If you spend much time playing games, watching anime, or reading manga, Japanese is certainly an appealing second language option, and if you want to try your hand at learning, Hiragana Pixel Party — originally a mobile title — aims to kickstart that process. While it won’t help you with words or phrases, it will teach you how to read two of Japanese’s several scripts, and in that regard it’s a real success. Combining fun, simple rhythm gameplay with catchy chiptunes and character-learning, Hiragana Pixel Party is both a great way to get started reading Japanese and an enjoyable game in its own right.
First up: a bit of background. Japanese is written primarily using three systems: hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ), and kanji (漢字), all of which are ultimately derived from Chinese characters. ‘Nintendo’, for instance, could be written in hiragana as にんてんどう, in katakana as ニンテンドー, and in kanji as 任天堂. While kanji are logographic characters — meaning you generally need to already be familiar with a certain kanji to know how it’s pronounced — hiragana and katakana are syllabaries, which means you can read them phonetically, much like an alphabet.
Just as in an alphabet, each symbol in hiragana or katakana represents a certain sound. But instead of a single consonant or vowel, each hiragana or katakana symbol represents a particular mora, a linguistic unit similar to a syllable. The Japanese word for cat, ‘neko’, for example, is written in hiragana as ねこ (ね ‘ne’ + こ ‘ko’). The same word in katakana is written as ネコ (ネ ‘ne’ + コ ‘ko’). Hiragana and katakana each consist of around 45 symbols, and while that sounds like a high number if you’re used to a 20-odd-character alphabet, since you don’t have to worry about combinations and irregularities (think of the 'gh' in English 'cough' vs. 'gherkin'!) they’re actually much easier to learn quickly — and that’s exactly what Hiragana Pixel Party sets out to help you do.
Hiragana Pixel Party is a rhythm-based runner that uses these Japanese symbols as button-prompts over several hundred individual levels (or lessons) split over two distinct paths: hiragana and katakana. You can choose either syllabary to start with, and bounce back and forth between the two, but the gameplay remains the same in both: in each discrete, thirty-second-or-so stage, you’ll control a girl who runs steadily to the right in-time to chiptune soundtrack, and need to press the correct face button (or touchscreen version of the same) to jump over boxes as they come up on the beat. The kicker is in how you’ll know which face button to use, and that comes down to repeating a pattern of either hiragana or katakana.
These patterns are delivered PaRappa-style; you’ll first see the girl run through a riff for one bar of music, and then have to copy it yourself in the next measure. The cues can be either visual, audio, or a combination of the two, and can involve up to four symbols, each of which are mapped to a face button in an on-screen diagram. You might see and hear a pattern of ‘ne ne ko ko’, for example, and noting that ‘ne’ is assigned to the ‘B’ button and ‘ko’ to the ‘A’ button, tap out ‘B B A A’ when your turn comes around.
The rhythm side of the gameplay is fun and forgiving, with relatively lenient timing on both sides of the beat, which lets Pixel Party focus on its main goal of teaching you how to read. Each level concentrates on a few characters at a time, and the game introduces new ones carefully and slowly. The first time you see a symbol, it will usually be the only one in that verse: you’ll hear ’ko’, see ’こ’, and learn to associate the two by repeated on-beat button presses. In later verses or levels, these cues are switched up: you might see ‘ko’ (written in the Roman alphabet) and have to pick out ‘こ’ from among a few other familiar hiragana symbols, hear ‘ko’ without any visual and have to do the same, or see ‘こ’ with no associated sound and have to press the button marked with ‘ko’, as opposed to ‘ka’ or ‘ke’.
By varying your cues between these several different mission types, Pixel Party does an excellent job scaffolding your learning, ensuring you get plenty of repetition and practice at matching sound and symbol in different ways. It also smartly peppers in characters you’ve yet to learn as red herring choices, ensuring you’ll have at least a passing familiarity with new symbols even before you’ve learned their sounds.
The game’s structure of short, focused levels also fits in very well with its educational aspirations; working through a few a day is a great way to get the continuous practise that really helps with language learning, and each stage is quick enough that knocking out two or three is easy on even the briefest of morning commutes. Our only real complaint with this pacing is that it feels restrictively linear; you’ll unlock new levels in groups of three at a time, by scoring well in the prior group of three, so it’s a bit of a slow grind working your way through the lot. Again, the approach works well for language learning, but we would have appreciated more flexibility in choosing what to tackle when.
Similarly, Pixel Party’s overall structure sees it working its way down the hiragana or katakana chart in a relatively linear fashion by consonant group, and while that certainly works, we would have loved to see levels based around themed groupings as well. Who wouldn’t want to challenge a lightning round with the four horsemen of the katakana apocalypse, ツ (‘tsu’), シ (‘shi’), ソ (‘so’), and ン (’n’)?
Still, these are minor quibbles, and Hiragana Pixel Party is absolutely an effective learning tool. Stick with it, and you’ll learn how to read hiragana, katakana, or both. Just as important, however, is that it’s also genuinely fun to play. The rhythm base is simple but addictive fun, and it’s gamified in a way that’s enjoyable even if you already happen to know hiragana: the specific face-button mapping changes not just in each level but also with each verse, so being able to register the cues in time while also reaching for the right buttons can be a satisfying challenge in and of itself.
The soundtrack helps elevates all that button pressing to joyous musical purpose, too; it’s Anamanaguchi-style chiptune synths accompanied by noise channel percussion and acoustic guitar, flitting comfortably between rousing footstompers and calmer, more introspective tunes. And while there’s not a unique track for each level — at almost 400 it would be quite a feat! — there’s enough musical variety that we only ever noticed repetition in extended play sessions.
This is also a surprisingly good-looking little pixel party; it uses a simple, retro-inspired graphical style, but adds in a generous helping of colour and dramatic lighting effects to create an appealingly oversaturated aesthetic. The backgrounds are also thematically intriguing and diverse, jumping from giant robots and abandoned urbanity to green grass, butterflies, and titanic turtles acting as walking biospheres.
Hiragana Pixel Party is a great time, and a great way to learn to read hiragana or katakana; if you’re planning on learning Japanese, it makes for a perfect head-start. It won’t teach you any of the actual language, but you’ll be able to hit the ground running in hiragana the moment you crack open your textbook or attend your first class, rather than having to spend the first few lessons struggling with the symbols.
We’d argue, however, that there’s real merit to learning these syllabaries even if you aren’t actually planning on learning Japanese. If you’re an import gamer, for instance — or if you aspire to be one — learning hiragana and katakana will change your life. Especially in retro titles, so much of Japanese game menus is made up of either direct loans from English (i.e. ロード/セーブ ’rōdo/sēbu’ — ‘load/save’) or a relatively stable set of terms (like ふたり ‘futari’ — ‘two-player’), and being able to sound out these words will make a treasure trove of incredible games instantly more accessible. Likewise, if you’re planning a visit to Japan, learning at least katakana (the syllabary used for most foreign loanwords) will open up a world of sign-reading; you’d be amazed how much is interpretable with English fluency and basic katakana literacy.
Hiragana Pixel Party is a welcome rarity: an educational game that’s both good fun and an effective learning tool. If you’ve ever wanted to read Japanese — whether for language study, travel, or playing import games — this is a great way to get started, and an enjoyable rhythm-based runner with an excellent chiptune soundtrack besides. がんばって!