Featured Artwork is art by @PiplupGoku on Twitter.
Some critics have claimed that YO-KAI WATCH cannot succeed outside of Japan. Their reasoning? That its abundant references to Japanese culture will confuse Western audiences. While it is true that the Yo-kai originate from Japan’s youkai mythology, that is not necessarily something that will dissuade consumers from giving it a try.
I can understand the mindset behind this idea. Naturally, if the characters are based on culture elements not native to an outside audience, one might anticipate difficulty for YO-KAI WATCH to gain universal attention. But I do not think that is the case, based on my research on social media.
I looked at SEVERAL opinions about the franchise across the current popular social media platforms, as I think it is the best to hear from the grass roots members. Whenever YO-KAI WATCH is mentioned, in a negative or positive light, I rarely see anyone bring up its Japanese culture. When the opinion is negative, it is usually criticism of the battle system or concerns about the concept being too derivative of genre mainstays such as Pokémon.
So, why is Japanese culture barely mentioned?
To start with, younger children generally care the LEAST about where the Yo-kai designs originate from with the lack of outside, cultural knowledge. And in the case of teens and young adults, they will judge more-so on how the designs look over all. In general, the origins of the designs will be simply glossed over by most people. This is because Pokémon are widely praised for their simplicity in design and a similar aesthetic would be pleasing to long time fans of that franchise.
This is very much true of YO-KAI WATCH‘s Yo-kai designs. Most generally have the same simplistic design as Pokémon, which can appeal to a universal audience. Although, the difference is that Yo-kai take a more quirky approach with their designs. They may seem odd to some people, but they were designed this way for good reason, which we will get into later.
Does YO-KAI WATCH have the potential to garner universal success? I truly believe so, but what is keeping that success from blossoming outside of Japan? Part of it comes from the moderately large portion of preexisting Pokémon fans that feel bringing down YO-KAI WATCH is a valid way of honoring their long standing love for a pioneer in this genre. Even when Nintendo themselves help Pokémon and YO-KAI WATCH coexist, working toward their successes, some fans feel aggressively opposed to the idea of other monster collecting game becoming a huge hit.
There has been a lengthy history of fans reacting unfavorably towards “Pokémon ripoffs” since Digimon, and this sentiment is still present today. Because it is the norm within the fandom to feel that way, it is very easy for Pokémon fans and even the media to influence a large number of people into ignoring YO-KAI WATCH without much earnest thought.
When fans do give YO-KAI WATCH an actual look, they tend to criticize hard with the same mindset. They will try to look for anything that has ideas similar to Pokémon so that they can use those as their criticism, ignoring everything else original and charming that the game and it’s concepts, ideas, and entertainment value have to offer players.
They will also seek for things missing in YO-KAI WATCH that the believe have made Pokémon a huge hit. They will say “There is no competitive community!”, “This game is not an epic adventure like Pokémon!“, or “Where is the trading card game for YW?” to dismiss the franchise as less robust. They will ask, “Why should I bother playing YO-KAI WATCH if it does not have these things that made Pokémon great?”
The problem with those statements, is that YO-KAI WATCH is not successful for any of those reasons (It should be noted that Yo-kai Watch game series and fandom is much farther along in it’s growth in Japan, and does host a competitive community and TCG). While I understand the need to compare these two franchises, what should be realized is that YO-KAI WATCH does not aim to be like Pokémon, it aims to be different and mergeing of the old and new. The truth of the matter is that there are different reasons why YO-KAI WATCH is very successful in Japan. Be aware, that I will be comparing Pokémon a bit as I share these reasons:
1. The relatable premise of YO-KAI WATCH
The Yo-kai designs I mentioned earlier connect with YO-KAI WATCH‘s core premise, invisible beings causing common and relatable problems for people. Have you ever had a case where you just forgot something out of the blue, or you lost internet connection on your cell phone, or were in a situation where you needed to hold a fart?
