On August 3, 2014, a shopping mall in Fukuoka, Japan, booked simultaneous meet-and-greet appearances by two video game mascots. Pikachu, one of the medium’s most instantly recognisable icons, drew a small crowd. There was enough space for shoppers to easily walk up to and touch or hug the Pokémon favourite, with several parents cajoling their reluctant offspring into photo opportunities. Elsewhere in the mall, a huge, snaking queue of customers, young and old, clutched the tickets they’d been allocated as they waited patiently for their chance to see Jibanyan, the two-tailed cat from Yo-Kai Watch.
It was a moment that perhaps says as much about the fickle nature of fame as anything else, but it speaks volumes about the phenomenal success of Yo-Kai Watch, which is finally reaching European shores the better part of three years since its Japanese launch in July 2013. The Level-5-developed game will be available on 3DS at the end of this week, by which time the tie-in anime series will already have debuted on Cartoon Network in the UK and Italy.
This is merely the continuation of an ambitious global plan: the game was released in the US last November, and will come to Netflix in North America this month, with repeats continuing on Disney XD. French kids’ TV channel BOING will also screen the anime in April, while its international arm is set to bring it to Spain and Africa in May, the same month that it will cross to Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands courtesy of Nickelodeon. By summer, it will have reached Nordic regions, Portugal, Turkey, Poland and Israel, with Russia and Ukraine to follow. Before the end of the year, it will have reached more than 100 territories worldwide.
Its success isn’t entirely surprising, since it was designed with a view to appealing to a large audience over a long time. It was conceived by Level-5’s president Akihiro Hino, the lead designer, scenario writer and producer on the Professor Layton games, who was also heavily involved in the inception of Inazuma Eleven and Ni No Kuni, among others. Inspired by the popular and long-running anime Doraemon, which ran for over 25 years in Japan, Hino set out to create a similar franchise to appeal to a contemporary audience. After extensive research, he came up with the concept of Yo-Kai Watch.
Yo-Kai Watch is one part Inazuma Eleven to two or three parts Pokémon. You play as a young boy or girl (the player gets to name the protagonist) who stumbles upon a disused gachapon machine near a giant tree within their home town. After twisting the crank, you release Whisper, a friendly Yo-Kai who describes himself as a butler. In return for freeing him, Whisper gives you the eponymous Yo-Kai Watch device, which lets you see the invisible monsters hidden within the world using a special radar. Once you’ve picked up a signal, you can examine areas and use a special lens to highlight the spirits hiding within. Keep your reticle on them long enough and they’ll reveal themselves.
Some Yo-Kai are good, and some are bad – or at least mischievous, causing problems for the local residents that you’re invited to solve. You’ll befriend some Yo-Kai and battle the rest.
Sometimes you’ll fight them and then they’ll ask to join your team; often it helps to throw them foodstuffs they like during combat to let them know it’s worth their while to be on your side. Each one you recruit will give you a medal that slots into your watch and lets you summon them to use in battle. You can have six Yo-Kai in your team at any time, while the rest are held in a Medallium. Using the Eyepo Yo-Kai at the game’s Everymart stores or within certain dungeons, you can restore your team’s health and the Soul gauges which power their special attacks, or swap your current Yo-Kai out for others you’ve enlisted.
Using a team of six monsters to battle others in the wild sounds an awful lot like Pokémon, and the collectible element naturally draws further comparisons with Game Freak’s evergreen series. Yet Yo-Kai Watch’s battle system is very different. For starters, you have a frontline and a backline, with three Yo-Kai in place at once; using a dial on the touchscreen, you can rotate them in or out of action at any time.
They’ll attack automatically, though you have four options to choose from to assist them. Use the Target option and you can tag enemies with a pin, an invitation for all three of your current Yo-Kai to focus their attention on an individual opponent. Items allow you to heal, buff or even feed a rival Yo-Kai if you’re hoping to add them to your team, with a cooldown timer between each use. Soultimate attacks are reliant on your Yo-Kais’ soul meters, letting you unleash powerful attacks or flurries that target multiple foes. The Purify option, meanwhile, is used to resolve status effects: Yo-Kai can possess (or ‘inspirit’, in the game’s terminology) team members, reducing their effectiveness. As with launching Soultimate moves, you’ll need to complete a brief touch-based minigame to resolve the problem.
