In the fall of 1998, Pokémon hit U.S. shores. The Japanese mega-hit descended on the West with a multi-pronged media approach. Eager kids and teens were bombarded with the anime TV show, Gameboy games, and an endless parade of toys and full-length films. This massive approach turned into a huge success, and Pokémon remains one of the most beloved and popular children’s franchises. Ask anyone (kid or otherwise) to identify the now iconic electric yellow mouse who’s become a staple at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and they will definitely know who he is.
Now we are poised on the precipice of an eerily similar situation. Yo-Kai Watch has been out for two years in Japan. It’s already spawned several 3DS games, a popular anime TV show, manga (Japanese comics), a feature film, and numerous toys and merchandise, including the watch.
Yo-Kai Watch just began airing on Disney XD in the U.S. several weeks ago. The first game was released on November 6 for the 3DS. If Pokémon is any indication, Yo-Kai Watch could prove an equally big hit in in the U.S., despite having its roots in Japanese folklore.
What’s a Yo-kai?
Roughly translated, yōkai means ghost or phantom, though that can also encompass any monster or supernatural creature. In Japaenese folklore, yōkai are ghostly spirits that range from mischievous and cruel to somewhat fortuitous. Like Pokémon, yōkai often come in animal or humanoid forms and vary wildly in size and shape.
Essentially these spirits are blamed whenever bad or weird things happen. Suddenly become forgetful of everything today? Check around for a Yo-kai. Feeling hungry all the time? Must be inspirited. My favorite is probably general teenage angst being blamed on a Yo-kai. Supernatural scapegoats, the lot of them.
Normally we’d just have to suffer through these episodes of misfortune. However, if you have a Yo-Kai watch, you can fight back.
In the anime, Nate is a typical 11-year-old boy (although in the games you can choose your gender). While searching the woods for some bugs (as children do) he discovers what I can only guess is a supernatural gumball machine. He plops in a quarter and receives a gift in the form of Whisper, a friendly, if demanding, chubby white ghost.
Whisper bestows Nate with a magic watch. This special device allows him to both see hidden Yo-kai and summon those that he’s befriended. Basically, Nate becomes an 11-year-old Ghostbuster.
While Pokémon takes place in various rural towns with the occasional major city, Yo-Kai Watch is centered entirely on the fictional city of Springdale (known as Sakura New Town in the original Japanese). The singular location focuses the plot on Nate and his group of school chums and Yo-kai encounters. One of the first he meets is Jibanyan, a two-tailed snarky cat that quickly becomes the franchise’s Pikachu.
Episodes are broken up into two or three mini-stories, all of which involve a Yo-kai causing trouble. Some of them are pretty silly, like Fidgephant making all the school boys need to go to the bathroom, causing chaos in the hallways. Others are impressively poignant. Hungramps just wants to see his granddaughter again, while Nate lets Telltale inspirit Katie to be honest to her mother, ultimately strengthening their relationship.
Not every Yo-kai is violent or aggressive. Nate can help them in order to earn their friendship medal. These medals are inserted into the watch to summon them during a time of need—often to battle or help other Yo-kai. Yo-Kai Watch doesn’t have a “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” aspect, and earning their friendship is mostly just a nice side effect of helping others. It’s a message and theme that I respect a lot more than Pokémon’s. And I say that as a big Pokémon fan.
While our review is still forthcoming, we have some first impressions of the game. Once you choose to play as either Nate or Katie, you recreate the familiar opening sequence from the anime where you find Whisper.
Your initial task is to stop a Yo-kai from causing your parents to fight, an all too real scenario for many kids. Whisper tasks you with finding more Yo-kai throughout the city. Searching for Yo-kai is a major part of exploring Springdale. A fun radar lets you know if you’re close and need to turn on your watch to search. Searching is best done with the stylus as you pan around the bottom screen using your supernatural watch. It’s a lot more engaging and fun than typical random encounters in role-playing games.
Combat is a huge departure from the standard turn-based Pokémon. Attacks are made in real time and you don’t actually control your Yo-kai directly. The controls effectively make use of the 3DS’s touch screen. You can fire off each Yo-kai’s “soultimate” ability by performing quick iPhone-style mini-games, such as drawing patterns or popping coins. Yo-kai gain stamina automatically throughout a battle, letting you concentrate on unleashing attacks and setting your lineup.
There are over 200 Yo-kai to find. You carry six with you in your current roster. Three Yo-kai battle at a time, and there’s some neat synergy involved with combining various classes and abilities. Yo-kai come in eight tribes, including Charming, Tough, and Eerie. Your group sits on a wheel that can be switched around, letting you mix and match which three are currently engaged in combat and which ones need healing. It’s a neat system that keeps combat fast-paced and engaging.
The town feels alive and interesting with plenty of people to talk to and random Yo-kai to find. There are also some fun little mini-games like fishing and bug hunting, all of which use the touch screen. I particularly enjoy the more open-ended approach to exploration, though farther areas of the city are blocked off until you get further into the story.
It doesn’t take a market analyst to predict Yo-Kai Watch’s inevitable success in the West. I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen of Yo-Kai Watch’s gameplay, story, and themes. This year is the first without a main Pokémon title since 2011. While I don’t think Pokémon is going anywhere any time soon, only time will tell if the U.S. can handle two major collect-a-thon handheld Japanese RPGs.