Unfortunately for everyone involved, Nintendo’s latest handheld system is region-locked. Say you’re learning Japanese and you want to play some 3DS games to practice the language – unfortunately, importing a 3DS from Japan isn’t exactly cheap and chances are you already have an EU or USA-region console that you don’t want to part with.
Fortunately, not all hope is lost! There are still ways to play some games in Japanese on your system.
(I mean legitimately – if you want to learn more about hacking your device, you’ll have to look elsewhere.)
As many of you might already be aware, in the 3DS Pokemon games (that is Pokemon X/Y as well as Pokemon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire), you can pick the language you want to use before you start the game and yes, Japanese is one of these choices. Note that you can’t change your language afterwards, unless you wipe your save and start fresh, so no switching back into English mid-way. That might actually prove to be helpful, though, as it ensures you won’t wimp out, because reading Japanese is haaard.
You can also switch between hiragana-only and kanji modes in-game, so you can play even if you’re not feeling too confident in your kanji-reading abilities yet.
The Phoenix Wright Trilogy (Gyakuten Saiban 123 Naruhodo Selection)
The remastered version of one of my favorite game series of all time is available on the eShop, and it allows you to switch freely between English and Japanese text. While the localization in these games is excellent, it definitely doesn’t hurt to give playing these games in Japanese a shot.
The visual novel format of these games makes them less beginner-friendly than Pokemon, but don’t let it scare you too much – the language used in these games isn’t terribly complex, and if you already have some experience with reading Japanese under your belt, it should be a breeze. As long as you get the lawyer lingo down, anyway.
Note that the newer entries in the series (Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice) do NOT have a Japanese language option, so keep that in mind!
Bravely Default and Bravely Second
The two “Final Fantasy games in everything but name”, these games offer beautiful visuals, charming characters and an awesome soundtrack. They also come with dual audio and several different language options for the on-screen dialogue. Don’t be fooled by the cutesy visuals, though – the Japanese in these games is comparatively difficult, if only because they love to make use of somewhat outdated language to keep in with the medieval atmosphere of the world. If you’re not feeling too confident, you can always keep the English text on and just switch the audio to Japanese, though. As these games are fully voiced, that’s still better than nothing.
Ok, so we’ve established that the 3DS is region-locked. But guess what’s NOT region-locked?
That’s right – Nintendo’s previous handheld, the DS! Well, at least the Phat and Lite versions, everything from DSi onwards is locked.
To be precise, it’s Nintendo DS games that are not region-locked. That means you can get all the Japanese DS games you want* and they’ll work without a problem on an American or European 3DS. Not to mention, with the console’s huge library, you’re bound to find something you like, and used DS games are relatively cheap, even if you order them from Japan. The only downside is that the DS’s screens are even lower resolution than the 3DS, and because of that it can sometimes make more complex kanji hard to make out.
Some of my recommendations for DS titles include:
- The World Ends With You (AKA Subarashiki Kono Sekai – easily one of the best jRPGs of all time)
- Pokemon Platinum and HeartGold/SoulSilver (the text is only in kana, though, no kanji!)
- Chrono Trigger (the DS port is gr8)
- Radiant Historia (haven’t played it personally, but heard great things about it; not for beginners, though!)
- Ace Attorney Investigations 1 and 2 (AKA Gyakuten Kenji 1&2 – if you’re a fan of the Phoenix Wright games)
*While 99% of DS games will play on any 3DS, when the DS’s younger brother, the DSi was released, Nintendo came up with something called “DSi-enhanced games”. These games were made to use some of the enhanced capabilities of the DSi and they were region-locked. While imported versions of those will work fine on any DS Phat/Lite, they will NOT work on a DSi/DSi XL/3DS of another region.
While most of those DSi-enhanced games are shovelware, there are a few titles among them worth mentioning.
Notable games that will NOT work on a European/American 3DS (if imported from Japan):
- Pokemon Black/White
- Pokemon Black/White 2
- Solatorobo: Red the Hunter
- Fire Emblem: Shin Monshou no Nazo – Hikari to Kage no Eiyuu
…with Pokemon Black/White (and their sequels) being, of course, the most important of these. So, keep that in mind when importing DS games from Japan. The fifth generation of Pokemon won’t work on an European 3DS and yes, I have checked.