One of the many reasons I am learning Japanese is because I want to be able to play Japanese video games. Many great games don’t make it over to the United States, or they are localized a year or more later and lose something in translation. In the early days of video games, localization would result in Engrish translations. Sometimes these are endearing like Final Fantasy IV’s “You spoony bard!” and sometimes they’re just weird like the Final Fantasy V translation that decided to name one character “Salsa” and another “Butz”. Who thought that was a good idea? More than that gets glossed over for our puritan video game market though. In the Japanese version of Nier one of the characters is a hermaphrodite. In the US version that fact is completely removed from the game (beware of who you’re drooling over!). In Harvest Moon a Tale of Two Towns （牧場物語ふたごの村） one of the male characters is decidedly effeminate. He even refers to himself as “あたし” which is a feminine pronoun. The three shopkeepers in that game are Mexican, sporting ponchos, bulbous noses, moustaches, and sombreros which completely cover their eyes. Their sprites were altered for the US game. Their noses aren’t all giant and round, they have eyes, but they are still wearing ponchos and sombreros (though one guy complains about it in game).
The first Japanese game I ever bought was the remake of Pokémon Soul Silver. Honestly I understood next to nothing. When it released I knew no kanji (though the game uses only hiragana and katakana) and I was lucky if I could pick out adjectives and verbs let alone understand what they meant. Nevertheless I beat the game and enjoyed doing so. I have played many many pokémon games and that made the transition to a foreign game much smoother. Plus since it’s such a popular series I could turn to gamefaqs.com whenever I got stuck. Did I understand what was going on with the story? Um. No. But I learned, through repetition, the words for catching pokémon, sending one into battle, attacking, etc.
Until the Nintendo DSi was released Nintendo DS games were not region locked, so you didn’t need a Japanese DS to play games. You just needed some place to buy them. My favorite (and actually the only place I’ve ever used to buy Japanese games is Play Asia. Once the DSi released they began releasing “DSi enhanced” games which were effectively region locked. You could still play them on a DS or DS lite system (foregoing the DSi enhancement) however, so it was not yet time to spring for that Japanese Pokémon DSi… Once the 3DS released the region lock was complete. You cannot play Japanese 3DS games on a US 3DS and vice versa (though you can play regular DS games of other regions. Go figure.). I knew that if I intended to continue playing and learning via video games I needed to invest in a Japanese system. They’re around $230US after the price drop (thank god for the price drop! They were about $500 when they first released).
I didn’t immediately buy games for the 3DS after I bought it. I played Pokémon White on it, and played find Mii (すれ違い伝説). I think street pass Mii plaza is a fun repetitive way to learn simple phrases like the last played game and what your hobby is. For a real challenge you can load up swap note and if you’re lucky enough to get a note from Capcom or Game Center-CS (whatever that is) you can puzzle for hours over what the heck the damn thing says and never again feel bad about your Japanese handwriting. Or you might even make a Japanese swap note pen pal and exchange brief notes and drawings (my friend オレンジ draws so much better than I do!).
If you want to pick up a Japanese game it really helps to start with a series that you’re familiar with. The first 3DS game I bought was Monster Hunter 3G. I preordered it because the internet was abuzz with news, and I had downloaded trailers from the eshop (another valuable learning resource). I was so excited to get it even though I had never played a Monster Hunter game and didn’t really know anything about them. Once I got it I tried to play, but it was difficult! There were so many things you could do. You could play online, offline, take quests, or just go hunt. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to do it. The kanji was microscopic and had no furigana. I got really frustrated and stopped playing.
Then my husband suggested we pick up Monster Hunter tri for the Wii since 3G is a combination of Monster Hunter tri (which was released in the US) and G (which was not). We found it used at Gamestop and I began to play on the Wii while my husband picked up the game and played along with me on the 3DS. When I finally decided to try and play again—when I could wrestle it away from my husband—I knew how to play. And though I didn’t know the readings of a lot of the tiny kanji I could often figure out what they meant. Sometimes I even understand what the people are trying to tell me. Sometimes not. We ended up buying a second Japanese 3DS so that we could play Monster Hunter 3G together. It has become one of my all time favorite games, and I almost gave up on it.
When I talk about learning via the games (and the system) it usually requires a bit of effort on your part, but you can go overboard. It’s a game after all, so you want to play, and yet it’s nice to know what’s going on in it. When I first started playing Pokémon White I tried to look up everything. It took me two hours to get 10 minutes into the game. I was exhausted and discouraged. I’ve since gotten much more lax with my gaming. When I play a new game I usually have a notebook next to me and I write down words that appear several times, or highlighted words. I sometimes look up a word on the spot if I’m confused about how to do something, but usually I wait until after I’ve finished playing and then look up a slew of words.
It’s also helpful to play with a small camera or iPhone. That way you can take screenshots and look up entire sentences at your leisure. If you were really diligent you might even use those screenshots to make flashcards in Anki. I haven’t done this yet, but I wouldn’t put it past me in the future.
Don’t expect to understand everything. You’re not going to. I go through periods where I try and read everything people say and understand it, and then sometimes I’m tired and I just mash the button without even reading it. It’s ok. It’s supposed to be enjoyable, not a chore. And usually you can get through the game ok without knowing everything (although playing the Japanese version of Pokémon Black and White I never knew that you could reuse TMs and I hoarded them and then felt silly when I found out I didn’t have to.) Little by little as you learn more outside of the game (through class or however you choose to learn) when you come back to it more of it will make sense. And because of the repetitive nature of games you’ll actually remember words and phrases. You’ll be learning without knowing you’re learning which is the best way.