Struggles with Japanese: understanding the language of videogames

By Neil Merrett

Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble  on Super Nintendo – released 1996, Rare

Life should never feel wasted, even those beautiful summer days and nights spent up rigging a Chinese-built, fake Super Nintendo in the slim hope of playing Japanese language versions of games where you shoot monkeys around in barrel cannons.

Theoretically, doing anything in a language you don’t understand can either be total folly or guaranteed misadventure – depending on your general perspective on existence and uncomfortable social situations.

But videogames are surely an exception to the rule. You just push buttons and stuff happens.

Even without any sense of language or text that can be understood, how hard then could Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble – or Super Donkey Kong Three: Mysterious Isle Kremis as it is apparently called in Japan – really be to play?

Like the first Donkey Kong Country, the aim is really to throw barrels, collect bananas and ride swordfish and elephants around a pre-rendered jungle environment as you try to crack its secrets – only this time you play a monkey with a pony tail that can double as propeller blades.

Collect things, ride things, find things and smash things in two dimensions. It’s about as simple a game from 1996 was likely to get, especially with the Super Nintendo console already finding its ubiquity replaced by upstarts like the Sony Playstation and the Nintendo 64 console with their flashy and innovative 3D games.

Yet by its third outing, Donkey Kong Country feels like a slightly different beast to previous games, with more refined discovery and exploration, such as the option to hire boats and explore a map world of hidden caves and levels with their own unique treasures and dangers. But to what end?

In its Japanese guise, there appears to be bartering with shop owning bears, requesting their very own cryptic currency hidden out across the game for someone unknown purpose.  There is a geriatric, spandex wearing video game playing monkey that throws stats and strange characters at you, seemingly outlining your progress throughout the game.

Without and instruction book or the endless variety of wiki sites that pretty much explain the very intricacies of even the most obscure game’s structure, powers up and bear coins, the intricacies of the game’s special moves and secrets simply have to be picked up and learnt during gameplay.

Building on the trusted formula of barrel throwing, hidden coins and bananas catching cultivated through the Donkey Kong Country series, DKC3 is a sort of pixelated comfort blanket made up of many well programmed staples of platform gaming, a sort of language for the conventions of the 16-bit console era.

Jump on the bad guy to defeat it, hold the run button to leap the cavern, avoid the bright high res fish in the sea and search every corner of the map to find hidden exits and paths to new points of the game.

Anyone in the world. particularly children of the 1990s, could probably pick up and play the game in some form – stunted linguistic skills be damned.

But can a game ever truly be universally understood, regardless of the language it is presented in?

In the intervening decades since Donkey Kong Country 3 was released, certain games have relied on more narratively complex stories built around intricate text or voice acting to convey purpose and control dynamics, as opposed to more action oriented titles with crusading monkeys.

But there have been games, dating back almost to the inception of the medium, that have sought to build worlds that will teach a user to interacts with them as they play through.

Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of some of Nintendo’s longest running and most lucrative franchises, from the original Donkey Kong, to The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros, has long been famed for building levels and entire games that teach gamers how to explore without any text.

Taking Super Mario Bros for example, Miyamoto is often praised for designing mechanics, environments and characters that prompt and explain to the player what to do and accomplish without having to worry about whether his global audience can speak his native Japanese tongue.

He explained this design ethos to Eurogamer in an interview last year looking at his views on how one of the most famous video game levels was built to subconsciously acquaint a player with the rules, dangers and rewards of the game world around them:

With barely a word said, generations around the world now know when to hit question mark bricks, find suspicious power inducing mushrooms and flowers, and to leap onto ceilings to find the hidden warp pipes.

There was a time, when rightfully this sort of logic wasn’t common, yet thanks to Miyamoto-san, plumbing pipes are even being used by Japanese premiers to promote elaborate and indulgent global sporting events.

Before modern toddlers can even speak, they are somehow intrinsically able to make use of tablets, and touch screen devices to find whatever collection of colours and sounds that arouse their curiosity or brings comfort.

As such a site like Youtube is sometimes one of the first forms of communication we can have with the tiniest children, whereby they can show us what they want or like, even if just a surreal insight into their desires for playing with boxes or brightly coloured eggs.

But this is nothing new, videogames have been cultivating us for years to understand the language of gaming, the rules of the worlds around us and they don’t even have to tell us on to screen what to push or what to think.

So much so that even the foreign language climes of Lake Orangatanga some twenty years on feel reassuring and familiar twenty years even when played for the first time.

In the end, it is second nature to know that a giant belching barrel must be defeated by force feeding it bugs into its mouth to send it to a long fall.  In the world of Donkey Kong Country 3 – it almost seems logical. Almost….

It is videogames as a form of genuine communication – surreal, nonsensical and sometimes frustrating, true – but a genuine language nonetheless.  

Now if it was just possible to know what those bloody bear coins are for.

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