Path of a Polymath Programmer Part 4

This is a continuation in a series of posts about my life experiences which eventually led me to be a programmer. As I look at my notes for the series, I’m thinking there’s enough material for a few more posts. Wow. You might want to do a recap of the previous posts:

Console games

I was an avid gamer in my pre-teens and teenage years. I remember going to my uncle’s place because he had a Famicom (or Nintendo, I don’t know the difference). A bunch of us boys would gather together and play on the console. The “in” thing then? Street Fighter.

By nature, I’m not a competitive person. But I like watching them play. They would take turns and pit their skills against each other. I could discern 3 levels of progression.

  • Learn to execute moves on the right side of your opponent
  • Learn to use a fighter other than your favourite one
  • Learn to use the joystick instead of the controller

The first level seemed particular important. They realised quickly that if they’re unfamiliar with the right side of the screen, they’re going to be sitting ducks as the other player whittled their energy bars and basically whooped their behinds. I watched with amusement as they struggled to execute moves on the right side, moves that they had no problems executing when they’re on the left.

The problem? A change of thinking, reacting and hand-eye coordinating was required. There’s a simple experiment you can try.

  • Fold your arms across your chest
  • Note the pattern, like which arm is over which
  • Now fold your arms the other way

It might feel weird the first time you do it. And that’s why the boys were struggling. You might want to try performing tasks with your non-dominant hand. Like brushing your teeth or writing or using chopsticks. Improves and increases neuron connections. Always a good thing in programming.

The other two levels of progression had difficulties similar to the first one. Both required a change of thinking.

So what was I doing while they’re struggling? Enjoying their company. I did spar with them, but it was on and off. I pack a mean punch with Ryu and they won’t know what hit them with my Chun Li slams. Heeyah!

The console wars

I don’t know what started it, but suddenly the other neighbours (some of which were the boys) bought their own consoles too. The Sega console was the next hot item. I think it was called the Saturn or Genesis then.

Some of the boys graduated to the different console (and neighbour’s house). It’s as though there was a fight for attention or something. Since a console was very expensive, and we boys were supposed to be studying and getting good grades, our parents weren’t too fond of buying consoles and the games.

Thus having a console and cool games became like a symbol of coolness. If you had one, then we’d flock to your house to play. It didn’t matter what console it was. If you offer cool games, we’re there.

The console wars eventually dispersed the boys, and even erupted in breakups of friendships. Granted, some of the friendships were tenuous at best, but we did have good times together.

My very own console

Well, my uncle was doing quite well then, and he likes me very much. So he said he’d buy me my own Famicom console! The console wars were just dying down, and I brought a schoolmate and my next door neighbour with me to those gatherings. My friends and I were suddenly out in the cold with no one to be with. And I didn’t want to impose on my uncle all the time. I think I even proposed that I’d buy my game, and he’d let me play on his console. That was how desperate (and addicted) I was.

He bought me a brand new Famicom console, and even gave me some of his games. Awesome! So now, my friends could come to my house and we’d play together. Ahh my very own posse…

Anyway, my friends played the action and fighting games. I joined in sometimes, but I’m really just happy to be part of the gang. [ok slowly bringing the focus to more relevant topics…] I actually found role playing games more fun.

I started playing lots of role playing games. My grades weren’t really affected, so my parents let me be. The thing was, most of the role playing games (and most of the games of other genres) were created in Japan and exported to overseas countries like Singapore. So the manual was in Japanese. The in-game conversations were in Japanese. The item, weapon and people names were in Japanese.

It took me awhile, but I started getting used to looking at the meaningless scrawls of hiragana, katakana and kanji characters scrolling along the screen until an action was required. Two options? First one’s probably yes, the second one’s a no. Anything more than that? Take your pick. If I chose the wrong one, I’d shrug it off, and made sure the next time I play, I would choose a different option.

The iconographical route to learning Japanese

Then there was this time, where I was just flipping through the manual of Super Mario Brothers. The manuals had colourful pictures, and though I couldn’t understand much, the graphics were nice to look at.

Super Mario Brothers textI was looking at the title Japanese characters of Super Mario Brothers, and then I had an epiphany. I could match Japanese characters to English alphabets! I started with the Japanese character “su” and matched it to anything that had an “s” based English phonetic pronunciation. Then I moved to add in other matches. Slowly I built up a Japanese vocabulary that was based in part on curiosity and in part based on an urgent need (I needed to understand what I’m playing!)

While I was playing these Japanese role playing games, I could pick out three distinct types of characters. Those that were wiggly and curly (hiragana), those that were straight or rigid curves (katakana), and those Chinese characters (kanji). I’m Chinese, so kanji was pretty ok, but there weren’t a lot of them and my Chinese wasn’t fantastic to begin with. My newfound ability to read katakana greatly improved my ability to understand the game.

Common RPG Japanese menuWhy would being able to read katakana be so useful? Because katakana is mainly used for foreign (as in non-Japanese) words, usually English. And there were enough of words used in role playing games that had foreign origins. Like battle menus.

My friends were astounded. There was this game where you play this Japanese soccer player named Tsubasa (means wings). There were power skills each soccer player could execute, and though they were powerful and pretty to look at, no one could understand what it was.

Then one of my friends, who attended Japanese lessons, helped out with the translation. Once, he got stuck at a word. He didn’t know what it was. It was in katakana. So I did my thing, voiced out the phonetic equivalent in my head, and translated it into an English word. It was “cyclone”. He stared at me in amazement. “How did you know?” Well, I was just pronouncing it in my mind. Sa-yi-ku-ro-ng. Cyclone. Simple.

The final translation frustration

Herb in JapaneseWith my two third knowledge of the Japanese language, I was able to breeze through most of the conversation in games (role playing or not). Like “Go to such-and-such town.”, “Find such-and-such item and give it to so-and-so”. I was just picking out katakana and kanji in keywords, and acting on them, while relying on my vast memory of known hiragana phrases to fill in the blanks. After playing for a while, I could match simple hiragana phrases too. Like yakusou for herb.

Then came the day where I was truly stumped. The game was Chrono Trigger. I was stuck in this square chamber with a clock in the center. And I had no idea what to do. I struggled for hours. I went around town and spoke to every single person. I went through my entire list of items to get clues. Nothing.

I was freaking out of my mind. So I did the only sensible thing. I bought a Japanese to English dictionary. Then I pored over every single Japanese character in the game conversation text, and translated them character by character, phrase by phrase.

It was with a cry of triumph when I finally set down the dictionary. So what was I supposed to do? Hugging close to the perimeter of the square chamber, I was to run three times clockwise. I can’t tell you how happy I was when I did that, and heard a satisfying clink, signifying that the correct action had been taken.


I would say that playing console games was an important part of my life. I’m not saying it works for everyone, just that they offer something of value to learn. If you can recognise it that is. Hand-eye coordination from fighting games. Critical thinking from strategy games. Problem solving skills from role playing games.

Ok, so that was a long post, and I’ve still got some stuff I want to highlight. Well, I’ll wrap it up here and we’ll continue in another post. See you!

Continue to part 5

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