Category Archives: Learn Japanese through games

Learn Japanese Through Gameplay – Megami Meguri

Can you learn Japanese through playing games? Well, the right games can certainly help a great deal. And this week saw the launch of one of the best games for the purpose. And even better – it’s free!

The game is called めがみ めぐり Megami Meguri, which could perhaps be translated as Goddess Tour (though I don’t think any translation really captures the spirit of the title).

From the language-learning perspective, the most interesting things are that it is almost fully-voiced and it involves teaching human language (i.e. Japanese) from the ground up to a new-born Goddess who knows almost nothing.

The game uses artificial intelligence and the “Megami Speak Engine”, an artificial voice synthesis system developed by Capcom and Toshiba, using Toshiba’s voice synthesis engine, ToSpeak G3, as its base. The Megami Speak Engine is used in Megami Meguri by having the character make use of user-input words to converse in a near natural-sounding synthetic voice.

In fact, talking is a major part of the game. As the senior Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, advises at one point:

話して、話して、話しまくることじゃ
Hanashite, hanashite, hanashimakuru koto ja (=da)

The makuru auxiliary verb has been explained as “to do with reckless abandon”. The meaning here could be rendered as “talk, talk, talk ’till you drop”. Because by talking, learning new words and learning all about you, your heroine grows and develops.

This means that you are spending a lot of the game interacting in Japanese and developing the character of your fledgling goddess. Her appearance and voice are your constant companions. And fortunately, since her language-learning process is not really naturalistic (this is entertainment after all) you can’t actually teach her wrong Japanese. She will develop correctly in the language. And in fact, despite not knowing the names of many simple things, she is really quite competent in Japanese from the start.

The game has essentially two overall aims, both concerned with developing the heroine as a person (or rather goddess). One is to develop the relationship between yourself and your heroine through conversations with her, the information you give her and the things you tell her about yourself. The other, as expressed by Amaterasu, is

人間に関する知識は重要だ
Ningen ni kansuru chishiki wa juuyou da
Human-related general knowledge/common sense is of great importance.

This is interesting for those who want to learn about Japanese culture as well as language. “Human-related knowledge” means in fact “Japan-related knowledge”, just as “human language” is Japanese.

You are in fact raising an intelligent and functional person who is nonetheless like a small child in relation to things Japanese – rather like you at the start of your Japanese self-immersion.

You will be traveling all over Japan. In fact, you can visit every one of the 9000+ railway stations in Japan!

Nearly everyone in Japan is a little bit of a 鉄 tetsu (railway enthusiast), and more than other countries, the railway system does still feel like the main arteries of the country. If you have spent time in Japan, just hearing the names of railway stations makes you feel natsukashii (nostalgic).

Traveling to different places you also learn about their special foods. Again, the Japanese are very interested in the 名物 meibutsu or special product of each area – usually food. You can barely mention Kobe to anyone without the subject of beef coming up, for example.

You will be learning about a lot of other things too. Things Japanese people mostly know already, but love to celebrate, presented in a way accessible to people who don’t know these things, because that is what the heroine of the game is.

And you will be learning about Japan, not only in Japanese but through Japanese eyes – learning the things that are salient to the Japanese soul, rather than the perspective of the foreign tourist (or even the foreign “otaku”).

I very much doubt if this game will ever come to the west. It is far too Japan-centric. And if it ever did, far more even than most things, it would be localized out of existence.

Pros and cons of Megami Meguri

I am not going to list pros and cons separately, as one person’s pro may be another person’s con and vice versa. But here are my thoughts.

The voice used by the heroine of Megami Meguri isn’t perfect. Actually it does sound pretty natural in intonation, and the limitations in sound production just make her seem a little nasal/muffly, which actually suits her naïve personality. Everything she says also appears as text onscreen, so understanding is not a problem. In fact she is quite understandable anyway.

There are no furigana in this game, so if you need them that could be a problem. Just about everything the heroine says is voiced, but the explanatory commentaries of Amaterasu are not. There is some good voice-acting for other characters, but not always, so if kanji are a sticking-point the game might not be ideal for you. On the other hand, there is a lot of voiced text.

3D seems to be unused. I don’t know if it will be employed for some effects, but so far I haven’t seen any. Some people don’t seem to like 3D and even turn it off, but I love it, so I found this a small disappointment.

Building a relationship with a virtual character is really the central point of this game. To me this is very important. I actually downloaded a demo of Konami’s LovePlus some time ago. I really liked the idea, though as a doll I wasn’t too interested in playing a boy or having a “waifu“.

This game seems to be doing what LovePlus does, only for a broader audience and with the huge enhancement of having your virtual partner actually talk to you.

The game is free-to-play. The business model relies on in-game purchases, but I don’t think you are ever forced to make any in order to continue. Of course, as you get more involved you may end up tempted into doing so!

It is easy to download if you have a Japanese 3DS. If you haven’t, I can only say that getting one is one of the best immersion investments you can make. People complain that 3DS is region-locked, and while I understand the complaint, from a self-immersion point of view, being locked into Japan is no bad thing, and fortunately it doesn’t lock you by the region you are in but by the region your 3DS comes from.

