Back in our Tips From John-sensei post, I mentioned that it’s very important to have fun while learning Japanese. Well, video games are fun – and the DS is a great resource for the Japanese learner. American DS systems are region free, so all Japanese games will work on American DS systems. There are also a handful of games that have the kana written above the kanji which is a great help for learning the readings and meanings of new kanji. I’ve compiled a list of the 5 best DS games to play in Japanese (you can trust me because I’ve played them all myself!) and now I’d like to share them with you. Read on and start having fun with your Japanese!

5. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn


Dark Dawn is the third title in the Golden Sun series, and is set 30 years after the events of the first two games. The story is more or less just another tale where the heroes band together to fight the forces of evil and save the world. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a good RPG. You think of a standard and solid RPG, and this is it. It’s got some interesting mechanics, and the Djinn system spices things up a bit, but overall it’s very traditional. The story is interesting and I enjoyed playing it. It’s not really a stand out game though, so don’t expect to be wowed by anything.

If you’ve played a Japanese RPG before, you’ll know what to expect here. It certainly won’t let you down though. Golden Sun is a very solid choice, especially if you’ve enjoyed the previous entries in the series.

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Check out the video review of the English version from Gametrailers here.

4. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies


I’ve always really enjoyed the Dragon Quest games. The story is pretty thick in them though, so if your Japanese isn’t all that great, you may find yourself getting lost or confused quite a bit, but that’s what online guides are for. I recommend making good use of Some guides are based on the Japanese versions and will even give you translations of the dialogue or the menus. At the very least, you can use it as a reference to make sure you stay on track and don’t get too frustrated with your journey. In Dragon Quest IX you play as a guardian angel who has become human and travels around from town to town fixing everything for everyone.

The streamlined multiplayer support is also very nicely implemented, but you’ll need some friends who own a copy. Regretfully I’m not sure if American versions are compatible with the Japanese versions of the game, but as the Pokemon games work just fine together, I would assume that’s the case for Dragon Quest as well. Game on!

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Check out the video review of the English version from Gametrailers here.

3. Ni no Kuni: Shikkoku no Madōshi

二ノ国 漆黒の魔導士

In Ni No Kuni, Studio Ghibli teams up with Level-5 to create a magical role-playing game that stars a young boy named Oliver who receives a magical book that takes him into another world.

Ni No Kuni is a beautiful game. The cut scenes and voice acting both are superb and really make for an enjoyable experience. It’s half like watching an anime, and half like playing a great game. If story is important to you, you can’t go wrong with this one. This is also the only game on this list that hasn’t been localized yet. Ni No Kuni will becoming to American shores early 2012. At least that’s the plan, anyway.

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The girl from these CMs is also one half of the phenomenon responsible for bringing us this ridiculously adorable song.

Check out a trailer for the Japanese version here. Sorry, no review for this one :(

2. The Legend of Zelda Games

ゼルダの伝説夢幻の砂時計 (Phantom Hourglass)
ゼルダの伝説大地の汽笛 (Spirit Tracks)

We all know what to expect as far as story goes with the Zelda games. You play as Link, and your job is to save the princess. Phantom Hourglass has impressive visuals, beautiful music, and a huge world packed with plenty of things to experience. What it was missing, however, was some of the hardcore difficulty and classic dungeon puzzles that longtime Zelda fans had come to expect from the series.

Spirit Tracks is pretty similar, but improved upon in nearly every way. Spirit Tracks delivers amazing boss battles, stunning dungeons, and a substantially longer adventure overall. Both Zelda titles are great and equally helpful to the Japanese learner.

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Check out the video review of the English version of Spirit Tracks from Gametrailers here.

1. Professor Layton Games (Friendly Versions)

レイトン教授と不思議な町(フレンドリー版)(Curious Village)
レイトン教授と悪魔の箱(フレンドリー版)(Diabolical Box)

The stories in Professor Layton games revolve around puzzles. Pretty much everyone you interact with has a puzzle for you to solve to advance the story and in every game there is some overarching mystery for you to solve. The games are extremely enjoyable laid back experiences with some pretty challenging and clever puzzles to boot. Once you play one Professor Layton game, you’ll know what to expect from the rest of the series. Greatness.

What makes this the best DS game for Japanese learning is the wonderful voice acting, clever puzzles, and relatively linear story. Make sure you check out the “Friendly Versions” though. The non-friendly versions do not have kana readings above the kanji which makes for a much more difficult reading experience if you don’t know that many kanji yet.

In the Japanese versions of Professor Layton games, the puzzle aspect is nearly doubled when you first have to decode the instructions from Japanese, and then once you actually understand what is being asked of you, you get to work on a clever and engaging puzzle. And like I said, the games are very linear, so even if you miss a few lines of dialogue here and there, you don’t have to worry about getting lost. The Professor Layton games are great fun and very beneficial to the Japanese learner. If you only check out one game from this list, make it Professor Layton.