Though you’ll be compelled to catch as many Yo-Kai as you can, unlike Pokémon there’s no single overarching goal: you’re not trying to become a champion trainer or anything like that. The story is instead split into discrete chapters, each with a specific goal or two to achieve, and a series of optional side quests to complete. The 3DS’s internal clock is used for the aforementioned capsule machine, or Crank-a-Kai, which holds rare Yo-Kai and special items. You can use it up to three times per day before it disappears until 6am the following morning. It’s powered by coloured tokens you’ll find on your travels, or by spending Play Coins (though at ten per go, it’s not cheap). Other Yo-Kai can be obtained via StreetPass: they’ll be found wandering around the local haunted mansion, and will either give you a gift or fight you.
Each Yo-Kai belongs to one of eight different tribes. Brave types are strong attackers, while Mysterious Yo-Kai rely on special techniques; Tough critters have high defence, while Charming Yo-Kai benefit from high speed and that all-important cute factor. Then you’ve got Heartful healers, Shady status changers, Eerie possessors and the evasive Slippery tribe. You’ll get a Unity bonus for placing two Yo-Kai of the same tribe adjacent to one another in your battle squad, adding an extra tactical element to combat. Some Yo-Kai are capable of evolving once they reach a certain level, while others can be fused together to form brand new kinds.
Here are some of the Yo-Kai you’ll meet in the early hours of the game.
This ghostly ally is your guide to the world of the Yo-Kai. He’s the one who gives you the titular watch, and is a constant companion.
A well-spoken insect, who is the first Yo-Kai you’ll recruit at Whisper’s behest. He has the Modest trait, which means he’s less likely to be targeted in battle, though his Cicada Cut move proves he shouldn’t be underestimated.
You’ll encounter this lazy Yo-Kai near the local river, though you’ll need to feed him three carp before he’ll consider helping you out. Though he’ll loaf around frequently during combat, in doing so he’ll keep his HP up, long enough for him to unleash a devastating waterfall upon rival Yo-Kai.
Yo-Kai Watch’s Pikachu equivalent, basically. The spirit of a cat who died after being hit by a truck, he’s found at an intersection trying to get his revenge on every articulated vehicle that passes through. His Paws of Fury attack sees him launch a flurry of blows, capable of taking out multiple Yo-Kai.
His Vampiric skill allows him to absorb enemies’ HP with his basic attacks, while his Soultimate move sees him spread Negativity Germs that can lower defences.
The game’s first boss. She’s found in your family home, and is responsible for causing your parents to argue – albeit only as a result of her having fallen out with her own husband, the cheerful Happierre.
A kind of tapir with shark-like teeth, Baku is friendlier than she looks. She eats human dreams and relieves tiredness, letting you sneak out of the house at night by assuming your appearance in bed.
A wandering lion-dog who got bored of guarding a shrine and left to find a new home. His Spirit Dance special uses fiery wisps to attack enemies. Rivals Jibanyan as the most popular Yo-Kai in Japan.
Yo-Kai Watch made a reasonable start on its release in July 2013, debuting just behind Pikmin 3 in the Japanese sales chart during launch week. But the game was designed to have a long tail, Level-5 won’t have been too concerned with its hardly spectacular performance. Once the anime series aired in January 2014, its popularity began to spike. It certainly did no harm that Level-5 was poised to capitalise with a quick-fire sequel, timed to hit shelves around the summer holidays in July of the same year.
Like the Pokémon games, Yo-Kai Watch 2 came in two different varieties: Ganso and Honke, each with a selection of exclusive Yo-Kai. The response was astonishing: while the first game had managed to shift 53,000 units in its first week of sale, the two versions combined saw Yo-Kai Watch hit 1.3 million sales within four days. By the end of the month, it had shipped more than two million copies. With sales beginning to slow by Christmas, Level-5 released a third variant: Shinuchi, which reached 2.6 million units sold within six months.
