I’ve written elsewhere, prior to the game’s release, that I had a bad feeling about Yo-Kai Watch. It’s one thing to be “too Japanese”, but there is a risk of localizing the uniqueness out of something, especially when it plays with language. I’m no otaku, as I constantly disappoint my Japanese students with my lack of anime knowledge (and language skills, sadly!), but I know a little about the culture after becoming familiar with it through some games and anime. Living here for a few years while interacting with locals as friends, family, and more probably helps a lot too. That being said, as an adult that keenly remembers Pokemon‘s rise during his middle school years, I feel Yo-Kai Watch has made a few missteps coming to the states.
Now, before we begin, let’s get to the “yo-kai” thing. They’re Japanese mythological creatures, like goblins, ogres, shape-shifting animals/spirits, and even possessed items. However, the game doesn’t include them as they’re historically described; it includes urban legends and even adds their home-brewed creatures that have (to my knowledge and from some research) no cultural origin to yokai at all. It’s easier to think of the game as Pokemon if the creatures can’t be seen by everyone, and that, rather than being used by society, the creatures are secretly affecting it.
Now, on to the game experience. From the start, Yo-Kai Watch feels like a cartoon. Not “animated movie,” but like a kid’s cartoon. There are tons of hand drawn-like animation, complete with voice acting, cut scenes, and tons of visual gags. In fact, the story is divided up into named chapters or episodes. It’s really like a TV show spliced open and filled with a game world. I’m not yet 30, but I immediately felt too old to be playing the game, even though I want to “get it” for personal reasons. Despite the apparent mythology connections and the fact that I live in Japan which motivates me to try it, the game opening and introduction feels psychologically restrictive.
Bugs? Bullies? The playground? Animal Crossing as a series is also a slice of life experience, but it’s not quite so strict with the identity of its characters, containing similar themes (Nook putting you into debt counts as bullying!). Even Pokemon, it’s direct influence/competition that naturally includes all of those elements, was wise enough not to lock the protagonist into a specific age group. A “young” girl or boy could be 5-17 for me, but the game specifically says I’m in elementary school. I could be wrong, but for me, as an American, that’s too young for a named, voiced, player-controlled protagonist.
There’s a big difference to me between being a shell of a character in terms of personality and dialogue versus having a strong narrative. If the character is a blank slate, like the main character in Pokemon, Animal Crossing, and even Undertale, I can connect with that character. It can be me, even if it’s a girl character. I can assert my personality onto a blank character even if the story is fairly linear, but if that character is well developed and can only have their name changed, it almost feels like stealing. There’s a reason people taunt fan-fiction where an author has an established, trademarked character do things they wouldn’t normally do!
When the character is given a very specific backstory, face, personality, and voice, and I’m told to fill in the rest, it doesn’t feel like it’s me. I’m borrowing an identity and feel as if I need to follow a specific path in Yo-Kai Watch. Although game play options really open up, from alternate reality photo taking for rewards, hide-and-sneak mini-games, and Pokemon-like depth with stat-effecting personalities and IV/EV training, the story is very limited, as are your interactions as a child that tries to do good but needs to follow rules such as waiting for the crossing light to change green. Maybe this is cute for younger players or non-gamers, but it feels patronizing at my age and gaming experience.
Again turning to Pokemon in my childhood, I thought Ash Ketchum was about my age because, in the states, I felt we started to get some freedom in middle school, which is when Ash starts his journey. I know kids in Japan can go out and roam a bit in elementary school, but had Ash been strictly an elementary school student in the west, most kids my age would have taunted me mercilessly if I had still enjoyed Pokemon.
Searching in the game is quite active though, in that, when investigating an area (such as a garbage can), you can physically look around for bugs, Yokai, or shiny objects. When a location is dry of all three, you’ll be told there’s nothing there. This makes exploring more interactive on one level, but also tedious at times, and takes out some of the reading and natural searching you get from old school games.
However, by using “natural” search instead of relying on text made me notice the lack of text in other areas of the game. For example, befriending Yokai does not immediately take you to their description, which especially as a foreigner feels like a mistake. Even though I live in Japan and are familiar with certain yokai, like kappas and baku in addition to urban legends (such as human-faced dogs), I still want to learn about what the heck I’m looking at, as soon as possible, especially because I want some naming inspiration.
And again, remember that I have an advantage directly with the culture. Pokemon players may connect the dots that Baku and Drowzee come from the same mythological yokai, and kids get a vague idea of what the creature is due to its inclusion in the story, but that’s one of the lucky monsters. Others you randomly stumble upon may never receive their own narrative, especially not before they become part of your roster. This makes the game’s action front and center — you can’t even skip descriptions because you need to take time out of exploring to manually search for each yokai you encounter.
The feeling that there’s less of a need to read keeps the game feeling aimed at kids to me, especially with the searching under houses and cars. Yes, it reminds me a bit of my childhood, which is nice, but I’m still not comfortable playing as such a young character and forced to act in a mostly child-like mindset. Worse yet is that I’m being taught that the way people act isn’t their fault but that of spirits. I’m not a parent, and my students are high schoolers, so I’m not worried about excuses of someone’s multimutt eating their homework. However, this is the sort of thing that I remember in cartoons as a young child, seeing them again as an adult, and realizing there was a reason I’d forgotten it.
I suppose the touch and visual-heavy gameplay is a natural evolution of gaming, but this, along with other small touches, like tapping orbs or tracing lines to use a Yokai’s “soultimate” ability gives the game a mobile feeling, rather than what I’m personally more used to from a 3DS monster battler that’s a bit more focused on strategy than reaction. It’s not bad, and I can actually accept and even enjoy it. However, I know some older players are already set in their ways and may wish the game was, well, like Pokemon but with different monsters.
While the physical exploration can get really boring, some small details, like shoes coming off when you go beyond the entry way, are nice, and perhaps easy to appreciate even for some western families. It’s small touches like this that, for me, just started to make the Pokemon series more immersive, so people who have skipped Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire might enjoy this aspect of the series even more.
Some of the humor has been labeled as “adult” when I’ve talked to other people about the game, but over 20 hours in, and the only “adult humor” I came across was a comic about a wind-up watch, something 10 year olds may not get; it’s nice for old adults, but it’s just dated for me. Still, I suppose it makes the game more inclusive for Japanese grandparents.
While I may have said a lot of negative things, at the end of the day, I’m still playing Yo-Kai Watch. I don’t (yet) regret my purchase. That being said, I can see why a lot of my American friends are barely conscious of the series. While there are other adults with specific jobs raving about the game, I feel like there’s a lot going against the series in terms of appealing to audiences outside of young children. It is fun, it does have interesting mechanics and plays with culture, but it doesn’t feel like it’s handled in an accessible way, and that’s both sad and understandable.