It can be difficult to find time to complete a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short game, we recommend video games that can be started and completed over a weekend.
Growing up, I played a lot of educational games on the Apple IIe, such as Oregon Trail and Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? The games that really taught me things were fun to play too, as they learned how a particular topic matched how to think to get better at the game. The Carmen Sandiego games were particularly good at this: improving meant teaching yourself more about the locations or places in time that the thief could have fled to better distinguish the clues.
In a similar vein, Kana Quest is a sliding block puzzle game designed to teach you Japanese Hiragana and Katakana characters. It does this by being a very good puzzle game that happens to use Japanese characters as a medium for connecting the tiles. This means you don’t have to teach the characters to solve the puzzles; you eventually teach them to get better at solving the puzzles.
The goal of each puzzle level is to connect each tile together. Tiles connect when the character on them matches an adjacent tile in one of two ways: they have the same starting consonant sound or the same vowel sound. For example, the Hiragana character (sa) can connect to characters such as す (su) or せ (se), all of which begin with an “s” sound. But it can also connect to か (ka) and な (na), since they both end with an “a” sound. That also means that if you put a さ tile between す and か tiles, they would connect all three together.
This setup is nice enough, but as you progress, new mechanics are introduced to confuse how to think about each puzzle, such as tiles that cannot be moved at all, ice tiles that slide in one direction until they hit a wall, or real estate tiles. Slime tiles – the characters あ (a), い (i), う (u), え (e), and お (o) – are particularly tricky. When they are moved over another character tile, they change the vowel, so if you have a さ tile that you move a う slime tile over it will change to す.
However, it is the question mark tile that is perhaps most interesting as it adds an extra puzzle on top of the actual puzzle. These tiles cannot be moved until you guess which character it is, which you can find out by moving the other characters next to it and seeing which one it is connecting to or by looking at the tiles and determining which character you need to puzzle. A question mark tile can connect to せ, す and な, from which you can conclude that it must be さ since it connects with two ‘s’ start signs and an ‘a’ end mark.
The route Kana Quest includes all these different mechanisms so that the game doesn’t feel like you’re doing the same puzzles repeatedly in different configurations. Instead, it’s a more complex gameplay, while never losing sight of the fact that teaching Japanese is pretty special. The slime tiles in particular showed how well thought out this game is, as it could just be normal tiles. But the mechanic around them helps differentiate them and make them memorable characters and how you think about each puzzle.
Kana Quest has over 300 puzzles that can then be replayed with Katakana characters instead of Hiragana characters (or vice versa) effectively doubling the number, meaning you probably won’t actually finish this game in a weekend. Normally that would go against the purpose of these Short Play recommendations, but it is an ideal game for the quarantined world we currently live in. You can play for about 30 minutes a day and take out a few puzzles. You have spent your time doing something that is both relaxing and constructive, teaching you something useful outside of the game.
Kana Quest is made by Not Dead Design. You can handle it Steam (Windows) for $ 14.99, and it’s coming to iOS and Android later this year.