Tips for Playing Games in a Language You Don’t Understand
As much as we’d love to see every game imaginable in every language on the planet, anything from simple lack of time to outright region locking can result in games that you might love to play simply not being in your mother tongue.
With that said, the barrier to playing games that aren’t in your language isn’t insurmountable. It can be a daunting task to play a game that you can’t read, but with the tips below, hopefully the transition can be at least a little less jarring.
The first thing to remember is that some games are simply out of your reach. While the line is drawn differently from person to person, most can agree that you probably won’t be able to play game genres—like visual novels. Other genres, like RPGs, which rely heavily on story, generally sway towards unplayable, but simpler ones, or ones with a heavy gameplay focus, might work if you appreciate those genres.
The best way to figure out whether a game is suitable for you is to see if someone’s played ahead of you—googling for reviews, whether from native speakers or Google-translated ones, or even gameplay on YouTube by Googling the original language name, might be enough to tell you whether it’ll be worth the time and effort. Heck, you might even get lucky and find a translation guide of things like menus and quest objectives.
The thing to remember about games is that game design is practically its own language.
Certain tropes that experienced gamers have noticed over the years may well make a game way more playable if utilised properly in a non-native tongue. Arrows on a minimap, red barrels exploding, abbreviations like HP being identical across games, menu options being in a specific order or laid out a specific way, etc. Obviously this isn’t true for all games, but the more general design tropes they follow, the easier an experienced gamer can feel their way around even without any text to guide them.
Be inquisitive if you get stuck!
Sometimes you just need to hit every button, or look for something that would be the way forward in a title in your language. Maybe even taking a peek at the manual and tutorials, if there is one.
Starting with the right game is important to helping you feel better about diving deeper into other titles. As a personal example, my first Japanese language game was Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends, and since I had already played Dynasty Warriors 8 in English before it, I was able to acclimate very quickly. That gave me the confidence I needed to jump into more Japanese titles. Picking up and playing a game you’re already intimately familiar with in another language is a guaranteed confidence booster.
Menus can be complicated, and it can be very hard to remember your way around, especially if you don’t play a game for a long period of time.
It’s always best practice to keep a notepad file for the game you’re playing with references to things that don’t change—the main menu, a stats screen, or the options. Go through all the options in an important menu the first time you play, then write them down as a quick reference. You can go straight back to it and save a lot of time in the long run.
The Google Translate app, available on phones and tablets, is an absolute godsend when it comes to playing foreign titles these days. They include the ability to take a picture of the screen you’re looking at, and use servers on the internet to send a translation of what you just took a picture of. While the translations might be a bit weird and lacking in context, it’s still a great aid for figuring out just what the heck this item is supposed to do. Don’t forget you have the ability to take screenshots on most game consoles these days—more than enough to get text that goes by rather quickly. It might take more than one attempt for a line of text, but it will pay off in the end. (And don’t use their ‘instant translate’ feature. It’s worthless in games.)
If you want to play games that are relatively old (we’re talking pre-N64/PS1/Saturn, in this case), there are already a lot of fan translation patches available.
Sites like Romhacking.net have databases of games that have been translated into English via fans of these games who want them to get larger audiences. Here’s a link that shows every ‘fully playable’ translation in English on Romhacking.net—there’s more to play almost every day. Downloading the games is something we can’t go into here, but if you can figure out downloading and patching games, you have a lot of games to play that most simply couldn’t in their generation.
While these are only relevant to the Japanese market, it’s worth mentioning them anyway, even if only in their own point.
It’s probably worth the time to set up an account in the region you’re playing games it—they usually have things like downloadable content and first print bonuses. Unfortunately, things such as “game of the year editions” are a lot more uncommon in places like Japan, so thank your lucky stars when they do exist.
Thankfully, the Switch and PS4 are completely region free, and making new accounts for those regions is often as simple as choosing those regions when making a new account.
It might be worth looking for a mail forwarder if you’re buying games from Japan—they have a very different ‘pre-owned’ culture to ours in which they keep their games in tip-top shape, so buying preowned via a Japanese online store might make you think you bought a game brand new, and the prices are usually a lot cheaper, too. I bought a Love-Live game from one at around $20, expecting nothing special outside of case and cartridge, and I got a gigantic special edition with all the goodies still inside like it was never opened.
In very rare circumstances, the games may have small pieces of English here and there in places like menus. There may also be entirely separate releases in English (usually referred to as “Asian English” releases). It’s worth researching if a game fits into one of these categories before buying a Japanese copy. Popular Namco franchises like Gundam and Super Robot Wars, for example, have been getting English releases for some time, even if they don’t make it West.
The last, most important, point to remember is that you’re here to have fun. If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed by trying to play a game in moonspeak, you don’t have to. Stop for a while, go play something else, maybe just give up on the game you were trying to play. If you aren’t having fun trying to play a game, then there’s really no point.
There are a lot of games that never came out in any number of languages that are still worth playing, even with the guesswork hidden behind another language—hopefully this guide will help you find those games that will be worth the effort in the end.
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