Obviously Megami Meguri isn’t a game for the absolute beginner, but as a supplementary immersion strategy it has some really important advantages.

Youkai Watch Review: THE game for Japanese learners?

youkai-watch-for-Japanese-learnersYoukai Watch is a huge phenomenon in Japan. The game Youkai Watch 2 has sold over five million copies and it hasn’t been released outside Japan.  You see Youkai Watch everywhere, from cereal packs to facecloths.

The Youkai Watch phenomenon resembles Pokemon in its heyday, and indeed it is in many ways very similar in concept to Pokemon.

As I write, the first game will go on sale in America next week (styled Yo-kai Watch). As it happens (the two events aren’t connected) I have just begun playing it (in Japanese, of course). Whether it will be anything like as big in America as it is in Japan remains to be seen. Will it be the next Pokemon in the West too? Or some obscure Japanese thing that never really caught on? People said Pokemon was “too Japanese” for the West,  but Yo-kai Watch is considerably more “Japanese” than Pokemon.

Youkai Watch for the Japanese Learner

The question that concerns us is: Is Youkai Watch a good game for the Japanese learner?

I would definitely say that it is. To begin with it has full furigana. Even Pokemon X/Y forces you to choose between all-kana text and text with kanji and no furigana. Personally I find all-kana even harder to read than than furigana-less kanji. Fortunately Youkai Watch doesn’t make one choose the lesser of two evils.

The game is packed with text at a level that is good for not-too-advanced learners. Even NPCs have a lot to say, and what they say is generally less random and odd than in Pokemon, which gives the player a much better chance of understanding what they mean.

But Youkai Watch also has a “secret ingredient” that I think makes it a winner for the Japanese learner.

I am guessing that most Japanese learners, especially those who are self-learning rather than doing it for school, have a love of Japan too. This is where Youkai Watch really shines. The game’s beautifully crafted 3D world is a kind of Japan simulator.

Youkai Watch will inevitably be compared to Pokemon. It is essentially the same monster-collecting/battling premise wrapped in a similar RPG environment with a similarly heartwarming underlying story.

The main difference is that while Pokemon is set in an alternate world where everyone interacts with Pokemon, Youkai Watch is set in the current Japan that its players know and love. Youkai are invisible to most people, just as they are in real life.

If you have spent time in Japan not doing “tourist things” but just wandering around a small town observing and drinking in every little thing, then Youkai Watch is going to bring a sense of heart-wrenchingly natsukashii deja vu.

Youkai watch genkan
Youkai Watch: a love letter to Japan

Your house has a real genkan, just like the house you lived in in Japan. When you leave you will automatically put your shoes on. When you re-enter you will automatically take them off and leave them there. Even the lavatory is detailed enough that you can see it is a Japanese-style one with an integrated handbasin and cistern.

When you leave the house you find that you are wandering Japanese streets just as you do/did in Japan. The shop fronts, the cars, the pedestrian crossings with bicycle lanes (you press the button and wait in the same way). The konbini – just like the real ones, the last shelves before the checkout have ready-to-eat food. When you buy some, you almost expect them to offer to warm it for you in the denshirenji the way they do in real life. The schools, the parks, the rainy days with ubiquitous umbrellas. Every little detail is so very much Japan.

If you have never been and want to get the feel of Japan, this game (the Japanese version, of course) is ideal. I imagine you will have the reverse reaction when you do get there. “Oh, this is just like the game!”

Youkai Watch vending machines
There are vending machines everywhere just as in real Japan. And yes, they do really work!

The makers of Youkai Watch, Level 5, also made Fantasy Life, and if you play both, you will realize how many things have been taken from that game. Not just its excellent 3D-world infrastructure, but also its ability to lead you around the game. If you want it, the game will constantly tell you your next objective and place pointers on the bottom screen map to lead you there.

You can turn this off in the options if you don’t like it. Personally I am 方向音痴 and get lost in games as easily as in real life, so I really appreciate this. Also, as a Japanese learner, you very likely want to spend as much time as possible with the extensive text rather than trying to figure out where you need to go next and how to get there.

On the other hand, if you are anything like me you will wander around quite a lot, just as I do in physical Japan. There is so much to drink in. You will want to read the shop signs and the posters in the bank and get annoyed when some of them aren’t quite detailed enough. If there is one thing I would add to this game it is a zoom function, but then I guess most people aren’t otaku-ing about the depth of Japanese detail. The amazing thing is that there really is enough everyday detail in the game to otaku about. And the fact that it is all in glorious glasses-free 3D is the frosting on the cake!

Fortunately, the game also rewards your wanderings. There are things to find everywhere: under cars, in tiny back alleys, up trees, and even under the ubiquitous (and functional) vending machines.

Like Fantasy Life before it, Youkai Watch is a generous game packed with surprises and extras that you didn’t expect. There is always something new and rich waiting for you at every turn. Rather than being a second-rate imitation of Pokemon, it brings many, many new things to the formula, refreshing and invigorating it. I am not saying that Pokemon is tired. I don’t think it is, even now. But Pokemon-alikes always were.

