In Japan, Yo-Kai Watch is already a big deal. The third game in the series is set to be released next summer, there are manga (comics) series aimed at both boys and girls, there's an animated show, a movie ... The whole shebang.
We're about to see if that success can translate globally. The Yo-Kai Watch show is currently airing on Disney XD (and streaming for free, with a one-month delay, on YouTube), and the original video game has just hit Nintendo 3DS systems in North America.
At a glance, Yo-Kai Watch might remind you of another Japanese sensation that took the world by storm: Pokemon. A young child (you can be either a boy or girl in the game, but in the show it's a boy) lives in a world surrounded by a variety of special creatures with unique abilities whose names are often puns. Said child obtains the ability to catch those creatures and use them to fight for him/her, allowing the capture of even more creatures. Some creatures can even evolve into bigger, better forms. This will all sound very familiar to anyone who has ever brushed up against the Pokemon series.
The creatures this time around, though, are ghosts (but, you know ... goofy, light-hearted ghosts, not scary ones). Yokai, in Japanese folklore, are supernatural, often mischievous monsters. In Yo-Kai Watch, you might find one of them hiding in a tree, under a car or in a pile of garbage. Often, though, they're causing trouble for humans. In the world of Yo-Kai Watch, they might even be the reason your parents are arguing.
The entire thing seems tailor-made to be a successor to the pocket monster craze that was big when I was growing up, back when the likes of Digimon and Monster Rancher were trying hard to latch onto the same excitement that Pokemon generated. The Yo-Kai Watch game's intro cinematic includes the series' catchy theme song -- a tune that wouldn't have been out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon in the late 90's or early 00's -- which in a weird way filled me with nostalgia for those monster hunting days of my youth.
The thing about Yo-Kai Watch is that it actually has all the right pieces to, theoretically, succeed.
Unlike most of the Pokemon als0-rans that cluttered shelves and TV channels in the past, the Yo-Kai Watch game is actually pretty good. Simple and aimed at a younger demographics, yes, certainly. But it's well-made. Its characters are charming, its world is vibrant and the act of actually playing it is a lot of fun. It inspires the right feeling of "I've gotta catch 'em all" that you want in a game about, well ... catching things.
That's a big deal. My friends and I played the Pokemon games on the bus because those games were good, not because the cartoon was great (although we certainly liked it). We weren't playing Medabots during recess because, frankly, the games weren't interesting enough.
Within just a few hours I was able to see why Yo-Kai Watch is a hit overseas. It's got all the elements that would have made 12 year-old me a big fan, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if today's kids go crazy catching ghosts this holiday season.