For a time, Yo-Kai Watch seemed to be usurping Pokémon as the nation’s favourite. Jibanyan being preferred to Pikachu at that Fukuoka mall was merely a symbol of that success. Stores would surreptitiously position poor-selling Pokémon merchandise among Yo-Kai goods, no doubt hoping to fool unsuspecting parents.
Yo-Kai Watch toys were selling out faster than stores could restock; naturally, the watch itself was the biggest draw, with the most popular model playing sound effects as Yo-Kai medals were inserted. Its recommended retail price was around 3,456 yen, roughly £21 at the current exchange rate. As it quickly became *the* must-have toy, supply was unable to keep pace with demand, and Amazon sellers sensed a hefty profit, with some watches exchanging hands for 30,000 yen, more than eight times the original cost. A barrage of one-star reviews followed, with angry parents accusing Amazon of ripping them off. By August, enterprising Japanese kids were making their own watches, slotting in hand-drawn paper medals.
In March 2015, Level-5 announced that sales of the games alone had totalled more than seven million.
By December, that figure had reached 10 million, partly thanks to another pair of games. Beat-‘em-up spin-off Yo-Kai Watch Busters split its roster in two, with the Red Cat Team headed up by Jibanyan and the White Dog Corps under Komasan’s leadership. And then came an unlikely collaboration in the form of a special Yo-Kai Watch edition of Just Dance for Wii U. Yo-Kai Watch 3 is set to hit Japan this summer. On the country’s Kids' Station channel, the anime takes up half of the daily schedule. In short, it’s not about to go away any time soon.
The Big Question
So is it the new Pokémon? The short answer: probably not. Level-5 and Nintendo, which is being tasked with pushing the series in the west, are both keen to stress that it’s not really being positioned as such; indeed, it wouldn’t make much sense on the latter’s part to cannibalise the success of one of its own biggest hits.
But what might prevent Yo-Kai Watch from being a global hit like Pokémon is its innately Japanese nature. It is a franchise that is deeply steeped in both the nation’s history and its contemporary culture. ‘Yōkai’ is a common term for supernatural creatures in Japan, and the Yo-Kai in the show are often folkloric in origin; based on tales that are immediately familiar to Japanese youngsters, but which won’t mean a great deal to their western counterparts. Interestingly, the western marketing seems to be trying to distance itself from defining exactly what they are, insisting that they’re neither monsters nor ghosts. It seems a vain effort in the context of the series’ narrative, which quickly establishes backstories for these characters that would contradict that assertion.
That isn’t to say, of course, that such crossovers can’t resonate overseas. Animal Crossing, for example, has several characters based on traditional Japanese folk monsters: Tom Nook is obviously the tanuki, while Kapp’n is the turtle-like kappa, and Redd is a kitsune. To an extent, these have passed into the wider cultural lexicon; likewise, the idea of oni, large demons which pursue the player during nightmarish ‘terror time’ sequences. It’s a universal fear – we’ve all had bad dreams of being chased by monsters, after all – though the designs are very Japanese.
But moment-to-moment, the game is so attuned to the rhythms and icons of Japanese existence that it’s a world many western players will struggle to recognise. This is, in part, a result of Yo-Kai Watch being originally conceived with the Japanese market firmly in mind. Though Level-5 registered a trademark to bring it overseas as early as January 2014, it was only after the huge success of the second game that it was strongly considered for a western release.
That it’s taken its time to reach us demonstrates that a lot of time and consideration has been put into the localisation, and how to make it work for a global audience. But the lukewarm early response to both game and anime in the US suggests its target market might not be able to identify with it in the way its creators would like.
Still, it seems Level-5 is playing the long game. In the US, Disney XD regularly fills its schedules with Yo-Kai Watch marathons, and trails the show heavily whenever it’s not on. Yo-Kai Watch 3, due to reach Japanese players this summer, will be set in the USA. And one of the most popular new Yo-Kai is named USApyon, a spacesuit-wearing rabbit creature who can assume a darker form, known as Vader mode. Any series prepared to invoke Star Wars villains is clearly aiming to be more than a niche concern. If Yo-Kai Watch ends up as a flash in the pan outside its country of origin, it’s certainly not for a lack of effort – nor investment.