Top 5 Dreamcast Games for Studying Japanese

The title of this article is a bit misleading so a disclaimer is necessary. Firstly, you will not learn Japanese through playing Dreamcast games alone but they can be a great tool when used to supplement regular study and great fun to boot. If you really want to learn Japanese to any significant usable level then you need to study some textbooks (Genki textbook* is a good place to start), go to a class and/or visit Japan for a significant period of time. A more appropriate albeit less catchy title would have been 'The Top Five Dreamcast Games to Supplement the Gruelling Years of Japanese Study Required to Play Most Story Heavy Games… with difficulty… whilst referring to a dictionary regularly,' but that's perhaps a little harsh and not nearly as click-bait-worthy.

Even something quite basic, accomplishable (is that a word? Well, it bloody well should be) in a weekend, such as memorising Katakana* (Japanese letters used to write foreign loan words usually imported from English) will enhance your experience with Japanese games. Now, let’s get started!
5. Fire Pro Wrestling D (Arcade Style Games)
This really includes any game that isn’t reliant on story or excess text to be playable; fighters, puzzlers, racers, platformers etc. You can jump right into these games without knowing a single word of Japanese and still have a blast. Where you can often run into difficulty however, is in the menus. Despite being of Japanese region, many games have their menus and option screens written entirely in English, but there are just as many where this is not the case. Learning Katakana* will go about 70% of the way to making them understandable, luckily they can be memorised in as little time as a weekend or two. During or after the learning process, decoding menu and option screens can be a great way to improve your reading ability.
Fire Pro Wrestling D's menus are full of katakana*

4. Sonic Adventure (any game that you’ve already completed)
Playing a game that you’ve already completed in English and know relatively well is a great compromise before jumping straight into an unknown game.

Playing new games in Japanese may be your end goal, but it’s no fun sitting there looking up words and kanji every five seconds while struggling to understand the meaning of each and every sentence. Trying to play a new game too far beyond one’s level is an exercise in frustration and in my experience usually leads to giving up within an hour or so.

With a game you already know well, you can easily pick up the odd word here and there at your own leisure. The odd recognisable word should jog your memory about the current events in the story, allowing you to enjoy the game while passively taking in a some vocabulary and phrases. Sure, there will be the odd moment of difficulty, but this is where a dictionary can be referred to (get used to it!). The key point, is that you already know the story, and depending on your mood and patience, can choose to either study or simply press on without fully understanding every little detail.

Any story based game could have been chosen, but Sonic Adventure is a good choice for many reasons. For one, it has not only text to help your reading but also voice-over throughout most of the game for your listening ability. Having Japanese subtitles as well as voice-over is the best way to learn; if you miss something in the speech, you can check the text and vice versa. It also has a fairly simplistic story and not so many instances of difficult kanji. Finally, despite what some say, it’s a great game with a decent enough story-line and characters. Even the voice acting, while still cheesy, isn’t half as cringe worthy as the version we got in the west.
Yes Sonic, you guys are more than enough for him.

3. Napple Tale Arsia in Daydream (Japanese exclusives designed for young players in mind)
Once you've mastered the basics, you'll be itching to play a Japanese exclusive title. That's the whole point of studying Japanese, right? To play games exclusive to Japan. But if you go straight from Sonic Adventure to Segagaga or Sakura Wars, you'll be in for a world of pain. You're no way near the level required for a game of that complexity yet, so stick to something a little simpler.

Japanese children begin learning the jouyou kanji (2,136 regular use kanji that are required to read newspapers etc) from the first year of elementary school, and don't complete the task until the final year of high school at the age of eighteen. As a foreigner learning the language, it's going to be a long time before you are comfortable enough with them to play through some of the more adult orientated Dreamcast games without getting frustrated.

I could have quite easily picked the Hello Kitty or Doraemon games among others, but any game designed with children in mind (not necessarily a children's game, but one for all ages) is a great place to continue your Japanese learning journey, Napple Tale is one such game.

The lead character is a cute young girl, meaning her style of speech is far easier to comprehend than that of a heartless samurai or angsty emo with spiky hair. What's more, with the vast majority text, you're free to read at your own leisure (no unforgiving Sakura Wars timed responses to be seen here, thank God!) as a tap of the A button is required to continue to the next bubble of speech. This is great as it affords us the time to read and comprehend each sentence while getting out that kanji dictionary if needed. Moreover, once out of the over-world and into the platforming sections, there's very little text to worry about, a much needed break to simply enjoy the game's charm.

There may be a few moments when lack of Japanese could hinder your progress, but there are walkthroughs online, so don't feel any shame if you need to refer to one on occasion.
Napple Tale, a cute little Japanese exclusive.

2. Shenmue
Shenmue III, Shenmue III…Shenmue III, Shenmue III. We’re getting Shenmue 3 people! Ahem…now that’s out the way, we can begin. With the recent Shenmue III hype and arrival of the game in the next couple of years, there’s never been a better time to play Yu Suzuki’s masterpiece…but how about trying something different and challenging yourself by playing through the original Japanese versions instead?

Shenmue is the perfect game for learners of the Japanese language. It has a heavy focus on everyday life and so the vocabulary is rarely obscure and more often than not has every day uses that are essential for life in the land of the rising sun. Greetings, shop transactions, making requests, honorifics*, casual speech*, these are just some of the topics you’ll have more than enough opportunities to see (and hear) during the game.

