App of the Day: Hiragana Pixel Party

Yes we kanji.

Version tested iPhone

Games are excellent teaching tools. After all, what are they if not mechanisms that teach us how to use themselves through interaction? By playing, we learn how to play. It's something of a no-brainer that those same loops of feedback and reinforcement can be used for more than training us to be really good at headshots.

Here to illustrate the point is Hiragana Pixel Party, one of many apps that promise to teach you Japanese. The difference here is that it's a rhythm-action game, and the only way to get good is to understand Japanese writing. You play because you want to win; you want to earn all three ranks for every stage. Language acquisition is just the mechanism you engage with to achieve your goal.

Our hero is the aptly named Hiro, who jogs his Limbo-esque silhouette across the screen to the sound of jaunty chip-tunes. Up pops a young girl, who starts by uttering vowel sounds in time with the music. You then copy her, by tapping on the relevant symbols, helping Hiro hop over obstacles in the process. The more obstacles he clears, the more birds he attracts. Make a mistake and one of the birds flies away. Run out of birds and Hiro's adventure in linguistics is over.

It's incredibly simple, but also really effective, taking full advantage of the phonetic nature of Japanese. Sometimes you're given the English equivalent and have to tap on the Japanese symbol. Sometimes you're given the Japanese sound and must match it to the English letters. The location of the icons moves around as well, so there's no way to progress by just memorising the beat. Only by learning which Japanese symbol makes an "uh" or "eeh" sound will you get by. Before long, you've graduated from a handful of characters to entire alphabets, and the knowledge has been burned into your brain.

As far as gameplay goes, it's not going to blow you away. The response to your taps is crisp enough and the rhythm aspect is spot on - you'd be amazed how many music games can't actually keep time - but it lacks the escalation of mechanics that you'd expect from something with only entertainment in mind. It's the symbol-matching that evolves, while the actual obstacle-hopping stays much the same. Fun, but hardly the "party" promised by the title.

Not that this limited ambition is a massive problem, since the app is free with additional content is locked off behind well-considered in-app purchases. It's nothing too egregious, since you can gain access to everything for just 1.49. Think of it more like a trial version with the option to purchase once you're convinced of its worth.

There's a lot to unlock as well, with hundreds of levels each for two Japanese alphabets - the smooth loops of Hiragana, used for native Japanese words, and the sharper Katakana, used for western words translated into Japanese. You also get some extra music tracks and other cosmetic enhancements to sweeten the deal, and can opt to buy the content in smaller, cheaper chunks if you're really counting the pennies.

If you have the motivation, Hiragana Pixel Party an excellent mimetic tool, but it'll only take you so far. Being able to read Japanese words isn't the same as understanding the words, or the grammar that contains them, but if you're going to be spending your time tapping away on a touch-screen, surely you might as well learn something in the process?

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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