Yo-Kai Watch Wasn’t Just a Pokemon Clone, It Was Better
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Yo-Kai Watch Wasn’t Just a Pokemon Clone, It Was Better

If you ever needed proof that capitalism does not, in fact, bReEd inNovAtiOn, look no further than the world’s highest-grossing media franchise. While the world of Pokémon still grips my Zoomer heart well into adulthood — (it did for my generation what Harry Potter did for my Millennial predecessors) — it becomes harder to ignore that the core series’ release cycle is governed by a cynical ethos. Abundance takes precedence over evolution.

While the number of catchable creatures listed in the Pokédex creeps towards quadruple digits, the games themselves strain to keep pace with their taxonomy. As I worked through my copy of Sword two holiday seasons ago, I felt as though I paid for a library of new CG models and locations with an obligatory smattering of gameplay and plot thrown in for good measure. 

Don’t get me wrong; drafting a team of six species and experimenting with different combinations never gets old for me, and that’s usually worth the price of admission alone. But it might be our attachment to Game Freak’s tried-and-true formula, with its gym badges, villainous doomsday cults, and starter trios — magic as it all may be — that limits our expectations of what a creature-collecting game can be. While Pokémon has struggled to incorporate its massive roster of monsters into an open-world, online-friendly context, now seems like the perfect opportunity for a newer, leaner title to revamp a genre that is now a quarter-century into its lifespan.

Unfortunately, developer Level-5’s attempt to solve that very problem may have come too early. In 2013, three months before Pokémon X&Y hit the shelves, Yo-Kai Watch nudged its way in front of Goliath. After dabbling in familiar-collecting with 2010’s Ni No Kuni, Level-5 repurposed its own concept of raising supernatural creatures into a cuddly, smaller-scale context prophesied to be the Next Big Thing. 

Yo-Kai Watch's wheel-shaped fighting interface.

For a brief period of time, it looked like that prophecy might come true. Level-5 had clearly studied the successes of Pokémon’s initial launch, unveiling Yo-Kai Watch with an omnipresent multimedia assault on Japan. They had it all: a phantom feline mascot primed to be turned into marketable plushies, collectible toy medals that could be scanned via QR code to earn in-game rewards, and an anime with a viral theme song

Initially, that was enough to make Yo-Kai Watch an overnight hit. In 2014, its IP beat out Anpanman’s cast of bread-themed characters as the most-liked by Japanese children. The next year, dedicated Yo-Kai stores would open up across the country, just before the first game reached western audiences. I received my copy over the 2015 holiday season, already a fan of Level-5’s Professor Layton and Inazuma Eleven series. Within a half-hour of starting, I was ready to add Yo-Kai Watch to that list.

Flying in the face of globe-trotting JRPGs, the majority of the game takes place in a single town, Springdale — New Sakura Town before localization. There’s an anti-escapist streak running through the series, limiting the scope of its settings to universally familiar experiences. There are no tundras or deserts to explore, but you will get to explore the nuances of Springdale’s urban planning. There are corner stores to swing by in the protagonist’s suburban neighborhood, burger joints and arcades downtown, and unaffordable McMansions out in the hills. And if you’re planning to reach those locations on foot, be prepared to stop at the crosswalks to look both ways. In a Kojima-esque move, you’re punished or rewarded based on your willingness to wait at the traffic light. 

What I loved about Yo-Kai Watch was that it wasn’t a world to dream about visiting. It was a new perspective on our own reality in which everyday incidents were triggered by karma or the whims of Yo-Kai — ghostly beings only visible to wearers of the titular watch. If you ignore an overarching plot regarding the spirit realm’s government, your average in-game conflict involves accidentally leaving an assignment at home due to a Yo-Kai’s curse or figuring out what’s making the museum’s suit of armor move on its own. The fantasy takes place within reality — not outside of it.

Even the design of the Yo-Kai themselves reflect Level-5’s hyper focused approach to worldbuilding.  While Pokémon’s strength comes from its diversity of influences, Yo-Kai watch pares its inspiration down to a few key elements. Japanese folklore, urban legends, and mundane annoyances. They’re not quite as cute as their Game Freak counterparts, but they make up for it in their uniformly creepy charm. There’s Noway, an anthropomorphic wall likely based on the Whomp-like Nurikabe, and Manjimutt, inspired by reports of man-faced dogs wandering the streets of Tokyo. 

The cast of Yo-Kai Watch explores the streets of Springdale.

While this cultural cohesiveness earns Yo-Kai Watch points for artistry in my book, it’s unfortunately the prime culprit for the series’ lack of success overseas, despite aggressive advertising and its inclusion in the Disney XD lineup. If you’re not well-versed in Japanese cultural traditions, much of the franchise’s humor gets lost in translation. While many of Level-5’s Yo-Kai shared the same name as their mythological yōkai counterparts (the in-game Nurikabe is a Murikabe, for example), localization efforts relied on awkward puns and overly-literal descriptors to help westerners identify their phantasmal companions. 

Creative as the Yo-Kai may have been, it’s tough to compete with the iconic, universal design of an Eevee or Jigglypuff. Even Jibanyan, Yo-Kai Watch’s own answer to Pikachu, wasn’t enough to foster anything more than a cult following. The series’ original 3DS release moved less than 500,000 North American copies in its first year of sales — about a third of the copies sold domestically in that same time frame. 

Yo-Kai Watch has spawned three proper sequels in its eight-year lifespan, but the series’ popularity continues to diminish in all markets. Yo-Kai Watch 4 only managed to sell 291,000 copies in 2019, and its prospects for a future localization look grim

Though Yo-Kai’s commercial impact may not have amounted to much more than a mid-10s trend, the IP deserves recognition for attempting to innovate a monster-collecting genre that hasn’t seen much diversity since its late-90s infancy. One can argue that the combat system was a bit too complex for its own good, but its ambition was admirable, augmenting the usual rock-paper-scissors dynamic with stylus gestures and strategic bonuses like team chemistry. Because the Yo-Kai’s actions were autonomous, battling made me feel more like a “trainer” than Pokémon ever did. I picked my roster, set my strategy, and left the fisticuffs to the phantoms. 
Pokémon has about as much reason to radically alter its own formula as Coca-Cola does. If audiences continue to shell out cash for the product, why fix it? But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t room for a Pepsi in the marketplace. As Game Freak’s franchise celebrates its 25th anniversary, perhaps it’s worth also giving the games it inspired a second look. While it’s not worth holding your breath for Yo-Kai Watch 4’s worldwide release like I am, why not bust out the old 3DS and give the first 3 games a try? You might just find another bestiary of best friends to fall in love with.

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