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5 Free Mobile Games that Can Improve Your Basic Japanese

Looking to liven up your time spent studying Japanese? Step up your game with these, well, games.

By 8 min read

So… you’ve studied hiragana and katakana until you can’t stomach looking at another gojūon (Japanese written symbols used to represent the syllables of words) chart again. What else can you do to keep all this new information in your head? I’m going to tell you something that I’m sure we all wish our parents told us to do as kids: play video games. OK, so video games, per se, aren’t really what I mean (at least for the purposes of this article), but the gamification of mobile apps has come a long way.

If you would like to study Japanese by means of honest-to-goodness video games, one way to do so is to buy a Japanese handheld Nintendo 3DS or a Switch. You can opt for a Japanese Switch or change the language settings. Another option is to set up your Sony PS4 console in Japanese. You could even go the extra mile and get a Japanese PlayStation Network account.

But I digress…

In the first post of this series, we looked at mobile applications geared toward general learning. In this one, I’m going to provide some tips on how to further your Japanese via mobile gaming. Below are a mix of five apps to appeal to the masses, as well as those who span the beginner to intermediate Japanese levels.

1. Flashcards by NKO

Screens from the Flashcards NKO app on iOS.

For the traditional student, this app gives a twist to studying flashcards. One that cannot easily be replicated by pen and paper methods. Before we get into the game side of things, let’s dig into all the available options. Everything appears to be customizable, to the point where I would need to write another article just to explain it all. Get in there and play around with the settings, see what works for you and your study habits. I’d recommend checking out the Tools/Games section under Deck Defaults. Here you’ll find 27 different study games to pick from for your deck. If you’re a big visual learner, you can enable Flickr search to add some flair to your deck.

If you’re a teacher or just looking to share your vocabulary decks, there are even export and sharing options. Flashcards can be made with either text, images, drawings, videos or even sound recordings. These are all options available before you even make a deck. Once you make one, you can go further and edit your lists via more choices, such as adding borders or changing the colors of your cards. Once you’ve added that kaleidoscope border you’ve been eyeing, it’s time for the games. We can guess what the games Match, Spelling and True & False could be. It’s the QBattle, Loci, Flappy and Blocks games that you have to play to find out what they’re all about. Regardless of the game, you’re going to remember your vocabulary and become more proficient in Japanese.

2. Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector

Screens from the Neko Atsume app on iOS.

If you’re a fan of cats — and let’s face it, you should be — this game is purrfect for you. Neko Atsume translates roughly to collecting, or gathering, cats. And that’s the premise of the game in a nutshell. You can play the game in either English or Japanese, making it no issue to get a feel for the game in English before navigating all the menus in Japanese. The currency in this game is sardines (natch!) and as you progress you can buy more food and cute toys for your cats to get them to visit.

The educational part of this game starts when you switch over to Japanese and practice reading full sentences or sounding out item names in katakana. For each cat you come across, you can read about what they’re like and learn what their personality type is called in Japanese. Some of them also give you gifts made from everyday items to help boost your vocabulary. Not to mention: who wouldn’t like to collect a ton of cats, take pictures of them and customize all their surroundings?

If something is too overwhelming for me in-game, I take a screenshot and upload it to the Google Translate application.

3. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

Screens from the Animal crossing: Pocket Camp app on iOS.

Nintendo 3DS fans rejoice! Our beloved Animal Crossing is finally available on a mobile platform as Pocket Camp. The first week it was released, I saw young and old alike playing it on the train to pass the time. I owe a lot of my animal and common item’s vocabulary to Animal Crossing for the 3DS. Pocket Camp lets you decide your language setting before you start playing, so no worries if things get too intense and you want to switch back to English.

There is a lot of conversation in this application and there is some use of kanji. Don’t let this deter you, in fact, embrace the discomfort. If something is too overwhelming for me in-game, I take a screenshot and upload it to the Google Translate application. This way I can go term for term and build a word bank either on paper or in the above Flashcard app, then go back later to study all the new words I read that day. We can’t leave Isabelle, or Sizue (her Japanese name), left hanging.

4. Pokémon Go

Screens from the Pokémon Go app on iOS.

When this game first came to Japan, as a grown adult I rode my bike far into the night all over Matsudo finding and catching pokémon. It was as if all my childhood dreams came to fruition. I mean, catching pokémon? In Japan? And in Japanese? How much more meta could you get? Additionally, learning how the names differed in Japanese from English was great. In addition to collecting way more Magikarp than any sane person needs, this app engages you in reading simple Japanese while exploring your surroundings.

In order to play the game in Japanese, your phone’s language settings have to be switched over to Japanese. The one downside is if you’re not confident or ready for the commitment of your whole device being in Japanese it may be a bit intimidating. On the plus side, Pokémon Go gets you out and moving, and as such if your phone is already in Japanese why not pull up your maps application and start practicing directions in Japanese? I guarantee that there is no quicker way to learn transit names and vocabulary when you’re running late for a train and your phone is already in Japanese.

5. Study Stack

Screens form the Study Stack app on iOS.

If simplicity is your aim, but you’re still looking to play a few games to avoid the monotony of memorization, Study Stack is here for you. No thrills or extensive customization settings, it gets  right down to business. Just like with Flashcards or other Japanese study apps, you build your decks first. Of the few options available, one is to compile all of your decks in one place for an intense master session.

Hangman is one of the featured games, and if words prove too tough to guess you can tap the strangling hangman for a hint. “Hungry bug” is the classic game “snake” — if your snake had to correlate the correct Japanese food to a word, memorize it and then eat it. At first, it had me just as confused as you are reading this description. Primarily,  over the fact that it looks like it belongs on DOS. The UI feels a little buggy (no pun intended), but it gets the job done. If these still aren’t simple or dry enough for you, there’s still a pairs matching game and a crossword you can do. The coup de gras is a quiz, if you’re really feeling saucy.

The biggest thing you can take away from these apps is to start using them together. My favorite combination from the above is to use Flashcards by NKO in conjunction with Pocket Camp. Knowing that Pocket Camp is a great resource for natural conversation, I want to get the most out of it and this means not forgetting what I just translated when talking to Sizue. I’m sure she’d be displeased if I brought back cherries and not apples. I can create custom decks in NKO to study my Pocket Camp findings and what’s more — I can make a game out of it, too!

Now that we’ve got a method to our madness, let’s add a bit more fuel to our educational fire. In the next installment, I’ll discuss apps I’ve used for learning kanji and kana most effectively.

Have we missed one of your favorite mobile Japanese learning games? Let other readers know in the comments!

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