Level 5’s Yo-Kai Watch finally arrives on Australia’s shores tomorrow, and it will change everything. It has been two and a half years since its release in Japan but since then it has taken over. Pokémon are dead, long live Yo-Kai.
When I first arrived in Japan, Pokémon was still huge. Students not only knew the names of all the Pokémon, but were able to recognise them. A year after I arrived this all started to change. Yo-Kai Watch had come out, Jibanyan was now the cutest thing on the block (closely followed by Komasan).
This of course made lesson planning a little more difficult as I needed to then tailor my classes towards new pop-culture references. It was the first clear sign that Pokémon was losing its grip on the Japanese “My First RPG” style game. Just before I left I knew the course had run for Pokemon, students could not identify a picture of Bulbasaur, or even Charmander. Starting from last Chistmas, Pokemon lost its one last bastion of defence against the tide that is the Yo-Kai, that it the MacDonalds Christmas Happy Meal toy. They had been beaten by Yo-Kai toys. The defeat was total.
Why has this game, this world, been so absolute in its domination of the Japanese market? These sorts of RPGs are often created and launched with total market saturation. In Japan that means in addition to normal advertising you get music, cartoons, games and collectables.
The song above was the theme song for the first game. It is happy, it is energetic, it is silly with dance moves that are fun and easy to do. Kids lapped it up. Although the song was launched on the game, it went on to become the first theme for the anime. The nature of schools in general also meant that this kind of tactic spread that game rapidly. The characters started appearing in the classroom.
Of course, this success was not just due to its marketing strategy. It has gone as far as it has because the game is fundamentally a great game.
Based in a local Japanese neighbourhood, Yo-Kai Watch has the player wandering and exploring the world around them. Guided by a Yo-Kai that they found at a local shrine (Whisper), the player learns about Yo-Kai and how they interfere with the world around them. You then go out, collecting allies of your own, with the goal of helping people around you.
Yo-Kai are not ghosts. They are more akin to spirits that inhabit the world around you. They can subtly influence the things around them. They can make people feel differing emotions and subtly effect objects around them, radiating their aura into the greater world. This gave Level 5 plenty of space to create a rich world, and an engaging plot.
The essence of this game is a collectors RPG. The comparisons that are made to Pokémon are perfectly apt. As you explore the world around you use use your watch to see and then capture Yo-Kai. There are heaps to collect which is important as combat plays to the traditional paper-scissors-rock weaknesses. Therefore, having a variety of Yo-Kai on your team is a great thing.
Combat works differently to normal RPGs. Unlike Pokémon, where you choose the moves your Pokémon do, your Yo-Kai are constantly attacking. You can direct the attention of their attacks and you can launch their major moves. Combat is also a 6v6 affair where three Yo-Kai are front facing and you rotate your team around to place the right types at the front at the right times.
This may seem on the surface as being much shallower than Pokémon. However, the rotating of the team makes it about as tactical. The way the player activates the major moves is also much more hands on, each requires the players to complete a quick time event to get the most from the move. This moves it away from a quite stale experience of selecting a move and then waiting while it happens.
There is also not much by the way of random encounters. You generally only end up fighting if you search for a battle. There are times where Yo-Kai will chase you, but you can see them on the screen and you can run away from them. Combat is important to levelling up, but it is by no means the only way to get experience.
Experience can also be gained by helping people around town. This experience is then used in the same way by both games. Yo-Kai change and evolve as they get experience. (Nothing new to see here then…)
The setting for Yo-Kai Watch is much more homely, especially for the Japanese audience. Pokémon went for the grand scale where it simulated travelling vast distances from home while Yo-Kai is focused on your local neighbourhood. The similarities to a normal suburb are fantastic. (Remember to press the button before you cross the road! Safety first.)
This has made Yo-Kai Watch much more relatable for the Japanese youth, whether this will also resonate with western youth is yet to be seen. I hope that it will. That being said, Yo-Kai Watch 3 is coming out in the middle of summer in Japan. This particular version is being set in the USA and will see more western based cultural elements coming to life. I suspect that as the Yo-Kai are intrinsically Japanese focused, Level-5 are hedging their bets on an entrance into the western market and trying to move their attention to how they can take over the globe.
As the initial market was based around Japanese folk law, customs and landscape it is fair that all the Yo-Kai are true to their source material. This means that for a western audience the character designs might appear strange and unappealing. I know that these kinds of designs are quite personal. So, I think that I am happy to put it on the record that yes, Jibanyan is far cuter than Pikachu.
Where do I think that Pokémon can go from here? I think that there is still some life left in Pokémon. However, the main audience in the west is not going to be kids, it is going to be the adults who played it as kids. When these people start getting tired of it the end will be nigh. They are working on ways to expand the world, but I don’t think that keeping the same basic gameplay formula will help them. For Pokémon to truly survive into the future they will need to re-evaluate how people play the game. I don’t know if the same formula will work any more.
Pokémon is making a notable effort to this end with their new VR game. I think Pokémon GO will bring a nice breath of fresh air to the series. It is worth noticing that in the trailer for that game that they are not targeting kids, they are eyeing off the people who made Pokémon big in the first place.
I suspect that the new generation will take to Yo-Kai Watch in the same way we took to Pokémon. We found it an eye opening introduction to a new culture and a whole new world. Yo-Kai Watch brings the action from moving away from home and exploring the world and returns it to your home. It makes the player wonder what is really just outside our front door.