What is Yo-Kai Watch? (And is it the next Pokemon?)
I recently stumbled across an old Kotaku article on Yo-Kai Watch, entirely by chance, which loudly proclaimed that the franchise could be the next Pokemon. That's a pretty bold claim considering that Pokemon has grossed over $40 billion worldwide and has remained popular for almost 20 years. I was particularly skeptical of this claim because I'd never even heard of Yo-Kai Watch. So, in the spirit of fact-checking, I decided to investigate.
Yo-Kai Watch began as a game for Nintendo 3DS, released in July of 2013. Yo-kai is a Japanese word that describes supernatural monsters or spirits. The series follows a boy named Keita who has the ability to see yo-kai, which he uses to befriend good spirits and battle evil ones. Since it's creation, the series has grown to include 3 games, an anime series, a movie and a number of manga adaptations. Whatever else can be said about it, it is certainly beloved in Japan, and it has become quite well known. (Though I had never heard of it, once I began researching I realized that I am familiar with a few of the characters.)
But, why the comparison to Pokemon?
Pokemon was a big part of my childhood. I started with Pokemon Blue, and I've remained loyal to the series up until the present day. In fact, just the other day I was fiddling around doing some Wonder Trades in Omega Sapphire. I still have a collection of the cards and I'll play with my friends from time to time. So, you could say that I'm a big fan. (And, before you ask, my favorite is Vaporeon.) Because of this, if I'm being honest, I bristle a bit at the notion of a series becoming the "new" Pokemon. Those are some big shoes to fill, both in terms of commercial success and my own personal investment.
All of that said, I can see why people draw comparisons. Both Pokemon and Yo-Kai Watch are multimedia franchises that follow a young kid who befriends and partners with small creature in order to fight bad guys and deal with issues in the adult world. This is not a trivial coincidence. And beyond this broad comparison, Yo-Kai Watch also has a number of specific similarities which have definitely contributed to it's success.
- Collectible creatures: The series appeals to the collector in all of us. Much like the desire to fill up your Pokedex, Yo-Kai Watch encourages the collection of all the yo-kai. The shapes and types of these spirits vary, from cute to terrifying, appealing to different aesthetic tastes, and making it advantageous to collect as many as possible. Some are more rare than others, some are stronger. It's hard not to see how this is similar to Pokemon.
- Young Protagonist: The child hero is appealing for a number of reasons, even for adults. For children, the appeal is obvious. It's always empowering to see yourself in the hero of a story. But even for adults, I think that the child protagonist can be a solid choice. There's something about it that's sort of freeing, or maybe nostalgic. In my experience, at least, it's just more relaxing. Games like Dragon Age, Pillars of Eternity and Catherine are all good games, but they're stressful in the same way that it's stressful to be an adult. So many responsibilities and people to take care of. Politics, crime, sickness, war. Games which utilize the child hero tend to feel more simple and straightforward. The problems always seem more manageable. There's a bad guy who won't let you into a building. Simple soution: trick him into leaving. Yay! Of course, this is based on my own opinions and experiences, but, it's undeniable that there is something appealing about. All you have to do is look at Pokemon's sales figures.
- Multimedia: It seems like this is a staple of any popular series these days, no matter the genre. Walking Dead has a tv show, graphic novels, books, video games, action figures, ect. This is no less true of Yo-Kai Watch or Pokemon. They both incorporate anime, manga, movies, games and toys.
- Protagonist Choice: You get to choose the gender of your protagonist, which is always a favorite feature of mine. Though Keita is seen as the default protagonist, within the games you are also able to play as a female protagonist, Fumika. This hearkens back to the point about relatable heroes being more appealing. The choice to play as male or female just makes it more accessible. This is also true of Pokemon.
There's really no disputing the similarities, however, I do think that there are a number of reasons why it isn't fair to either franchise to call Yo-Kai Watch the next Pokemon. There are a number of things Yo-Kai Watch does well that set it apart. First of all, it is definitively set in Japan. Rather than the general, whimisical nature of the setting in the Pokemon series, Yo-Kai Watch has a very strong setting. There are homes and schools and people living nearby, There are parks and roads. In other words, it's like a real place. Likewise, it is steeped in Japanese culture and myth. The very concept of yo-kai is Japanese. All of this makes the game seem much more real and much less general, which make the characters and story feel much stronger than they otherwise could. However, the specific and cultural nature which has served the game so well also make it difficult for the game to break out of Japan. As someone who has studied the Japanese language, I know that it's famously difficult to translate. And so much of what makes Yo-Kai Watch interesting to the Japanese will be simple lost on non-natives. Myths which are understood in Japan will have to be explained, or else the significance will simply be lost. This inherent difficulty is obvious because the series has yet to spread. One of the things that has made Pokemon so successful is its international popularity and accessibility, and I think this will be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of competitive success for Yo-Kai Watch.
However, there is some hope on the horizon. Yo-Kai Watch's developer, Level-5, has announced that they plan to release the series internationally. The manga will be released in English in September of this year by Viz Media. Localizations of the game are also in progress, and the North American release is tentatively set for 2016. This attempt to go international will be the true test of series, and I'm eager to see how it does. While I do doubt that it will ever reach the same level of popularity that Pokemon has achieved, I'll admit that I'm quite excited for a chance to play it and see for myself.