You gotta love the concept behind the new educational videogame Slime Forest. This guy figured out that drill is the way to internalize language and reading characters… and that videogames are basically really fast drill.
The downside is that the full game isn’t free. You can become a member for $2 a month, or get a permanent membership for $30. But playing a videogame for a month could get you pretty far along the way to learning how to read kana and kanji.
UPDATE: The demo is free, and there is plenty to play. You start learning katakana right off. To fight the slimes, you type in the pronunciation/Roman alphabet transliteration of the katakana character shown to you. If you don’t know it (which you won’t if you’re new to Japanese, or not up on your katakana), red letters appear which spell it out. You type in what’s shown to you, and the game counts it as having hit the slime.
The game encourages you to type in each pronunciation as quickly as possible, and repeats more often the characters you don’t answer accurately, or quickly enough. If you show that you recognize a character right off, it repeats less often. If you do well enough, new characters are introduced. This works similarly to flashcards, but is much more fun and natural.
Fighting the slimes wins you gold, which you can use to buy useful objects to use in the game. Once you have learned many of the characters and bought objects, you can attempt to enter the cave where the slimes store their gold and the princess they’ve captured. More advanced questions ensue. If you don’t know the material well enough to get through the cave’s levels, you retreat and go fight more slimes in the forest. :)