In Yo-Kai Watch, jaywalking is punishable by boss battle.
I remember being naive to that fact. As with any other game where traffic is not an actual health hazard, I ran my ponytailed avatar through the streets of her town without concern for trivialities like pedestrian crossings. Occasionally, Whisper, my apparitional companion, would warn me against my felonious habits. But I shrugged it off. It’s a kid’s game, I thought. What’s the worst that could happen?
Spoiler: bad, bad things. The boss completely annihilated my team. In a strange twist, however, that proved less a problem than you’d imagine. I wasn’t sent back to a distant save point. I was quickly returned to full health and warned against repeating my earlier transgressions. Like a stern but loving parent, the game only wanted to educate me, not hurt me irreparably. Which makes sense, really, because again: kid’s game.
And also a bit of a national phenomenon in Japan. In case you missed the memo, Yo-Kai Watch is a phenomenon in the schoolyards of Tokyo. It blends the compulsive collectibility of Pokmon with local mythology, and then serves it up with the wholesome congeniality that defines Level-5. Similar to Game Freak’s monolithic franchise, Yo-Kai Watch puts you in command of a young child who quickly finds themselves accruing an armada of companions as they venture through their world.
But where Pokmon has you beating up its titular wildlife, Yo-Kai Watch takes a more amiable approach. Sure, there’s combat but that only nets you experience points and items. You need to make friends with the yokai – a blanket term for supernatural entities – in order to get them to participate in your adventures. It’s an impossibly sweet idea in the epoch of edginess and, odd as that might sound, it works.
Last year, Level-5 reported that Yo-kai Watch 2 sold about 1.3 million copies within the first week of its release, an impressive number given that the latest Pokmon titles sold about 1.3 million copies. It kept decent pace with its rival. Pokmon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire did 9.94 million in sales, according to Nintendo’s financial report, and that’s including international numbers. In contrast, Yo-Kai Watch hit 7 million in that same time span, all without leaving Japanese shores. It’s no wonder, really, that people everywhere are tentatively calling Yo-Kai Watch the Pokmon killer.
But is it, though?
I know it’s going to sound like a total cop-out but the short answer is: it’s really hard to say. You can’t really orchestrate a phenomenon. You can help it along, sure. In fact, that’s exactly what Level-5 is doing. But all these efforts are largely preparatory. Even the best advertisements campaigns can’t cultivate obsession, they can only encourage it. To be viral, you need people to care and there’s really no telling what might or might not pique the Internet’s fancy.
The long answer is more complicated. Yo-kai Watch, while sharing many of Pokemon’s broader characteristics, is also very thematically different. It’s cozier, closer to home, a game that identifies more with the domesticity of Animal Crossing than the adventurousness of Pokmon. Many of the quests are sweetly menial: resolve a spat between friends, bring important documents to your dad, repopulate a fish pond. Do all the things that a normal child could legitimately do.
At first blush, it might sound a little silly. But there’s something to be said about a game that pulls from the reality of the player. Yo-Kai Watch doesn’t ask its audience to suspend belief. Instead, it provides tacit agreement that there is indeed magic in everyday life, that the extraordinary can be found even when you’re being the best little boy/girl any parent could want.
And that is a fantastic angle to take in an environment where social responsibility and obedience is so highly valued. However, Western culture espouses a different set of characteristics. Independence, aggression, a willingness to rebel against established structures and stake out your own path in life — these are all traits glorified in modern pop-culture. From Rebel Without A Cause to The Hunger Games, we’re encouraged to fight, to question, to demand. Consequently, Yo-Kai Watch is likely going to face challenges reconciling its own value system with the ideals of its new market.
On a related but far less significant note, I’m slightly doubtful about yokai being able to transcend cultural boundaries. The localization team for Yo-Kai Watch has done an incredible job at reframing the game for a broader audience, slipping in puns with sly grace. But at the same time, western kids did not grow up with the omnipresence of the yokai. For them, the supernatural denizens of Springdale will be anomalous creations, comparable to Pokmon or Digimon. They won’t be childhood fixtures reimagined as something new. Like watching Sandlot without growing up with baseball or reading Enid Blyton without the concept of boarding schools.
Another thing here is that ideas have a way of feeding on each other. Even today, we clamor for games that remind us for other games, whether they’re modern incarnations of retro ideas or XCOM playalikes. When Game Freak’s franchise started taking off, other developers immediately rushed to cash in on the hype, creating an rich ecosystem that ultimately left Pokemon at the top of its genre food chain.
Yo-Kai Watch won’t have that advantage of novelty. It’s cruising into a market that has had the luxury to grow jaded. There’s a chance that the cynicism could benefit the fledgling series but given how reviewers have taken to Yo-Kai Watch, chances are it’s going to undergo considerable scrutiny. And that is another factor working against the game. Virality depends on passion, not intense dissection.
Having said all that, I actually think Yo-Kai Watch is going to be big. Cult classic big. I already am more enamored of it than I’ve been of any Pokmon release in a long, long time. We’re reaching a place in time where we’re slowly becoming fatigued with being edgy for edgy’s sake. Games like Fantasy Life and Animal Crossing prove that there’s space for experiences that don’t rely on darkness. And Yo-Kai Watch is going to fit in right there. In a decade or so, especially if the combat is tuned to allow for competitiveness, it might even be on par with Pokmon. But it’s not going to kill one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises.
At least, not yet.