots of 殿 all over the place). Completely worth it though. In fact, I suggest picking it up as a beginner and playing the first 30 minutes or so just to get the feeling of ‘Oh crap. I don’t understand anything!’ Then coming back a few months later and playing it again to go ‘Holy crap! I understand almost everything!’
You can’t beat that feeling.
All of the above games can be purchased online from Amazon’s Japanese site (if you’re in Japan), elsewhere you can order it from YesAsia (which ships pretty much anywhere and has decent prices). No, those aren’t affiliate links, buy them from wherever you want 🙂
What do you think? Are you studying Japanese? Have you played any of the above games? Did they help you? Do you have any recommendations to add to the list? Feel free to comment below.
See you soon!