“But I bet it has a lot of difficult to read kanji in it?”, well yes, it does to an extent, but lurking in the menu is an option called kids mode. This changes all of the more difficult characters into hiragana*, so that children (or in our case, ignorant Jack foreigner) can more easily understand the text. It’s invaluable when it comes to deciphering Ryo’s notebook to find out where to go or what to do next.

The game even has this bloke named Tom and a host of other foreigners that give a fantastic example of how NOT to speak Japanese if you DON’T want everyone around you to think you’re a complete twat. You thought the way Tom spoke in the western version was bad and perhaps borderline racist? Well, you’ve heard nothing yet. In fact every single foreigner (with the exception of a couple Chinese characters) speak like some kind of retarded sub human. Anyway, racism in Shenmue is a topic for another day…

…and that opening in Japanese, sends chills down my spine every time「来い!最後は武術家らしく死なせてやる」. Just go and play right now for Pete’s sake.
I love you Corey Marshall, but I'd take the Japanese version over the English dub any day.
1. Seaman
There are four aspects to learning any language: reading, writing, listening and speaking. We’ve covered two of those four multiple times already but what about speaking and writing? Well, for writing I recommend you use specialised DS games designed for Japanese children to teach the Jouyou Kanji* and pass the various Kanji Kentei* tests such as the Kanken series on DS.

For speaking… there’s Seaman.

Does sitting in front of a television for hours at a time for days on end trying to get a creepy looking fish to understand your piss poor gaijin* accent sound like your idea of fun?

Japanese people patronising your pathetic attempt at speaking their “too complex for foreign idiots” language doesn’t satisfy you like it used to? Well then, this my friend is the game you've been waiting for! Like many others who've struggled to get Seaman to understand our accents while playing the western version, after a period of time, I just no longer found it challenging (frustrating) or long (boringly tedious) enough. If you can relate to that then, boy is this the game for you! Spend hours repeating the same simple phrases over and over until you’re lucky enough to be understood by a rude patronising fish who will regularly insult you and make no effort whatsoever to understand your accent. In fact, he’ll often just give up completely and ignore your attempts at interaction.

Trying to get over that language plateau? Play this and you’ll be put off for life and never have to!

In case you lack a sense of humour, this entry was a joke. Go play some non-Dreamcast games such as the Zelda, Professor Layton or Ni no Kuni DS titles instead.
I hate you Seaman.

So what games have helped you to learn Japanese? Please post your comments here or on the DCJY Facebook Group.

Katakana: A set of Japanese characters used for foreign words imported from other languages.

Kanji: Characters imported from China that represent not only sounds but also meanings.

Hiragana: A set of characters used mostly for grammar and words for which you the kanji is not known or one doesn’t exist. Hiragana are also often written in replace of kanji for products designed for children.

Reading:A kanji’s reading refers to its pronunciation, not meaning. Most kanji have multiple reading

Hiragana (see above) is written below Kanji to show the reading.

Gaijin: A shorthand word for foreigner which often has negative connotations.

Kanji Kentei: A test designed to gauge people’s ability to read and write kanji.

Jouyou Kanji: The 1945 Japanese characters that are required to accomplish everyday tasks such as reading a newspaper. Children are expected to learn all of these by the time they finish school.

Genki textbook: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese is the name of a set of two textbooks that I strongly recommend to anyone beginning their Japanese language Journey.

Verb conjugations and other language used when speaking to someone deemd above the speaker in certain situations.

Casual speech: Verb conjugations and other language used when speaking to someone in non formal situations.

Further Reading Playing
Dragon Quest XI -DS
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hour Glass - DS
The Hello Kitty games - DC
Boku no Doraemon - DC
Roomania - DC
Shenmue II - DC
Chrono Trigger - DS
Super Mario RPG - SFC
Sonic Adventure 2 - DC
Paper Mario - Wii
Super Mario Galaxy - Wii
Rent a Hero No.1 - DC
Layton Games - DS
Eldorado's Gate series - DC
Pokemon - GB, GBA, DS, 3DS
Panzer Dragoon Azel - SAT
Bravely Default - DS
Ni no Kuni -DS, PS3
Doubutsu no Mori - N64, DS, 3DS, Wii
Dating games such as Real Love Plus - DS, 3DS


  1. I've always meant to do this, but have never got around to it. In the back of my mind I keep thinking that one day a Smart TV or some kind of augmented reality glasses/headset will come along with dynamic text and audio translations to do the hard work for me.

  2. Just put a paragraph of Japanese text into Google Translate to see how close they are to that breakthrough. I don't think it'll happen in our lifetimes personally, English to French maybe, but Japanese and Enlish are about as structurally different as two languages can be.

    Even if it did happen, no translator/ translation device could ever pass on all the nuances and cultural references of a language, things always get lost in translation (just look at the English dub of Shenmue for a prime example). Being able to play/ read/ watch media in the original form the creator wrote it is another possible motivator.

    Having said all that, is it really worth studying all those hours just to play a few video games and watch some anime? Unless you plan to go to Japan or enjoy studying languages, probably not, but it's definitely worth getting started with the basics to see if it's a rewarding experience for you.

  3. Very interesting stuff Ross. The Kids Mode in Shenmue isn't something I was aware of previously - it's an interesting concept. The differences between Japanese and English are clearly a lot more complex than I ever knew.