A decent number of the games I have covered on Indie Overlook have been from freeware Japanese indie game sites, but even if you don’t have any trouble with downloading a game it can still be difficult to figure out just how to actually play it. As someone who can’t speak and certainly can’t read Japanese, I definitely know how confusing it can be to try to play a game in a language you don’t understand, but I’ve also discovered a few tricks for making the process much easier. This guide is written with Japanese indie games in mind, but it should still be useful for games in any language.
1) Use Translators Frequently
This one is probably pretty obvious, but it’s important enough that I’m going to put it here anyway. If you’re browsing a site in a language you’re not familiar with, it helps to have a decent idea of just what you’re looking at so make sure to view the site using Google Translate or a similar program; even if translations are far from perfect, they can at least help with basic site navigation. I generally like to have a site up in its original state in one tab and in its translated state in another because this allows me to better familiarize myself with the layout and it alerts me to if the translator is messing up the formatting, which can sometimes make it difficult to find a link. A final piece of advice regarding translators is that it can also be worthwhile to keep one around for the actual games, such as for if there are RPG elements and characters have various stats attached to them or certain words otherwise frequently appear or seem important; trying to manually type words into a translator when there are special characters (or if the words are written in a language which doesn’t even share the same alphabet as your native language) can definitely be a tedious and sometimes frustrating process, but sometimes it’s worth it.
2) Pay Attention to Link URL’s
If you’re going through a website without a translator or even if the meaning behind a link gets lost or mangled while using a translator, it helps to look at link URL’s. This is an especially handy trick for if the site uses buttons or other graphical elements which translators won’t work on because they are ‘pictures’ instead of ‘text’. URL’s are often in English regardless of the language the site itself is in, so you can often tell where something leads by mousing over it and looking at the URL it leads to. Words like “download” or “dl” in the URL are strong indicators that it is almost certainly taking you to the download page, if not the download itself, and words like “action” or “adventure” will likely take you to a list of games on the site which fall under the respective genre. If you want to sort the list, look out for links containing words like “popular” or “date” to determine how the list will be sorted and other words such as “review” or “screenshots” are also useful when trying to find information for specific games. This isn’t an entirely foolproof strategy as not every site is going to use English names for its pages and other sites can be vague in general (ex: Freem has its category URL’s at “category/1” “category/2” and so on), but it can often do the trick when a translator just isn’t enough.
3) Look for Configuration Files or Menus
You might want to rush ahead and start playing a game the moment you’ve downloaded it, but this can lead to a whole lot of confusion if you don’t know the controls. To solve this problem, the best course of action is to first look through the files in the game folder and see if there is an Application file with a name such as “Config”, “Configuration”, “Keybindings”, or possibly even a file with a keyboard or a controller for an icon even if you can’t read the name. If no such file exists, there is still a good chance of a Configuration or Options menu being present within the game itself; this is usually the third or fourth choice on the Main Menu with the first and second options usually being reserved for New Game and Continue respectively. If there is an Options menu, the button configuration menu itself may be a submenu of Options, in which case you should try selecting every menu within the Options menu until you find it; try to reset anything you touch along the way back to its default setting if you don’t know what it does. So even if you find this menu, why is it so important if you can’t actually read it? Simply put, even if you can’t read what each button does, this menu still will allow you to see which buttons serve some purpose in the game itself, which is especially important if some buttons are situational or can only be used after acquiring a certain ability. Finding this menu is also beneficial for once you do start playing because it becomes easy to use it to customize the controls to your liking once you understand what the default purpose of each button is.
4) Use Other Games for Comparison Purposes
This is the big one because it can help with many things beyond downloading a game and learning the basic controls (and it comes with the bonus of potentially improving your own ability to analyze and understand the mechanics behind the games you play). Thanks to increasingly standardized controls, many of us already do this to some degree regardless of the language a game is written in; every time you put one hand on the WASD keys and the other on the mouse for an FPS or one hand on the arrow keys and the other somewhere around Z and X for an RPG or a shmup you are doing so because you are making assumptions on how a game will play based on your experiences with previous games. However, you can learn to apply this skill to far more than just learning the keys in use. For example, if I start up a platformer where I can choose from eight different stages arranged in a 3×3 grid with the central tile serving as a shop or just being inaccessible, it’s a safe assumption that the game takes some inspiration from Mega Man. With this reference in mind, I won’t just try to attack and shoot, but I’ll also try to hold down the attack button for a potential charge attack, press the jump button and down to see if there’s a slide, and attempt to open a menu to check for if I have any abilities to choose between. There very well may not be a slide or a charge shot or even weapons to collect, but I know to at least check for these things because of my familiarity with Mega Man and looking at a Config file or randomly pressing every button on the keyboard is unlikely to reveal the existence of commands which require holding a button or pressing a combination of buttons. Thus, being familiar with a similar game can help you with learning more complicated forms of input, with menu navigation, and even with being able to identify items and to understand the basic flow of the gameplay.