Youkai Watch is fresh, innovative and delightful, and it deserves every bit of the huge success it is enjoying.

Learning Japanese with JRPGs: doing it by the numbers

Dragon Quest VII. Lots of text but are JRPGs best to learn with?
Dragon Quest VII. Tons of text but are JRPGs the best way to learn?

Can you learn Japanese with JRPGs? They can certainly help a lot, and I recently discovered a very useful though simple strategy for maximizing their learning potential.

Recently I have been playing the 3DS remake of Dragon Quest VII. I am adoring seeing Dorakue in 3D and finding the game very useful for learning. Dorakue VII is actually one of the best JRPGs to learn Japanese with because it is very text‐heavy.

In fact, Square Enix has currently no plans to translate the game into English because it has so much text that it would be unusually expensive to localize. An unstated reason, I suspect, is that Western RPG players have much less tolerance of extensive text (even in English, the lazy piffers) than Japanese players. A reviewer of the original Playstation version of this game is quoted on Wikipedia as saying that the first part of the game consists of “some of the most boring hours you will ever play in a video game.”

At my playing speed (very slow even in the old English days) it was ten hours before I had a fight. But these hours were packed with story. “Never mind the story, just get on with the game” is the attitude of many Western players, I think. No wonder the company is hesitant about a translation.

But I digress. The point here is that Dragon Quest VII has a lot of text. I recently came to the conclusion that the best Japanese games for learning were visual novels – the Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright games both fall into this category. Best because the proportion of text to anything else is much the highest. In Professor Layton one spends some time on puzzles, but the rest is practically pure text with pretty visuals. In Phoenix Wright the “puzzles” are part of the text itself, and you have to understand the witnesses’ stories in considerable detail to spot the 矛盾 mujun, contradictions in their accounts of events.

With Dragon Quest VII, even though it is one of the wordiest JRPGs ever made, one still spends a great deal of time fighting monsters. While there is a little text involved in the turn‐based fights (menus, descriptions of events), it is repetitive and brief. Not terribly useful for learning. Since you will be spending hours of your play time doing this, does that make JRPGs a bad choice for the learner?

My answer is no. In the first place, after visual novels they are clearly the second‐best option for reading comprehension purposes. There is a lot of text and it matters (if you don’t understand what a character is saying you may not know what to do next). JRPGs are good practice. It is just that with all the fights they aren’t constant practice. Except that…

The Dolly Secret to Learning Japanese with JRPGs

I just discovered a perfect way to make those fights play into your learning.

Numbers.

JRPG fights are full of numbers. If you are familiar with table‐top RPGs you can practically hear the dice rattling under the screen. And you can see the numbers too. Every time you hit an enemy or an enemy hits you, what pops up? A number. When you win, you are told the amount of gold and experience you just gained. In numbers. When you level up, you are given a string of numbers telling you which stats improved, by how much, and what they are now.

This is very useful for learners, even fairly advanced ones. The trick is to be disciplined and say each number, preferably aloud, when you see it.

“But I know Japanese numbers. I learned them in lesson 2, ‘way back,” you may be saying. Of course you know them. So do I. But how fast do you know them? Can you think in them? Can you see 32 or 469 and immediately see not “thirty two” or “four hundred sixty nine” but “san juu ni” or “yon hyaku roku juu kyuu” ?

That is what this exercise is about. Making numbers in Japanese not something you “know” but something you actually think in, as second nature and first language.

You may actually find the pace of combat too fast to do the in‐fight numbers at first. If so, just diligently say the 経験値 (experience points) and gold numbers that come up after each battle and the stats when you level up. You can take your time with these.

Work up to saying every number that comes up in a fight as soon as it appears. This requires a little 我慢 gaman, but you are thinking in Japanese culturally as well as linguistically, aren’t you? So 我慢 is becoming natural to you, isn’t it? You might make an exception for multiple hits (where an attack hits all or a group of opponents). I do, because I can’t do that in English (but numbers are my 短所 short suit in any language).

But what you are aiming at is the point where you can see a number in Japanese when your mind is in J‐mode. You aren’t thinking “thirty‐seven, oh that’s san juu nana”, you are thinking “san juu nana”.

It is tricky, because when Arabic numerals are used it is pretty much equivalent to reading a word in English. Your mind has mapped those characters to certain sounds. What you are doing is re‐mapping the Japanese numbers to your Universal number perception, just as learning Japanese should be re‐mapping Japanese to Universal Grammar. Most learners never do either.

But you will. With the help of JRPGs.

The only way to achieve such a radical re‐mapping is huge amounts of repetition until the new map becomes instinct. The same way that, if you touch‐type, endless practice taught your fingers where all the keys are, even when your brain can’t instantly recall the information. In other words, moving the Japanese number system from conscious recall to instinctive and instantaneous association.

Such practice in isolation would be mind‐numbingly tedious. But JRPGs will kindly throw an endless stream of numbers at you while you’re having fun. And you can turn what was wasted time from a learning point of view into highly valuable practice.

Even as your characters gain experience points with each battle and keep leveling up, so will you gain number‐remapping experience points with each battle and continually level up toward your total remap.

It is such a kind world, isn’t it?