In YO-KAI WATCH, the franchise addresses that Yo-kai cause these phenomenons. Yo-kai are essentially to blame for these unexpected events and annoyances. Ask and think about it yourself while reading these next questions. Is a ghost causing these events? Are all of my cases of bad luck a result to spirits? Did something supernatural cause my cold to happen?
It is a relatable concept naturally wondered by people and especially today’s kids that makes YO-KAI WATCH universally appealing. We have seen similar concepts of ghosts being used in other media like Ghostbusters and Goosebumps, and both had their fair share of huge success with colorful characters and weird ideas. YO-KAI WATCH does that similarly, but in its own unique way that hits closer to real life than any other big-time media franchise.
2. The YO-KAI WATCH anime
A large part of the success comes from the anime, which made the first YO-KAI WATCH game sell over 1 million copies in Japan and even more for YO-KAI WATCH 2. The question is, what made the anime particularly stand-out?
In each episode, Nathan Adams (the main protagonist) encounters various Yo-kai that cause problems for people living in Springdale. Nate solves these troubles by negotiating with them using his Yo-kai. That is a quick summary of the show, the anime is more of a slice of life comedy than an action adventure like Pokémon. It might seem like a concept that could get repetitive over time, but each episode Nate is involved in are unique and very interesting situations.
YO-KAI WATCH utilizes the core premise to create many hilarious, yet relatable moments and charming characters that makes it a treat for kids AND adults. In addition, there are also side stories with other Yo-kai that help keep the anime engaging. The most popular side stories are the ones that involve Komasan, who is one of the most adored Yo-kai in the anime. I was skeptical before deciding to watch the anime myself, but now, I have been hooked to its unique experience and have watched over 100 episodes.
3. The songs.
This might not be as well known in America, but there are a number of songs produced for the anime that are extremely catchy and popular in Japan. The most well-known song is the YO-KAI Exercise, which most of Japan knows about. The YouTube music video of the YO-KAI Exercise has over 100,000,000 views.
There are also other popular songs such as the opening of Gera Gera Po, Uchu Dance, and Dan Dan Zombie Zubah that Japan loves as well. These songs are sung and danced to in MANY concerts and activities because of their catchy sound and fun dance moves. These songs were so good, that it was enough to warrant the creature of the franchise’s own Just Dance game.
There are also English versions of a few of these songs, which you can find here. Gera Gera Po and the Yo-kai Exercise in particular have garnered over 2 million views in each official music video since published.
4. The YO-KAI WATCH toys
This one may seem a bit obvious for some, and it requires understanding of the franchise to see why this is a reason. Sure, you could say that when a franchise is so popular it’s bound to sell toys easily. But the Yo-kai Watch watch toy and medals are particularly special.
The watch toy does a fantastic job of imitating the watch from the show. When kids hold the watch in their hand, they feel more introspective and connected to the story. They are able to imagine their own experiences and be fully immersed rather than merely imagining the scenarios using basic toy figures kids usually play with. To put it more simply, it is like a kid playing with a toy lightsaber; They get to feel more like a real Jedi when holding the lightsaber toy rather than just having a collection of character figures to imagine scenarios with.
Not only that, the medals in particular play a huge role in this same immersive play. Each medal is meant to “summon” a Yo-kai friend. They are basically a child’s contact with the Yo-kai they want to feel they have befriended and can summon. Being that these medals are meant to be tokens of friendship, it makes the toy medals feel more sentimental.
Each Yo-kai medal is different, having their own personality, character design, medal design, jingle sound, and unique voice which plays when a child inserts a medal into the watch toy. This makes them more than just trading cards. The medals interact with the watch as in the games and anime, adding more meaning and cohesiveness when kids play with them.
With each unique sound a Yo-kai medal produces, there is an incentive for kids to want to collect all of the medals just to see what each Yo-kai medal offers. Kids can store these medals in a toy medallium (shown above), which also stays true to the YO-KAI WATCH game and anime.
