I’m fairly certain it’s been at least five minutes since I last mentioned to anyone that I’m planning a trip to Japan next year. So…I’m planning a trip to Japan next year! Weighing up which weird and wonderful sights to see, whether to attend the Tokyo Game Show, and considering exactly which of the many varied animal islands and sanctuaries to visit (the answer is obviously “all of them”, but humour me here) is my new favourite way to spend my mental bandwidth.
However, there’s one glaringly tricky aspect to Japan for me: I don’t speak nor read Japanese.
Still, there’s plenty of time to learn, right? Except for solutions like Duolingo and Memrise, while normally a ton of fun for me, seem impossibly dull when it comes to learning katakana. Or is it hiragana? (You see my problem?)
And attempting to form a habit of using any other flashcard app feels no less dull. I know the science behind them, I grok the ways in which they engage active recall and utilise cognitive functions. But that doesn’t make them any less boring to actually use.
Fortunately for me, game developers can always be relied upon to take on problems and gamify them. So it was with some delight that I came across Kana Quest at PAX Aus 2019, a puzzler that bills itself as “a cross between Dominoes and Candy Crush that teaches you to read Japanese”.
The premise of Kana Quest is simple. There are many different Kana, or Japanese symbols, comprised of consonant-vowel combinations such as ‘ko’, ‘ni’, ‘sa’, and so on. Each Kana is represented by a tile.
The player’s aim is to move the tiles around in such a way that the aligned tiles match in some way—for example, the Kana for ‘ka’ and the Kana for ‘na’ share the ‘a’ sound.
The Kana presented at the beginning of the demo I played were quite simple and easy to pick up. Each level I completed saw the introduction of more Kana, with more tiles to move around. The aim was to match all of the Kana up in as few moves as possible.
Players can click on a tile to be reminded of their ‘sound’ if need be, which I appreciated greatly as the puzzles gradually increased in complexity. Some tiles can’t be moved, forcing the players to really think about the matches that need to be made to complete a level.
However, the real charm of Kana Quest lies in the way it depicts these matches. The Kana are given adorable faces, and matching them is portrayed as a sort of buddy system that brings the Kana joy, and subsequently the player too.
Underlying each puzzle are beautiful pixelated renderings of regions in Japan, which added a delightful, colourful touch to the game.
Though Kana Quest only contained hiragana symbols in the demo I played, the final game will allow players to switch between hiragana and katakana.
Developer Theodor Kipen spoke to me about his motives for creating Kana Quest, explaining that he once tutored Japanese and felt sorry for his students who struggled to effectively utilise flash cards. He set himself to the task of considering how he could help their education to be a more fun time for all involved and subsequently came up with the idea of making a game out of the experience.
And it certainly is a lot of fun! My time playing the demo flew by, and I’m really looking forward to its release early next year. Because it will be just in time for me to learn Japanese.
You know, for my trip to Japan next year.
Kana Quest is set to release in Q1 of 2020 on Windows, Mac, and Linux. You can add it to your Steam wishlist here.
With many thanks to Theodor for taking the time to speak with us and allow us time with Kana Quest.