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Check out the video review of the English version of Diabolical Box from Gametrailers here.

How to Study With Japanese Video Games

The way I study with Japanese video games is pretty simple. I play the game, look up words and phrases I don’t know, then add those to an Anki deck. (If you haven’t heard of Anki before, check out our review of it here.) I usually play the game until I get to a certain number of new things, usually about a page full, and then I’ll stop playing and add those into an Anki deck. Before I play the game again, I’ll review the Anki deck I created and then start the whole process over again.

Once you get a bit better at Japanese, you can start playing the game and just inferring from the context what the new words and phrases mean and only make cards out of the things that totally stump you.

Like I’ve said in previous posts, it’s important to not get frustrated with your studies, especially when you’re playing a game and trying to have fun. Even though you’re playing a video game, it’s still in a foreign language, and things could get frustrating and discouraging if you’re not careful. So set yourself some sort of limit for how long you’ll play or study with a game and quit while you’re still having fun so you’ll be looking forward to coming back to it.

And also, please try to avoid just mashing the A button through all of the dialogue so you can get back to the gameplay. It’s an understandable temptation (heck, I’ve done it before), but you’re really not doing yourself any favors. You might as well just be playing the game in English. But in most cases this can be avoided as long as you quit while you’re still having fun with it and before you get frustrated.

Even though you’re already playing a game, it’s still important to still keep fun in mind. You’re not going to like every game you play, so if you’re playing something in Japanese, don’t tough it out if you don’t actually enjoy the game itself. Find a game you know you would enjoy regardless of the language.

As your skills progress, you’ll be able to graduate on to imported games that don’t provide kana readings for all the kanji. Think of all the games you’ll be able to play and enjoy before all your friends! It’s totally worth it, so stick with it and don’t give up!

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  • John

    You can try looking up a manga online and see how comfortable you are just reading along and having to look up words. If it doesn’t bother you and you think you can handle playing a game in Japanese then go for it! You’ll definitely learn a lot. If you’re not at that level of comfort yet though, it can always be something to shoot for in the future!

  • John

    I totally forgot about that. Man, Dreamcast was the good ol’ days. I remember the summer we got one after they went out of business and all the games were like $3 a piece, lol. Good times, good times.

  • James O’Neill

    Thanks for the list. Personally I’ve dabbled in a few games over the last few years. I picked up DQ9 when in Japan just after it came out and have also played a couple of Pokemon games and Final Fantasy XIII on my PS3. Like a few others, I’m sorely tempted to import Gyakuten Kenji 2 since the fickle Gods of Localisation have deemed it unworthy of their attention. Just restarted Dragon Quest actually and am rather happy at how much more I can follow easily compared to when I first bought it.

  • T Adams Jdi

    Can you recommend any good sites to play Japanese games online for free?

  • John

    There’s two free study “games” that I know of: Knuckles in China Land, and Slime Forest Adventure. I don’t really like either of them though, haha. As far as fun games (that are actual games) that are free and online? Don’t think I can help you out there, sorry :(
    Maybe someone else knows?

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the tips! I’ll start with those! I have a much better sense of how to approach this now.

  • Sam

    Phantom Hourglass was one of my first attempts at playing a game in Japanese, one of the advantages of Zelda games are that they can be enjoyed multiple times, and if you can’t understand the text it’s pretty easy to figure out what to do. You can also disable kana if you need more of a challenge. I would definitely recommend it.

  • Kumoriha

    So you’re not recommending Love Plus (+)? Disappoint.
    Haha, I thought it was quite helpful for learning Japanese, at least.

  • Lawnmower16

    I agree. There’s such satisfaction in being able to point out contradictions in Japanese sentences. Plus I prefer reading without furigana because if there is furigana I tend to ignore the Kanji. Gyakuten Saiban is a great challenge for its lack of that.

  • Anonymous

    Is Ni no Kuni: Shikkoku no Madōshi a “friendly version” like Layton? I’m guessing maybe since it seems to have the hiragana on the box over the kanji.

  • Mubbz

    Great article! I was planning on getting Ni No Kuni on DS or PS3 – but I also spotted Layton, I’ve never played them – how can I tell which is a friendly version? I’ve been looking at stores online but I can’t tell if they have the furigana. Thanks!

  • John

    Look for ones that say フレンドリー版 like the one in the picture under the Layton heading. フレンドリー版 means “friendly version” so those ones will be sure to have the furigana. Happy studies!

  • Mubbz

    Thanks! I’ll check it out =)

  • John

    No problem. Good luck!

  • Pierre Guthrie

    Is it advisable for me to play this game? I’m beginning to learn Japanese. But I can only read Hiragana and Katakana. Also, I only know some Japanese words. Not that much.

  • Kanalet

    I play Legend of Zelda games all the time (favourite video games of all time)  but I don’t have ST or PH at the moment. Do they have furigana? I’d much prefer to get it in Japanese if it has the option of furigana.

