Skip to main content

Kana Quest is a great puzzle game that just so happens to also teach you Japanese

Kana Quest is a great puzzle game that just so happens to also teach you Japanese


A relaxing game that is also a great teaching tool

Share this story

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play, we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.

Growing up, I played a lot of educational games on the Apple IIe, like Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? The games that actually taught me things were also the ones that were fun to play, learning how a particular subject aligned with how you needed to think about getting 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 where the thief could have fled to in order to better discern the clues.

In a similar vein, Kana Quest is a sliding block puzzle game that’s designed to teach you Japanese hiragana and katakana characters. It does this by being a really good puzzle game that just so happens to use Japanese characters as the medium for connecting the tiles. This means that you don’t need to learn the characters to solve the puzzles; rather, you end up learning 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: either they have the same starting consonant sound or the same vowel sound. For instance, the hiragana character さ (sa) can connect to characters like す (su) or せ (se), which all start with an “s” sound. But it can also connect with か (ka) and な (na), as they both end with an “a” sound. That also means if you put a さ tile between す and か tiles, all three would connect.

This setup is enjoyable enough, but as you progress, new mechanics are introduced to mix up how you need to think about each puzzle, like tiles that can’t be moved at all, ice tiles that slide in a direction until they hit a wall, or immovable tiles. Slime tiles — the characters あ (a), い (i), う (u), え (e), and お (o) — are particularly tricky. When moved over another character tile, they change its vowel, so if you have a さ tile that you move a う slime tile over, it changes to す.

However, it’s the question mark tile that is maybe the most interesting, as it adds an additional puzzle on top of the actual puzzle. These tiles can’t be moved until you guess what character it is, which you can figure out by moving the other characters next to it and seeing which ones it connects with or by looking at the tiles and determining what character you need to solve the puzzle. A question mark tile might connect with せ, す, and な, from which you can conclude that since it connects to two “s” beginning characters and an “a” ending character, it should be さ.

The way Kana Quest incorporates all of these different mechanics keeps the game from feeling like you are just doing the same puzzles repeatedly in different configurations. Instead, it layers on more complex gameplay while also never losing sight of the fact that teaching Japanese is pretty special. The slime tiles, in particular, showed how well-thought-out this game really is since they could have just been normal tiles. But the mechanic around them helps to differentiate them and make them memorable characters as well as change how you think about each puzzle.

Kana Quest has over 300 puzzles that can then be played over again with katakana characters instead of hiragana characters (or vice versa), effectively doubling that number, which means you likely aren’t going to actually finish this game in a weekend. Normally, that would make it contrary to the objective of these Short Play recommendations, but it is an ideal game for the quarantined world we currently live in. You can play for 30 minutes or so a day, knocking out a few puzzles. You’ll have spent your time doing something that’s both relaxing and constructive in teaching you something that’ll be useful beyond just the game.

Kana Quest was created by Not Dead Design. You can get it on Steam (Windows) for $14.99, and it’s coming to iOS and Android later this year.