I’m a big advocate of using entertainment of all kinds as study, especially in the realm of language study. Pokémon X/Y might have been perfectly crafted for this purpose.
Japanese Name: ポケットモンスターＸ・Ｙ
English Name: Pokemon X/Y
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Worldwide Languages: English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, French, German, Italian
Release Date: October 12, 2013
Recommended For: All language levels
Best Suited: Lower-Upper Intermediate
It’s no secret that Pokémon has had a huge impact on my life. I’ve been playing the games since elementary school, only skipping generation four (Diamond and Pearl), so my background in the games is solid. Though Pokémon may not be the game-changer it was when I started, it still holds an important place in my heart.
From a gameplay standpoint, Pokémon X and Y remain easy to pick up and put down. You explore a fairly linear world, catching wild monsters (Pokémon) and using them to battle other trainers. Figuring out type-advantages and weaknesses in the rock-paper-scissors style RPG combat are easy enough. With the inclusion of the “experience share” (学習装置), allowing non-fighting Pokémon to share experience points, the game essentially has an “easy mode”. If you want a challenge, don’t turn it on. If you want to breeze by the combat and focus on other aspects of the game (such as language and exploration), by all means use it.
Stylistically, the game’s graphics and music are both bright and vibrant. I took longer in some areas just because I wanted to listen to the background music or explore every nook-and-cranny of an interesting mountainside.
Depending on your tenacity, the game can be finished in 20-50 hours. The storyline is straightforward and easy to understand. Upon completing the main story, players have the option of continuing to find and catch more Pokémon with a few individual areas opening up. By the time I finished the main story however, I was ready to move on. While it didn’t overstay its welcome, not being a diehard fan of the series allowed me to cut ties with it easily enough.
There is a swath of online features and minigames to play as well, both of which can significantly impact the main gameplay. Neither of these features are required, however, and the game is easily enjoyed without them.
Game itself: 8/10
Where this game truly succeeds is in its use as a language-learning tool. I purchased the game thinking it would be easy enough to understand as its language was aimed at children, yet have enough “spoken dialogue” and interesting words to be beneficial to study. Little did I know that the game would have a few surprises up its sleeve.
From the beginning, the game gives you the option of playing it in seven different languages. This means that no matter where you live, purchasing the game locally can give you access to authentic Japanese. No need to deal with expensive importing fees or region-locked game workarounds. Once you choose a language, you must keep it in that language until you start a new game—no changing midgame. If you choose Japanese, the game then gives you the choice of using just hiragana and katakana, or Kanji in addition to that. While there is no furigana in the game, this option can be toggled on and off midgame, meaning that pronunciation of difficult Kanji can be looked up with the flip of a switch.
That said, the dialogue is pretty easy to understand. It’s not too difficult to know where to go, but if you constantly skip through the dialogue, there will be occasions where the road ahead is confusing, especially towards the end of the game. It gives just enough incentive to pay attention to the dialogue without forcing you to understand difficult concepts to advance. Like any story, there will be a great deal of new words in the beginning that, once learned, will simplify the rest of the game. By the conclusion, I felt like the dialogue had grown a bit too easy, which I suppose is a good thing. The sheer amount of repetition of common words made for a great deal of learning.
And don’t be lulled into a sense that these words are uncommon in daily life. I’ve seamlessly used half of the words I’ve learned in daily life. Like anime, words in Pokémon aren’t always immediately useful due to their dramatic nature; “My punches will pierce the heavens!” doesn’t come up too often in the office. But if you’re creative, you can get some good use out of them. In any case, Japanese people understand it, so you should too.
The simple gameplay allows players to focus on the words themselves, which is especially good because the game doesn’t take itself too seriously. Pokémon trainers who’ll stop you on the road for a fight often tell you how training barefoot is great or how training in pairs allows them to work as one. As random and seemingly useless as these comments are, I’ve learned many great words like 裸足 and 以心伝心 from these conversations. Used less, yes. Useless, no.
If you’re looking for some more difficult vocabulary, search no further than the Pokédex (ポケモン図鑑). Its entries occasionally have vocabulary that can trip up advanced learners. Most people skip right past the little nuggets of Pokémon wisdom, but they’re right there for the language learner.
Moreover, the save anywhere feature allows players to stop and start the game as they please, which, like SRS systems like Anki, allow you to fill in the small voids in your life with study. Play for a little, find a new word or two, and then quit. Short bursts of continuous study are much better than long study sessions, but regardless of study style, this game allows either. Like a cellphone, the 3DS is easy enough to bring wherever you wish.
If you’re stuck in the game, there’s a lot on the internet to help you as well. The game has enough fan-based websites to let you in on game secrets. If you need a break from the Japanese, Bulbapedia is also a good resource to use.
If there’s one weakness, I’d put it square on the lack of voiceovers. Of course, I didn’t expect the game to have voiceovers to begin with, but that won’t stop me from taking points away from the game’s language-learning ability because of it. Not having voice-acting at all means this is a game for the readers out there. It’s a great game for the readers, mind you, but that’s its limitation.
Language learning: 9/10
-No need to import!
-Language suitable for intermediate Japanese learners, with Hiragana/Kanji options
-Ability to play in small spurts of time
-Gameplay simple enough to focus on the language
-Specialized vocabulary suitable for upper-level learners too
-No voiced-over dialogue is a weakness
-Well-documented resources available for outside study
It’s worth a shot, even if you’ve “grown past” the series. Of course, if you’re so put off by the series that you can’t possibly stomach it, it doesn’t make sense to use this to study. For most people however, this is a great study opportunity.