Yo-Kai Watch, a new video game for the Nintendo 3DS, made its debut in North America last week. But in Japan it's been the dominant kids' craze for a little over two years, overtaking Pokémon in popularity.
Can developer Level 5, maker of the Professor Layton games, do the same here?
In Yo-Kai Watch, you play as a boy named Nate (or a girl named Katie) who befriends a ghost named Whisper, who leads you on an adventure finding other ghosts and monsters, called Yo-Kai.
- Nintendo's NX gaming device a console-handheld hybrid, out 2016: report
- Sask. man builds gigantic Nintendo console for fun, charity
- Nintendo tour a dream come true for Winnipeg boy with serious illness
Normally unseen by normal humans, Nate can detect Yo-Kai with a special watch whose lens shines a spotlight that reveals them hiding in plain sight. It's called the Yo-Kai Watch, naturally.
Since it debuted in Japan in 2013, Yo-Kai Watch has spawned sequels on the 3DS, mobile apps, a comic, cartoon, animated movie and mountains of branded merchandise. It's hard to walk through Tokyo without seeing Yo-Kai plushie dolls, posters, lunch boxes, mugs, wallets, breakfast cereals and more.
Yo-Kai have appeared in wider Japanese folklore for many years, often in horror-themed stories and comics, such as those by artist Shigeru Mizuki. The warrior monk called Benkei, and mischievous turtle-like Kappas, for example, have mythological roots and have appeared in Japanese entertainment media for years.
Yo-Kai Watch takes a more kid-friendly approach, but even at its most light-hearted, Japanese culture plays a prominent role in creature design. Take, for instance, Mochismo — a sentient block of glutinous rice.
Fans worried that the English translation would lose most of Yo-Kai Watch's Japanese flavour – especially when they heard that the human lead, Keita Amano, was renamed Nate Adams, and his hometown, Sakura New Town, is now the generically American-sounding Springdale.
After a little more than 14 hours put into Yo-Kai Watch, we can conclude that fans worried about over-Americanization need not worry. Despite the name change, "Springdale" still has a Shinto temple, a functional rail transit system, and drivers using the left side of the road.
Yo-Kai themselves owe more to mascot-focused kids' entertainment than the myths they're based on, anyway. Cuddly monsters can cross any cultural divide.
Except for the biggest and baddest Yo-Kai who resemble demons, most of them are up to mischief associated with their abilities to affect humans' moods.
The stories in the game, while geared towards children, can be surprisingly moving, rather than flighty or juvenile.
In an early scene, Nate find his parents arguing with one another. The discord is caused by the nearby presence of Dismarelda, a Yo-Kai who spreads negative feelings, because she herself had an argument with her husband, the jovial Happiere. By helping the ghost-couple reconcile, Nate's parents make up in kind.
The quality of stories extends to many (though not all) Yo-Kais' origins, too. Jibanyan, the franchise's Pikachu-like mascot, was a regular cat who was run over by a truck.
His ghost now sits at the same intersection where he died, hoping to get strong enough to get his revenge on passing automobiles when not accompanying the player.
Solving local mysteries
Yo-Kai Watch can be loosely described as a Pokémon game without the need to actually be a Pokémon game. Much like its animal mascot-driven predecessor, you'll spend most of your time encountering and collecting creatures to do battle with other, more powerful creatures.
Despite this and other foundational similarities, it does things that a Pokémon game won't, unfettered by two decades of conventions and traditions.
Instead of capturing wild Pokémon and conscripting them into fighting each other in leagues, the bulk of the game has you and your school friends solving local mysteries, most of them caused by Yo-Kai who are either causing trouble or in need of help themselves.
Touch-based battle system
The battle system is a mash of concepts, both streamlined and frenzied. You have six Yo-Kai in your party, and they're arranged in a circle on the 3DS's touch screen. The top three are active in battle, while the bottom three are in reserve, and you can spin the wheel to change your lineup at any time.
Yo-Kai perform their basic attacks and magic spell actions automatically. But each has a powerful signature move that requires you to perform a basic skill test with your stylus to work – either by tracing a simple pattern, popping moving dots, or spinning a circle on the touch pad.
Along with using the stylus to target enemy weak points and performing additional mini-games to dispel enemy's negative effects (called "inspiriting"), you'll be darting from one part of the screen to another throughout the battle.
The biggest problem with the game is its utterly useless map. It only tracks one objective at a time – whatever location or person you have to meet to move forward the primary storyline – but you can't make it track side quests or other objectives, of which you might have dozens sitting unfinished at any one time. It's like having Google Maps without anything labelled, or the ability to zoom in and look around.
Despite this frustration, Yo-Kai Watch is a mostly great game for the Nintendo crowd – and will likely do well since there isn't a main Pokémon game scheduled for release this year.