Yo-Kai Watch could be the next Pokemon-style global phenomenon

Pikachu has some competition

In 1996, Nintendo launched a new role-playing game called Pokemon in Japan. It was about collecting and battling monsters, and unlike most RPGs, it was aimed at kids; the story was playful, and the game mechanics easy to grasp. The world also extended well beyond the Game Boy cartridge, with an animated series to help introduce new fans to the series, a lineup of toys for those who couldn’t get enough of Pikachu and friends, and a popular collectible card game that provided a different way to catch ‘em all. Two years later, both the show and game launched in North America to similar success, and the franchise has gone on to become one of the biggest entertainment properties in the world, selling more than 275 million video games and 21 billion collectible cards.

Now, two decades later, a small Japanese developer called Level-5 is trying to do almost the exact same thing. Today marks the launch of Yo-Kai Watch on the Nintendo 3DS in North America, the first Western release in a franchise that’s already massively popular in Japan. And just like Pokemon, it’s a franchise that extends well beyond a single game; in October a Yo-Kai Watch anime debuted in English, and earlier this week saw the launch of a manga based on the series. Next year a huge lineup of toys will roll out.

It’s hard not to see similarities between the two. But Yo-Kai Watch is releasing in a very different time, one where mobile gaming has largely overtaken dedicated gaming handhelds, and where Japanese video games are no longer the dominant force they once were. But with nearly the exact same strategy, can Yo-Kai Watch become the next Pokemon-style global phenomenon?

Level-5 was founded in 1998, and outside of Japan the company is probably best known for Professor Layton, a puzzle book-like game series that was one of the original Nintendo DS’s first big hits. But while the company is primarily known for video games, its ambitions have always been bigger. Professor Layton spawned an animated feature film in 2009, and Level-5 has crafted several franchises where the animated series is as popular as the game, including the robot battling series LBX and Inazuma Eleven, a soccer role-playing game. The studio even collaborated with legendary animation house Studio Ghibli on the PlayStation 3 game Ni No Kuni. But Yo-Kai Watch is the company’s biggest success, despite only being available in Japan. First launched in 2013, the franchise has sold more than 7 million games to date, and, perhaps more importantly, earned over $1 billion in sales of toys and other merchandise.

The company now wants to parlay that domestic success into a global phenomenon. Today the game is launching in North America, as well as Europe, Latin America, Australia, and Korea. In early October, just ahead of the anime’s launch, Level-5 launched a new American subsidiary called Level-5 abby. Based in Santa Monica, the new company was created specifically to bring the company’s franchises over to the West, starting with Yo-Kai Watch and the upcoming Snack World. "As we looked toward our opportunities for global growth, it became clear to us that we needed to locate our global concern at the entertainment / multimedia global center, and that place is Southern California," Yukari Hayakawa, COO of Level-5 abby, explains. "And we sometimes need to make decisions that conflict with our headquarter company’s policies, in order to do what is best for each regional market. This is easier to do as an independent entity."

Level-5 has also partnered with a number of prominent entertainment companies for the launch. The animated series is airing on Disney XD, with full episodes also available on YouTube, while Viz Media is publishing the manga. Hasbro will be handling the launch of the toy line next year, and Nintendo is publishing the game (it also previously published Level-5 games like Professor Layton and LBX) and even bundling it with its budget-priced 2DS handheld. According to Hayakawa, the staggered timing of the different products was by design. The idea is that the show will help introduce people to the franchise before the game comes out, and once kids are into the game, they’ll probably want the toys. "It’s really about seeding the IP," says Michael Ballog, senior director for the franchise at Hasbro, "allowing time for the brand to take hold." He notes that, despite missing the lucrative holiday window, the January toy launch allows the relatively unknown brand to avoid being overshadowed by existing properties. "Having that space is always important," he explains.

The Yo-Kai Watch game is about a young boy or girl (you can choose to play as either, though the show stars a boy named Nate), who stumbles upon a magical watch that lets them see spirits and monsters that are otherwise invisible. You can then befriend these creatures, and summon them in battle to fight against other troublesome yo-kai. Unlike Pokemon, it takes place in the modern day, not a fantasy world, and most of the yo-kai are like mischievous spirits, invisible creatures responsible for all of life’s little annoyances. If your parents are fighting all the time, they might be under the spell of the gloomy Dismarelda. If you’ve got a cold, it’s probably the fault of Snotsolong, a bird with a runny nose so heavy it can’t even fly.

For the English release, a few things have been changed. The concept of yo-kai is very distinct to Japan, as yo-kai are creatures found in traditional Japanese folklore. But you wouldn’t know that from watching the English show or playing the game. In fact, Nintendo seems to be distancing itself from the folklore element, describing the yo-kai as "not ghosts, monsters, or creatures; yo-kai are, quite simply, yo-kai." Even the spelling has been changed from the more traditional yōkai. The game’s localization means that most of the new monsters have English-sounding names, many of which are silly puns, and a quirky ghost named Whisper serves as the game’s version of Pikachu, both a mascot and a helpful guide through this hidden, magical world.

These goofy characters, which unlike pokemon are able to talk, are part of what helps differentiate the franchise. It’s not about fighting to be the best trainer in the world, but instead dealing with real-world problems (with the help of cute monsters, of course). The game is also incredibly charming, with witty writing, great character design and plenty of fun little details, like how your character will take their shoes off before entering a house, or how you need to press the crosswalk button before crossing a busy street. The concept is familiar, but the game feels distinct. "I believe Yo-Kai Watch falls into a comedy-drama genre and not into the fantasy-adventure category as one might expect," says Hayakawa.

It’s impossible to know whether the series will catch on with an English speaking audience, but for Level-5’s partners, the huge success in Japan made it an irresistible opportunity. "We’re highly encouraged by the results we’ve seen in Japan," says Hasbro’s Ballog. In a press release announcing the game’s upcoming launch, Nintendo’s marketing VP Scott Moffitt described the franchise as "a cultural phenomenon in Japan" with "plans to make a big splash in the US." It’s also unique in that the different facets of the franchise all work together pretty seamlessly, largely because Yo-kai Watch was designed from the outset to cover different media. Take the titular watch, for example: in the game you collect medals from befriended yo-kai, which you place in the watch to summon them. One of the most popular toys in Japan, meanwhile, is a replica watch with collectible medals.

While the first English game is available on the Nintendo 3DS, don’t be surprised to see it move to other platforms in the future as well, especially if the franchise proves a hit. Level-5 has been relatively aggressive with the mobile market, creating smartphone sequels to some of its most popular franchises, including Professor Layton and Fantasy Life. The company also released a free mobile app to coincide with the English game, which lets players read up on the various yo-kai and register certain toys to unlock new features.

In Japan the franchise is everywhere, with ubiquitous merchandising to rival Frozen, including everything from Yo-Kai Watch chopsticks to bandages to cereal. This past summer there was even a Yo-Kai Watch attraction at Universal Studios Japan. And if Level-5 has its way, Whisper and friends will be your kid’s next obsession.

"We expect to be everywhere there is a place to tell the Yo-Kai Watch story," says Hayakawa.