Review: My Chinese Coach (Nintendo DS)
by Alex Lucard on September 1, 2008

Review: My Chinese Coach (NDS)
Developer: Sensory Sweep
Publisher: Ubisoft
Genre: Educational
Release Date: 08/27/2008


Okay, two rambling stories. First, in the beginning of 2007 my friend Dan wanted to go to China and thus wanted to take a Chinese class so that he could know some basic words as both a sign of respect to the natives and also to help him if he got lost. He didn’t want to take it alone, so he asked me and I said yes. We spent the next few months in an introduction to Mandarin class that ran once a week for three hours. It was a lot of fun and I would have loved to take a follow up but I moved shortly thereafter.

Story #2. While attending a Pokemon event at Toys R Us, I spied a copy of My French Coach for $15 bucks. I speak French pretty well but I am a believer in constantly practicing my language skills to ensure I don’t forget anything and decided to buy it so I had something other then Pokemon games for my DS. Well, it turned out to be one of the best purchases I’d ever made. I absolutely adored the game and how it taught you to write and speak francais. It still remains one of the best games I’ve ever played on the DS.

So with My Chinese Coach, you can see how the two stories go together. Mandarin however, is a very different language from French and due to the five tones and the completely different way of writing, I was curious how the game would be able to teach this added element in addition to everything else.

So how was the game? Is it worth your thirty bones, or would your money be better spent saving up for a Rosetta Stone set of cd’s.

That’s the language tutor, not the awesome band.

Let’s Review

1. Modes

Wow, there are a lot of modes in this game. You start off with 29 lessons that you have to play through in order. I know it sounds extremely linear, but it’s standard fare with learning any language. You can test out of some of these lessons by playing an opening quiz that acts like an AP test. Depending on how you do, you’ll get through a few lessons. I, for example, got to start with lesson seven, which made me really happy considering I haven’t touched Mandarin in a long time.

Within each lesson you are given a set of vocabulary words in English and then the pinyin (English characters), Chinese character(s) and the pronunciation of the word. You’ll want to spend a lot of time in this area as it’s the only real time you’ll ever see the Romanized versions of your vocabulary words. In all the tests and games, you’ll be only looking at, drawing, and identifying the Chinese characters rather then focusing on pronunciation. I feel this is the one big flaw of the games, as the most important aspect of Mandarin is the five tones and getting them right when you speak a syllable. Otherwise instead of saying “Mama,” you’ll be saying, “Horse.” For me, I’ll speak Chinese far more then I will read it, but that’s my own personal quibble, and as we’ll see below, there are games that accommodate my preference, which makes me a happy lad.

In order to unlock the next lesson, raise your overall rank, and even unlock new modes of play, you have to master the vocabulary words in your current lesson. You do that by earning mastery points for each word, and you earn points by playing games. Let’s take a look at those games now:

1. Multiple Choice. Here you are given an English word, and you have to identify the write word in Chinese characters. You’ll have ten words and your time limit depends on the difficulty setting,

2. Hit a Word. This is whack a mole. Like Multiple Choice, you are given a word in English and you have a certain amount of time to hit each mole next to the correct Chinese character translation of the word. Fun and frantic.

3. Word Search. This is for pinyin fans. Basically you’ll be given a list of English words and you’ll have to find the pinyin version in the jumble. This might be tricky at first as there the five tones and you have to make sure you’re drawing a line through the properly toned version of the word.

4. Flash Cards. Here your top screen gives you a word in Mandarin, and you have to pick which of the four flash cards in the bottom screen is the proper English translation. Basically an inverted multiple choice.

5. Memory. You have one set of red cards and one set of blue cards. You can flip over one of each at a time and you are trying to make pairs based on matching the Chinese and English versions of a word.

6. Bridge Builder. This is a fun little game that teaches you to make proper sentences. Again, this uses pinyin, so it helps with pronunciation where a lot of the other games focus on reading. It’s a nice little mix.

7. Spelltastic. Hear the word pronounced and spell it in pinyin hangman style.

8. Fill In The Blank. Here you are given part of a word or phrase and you have to type in the rest of it.

9. Write Cards. You are given a word in pinyin and you have to draw the Chinese character. Be careful as you have to draw it int he same order and with the same directional motions as the computer.

10. Fading Characters. This is an easier version of Write cards as you draw the character along with the computer 1-3 times and then you have to draw it on your own. I love this mode as my calligraphy is awful and this really helps.

11. Scrolls. This is a game where you are given a sentence and you’ll have to draw out the Chinese character for the highlighted word.

12. Tones. This is my favorite game of all, and it’s also the first ever one you play in the game. This game teaches you all three versions of a word: How it sounds, how it looks in pinyin, and how it looks in Chinese characters. You listen to the word then look at the pinyin and figure out which syllable is missing its tonal accent. Then you pick from the four options (Yes, there are five tones but you will only ever have four of the options. It’s…complicated. The game will explain better then I can).