Kids feel that they are a real Yo-kai befriender when they collect these medals. And whenever kids get a new medal, it feels rewarding to finally complete the collection. Not only that, the medals can be used to unlock content in the games too, giving yet another incentive to collect medals. This is why the YO-KAI WATCH toys and medals sell phenomenally well in Japan, making a profit for Bandai of over 10 billion yen (approx. $93 billion in U.S. currency) total. The medals and watch are affordable enough for anyone to join in on the YO-KAI WATCH fun.
5. The games.
The games are the main draw and origin of the YO-KAI WATCH franchise. In the games, the plot is essentially the same as the anime. The core concept of the games is that players are able to explore a rich world of YO-KAI WATCH, and participate in the story that unfolds before them as they meet and battle yo-kai. Springdale is full of people walking around the streets and cars driving by that is intentionally close to real life, making the world feel immediately and profoundly immersive.
Gameplay-wise, YO-KAI WATCH is a turn-based, auto-battle RPG that requires the player to interact with the Yo-kai using team building techniques, items, and mini actions to pull off special moves called Soultimate attacks. You can decide which three of your Yo-kai friends should battle at a given time, as making useful team match-ups are a more subtle, yet rewarding unlike other JRPGs. The battle system is designed to be simple enough for all-ages to play, but having enough depth of customization and nuance that older gamers can appreciate once they delve in, with the ability to modify a Yo-kai’s behavior and creating a powerful Yo-kai team in other ways.
Unlike Pokémon, Yo-kai maintain their personal autonomy as a real friend to the player, rather than a pet or a tool to be commanded at will. This is one of the ways in which Yo-kai Watch has brought more heart and soul to this genre.
Players are able to find more kinds of Yo-kai in various places such as sewers, trees, and beaches. Finding and befriending these individual Yo-kai is incredibly rewarding, just like collecting the toy medals. Players are also able to meet human characters not seen or having had little exposure in the anime. You can help these people out by taking on side quests, and that also feels rewarding when you solve their problems with the mischievous yo-kai. Each character and yo-kai has their own unique personality, stories, and characteristics that prevent the experience from feeling stale. This is why the games have sold over 10 million in Japan, with its immersive world, charm, quirky characters, and over 100+ hours of gameplay.
So What Can We Do Now?
Art by @Carbon_Coal on Twitter.
Now that you know the different reasons for YO-KAI WATCH‘s success in Japan, is it really fair to harshly criticize the franchise for being similar to or not having the same things as Pokémon? After learning all of this information, what can you do now?
First, watch the YO-KAI WATCH anime. The anime really helped in part to grow the popularity of the franchise as a whole, and is often the first place that fans get to meet new and upcoming yo-kai. You can only truly understand things by giving things a shot and keeping an open mind, you will see the clear difference in tone and charm. You can find the first season available on Netflix, Disney XD, and on YouTube here, but those are only available in North America. I do not want to spoil much of the anime to you, because I honestly think it is good enough to have others give a look.
Second, if you do decide to play the games for the first time, I recommend waiting for YO-KAI WATCH 2 Bony Spirits/Fleshy Souls to come out on September 30th, the 3DS sequel is where YO-KAI WATCH truly shines. Or if you want to get into it immediately, there is a free mobile puzzle app called YO-KAI WATCH: Wibble Wobble that gives you a small taste of YO-KAI WATCH‘s unique charm.
Because of those false claims of YO-KAI WATCH being a Pokémon rip off, some potential new fans may feel put off from experiencing this franchise that could potentially be very appealing to them. I think YO-KAI WATCH has that potential to appeal to lots of people, just like in Japan. I have seen and heard many stories of kids, teens, and adults who gave YO-KAI WATCH a chance, and as a result adored its unique charm, characters, and world.
Let’s create a large community of people who can like YO-KAI WATCH, Pokémon, and other monster collecting franchises at the same time. You have the power to make the decision and change the course of history for the monster collecting gaming genre. What will you do now?
Art by @petalblade on Twitter.