Last Updated on March 20, 2022
Yo-kai Watch is a Level-5 franchise with a cult following in Japan but modest success in the US. My discovery of the franchise began at a Walmart in 2014. Yo-kai Watch, Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, and a bunch of generic releases were on the shelf. I was familiar with Dragon Quest and the JRPG genre in general, so of course, Dragon Quest is my first pick. But I kept thinking about Yo-kai Watch after I left. I find that it’s common to leave Walmart with Komasan’s coy eyes staring at your back from the glass window.
The Yo-kai Watch franchise doesn’t get much traction in the West. Some people say,”Why not just play Pokémon instead?” Even Digimon has a similar fate, but is still way more popular than Yo-kai Watch. What gave the Yo-kai Watch franchise life in the US was the dubbed anime, which was the main promotional force for the game. But the localized American version of the anime died in its youth, stopping after the first season. In its home country of Japan, Yo-kai Watch has a luxurious fanfare of several spin-offs. In the US, I saw only one commercial for Jibanyan toys, and passed by some in Walmart. Now, plenty of that merchandise is on eBay.
The Level-5 plan for Yo-kai Watch is to achieve Doraeman status. It worked in East Asia, but not in North America. In the US, Doraemon does not exist in the mind of American children unless they’re first-generation East Asian immigrants. Most American children are still playing Minecraft and Pokémon, like I was at their age. As an adult enjoyer of Yo-kai Watch, I wish the series would at least achieve Digimon status – known and loved, but not as overpowering as Pokémon.
So What Is a Yo-kai?
Despite its lukewarm success in the United States, Yo-kai Watch found its home within the hearts of folklore enthusiasts and jilted Pokémon fans. Newcomers can enjoy all digital ports of Yo-kai Watch games on the Nintendo Switch and 3DS. To this day, there are still plenty of affordable 3DS copies of the first Yo-kai Watch game on Amazon. I own one of them now, and I lament that I didn’t get to play it earlier. It feels so nostalgic, like the summer days of my elementary school years.
Yo-kai Watch having minimal prestige is not the fault of Level-5. After all, the series references inside jokes about Japanese folklore that few people in the US would know about. Despite how popular shounen fantasy is, most people are probably unaware that some Japanese demons they see in shows are Yo-kai. Japanese folklore is somewhat popular in the West, but often without context. As a child, I read watered-down folklore, such as a Western adaptation of the 10 Chinese Brothers that had racist caricature art, a massive book on Greek folklore, and a children’s book on Anansi. Folklore and mythology don’t receive as much affection in the US, so Yo-kai is simply “monsters in a cartoon” to most people.
A common misconception is believing that Yo-kai is solely a creature from hell. They actually are supernatural phenomena that manifest as dread, peculiarity, or an exhilarating moment. This means they can manifest as anything that is possible, not just goblins. The Yo-kai has existed in Japanese art as far back as the Edo period in the 17th century.
In Yo-kai Watch, the story isn’t too far from the traditional myth. But it has a unique spin. Since this franchise is for children and pre-teens, there is a school setting. In the world of Yo-kai Watch, Yo-kai are either a threat to your existence or a companion. The existence of the uncanny is a running theme in the game.
It’s Simple: A Kid with a Yo-Kai Watch Saves the World
The world of Yo-Kai Watch takes place in Springdale. It’s centered around the small world of a schoolboy named Nate Adams, who thinks he’s too average for his cool classmates. At the Springdale Elementary playgrounds, his friends tease him for not being able to catch a rare insect, and rub it in his face. Nate becomes frustrated at his lack of bug-catching skills, so he runs around town to catch bugs. But he doesn’t find anything of interest.
Our “average” protagonist then journeys out to Mount Wildwood to get his own. Mount Wildwood is Springdale’s retreat to nature and spirituality, so a temple is at the foot of the surrounding forest. That means that Nate Adams will discover plenty of insects, while also being isolated from his rude classmates. After failing to catch any rare bugs, he walks deeper into the forest and tears down a boundary. Past the temple, Nate discovers an old capsule machine placed in front of a majestic tree. The trees stand tall much like the temples, and all you can hear are cicadas.
Nate, confused yet curious, gets a released capsule and opens it. A friendly Yo-kai pops out and introduces himself as Whisper. Whisper encourages Nate to drop bug catching and instead catch Yo-kai. Whisper manifests a watch on Nate’s wrist without even asking him, creating a bridge between the worlds of humans and Yo-kai. This then makes Whisper Nate’s “butler”. Nate begins to see Yo-kai everywhere he goes, including ones possessing his parents and friends. In a matter of one afternoon, Nate Adams’ life is turning sideways. He is no longer average, as he must save Springdale from these colliding worlds.
After a few tutorials, you meet the biggest star of this game. Nate uses his watch and discovers Jibanyan, a cat who gets hit by a truck whilst punching it. Whisper and Nate come to the rescue and ask Jibanyan what his problem is. The crying cat tells them that his last memory on Earth is his owner saying that it was “lame” that he got hit by a car. So he spends his days jumping in front of trucks and punching them to prove his owner wrong. Jibanyan is scared and confused, as he is dead, and a photo of his owner was stolen by a malicious Yo-kai. One of your first missions is to find the photo thief. Get ready to find similar stories like this throughout the game. Solving and listening to people’s troubles is the what the main story is about.
Yo-Kai Watch‘s narrative is quite simple. It’s reminiscent of an average life, despite the looming voices of hell. The game is about caring for others and being a positive force in society by listening to people and solving their problems. It’s all about being a good person.