That’s not all. There are a total of 1,000 lesson to unlock, each with ten vocab words for a total of 10,000 words. There is also a reference guide, a dictionary, a sketchpad to practice drawing characters, a Player status screen, a phrase book, and the ability to learn any lesson or play any game whenever you want, and shift it so it works on either words you have yet to master, or all words you have cleared so far. NICE!

Considering my modes section is two and a half pages long and it balances pinyin, intonation, and character recognition quite nicely, I have to give this the highest possible rating right here.

Modes Rating: Unparalleled

2. Graphics

For a video game of this nature, graphics aren’t that important. That being said the Chinese characters are crisp and easy to look at. They are quite precise and it’s a lot of fun to trace and/or follow along with the computer in writing them as it’s a great way to learn. Most people have their own unique handwriting, but with MCC< you're getting a standardized electronic form, ensuring it's understandable by everyone.

Your virtual Chinese teacher Chun Li Mei Li is a great character model and she’s very well done. Her movements, gestures and actions are fluid and lifelike and it’s cute to see a little bit of impatience on her part show when you are dawdling. Compared to My French Coach‘s static artwork that only moved in various situations ala an old school JRPG, the development team has really done a huge upgrade on the graphics and it is instantly noticeable.

I couldn’t imagine better visuals for this game. Is it the best looking game on the DS? No, of course not. Is it the best looking language program I’ve seen for learning Chinese ever? Yes it is, and in this situation, that is all that matters.

Graphics Rating: Unparalleled

3. Sound

Sound is exceptionally important to a game of this nature, because as with every language, you need to learn to speak and hear words before you can write them or use them in a proper context. I’m happy to say that the sound aspects of this game are perfect. Instead of using a computerized voice, each word has been recorded by a native Chinese speaker who stresses the tones that are spoken with each syllable. For extra practice, you can go into “Hear” mode and you can listen to the word being spoken as well as see an audio wave showing the inflection and accentuation of the word. To make it even better, you can record and store your own pronunciation for each word (!) in the game and you can then listen via playback. Neatest of all the options here is you can play both the instructor and your voice at the same time so that you can listen to the minute (and distinct) differences between the two, enabling you to work on your weak areas.

This alone is awesome, and it’s the best way to learn words in the game, mainly because you’re focusing on the English – Chinese pronunciation instead of memorizing the Chinese pronunciation to the Chinese character with little to no focus on what the word means in English., as one does in most of the games.

The depth and accuracy of this audio management alone makes My Chinese Coach worth a purchase.

Sound Rating: Unparalleled

4. Control and Gameplay

The game is easy enough to play, but navigating through the menus and system can be a bit wonky. With each lesson, you simply click a button or tap “forward” on the touch pad with your stylus to advance to the next page of the screen. With each lesson you’ll get approximately ten words (sometimes more, sometimes less) for this lesson and you’ll be able to spend as much time as you want looking at the English word and alternating the pinyin and Chinese characters. Then you’ll move on to two games and then the lesson is “done.” However you can’t move onto the next lesson without getting enough points, so you’ll be playing games that focus primarily on English word to Chinese characters (with no focus on pronunciation or pinyin to Chinese characters (with no focus on the English word). This means you’ll have to hit back a lot outside of the game to remember what the full three-way translations are. Hit back too much though and it boots you out of the lesson.

I would have loved for an option just to view the words I haven’t mastered in a lesson so I could especially work on them, but that’s not an option. To do that, you have to go into Learning mode, click on the lesson and then scroll through the lesson’s pages until you find the words you want and then click on them repeatedly to shuffle between the translations. It’s a little annoying, especially if you’re taking this seriously as a way to learn words.
Gameplay-wise I would have really loved a strong focus on pronunciation and English to pinyin, as that’s the most helpful to newcomers to Chinese and also casual gamers. Memorizing the Characters without working on translation is ultimately useless. Still, the game does provide you a lot of quality ways to learn these words the way you should – it’s just a roundabout method.

The controls are solid and well done, I just feel the game could have been organized better and that the focus should have been being able to translate verbally rather then writing.

Control and Gameplay: Good

5. Replayability

I’ll get to the point here: 10K words. 1,000 lessons. A ton of games that will help you learn Mandarin in a simple and fun manner. Infinite Replayability here as long as you actually want to learn some basics of Mandarin. If you’re not really into learning though, well, I’m wondering why you’re reading this review in the first place.

Replayability Rating: Unparalleled

6. Balance

My Chinese Coach is about as balanced as a learning program CAN be. The games all have a sliding difficulty and obvious the writing Chinese characters from memory is the hardest one simply because it’s not multiple choice like the majority of the other games. Still, when learning a language requires you to focus on memorization and repetition, MCC is great because it has that in spades.

