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Move Over Pokemon; Yo-Kai Watch Is Super Effective!

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With light-hearted humor and engaging gameplay, a spooky new monster-capture RPG franchise is taking over Japan.


Gotta Catch ‘Em All!

Since its creation in 1995, Pokémon’s iconic red and white Poké Balls have captured not only monsters, but also the hearts of Japanese and American children alike (along with no small number of adults). Trading cards, anime, manga, and countless video games for numerous Nintendo systems have kept the “Pocket Monsters” in the forefront of public consciousness. All manner of merchandise has been made, ranging from toys and school supplies to clothes and kitchenware.

Pokemon characters posing

Image copyright Nintendo

For two decades, Pokémon has reigned supreme as the undisputed monster capture media franchise of Japan. However, the past two years have seen a strong shift among Japanese kids.

A Wild Yo-Kai Appears!

Yo-kai Watch Movie

Image copyright Level-5

In summer of 2013, Level-5 released the first Yo-Kai Watch game for the Nintendo 3DS. Since then, it has been adapted into an anime, two manga (one aimed at boys and the other at girls), and a feature length movie. A second game was released in 2014, as well as a spin-off in 2015, and more games and movies are in the works.

While Pokémon merchandise is certainly still visible, Yo-Kai Watch now has a much stronger market presence. One can hardly walk five feet through any shopping district in Tokyo without bumping into Yo-Kai Watch merchandise of one kind or another. The characters are plastered across storefronts and signs, competing for the attention of children eager to drag their parents towards anything resembling their favorite Yo-Kai.

Even the kids in the school where I teach ESL are quick to wrinkle their noses at Pokémon and break out into the catchy Yo-Kai Watch theme song, instead.

Yo-Kai What-Now?

In Japanese, “yo-kai” is a category of supernatural monsters, sort of a cross between ghosts, minor gods, and imps.

The wonderful thing about yo-kai in Japanese mythology is that they can look like almost anything, from animals to objects or combinations of the two. This is because their origins are similarly unrestricted. Some are objects of immense age, some are humans who have transformed (usually because of an intense emotional experience), some are animal spirits, and some are simply demons or ogres.

As you can imagine, this allows the creators of Yo-Kai Watch virtually limitless monster creation options. The monsters in the game are fantastically bizarre, including a dog with the face of an old man, an umbrella with one eye and one human leg (from the classic kasa-obake), a woman with an absurdly long neck (also a classic monster), and an entire series of cats apparently merged with fruits.

Yo-kai characters posing

Image copyright Level-5

The game itself is a role-playing game superficially similar to Pokémon. The player can play as a young girl (Fumi-chan) or boy (Keita-kun). She works her way through the world, collecting as many monsters as possible to add to her team. The monsters battle each other and can evolve as they grow in level.

Yo-kai Watch 2 game

Image copyright Level-5

But where the goal in Pokémon games is simply to “catch ‘em all” and become the top trainer in the Pokémon League, in Yo-Kai Watch, the player is working through a story in which the monsters themselves play a key role. The player’s main goal is to protect the residents of Sakura New Town from mischievous or malicious Yo-Kai by besting and then befriending them.

Compared to that of Pokémon games, the gameplay is far more engaging. The battle mechanic is quite different, and the progression is more story-driven. The Poké Ball is replaced with the eponymous Yo-Kai Watch, which allows the main character to both see and summon befriended Yo-Kai using that monster’s Yo-Kai Medal. Bug-catching, fishing, and lost-object hunts make engaging mini-games, and care must be taken to avoid catching the notice of powerful monsters in “Oni Time” mode.

All-in-all, Yo-Kai Watch takes the basic framework of classic monster capture and uses it to build an experience much more complete and varied than the Pokémon games ever did.

Yo-Kai Watch, I Choose You!

While the gameplay itself is fun, what makes this franchise resonate so strongly with Japanese kids is how immensely funny the characters are. Even with my limited Japanese language skills, I can appreciate how clever the writing is, full of humorous overreactions, puns, and silly situations, all set within a comically spooky world.

Various Yo-Kai characters interacting on a sidewalk

Image copyright Level-5

The Yo-Kai themselves are not only ridiculous to look at; their names are also clever puns. The most popular character, Jibanyan, is a play on the words jibakurei (“residual haunting”) and nyan (the sound a cat makes). The aforementioned umbrella’s name, Sakasakasa, is a combination of sakasa (“upside-down”) and kasa (“umbrella”). I also enjoy Byojinbo (“careless monk”) and Daradaradanbira (“floppy broadsword”). The list goes on and on.

Combining an involved story and characters, light-hearted, childish humor, and a truly impressive marketing campaign, the fresh face of Yo-Kai Watch has almost totally usurped Pokémon in popular Japanese culture — at least as far as the kids are concerned.

Yo-Kai in the U.S.

Yo-Kai Watch 3 logo

Copyright Level-5

The franchise is scheduled to officially reach the U.S. in late 2015 with the airing of the anime on Disney XD. Yo-Kai Watch 3, to release in summer of 2016 in Japan, will feature “American-looking” Yo-Kai and is likely the same game scheduled for 2016 release overseas.

It’s hard to say whether the uniquely Japanese humor will translate well for an English-speaking audience, especially since so much of it depends on word-play. Not only that, but the visuals of Yo-Kai Watch are pretty strange. Pokémon are cross-culturally cute; I’m not sure the same can be said of Yo-Kai. I can’t wait to see what an “American-looking” Yo-Kai looks like.

To close, I’ll leave you with this unintentionally terrifying official Yo-Kai Watch dance-moves video.

…those soulless eyes…

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