How I Survived Hiragana & Katakana

Earlier this year, the family splurged to get me a Steam Deck. I generally hate spending money on a “pricey gizmo,” and my manual dexterity sucks with joystick controls, so I was hesitant about okaying this one. But when my Barcelonan buddy Abraham Limpo Martinez brought his to Gary Con as a “laptop,” that ticked enough checkboxes to make it a go.

One benefit of its convenience has been playing the Learn Japanese to Survive series of PC games. I’ve been studying Japanese sort of casual like for a couple of decades now. First as Pimsleur lessons in the car on the way to work, then with Memrize & Duolingo.

(Duolingo is sort of my methadone versus Candy Crack addiction, a financially safe way to fill in spare moments here and there.)

I’m impressed as heck with the Learn Japanese to Survive series so far. This past weekend I concluded the second, Katakana War, and like its predecessor, Hiragana Battle, it’s an engaging game in and of itself, with the added bonus of language learning by osmosis rather than study.

Basically, the Learn Japanese to Survive games are Roguelite RPGs with monsters that assume the shape of Japanese language characters, and the only way your band of heroes can land a blow is to choose the correct symbol. It doesn’t feel like study. But by the time you’ve reached and defeated the Boss, you’ll have mastered a full writing system, and will have picked up some Japanese language and culture along the way.

One little bonus I’ve particularly enjoyed is that even after beating the Big Bad, there are legitimate story reasons for returning. In Hiragana Battle it turned out I had missed a couple of side quests, and though the village was now at peace, my champion could still complete those. In Katakana War there were also a few classmates remaining with whom I’d not had time to fully develop friendships and maximize their “class.” So it made an emotional sense to swap them out for experienced party members and go on cleanup detail, tracking down monsters that weren’t destroyed in the war. Yeah, basically a game rationale for continuing to practice, but it *feels* like denouement, not merely a mechanic.

Last night I started on Kanji Combat, and this one is definitely more of a challenge for an English speaker. Though Duolingo has been salting its lessons with various kanji, such as ? “mizu” for “water,” it gave no inkling that this is merely its kun-yomi reading—that when incorporated into a compound word, ? has a different, on-yomi pronunciation, and that some kanji might have more than one pronunciation in both kun and on uses.

Rereading that paragraph, I’m terrified. But in the game, I’m just playing in a manga-style story about a foreign student stranded in Japanese prehistory with three fellow foreign students and their language sensei. I’m immersed in the personalized character. If he is to survive, he’ll need to learn some kanji—a few at a time—to battle the shapeshifting demons and return home.

The Steam Deck makes playing convenient. I did have to tweak the Katakana War installation a bit to make it work, but gaining familiarity with the deck’s Linux desktop mode was one more appeal for buying the device in the first place.

One last comment about the game series: It’s a pleasure to see that its development was funded by Kickstarter backers. This is crowdfunding at its best, bringing to life something glorious that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.

Oh, and the trio is now on sale at an insanely low price.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.