There are so many different options and ways to learn the words of each lesson, that you’ll be able to find the way that works best for you pretty quickly and be able to home in on it.

Obviously it’s harder to get the language down with MCC then with the French and Spanish predecessors of this game, but that’s because you have to learn two new things instead of one, making it a bit harder for you. I’m sure My Japanese Coach which comes out in October will have the same drawback. Still, Sensory Sweep made the best product they could with this extra degree needed for learning the language.

As I have said repeatedly, I disagree with the focus the game puts on the characters over pinyin, but the game takes things slowly and makes sure you have a good grasp of one set of words before allowing you another. That’s a nice way to ensure one learns the rudimentary bits of a language.

My only real concern comes with the drawing characters games. At first I thought the game was being anal and not counting my drawings because I was going up to down instead of down to up with my strokes. With repeated practice I discovered it was something else entirely . The truth is the game isn’t actually judging the quality of your characters or the way you write – it’s simply counting the number of strokes. I once drew a Pikachu face instead of the first syllable in the word, “numbers” and it gave me a correct symbol. WTF? So I would 100% suggests ticking to “Fading Characters” instead of “Write Cards” to ensure you’re doing the characters properly.

Balance Rating: Above Average

7. Originality

The core engine is exactly the same as the other “My Coach” games. You progress the same way, you earn Mastery Points the same way. You do everything the same way. The only difference with My Chinese Coach is that you’re learning a different language and the game has more mini-games to learn from and better graphics.

At the same time, this IS the only Chinese teaching game for the DS, and in the history of portable gaming. It’s very well done and a lot of fun.

I find I use my DS far more for things like this, Pokemon and My French Coach then I do playing any other games for the system. I’m really loving how the DS has opened up a focus on games that make you smarter and how so many casual (and even long time) gamers are picking it up just for that. My Chinese Coach is a wonderful breath of fresh air and it’s not something I thought I’d ever see, even after My French Coach. The fact they made a game about learning Chinese possibly, even with all the intricacies that surround the language, well I am shocked and happy by the result.

Originality Rating: Great

8. Addictiveness

The game suggests you can learn Chinese 15 minutes a day, which equates to one lesson a day. In that case, you’ll be through the core 29 lessons in a month. That sounds about right, because most people will probably burn themselves out if they try to do a lot of lessons each day or treat progressing through MCC like one would a RPG. As long as you do a little each day, you’ll be picking up new words at a decent pace. I went through the game a little quicker then I would have otherwise, for the sake of reviewing, and because of that there were times when my head was swimming with new words and characters and the tones for each and it got to be a headache.

The thing is, My Chinese Coach is a game you have to run at your own learning pace. There’s no reward or super cool cut scene ending. It’s simply you trying to learn a new language. Treat it like school 15 minutes to half an hour a day and you’ll be fine.

In all, you’ve got a handy little portable language tutor, and for those who really want to learn Mandarin but don’t want to shell out bucks for a tutor or continuing education classes, this is the way to do it. I’ll be coming back every day to learn a little more. I’ve always wanted to get better at my Mandarin, and now I have no excuses.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor

This is tricky. How many people will actually drop $29.99 for a language tutor instead of shooting up aliens, jumping on flying turtles or collecting Pokémon? This is probably for older gamers or those in the Brain Age set. This title is definitely aimed for the more casual gamer or those who use their DS for slower paced, more intellectual activities.

I’m sure some parents will buy this for their hyperactivity ten year old in a moment of proactive positive parenting, but I remember being that age, and I can’t really say I used learning based games over say Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade game.

For $30, this really should appeal to anyone who has ever wanted to TRY and learn Chinese. For everyone else, it’d be a waste of money.

Appeal Factor: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

For thirty dollars, this is a pretty good deal. Is the game exactly how I would have set it up? No, but that’s because I started learning Chinese in a different fashion and so that’s what I’m comfortable with. There is a ton of quality content packed into this game and it’s a great way to start learning a new language without falling asleep in class.

There are some progression issues, some stylistic issues, and it doesn’t really teach to my learning strengths, but it’s still a huge upgrade from My French Coach and it’s something I’ll not only be using regularly here, but that I’ll take with me to China whenever I go.

Miscellaneous: Great

The Scores
Story: Unparalleled
Graphics: Unparalleled
Sound: Unparalleled
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Great
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Great
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

My Chinese Coach has a few small niggling flaws, but it’s not only the best Chinese language tutor I’ve come across (be it PC , console, or handheld), but it’s one of the best releases for the DS this year. With excellent uniform characters, great ways to improve your pronunciation and intonation, and an amazing amount of replay value, this game is perfect for anyone who has ever been remotely interested in learning Mandarin.



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Alex Lucard

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