  • Cake

    For Kingdom Hearts fans, I’m playing Recoded in Japanese, and that’s great for intermediate level.

    The language isn’t complicated, because it’s a “children’s” game, and if you’re familiar with the series (or any cheesy anime, really), then it’s all very standard and familiar sorts of topics and words anyway (believe in your heart, the light of the world, etc etc).
    If you’re not familiar with the series, the mechanics might take a while to pick up, but I think they’re all standard RPG things anyway.

    Plus, the added bonus of running around with Disney and Squeenix characters and hearing them speak in Japanese :)

  • John

    If you don’t have any experience with kanji, playing games like this will be too advanced for you. I’d say come back to them once you feel more comfortable with the language and have a better handle on it.

  • John

    Yeah, they both do. All the games on this list have furigana and that’s why I included them.

  • Maja Cok

    I see an image of Love plus but no describtion: i DEFINITELY recommend all dating sim games to someone with a low-medium understanding of Japanese! They’re perfect: Everything is written down but most of the conversations are spoken too, so it’s easier if you’re bad at kanji. also the topics of conversation are far more “common” than in RPG games, so it’s even easier!

  • Marlissa

    I have these games for the ds
    -Anpanpan to Asobo Aiueo Kyoushitsu-amazing game for learning…it’s japanese for japanese kids….helps ALOT if your a beginner
    -正しい漢字かきとりくん-for intermediate to advanced learners..but what i like the most is how you can practice writing the kana/kanji
    -Zelda: Phantom Hourglass-shows furigana when you click on the kanji
    -Pokemon(Pearl and Diamond ediitons) -great for learning to read, esp hiragana
    -my japanese coach

    That’s all i can remember now…might have more but I don’t think so…haha….

    Also please note that the 3DS is only region locked if your playing japanese 3ds games, the regular ds games still work for it! 

  • Marlissa

    Actually the 3ds is region locked ONLY for japanese 3ds titles…..All of the other games work for it. So all the ones listed above and then some you could play…just don’t get any japanese 3ds titles and you’ll be good

  • Kuribou64

    Would this work with games like mario,kirby and sonic games

  • Balthazorous Rex

    二ノ国 and レントン教授最後の時間旅行. I actually didn’t check the Layton title when I ordered as I presumed there to be only one, but I bet this one’s good too. At least the title sounds exciting. :-)

  • Mita

    I’ve done it again!  I’ve mistaken Phantom!Zelda for Alphonse Elric!

  • Nat Wel

    Studying is serious, i’ll stick to regular books and Kanji printouts ;). If I ever wanna go digital i’ll use an android app for my Sony device (A Japanese company that IS good at inventing) thank you for this anyway John. Besides that DS looks really pretty. 

  • Mackenzie Ellsberry

    I’m really interest in purchasing one the Japanese professor Layton’s. Do you have a site you recommend I purchase it on?

  • Hachiojishi

    cool thanks! I’m in Hachioji studying Japanese and I’ll definitely look up these games even tho I’ve played them in English..

  • Dharma Mauricio

    I demand this list includes 9 hour, 9 persons, 9 doors.

  • Hans Spijker

    This… is…awsome! Man, I’ve been searching for Japanese games that had furigana for weeks. Played the most stupid things, from dating sims to gaming shows. The games on this list are, well, actually games! Great list and thanks a lot! P,S, I directly liked you guys on Facebook ;)!

  • John

    How complicated is the Japanese in that game? Does it have furigana? I’ve only played it in English.

  • John

    Hey! Awesome, I’m glad the list helped you out. Best of luck with the Japanese gaming!

  • Lava Yuki

    Tales of Graces is great in Japanese, they have full voice acting and text, and its not hard to understand. I learned tons of useful expressions from it

  • Robert

    Zelda (Spirit Tracks) also pops up furigana whenever you click on a kanji word! That makes it as good (if not better) than showing the firigana all the time as you only look at it if you need it. Fantastic! Now I can actually play the game and not have to try and look up the kanji (takes a long time to do this) every unknown word I come across.

  • Malik DrumFunk Martin

    Hmmm…haven’t found furigana in DQ IV or Zelda no Densetsu – Daichi no Kiteki’s story dialogues….

  • Malik DrumFunk Martin

    thanks for mentioning that. I can just generate my own story…or something like that.

  • Seshiru

    Hm, I know this article is quite old now but… ^_^
    I’m in Japan right now and have my old DS lite with me (not enough money to get a 3DS yet… meh), I downloaded Ni no Kuni but I heard it’s hard to get through the game without having the actual “book” which comes officially with it: is it true?

    Also, I downloaded Love Plus because I heard about dating sims being nice to play for beginners/intermediate learners on several forums but I see no furigana… Would you happen to know some dating sim game with furigana in it? I only know about 100 kanjis yet…

    I’m going to try Anpanpan to Asobo Aiueo Kyoushitsu as advised here, might be very useful.

    Thank you for this awesome website anyway, very neat :)