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The Key Word is 'Coach'
11 June 2009

So - My Japanese Coach. I've been meaning to talk about it on here for a while, since you can't have a site that's 90% about Japanese things without dabbling in the language. It's a nifty little Ubisoft-published game for the Nintendo DS which, as you might have guessed, attempts to teach you Japanese. I probably wouldn't suggest it to anybody as their sole study guide, but if you already have a basic grasp of Japanese and maybe want to brush up on it, I recommend tracking down a copy and then impressing the pants off your Japanese teacher after the Summer break.

Okay, now that I've finished endorsing it, allow me to list its faults. Careful, we're venturing into psuedo-academic territory.

No, seriously.
This is sort of a review, except that it isn't.

To start off, the game gives you a quiz to determine what level you're at. My first issue is that even if you ace the quiz in an incredibly short time frame, it plonks you down at Lesson 11. No higher. So you still have to trudge through a whole heap of hiragana and katakana (the basic syllabaries) and words like 'what', 'how' and 'go', all the while shackled to romaji (the english spelling instead of the japanese characters) until the option to convert to full-time hiragana is unlocked around Lesson 30. Aside from the romaji part, this isn't so bad - I often find this sort of revision necessary, as it's pretty easy to forget things like counting different objects and days of the month, especially if you're not practicing conversation with someone regularly. But it's still slightly nauseating when you consider that this game advertises 1000+ lessons. Which is actually only 100 plus a glorified dictionary. More on that soon - the pleasant surprise is that Ubisoft has finally released a cheat that lets you skip and unlock lessons, rendering this complaint invalid. It can be found here.

The reason why I suggest you should know at least a bit of Japanese first is that the game teaches you the typographical means of writing kana such as 'き' and 'さ'. The strokes are disconnected in these normally, and it's a bit weird that they chose to teach them that way. There are also a couple of awkward issues with stroke order that might teach you some bad habits. The stroke order occasionally being wrong on the kanji isn't such a huge deal, but I take pretty big exception to the stroke order being incorrect on the hiragana and katakana as that's a hard habit to unlearn. Though I�m sure people write english letters weird too (anyone conscious of this?), so maybe my righteous indignation is misplaced? It probably only shows up if you're doing calligraphy.

There are also some oddities in the lessons that would trip you up but are easy enough to hop over if you've got the basics. The manner in which they teach the different verb types is a bit confusing, and they only seem to dedicate a very small number of lessons to what is actually probably one of the most difficult aspects for a non-native Japanese speaker to get a handle on. I still struggle with intransitive verbs, and it took a long time to get the hang of converting to 'て' form as well. Still, this is where we must remember that it is called a Japanese COACH.

So it teaches you some basic grammar and a set of words per lesson, and before you move on to the next lesson you need to master all of the words. Personally, the only games I use are Multiple Choice, Flash Cards, Fading Characters, Write Cards, Yomi (Kanji readings) and Memory (which is just like the matching card game, only you have to match the red Japanese with the blue English words). Hit-a-word (more or less whack-a-mole) isn't too bad for pummelling a word into your brain, but there's a length limit on the words it can handle, so it doesn't get used very often either.

Scrolls - a game where you have to write the characters based on the reading in romaji - might have been okay if it wasn't as buggy as hell. Spelltastic and Fill-in-the-Black are a waste of time, as they require you to write out the words in romaji, which is something every Japanese teacher I've ever encountered would throw a fit over, and rightly so. Word search and Bridge builder are similarly ruined by the use of romaji. It's a real shame with Bridge Builder, because that's pretty much the only game to test your grammar with. The game itself is sort of clunky and unintuitive, though.

The writing games have their bugs too - for a lot of the characters, just having the right number of strokes in roughly the right places is enough. Only for a few of characters does it actually catch you out on stroke order (which, as previously mentioned, is often wrong anyway). But it's pretty hard to fudge if you don't already have a good idea of what the hiragana/katakana looks like, so it does a decent enough job at recognising your handwriting. Later on with some of the kanji however (楽 and 京 for example), there�s a bug where the number of strokes are incorrect, but pressing �a� can circumvent this and the game will then accept it.

That all sounds kind of terrible, but it really isn't, because I've stuck with it up to Lesson 167 so far (granted I completely flew through the first 60 or so). The big problems come when you complete the 100th lesson, and the game goes into what I call 'cold robot mode'. The game calls it 'Open Plan', and what it basically means is that it stops teaching you grammar and instead now just dumps ten unrelated words per lesson in your lap to learn, and every five lessons you'll get ten more kanji as it works its way through the standard Jouyou kanji list.

This isn't such a big deal, as I wasn't really relying on the game to teach me grammar - it's much better as a vocabulary and kanji builder. But once you go past Lesson 100, some rather serious bugs start turning up, the very least of them being the aforementioned stroke counter bug.

First of all, you lose the lesson map, which means your pretty geography lesson is at an end, but even worse, it means you can't navigate to any lesson after 100. So if you want to revisit the lesson to practice the speaking or the writing on a particular word without having to navigate the perilous dictionary... well, tough luck. Open up that dictionary. Using a book would probably be faster. The internet would be back at the clubhouse having drinks before either of them crossed the finish line.

Also, the randomisation in the games when you choose the option for 'mastered words only' is no longer random at all. For most games, it will only go 2-3 lessons back, whereas previous to cold robot mode it would range somewhere between 4-6 lessons back with the odd wildcard from even further in the past. For the kanji, it's normally only the most recent 10 you mastered. Scrolls in particular becomes utterly worthless at this point as it presents you with the same four sentences every time, no matter the difficulty you select.

There's also a rather serious bug where it will occasionally present you with some phrases to memorise in this mode. This part isn't such a problem, but after presenting these phrases it gives you the random game option... only no matter what game comes up, every answer you give will be marked as incorrect. Even if it IS correct.

From failblog.
And Alex learned an important life lesson.

And these are the just the bugs found at Lesson 167. There's supposed to be at least another 800+! I'm thinking Ubisoft QA gave up at 100 (and when you look at the credits, it's no real surprise because the game has a staff list in similar scope to an average-sized gas station.) But I'm still amazed something like that made it past internal QA and the Nintendo certification. It's not even a hidden problem - I did nothing special to find it. I strongly suspect that the programmers didn't think anybody would stick with the game past Lesson 100.

That said, the game has proven a boon to my vocabulary, and has helped me with kanji practice in particular. And the voice system is fantastic � you can record yourself saying the phrases using the DS microphone and compare them with the in-game version, as well as adjusting the speed of the voice playback (useful when you consider how fast most Japanese people speak). Just wanted to record down some of these issues for anyone who might be seriously considering trying it out.

Or maybe I'll write an e-mail to Ubisoft and they'll release a second-edition! One with an option to substitute kanji for hiragana at later levels (it sometimes does it randomly on its own, but I haven't figured out a way to make this permanent), and more advanced grammar. Some exercises with tenses, advanced sentence structure, a couple of extra music tracks for some variety, and an option for an unlimited flash cards session would be big improvement too. Only ten cards a go for flash cards? That�s barely enough time to get into it! And maybe a more navigable menu too kthxbai.