Comparisons can help with far more than the basics too. I already mentioned that you can potentially use translators to get help with games containing RPG elements such as stats, but this process can be horrendously slow and tedious. As a faster alternative, find a game written in a language you can read which uses the same engine as the foreign game you are trying to play. This engine-level comparison mainly works for games made with some form of RPG Maker, but it can possibly work with other engines too. The trick here is that the basics of the menus are likely to be entirely identical, or close to it, unless one of the games has been heavily modified because there is often no real reason for a developer to change around the order of menu options or lists of statistics. For example, if a game is made in RPG Maker VX Ace chances are high that the title screen consists of New Game, Continue, and End Game and the main menu within the game itself contains the following menus in this order: Items, Skills, Equipment, Status, Formation, Save (possibly greyed out or nonexistent if there are save points), and either End Game or System Options. This is the default order these submenus are listed in when making a game in RPG Maker VX Ace so it rarely makes sense to move them around regardless of the language the game is in; custom menu options may be mixed in amongst the standard ones, but in these cases you can still be fairly confident about what the majority of the options will do. The Status menu is especially useful to identify because, just like the menus themselves, the general stats for each character will often be listed in the same order regardless of language. Using RPG Maker VX Ace as an example once again, the likely order for stats will be HP, MP, Attack, Defense, Magic Attack, Magic Defense, Agility, and finally Luck, either in a single column or in two columns alternating left to right (so Defense would be to the right of Attack and Magic Attack would be below Attack). While I would not recommend playing a full traditional RPG in a language which you can’t understand, there are plenty of action RPG’s and games which fit into entirely different genres altogether which are still made in these engines and thus are likely to have menu similarities.
Don’t give up on trying to figure out stats and vital mechanics just because a game uses different menus or an entirely original engine! Comparisons once again come to your rescue here. For example, if a game takes some clear inspiration from Castlevania there is at least a decent chance that it uses the same or similar stats to an actual Castlevania game, possibly even listed in the same order. Some common sense mixed with general genre familiarity can also come to the rescue here, along with a bit more effort on your part. Bigger weapons probably boost Attack, magic weapons likely boost Magic Attack, heavy armor will boost Defense, capes or light armor can boost Magic Defense or Evasion, a mage class is likely going to have high Magic Attack and Magic Defense along with low Attack and Defense, and so on regardless of the exact genre the game in question falls under. Being able to identify which ‘type’ of character a party member is, and therefore which types of stats will likely be high or low for them, as well as being able to identify which ‘type’ of weapon or armor an item can lead to being able to precisely pinpoint the exact nature of every stat on a Status screen, which in turn can be used to figure out ability descriptions, item effects, and other systems which raise, lower, or list statistics.
Lastly, being aware of the game another game takes at least some inspiration from can sometimes be essential for understanding mechanics which would be extremely difficult to figure out with basic translation work and trial and error alone. For this example, I will be using a game titled 聖剣姫フィソステギア (which Google Translate turns into “Kiyoshikenhime Fisosutegia”). This game is made in SRPG Studio, an engine I’m not familiar with, and it has plenty of menus and text so the specifics of the plot and the exact nature of some of the stats are complete mysteries to me. However, I can tell that it’s based on Fire Emblem and with this I can figure out some of the most essential mechanics. I know that there’s a sword/axe/spear weapon weakness system, that flying units should be kept away from archers, that the goal of each stage is to either reach a designated location or to defeat a specific unit, that characters can be upgraded into stronger classes after leveling up enough, that stat comparisons when attempting to attack an enemy list damage, accuracy, and critical hit chance, and several other important gameplay elements and mechanics. Sure, the game has a few unique mechanics of its own which I had to figure out (such as an actual rock/paper/scissors system on top of the weapon trinity), and a few other elements which I simply have yet to figure out, but knowing how to play Fire Emblem has given me all the knowledge I need to play this game which takes heavy inspiration from Fire Emblem. Simply knowing the vaguest specifics about a game which another takes inspiration from isn’t always enough – you need at least some first-hand experience (or some very thorough studying) in order to be able to easily understand and adjust to otherwise complicated mechanics.
In short, the most effective way to figure out how to play a game in another language is often to first identify the engine it is made in and/or the game(s) it takes inspiration from and then familiarize yourself with that engine or game in a language you understand because there is a very strong chance that the mechanics and/or menus will be either entirely identical or at least very similar.