Review of Mabeop Cheonjamun () DS

By Charles Wetzel

The Game's Box

Mabeop Cheonjamun (literally translated, "Magic 1,000 Character Classic") is a Nintendo DS game designed to teach Chinese characters (hanja) to speakers of Korean. Therefore, if you can read this review, chances are that Mabeop Cheonjamun would not be something you'd want to play. However, for those of you who can read Korean and want to augment your Chinese characters, read on!

I first obtained Mabeop Cheonjamun in June, 2009, not long after it was released in Korea. I was preparing to move from Korea to Taiwan and knew that a healthy knowledge of traditional Chinese characters would help me in my new home. I saw advertisements on TV for Mabeop Cheonjamun DS and thought it looked very interesting, so I headed to Yongsan Electronics Market and bought myself a copy for the not-so-cheap price of 40,000 won.

The game claims to allow the user to practice the first 1,000 hanja (Chinese characters) taught in the Korean school system (well, at least taught to some Koreans in the Korean school system, some students learn hardly any hanja).

On the Overworld, Outside the Palace of the Dragon King
Basically, the player plays Son O-gong, a monkey that has the ability to write hanja. The player participates in various battles in which he must write, as quickly as possible, the hanja that correspond to the sounds (sori) and meanings (ddeut) on the screen. If the player fails to enter correctly several hanja, this results in having to retry the level. The player progresses from Hwagwasan Island, where he fights off wild boars with hanja and barbecues the King Wild Boar, to various other exotic locales: other islands, the Dragon Palace on the ocean floor, the Land of Darkness, and even hell itself! The goal seems to be to defeat the Daemawang (Great Devil) and his followers such as Honsemawang, but I won't reveal how the game ends.

The Hanja Yeonseupjang (Place for Practicing Hanja) which includes an extensive glossary, search feature, definitions, sounds, stroke orders, etc.

The most notable pro of the game is that it makes learning hanja fun, or at least bearable. There's no greater incentive to practice a hanja than to be battling an enemy and be forced to write the hanja on the touch screen in order to survive! The game has an extensive glossary of hanja and their meanings, allows the character to practice stroke order, reading, writing, etc. All of the hanja up to Level 4 (the first intermediate level of the official hanja test in South Korea) are contained in the quiz mode. Outside of regular game mode, the player can practice all Level 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 hanja in a generally well-designed edutainment environment. The hanja recognition is generally very good (not perfect, but very good). Therefore, I think the interaction is pretty good. The visuals are all right. At least the 2D visuals are well-drawn and fit the mood of the game (a cartoony edutainment title for children). However, they are nothing to write home about.
All the hanja up to Level 4 are available in the quiz section (remember, the official hanja levels in South Korea descend, with 8 being the worst and 1 being the best of the normal hanja tests — Level 8 covers only 50 hanja, Level 1 covers 3,500 hanja).

Now, onto the fun part, the cons. The game's biggest con is that someone just rushing to complete the game will not actually learn very many hanja. The game can teach the player all of the first 1,000 Korean literacy hanja, but only if the player is very, very diligent and uses the external quiz features outside the regular game extensively. The game itself generally only quizzes a given hanja in one level and then promptly drops it and never quizzes the player on it again. For example, if I learn the character "gyeong" for "quarrel," I will never see it again in a subsequent level. This seems to go against the theory of spaced repetition and review, things that most educators will agree are essential. Therefore, it is possible to know a hanja for the five minutes necessary to complete a level, then promptly forget it and never be reminded again in the course of normal play. Another problem stems from the fact that the game itself includes fewer than 700 of the 1,000 hanja in actual gameplay (as opposed to external quizzes), and about half of these will not be uncovered through normal play (they're end-of-round bonus hanja). If a child is determined to finish the game without learning many hanja, I think he will succeed. Another con is that the music and sound is nothing to write home about, especially the opening theme which seems rather infantile, even considering the game's target audience is elementary schoolers. The story is a bit weak as well, but that's to be expected since this is a game designed for kids, and themes of romance, death, etc. don't really belong in a game for said target audience.

The player must fend off attacks from wild boar, then barbecue the king wild boar using a character such as "hwa" ("fire") or "yeom" ("explosion"). In this scene, I am writing the character "eok" (which means the number 100,000,000).
Overall, it's good considering it's edutainment, but has some serious shortcomings, the most notable of which is the lack of in-game review, and the limited scope of in-game Chinese characters (to reach a character vocabulary of 1,000 via Mabeop Cheonjamun, a player must use the external quiz features, and cannot reach this number within the game in Story Mode). The writing quiz, where the player is expected to write groups of 50 hanja consecutively with absolutely no errors (or else have to start over) is infuriating. However, a serious student preparing for the standardized South Korean hanja test may find this product extremely useful. The external quiz programs are far better than using flash cards, have pleasing visuals and sounds compared to other more boring products, etc. Although I believe this product could have been better-executed, I played through the whole thing and think I will use it quite a bit in the coming months (through the quiz mode more than the game mode) to learn more hanja as I live in Taiwan, and to prepare for the standardized hanja test that I plan to take in Korea someday (my ultimate goal is Level 3, or the 1,800 characters needed to be fully literate, and this piece of software, if used very diligently, can get a person 55% of the way there).

I have completed the game as of today (July 3, 2009) and am pleased to say that it taught me a great deal of high-frequency hanja that I did not previously know. Even in the hanja elective class at Yonsei University Korean Language Institute, from which I graduated, we did not cover many of these high-frequency hanja.

Quick Review:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Battle System: 3/5
Interaction: 4/5
Originality: 5/5
Story: 2/5
Music & Sound: 2.5/5
Visuals: 3.5/5
Challenge: Easy for just finishing the game as quickly as possible, very hard if trying to write out 1,000 characters from memory in quiz mode
Completion Time: This varies depending on how many hanja the player knows already, how many times the player repeats the levels, etc.

Overall Score (rounded average): 3.5/5

1,226 words