Yo-Kai Watch is going to be huge. At 33 years old I’m definitely not the target market for Nintendo's latest 3DS masterpiece, but just from watching my kids’ reaction to the game at the recent New York Comic Con it’s obvious that they’ve crafted something brilliant here.
Nintendo knows it too, and is absolutely not messing around with this release. The franchise centers around a boy who can find and capture yokai (basically Japanese spirits) with his watch, a simple yet effective plot for what's going to become a marketing juggernaut. At the NYCC they had a room in the family section devoted to Yo-Kai Watch that was open for all four days of the convention, from start to close. Besides a dozen or so stations set up with the demo of the 3DS game they also had... well, they had just a few other related things. Here's what they were doing:
- Showing off clips and episodes from the ongoing anime tv show on Disney XD.
- Giving away NYCC exclusive Yo-Kai medals, which looked like plastic pogs, which they'll be releasing hundreds of to collect.
- Showing off how you can pick up a physical Yo-Kai Watch for yourself and put the medals in them to hear the monster's theme song.
- Handing out a preview of the manga tie-in.
- Featuring an enormous case featuring the veritable ton of toys and tie-in games (themed versions of Junior Monopoly and The Game of Life) that they’ll be dumping on North America in a few short months.
So this is a multi-pronged assault on our shores, one that has the considerable heft of Hasbro, Disney, and Nintendo behind it.
Now in Japan Yo-Kai Watch is an absolutely proven entity. It was created by celebrated Professor Layton/Inazuma Eleven developer Level 5 and in the last couple of years since its release the franchise has already sold eight million copies. Part of the reason they’re able to hit North America with all of these tie-ins at once is because they already exist in Japan. Still, it’s easy to think that the franchise might be just too weird to ever take off over here. After all, it’s not like many people know or even care about yokai.
My kids proved that wrong, though. They were immediately taken with the world and were more than happy to contemplate collecting the rest of the medals, which made me wallet scurry to the bottom of my pocket. Both of them want one of the watches, even though to me they look kinda cumbersome and gimmicky. The power of marketing is a scary thing.
But it will be interesting to see what happens when Americans realize what’s really going on here. It’s one thing to condemn Harry Potter for teaching witchcraft but here, in a title expressly aimed at very young children, you’re both summoning and befriending devilish spirits, who range from mischievous to straight-up evil. It's a cartoonish game to be sure, but even the anime shows a surprising amount of darkness to it, something not usually seen in children's properties. That in itself makes me happy the franchise exists, but you can imagine what will happen when this game hits the bible belt.
Most of the merch Nintendo handed out was emblazoned with the de-facto mascot of the franchise, Jibanyan, a cat with two tails that both burn with blue fire. Need an example of how dark this property is if you think about it? Jibanyan was a cat that got run over by a car who, as a yokai, has taken to possessing people to fight traffic in the way he never could. After you find him with the Yo-Kai Watch he will fight for you, but his origin as roadkill is hard to put off.
Sift through the merchandise to play the game itself and you’ll find a surprisingly fun title that definitely has shades of Pokemon. You befriend a yokai named Whisper who works as your literal spirit guide to the world and helps you solve your town's problems by clearing it of more yokai. In this world if something is going wrong a yokai is usually involved, so it's not their fault they're depressed or late to school every day. Thanks to your watch you can scan areas for them and fight them in battles.
As with Pokemon you'll attack with your stable of yokai, and depending on the one you pick to attack with you'll have to play a little minigame of sorts, spinning the touch screen, tapping bubbles, or drawing characters in order to increase your attack power. The battles are much more involving because of that, and while you only fight a few yokai in this demo it showed much more diversity than expected. There are hundreds of friendly yokai to help you do battle, something I can see a lot of people getting into.
The original game released to rave reviews in Japan and it looks on track to do the same here. It's fascinating to watch my kids, who are already wearing their Yo-Kai shirts constantly and wearing the little Jibanyan dogtags we were given, develop such strong attachments to these characters.
Yo-Kai Watch hits next month and is coming packed in a 2DS bundle. Could it be the very first system I buy my kids? It just might be... and I might end up borrowing the game a bit for myself.
A demo of Yo-Kai Watch hits the 3DS eShop later today. The full game hits on November 6.