What if you could use video games to improve your Japanese?
It may sound like a dream, but it is true. There are games out there that will enable you to — in a passive way, at least — learn more Japanese. From beginner to intermediate to advanced learners looking to maximize their vocabulary, there’s a game for everyone.
In true video games style, let’s start in easy mode and then level up!
1. Easy mode: Pokémon
As far as video game franchises go, there are few as relentlessly popular as Pokémon.
Beginning with Nintendo’s Game Boy hand-held system back in the early ’90s and still proving a global hit today on the Nintendo Switch, Pokémon (named after “pocket monsters” you need to catch) has grown beyond just a cutesy kids video game.
Several animated movies and TV series based on the characters have appeared down the years. A live-action spin-off, Detective Pikachu, is scheduled to hit cinemas in a few weeks and will most likely be every bit as big a hit in the U.S. as it will be in Japan.
The Pokémon games are beautifully simple and accessible to players of all ages and abilities. As the caption suggests, players “Gotta catch ’em all.”
The aim of the game is to walk around in the Pokémon universe, training up your creatures to battle others. With each victory comes the chance to capture another Pokémon to add to your collection.
While the interface and the graphics have certainly evolved from the two-tone, 2D graphics of the Gameboy’s heyday, the fundamentals of this delightful Japanese video game remain mercifully unchanged.
So, how does Pokémon help you improve your Japanese? Well, as a complete beginner, Pokémon is a great way to get used to the basics of hiragana and katakana script.
Pokémon is a great way to get used to the basics of hiragana and katakana script.
Pikachu and all his Pokémon friends have their names written in simple, easy-to-read katakana. For example, Charmander is read in Japanese as ヒトカゲ (Hitokage). It’s later evolution, Charizard is written in Japanese as リザードン (Lizardon).
Most of the in-game dialogue is written with small children in mind and as such is displayed almost exclusively in hiragana, again making it easy for newbies to read. Even if you can’t understand it all, the premise of the game is so simple that you can still play it. You will, of course, gain more from it if you can learn to read the story as you progress.
- Format: Various Nintendo systems
- Latest entry: Pokémon Lets Go Pikachu! for Nintendo Switch
- Japanese level: N5
2. Normal mode: Ni no Kuni
Ni no Kuni, known as Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch in North America and Europe, combines two commonly loved themes among Japanophiles: Japanese role-playing games (RPG) and Studio Ghibli animation.
As a collaboration between Studio Ghibli and game design company Level-5, the first thing you’ll notice about these titles, unsurprisingly, is the absolutely gorgeous animation. Even on the more graphically restrictive PlayStation3 console, Ni no Kuni feels less like a game and more like an interactive anime movie.
Beneath the kawaii (cute) aesthetic, though, lies a pretty challenging game, spanning around 100 hours of content.
In terms of learning Japanese, Ni no Kuni definitely kicks things up a level from Pokémon — at least to where you’re comfortable listening and responding to everyday conversation on simple topics. Probably around JLPT N4 level.
However, for those who struggle to follow Japanese conversations, the game’s cutesy design actually lends you a helping hand here. In keeping with anime conventions, the characters speak in a somewhat exaggerated tone, with important words heavily accented. This makes it easier for us learners to pick out the essentials from a sentence and piece together the overall meaning.
… the characters speak in a somewhat exaggerated tone, with important words heavily accented.
- Formats: PlayStation 3 &4, Nintendo 3DS
- Latest entry: Ni No Kuni 2 for PlayStation 4
- Japanese level: N4
3. Hard mode: Sega Mega Drive Classics
You’re probably asking: beyond nostalgia, how does this collection of 16-bit classic Japanese video games from Sega dating to the ’80s and ’90s help a Japanese learner? The key lies in the game’s language settings.
On a number of the 50-plus titles in the Mega Drive (known as Genesis in North America) collection, players have the option to switch between the Japanese and English versions of the game. In games like Sonic the Hedgehog, of course, this makes basically no difference since the game has no dialogue or story to speak of. In some cases, however, the story as depicted in the Japanese version is completely different from that in the U.S. version.
Probably the best example of this is Bare Knuckle III (known as Streets of Rage 3 in the U.S.). The American version’s simplified story has you hunting down the robotic resurrection of the previous game’s antagonist. The Japanese version, however, is far more dramatic and intricate. The game’s difficulty, character colors, and bosses are also different between the two versions.
… these games were definitely designed with teens and adults — as opposed to kids — as the primary target audience.