Yo-kai Watch Is Not Pokémon
A lot of fans compare this game to Pokémon. But some people claim it’s a rip-off of Pokémon. This is false and laughable comparison. But if you want to introduce the series to a friend, I would say it’s only somewhat close.
Remember the watch I mentioned earlier? The Yo-kai Watch is what gives Nate his power to discover and summon Yo-kai. His watch assists in commanding monsters, performing special moves, and feeding them. The monsters he catches also allow him to complete favors and quests around town. Each Yo-kai he befriends become medals that he places in the Medallium. The watch is Nate’s baton, and everything in the game revolves around the watch. The watch also needs to receive upgrades that make rarer Yo-kai more accessible and locked doors unlockable.
A Rather Unique Battle System
The battle system is unique but messy. Instead of random encounters, you find Yo-kai in hidden streets, floating around trees, in garbage cans, and underneath vehicles. They’re easy to avoid. But you do want to catch Yo-kai and train them. While the game is relatively easy for the first few chapters, the last two bosses are horrifically difficult.
During the battle, a Yo-kai performs 3 actions: regular attack, elemental techniques, and inspiriting (which essentially is a buff and debuff move). Regular attacks, inspiriting, and elemental techniques are usually automatic during battle.
A lot of what the player does in Yo-kai Watch‘s battle system is battle support. Yo-kai do have health bars and spirit bars, so that means you have to feed them to recover their health and have them drink to recover their spirit. You also have to watch over your Yo-kai’s general health during battle. Yo-kai get inspirited by their enemies, which means they get debuffed or poisoned. So you must free them from possession either by tapping on their portrait and drawing hiragana and shapes, or tapping glass and orbs.
So what is the spirit bar for? Well, no battle system is complete without a special move. So, one command you will perform a lot in this game is a Soultimate. To unleash a Soultimate, you have to pull out your stylus, tap on “Soultimate” and once again draw hiragana, circles, or tapping orbs. This decreases the spirit bar. But don’t worry, as it’s pretty easy to regain spirit energy by attacking inspirited enemies because you are absorbing their soul.
The only thing that makes Yo-kai Watch akin to Pokémon is simply catching Yo-kai. But the only similarity is simply the concept of monsters turning into inanimate objects – which in this case is a medal – and storing them in a book. There are no balls or nets in Yo-kai Watch, however, because most of us know that in East Asian countries, people send offering to spirits by providing food. One can assume that you befriend Yo-kai by offering their favorite food. So always be ready to have food stocked because you’re going to be using a lot of it. Food is used to befriend and feed Yo-kai.
I enjoy the battle system because of its uniqueness and being highly interactive. But it’s not without faults.
The Battle System Is Like Road Rage
Since the series was first released on the 3DS, the controls involve heavy use of the stylus. I have to say that to this day, I have mixed feelings about Nintendo’s design choices for motion control. A much younger me loved playing the DS and blowing into the microphone when I played Super Princess Peach. But I got my 3DS years ago when I hit 17. Eventually, motion control gets pretty tiresome. I’m looking at you, Wii.
The battle system of Yo-kai Watch is quite intense, and so is not accessible for disabled people. One of the things I hate about the game is having to intensely spin circles on my screen whenever I want to unleash Jibanyan’s “Paws of Fury”. I often feared I was going to break the screen. In fact, I’m surprised it’s not broken. I also hate tapping the glass shells that surround Yo-kai when they get inspirited for the same reason. This game was made during a time when game companies designed game mechanics around the touchscreen, which often led to more interactive but inaccessible gameplay.
There are also times when I feel like the battle system is broken. I know strategy plays a role in this, but not being able to heal a Yo-kai because the game temporarily prevents you from using food after feeding a desired enemy Yo-kai is irritating at best. A similar thing happens when you perform Soultimate, where your Yo-kai takes way too long to perform the animation for their move and dies in the process, and it’s not like you can heal your Yo-kai while this is happening. Also, throwing food that a Yo-kai prefers, doesn’t guarantee that they will be your friend. So that means you will sometimes spend hours searching for a specific Yo-kai, throwing food, and hoping it asks for your friendship post-battle.
Despite its obvious flaws, the battle system is easy to learn and the game itself is a breeze until you hit the last two main story bosses. Although I do wish that there was more variety in mini-games outside the same drawing and tapping, like at least differing games for special moves.
Now does everything I describe here sound anything like a Pokémon game? Yo-kai Watch takes place in a setting that is much deeper in Japanese culture and lore than Pokémon. There are no gyms because Nate is the only “trainer” in the entire game. Players specifically focus on unleashing special moves and providing support. Yo-kai do as they please.
Feel Good Games and Hope For Yo-kai Watch’s Future
Yo-kai Watch is a feel-good game. I bought it years ago. It only took me over a year to beat it because of the number of quests to finish (there’s still more to do). Yo-kai Watch has a simple story. It is not groundbreaking because it focuses solely on helping neighbors and saving friends from evil Yo-kai. However, it is something I find touching, and rare in games nowadays.
A lot of people are not interested in the game simply because of the misconception of it being a rip off of Pokémon. I would say that it is more similar to Digimon, but I am only familiar with an extremely buggy Digimon World. While the similarities are little, the one thing that makes Yo-kai Watch like Pokémon is simply the act of befriending creatures. Outside of that, Yo-kai Watch is pretty much its own game.
I recommend this game for its feel-good atmosphere and simplicity. There is nothing more to it than a summer day, cicadas, and friendly ghosts.
Wei Yuan Lee is a interactive fiction writer and game dev. He enjoys spooky interactive fiction, quirky platformers and RPGmaker games. He checks Itch.io religiously.