Does Yo-Kai Watch Have a Place Outside of Japan?

The series has struggled to find an identity in the west.

By Marc Deschamps. Posted 02/23/2018 04:00 1 Comment     ShareThis

Bringing video game franchises to the west can be a difficult thing. While some prove easier than others, many are too rooted in the cultures of their respective points of origin. Despite initially finding a massive level of success in Japan, Level-5’s Yo-Kai Watch franchise has found a far more modest reception in North America and Europe. The demand for merchandise in particular has seemed quite a bit smaller, with Yo-Kai Watch toys currently clogging Dollar Stores and GameStop’s discount bins. Over two years after the western release of the first Yo-Kai Watch, it begs the question: can the franchise truly find lasting success outside Japan?

A big part of Yo-Kai Watch’s struggle is likely cultural: so much of the franchise is steeped in Japan’s history, and this likely contributed to the game’s success in that particular region. While the concept of yōkai have existed in Japan for centuries, to westerners, the creatures created by Level-5 seem far too similar to Pokémon. Admittedly, there is reason for people to make that connection: the Yo-Kai Watch franchise liberally borrows from Pokémon in a lot of different respects. To their credit, Nintendo (the publisher of Yo-Kai Watch titles in the west) has made a concerted effort to play-up the differences between the two franchises, particularly the fact that yōkai are, essentially, ghosts; the titles have traditionally released in October, and Nintendo has used the Halloween connection in marketing materials for the games.

Ironically, the Yo-Kai Watch game that has the worst chance of coming to North America is probably the one that would translate best to our shores. Yo-Kai Watch 3 has a more “American” focus, using cultural touchstones such as Indiana Jones and Terminator for Yo-Kai inspiration. The whole thing seems a bit like the episode of Arrested Development where there’s an America-themed restaurant in Wee Britain, but it works. However, no announcement has been made as far as localization goes, and, with Switch now getting the majority of Nintendo’s focus, the title could very well remain exclusive to Japan.

Though Yo-Kai Watch 3 might not end up with a localization, distinctly American cultural references have appeared elsewhere in the franchise, as well. The first Yo-Kai Watch makes multiple references to the Ghostbusters films, and there’s even a spin-off franchise that plays up the Ghostbusters connection. Last summer, publisher IDW released a comic based on Yo-Kai Watch and it, too, made a concerted effort at giving the franchise more of a western identity. In the book’s second issue, series mascot Jibanyan does his best Wolverine impersonation, then later references a popular internet meme, while the third issue finds inspiration in Back to the Future. These references aren’t something fans would likely see in the anime, but the unique amalgam of eastern and western influences is certainly interesting.

The recent announcement that Level-5 is taking Yo-Kai Watch in a darker direction certainly seems to underscore the franchise’s difficulty with finding an identity. It stands to be seen how the new character designs will be implemented and approached but, at first glance, the change is a jarring one. One of the biggest strengths of the Yo-Kai Watch games is the fact that they do a great job introducing younger audiences to RPG mechanics. Since the franchise has been around for nearly five years in Japan, an attempt to age with the audience makes sense, but in other regions, where the franchise is only a couple of years old, a move like this could alienate the fans the series has managed to pick up.

With so many factors working against Yo-Kai Watch, it would be easy to count the franchise out. It’s important, however, to remember that even Pokémon has had its struggles over the years. While the franchise was a mega hit out of the gate, it was initially a tough sell, and Nintendo and Game Freak made some interesting choices of their own when bringing the franchise to North America. And, even after that initial success, two years in, news outlets were predicting fans had moved on from the “fad.” Despite these struggles, Nintendo and Level-5 seem determined to continue investing in Yo-Kai Watch. Yo-Kai Watch 2: Psychic Specters released last fall, a “third version” of 2016’s release. The fact that a third version of the title got a translation at all is proof positive that Nintendo and Level-5 believe in the franchise in the west. There are even rumors that a Yo-Kai Watch Busters translation could be in the works! It will be interesting to see, however, if the franchise can continue to earn that faith going forward.

One Response to “Does Yo-Kai Watch Have a Place Outside of Japan?”

  • 1288 points
    Robert Marrujo says...

    It’s sort of saddening to see Yo-Kai flounder a bit over here. It’s a solid alternative to Pokemon that deserves much more attention than it gets. It would be a real shame to not get the third installment, and an even bigger one if this new direction is merely to appease Western audiences.

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