From the Japanese learner’s perspective, this is a challenging game given that there are more than 50 different titles in this collection. Some, like Sonic the Hedgehog pose no difficulty, even if you don’t speak a word of Japanese. More involved titles, however, such as the excellent Shining Force and Phantasy Star RPG series require an extensive knowledge of Japanese. Going against the trends of the day at the time, these games were definitely designed with teens and adults — as opposed to kids — as the primary target audience. The difficulty level of the language used is reflected in this — though this is also a bonus if it’s the type of Japanese you’re looking to get better at.
- Formats: PlayStation 3 & 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
- Japanese level: From complete beginner to N2
4. Very hard mode: Final Fantasy
Starting out as a simple, roaming, team-based RPG back in 1987 on Nintendo’s Famicom (NES) system, Final Fantasy has grown to become one of the video game world’s most beloved franchises, spawning dozens of sequels and spin-off titles.
The characters are endearing, their interactions heartfelt and their story, at times, genuinely moving. These games are, of course, all about the story, and as such, things can get very elaborate — at times hard to follow — even if you have a high level of Japanese comprehension.
If you’re struggling, it might be a good idea to find a “walkthrough” guide online in your native language and use that to help you when you’re having trouble with the dialogue. Of course, you can just buy the English language American or European version of the game, but like all great works of art, Final Fantasy is best appreciated in its original form, as its creator intended.
- Formats: PlayStation 1, 2, 3 and 4, Nintendo Wii, Super Famicom, Famicom, and numerous others.
- Latest entry: Dissidia Final Fantasy NT for PlayStation 4
- Japanese Level: N3-N2
5. Expert mode: Ryu Ga Gotoku (“Yakuza”)
OK, you may be good at video games and you may be good at Japanese — but can you swear like a Kabukicho gangster? If not, then Ryu Ga Gotoku, or Yakuza, can help you get there.
Since debuting on the PlayStation 2 back in 2007, the series has become one of SEGA’s most bankable brands. Not since their ’90s heyday has the former console maker had such a big hit.
As the title suggests, you play a fledgling gangster trying to find his way on the tough streets of Kamurocho (a fictional facsimile of Tokyo’s Kabukicho in Shinjuku) and later the Osaka entertainment district of Sotembori (modeled on the real Osaka’s Dotonbori nightlife hub).
Although these games do involve a lot of combat, they are primarily story driven and the creators certainly don’t hold back on the dialogue. These characters are foul-mouthed, vicious and crazy. Yet — in typically cinematic style — even these, the lowest of the low, have their own systems of honor and heroism.
Yakuza is great for the Japanese learner on two fronts. First up, it provides the player with an almost photo-realistic recreation of the areas upon which it’s based. Walking through “Sotembori” on my first playthrough of 2017’s Yakuza 0 I was able to pick out hotels I had stayed in, bars I had visited and even the spot along the Dotombori that used to do the best takoyaki (octopus dumplings)!
I haven’t spent much time in Tokyo’s Kabukicho area, but from what other fans of the game have told me: that recreation is equally authentic — especially in its depiction of the Golden Gai area (renamed the Champion district in the game).
To get through it, you’ll need to listen to Japanese — and lots of it.
Secondly, where Yakuza really comes into its own though, is the dialogue. Even in the Western versions of the game there is no English audio option. To get through it, you’ll need to listen to Japanese — and lots of it. You’ll also need to develop a basic working knowledge of kanji, in order to play some of the mini-games, such as Mah-Jong and Go.
It’s the type of game that takes a few minutes to learn, but months to master. Yakuza can either be the most challenging or the simplest game on this list, depending on how you approach it.
- Format: PlayStation 2, 3 and 4, Windows PC
- Latest Entry: Ryu Ga Gotoku Kiwami 2 for PlayStation 4
- Japanese level: N2-N1 (N5 if you’re playing the English subtitled version)
Retro gaming, in general, is a great way to improve your Japanese. I’ve recently been replaying a lot of PlayStation 1- and PlayStation 2-era games — such as Capcom’s stellar Onimusha series — in the original Japanese. You can still play the game as you remember it from before, but there are little nuances and character moments that need to be seen in their original Japanese to be fully appreciated. The same goes for all the games on this list.
Mobile gaming is increasingly popular these days, too, and there are plenty of mobile Japanese learning options.
What games do you play to improve your Japanese? Did we miss your favorite? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts!