The first decision you make in Level-5’s Yo-kai Watch 2 is whether to buy a doughnut from one of two competing shops. Your father loves Spirit Doughnuts; your mother prefers Soul Doughnuts. You eventually pick one and the choice leads to your parents having a marital dispute in front of you. The implication is that they don’t normally fight; something must be causing them to have this odd behavior. Cue the “Yo-kai,” spirit-like entities that linger around unseen, causing normal behavior like getting really hungry, needing to pee, and getting in stupid fights with your spouse.
This prologue also reinforces the fact of this game coming in two versions: You can buy either Yo-kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits or Yo-kai Watch 2: Fleshy Souls. The difference is minimal; certain Yo-kai only show up in one or the other, but the main narrative and gameplay remains the same. Level-5 and Nintendo, who published the games in the West, have borrowed a page from the Pokémon playbook in a few ways with this series, but this dual-release (along with a show on Cartoon Network) is perhaps the most telling of Yo-kai Watch’s ambitions: to be everywhere, on your television, in your handheld, on your mobile device, and even on your wrist. Ubiquity is such that eventually, we forget to notice: That thing that is everywhere becomes familiar, barely seen, making us do things we might have done anyway.
I’ve been playing Yo-kai Watch 2 for a few weeks now. And as a game, it’s a fun trifle: You explore your town as a kid on summer vacation, discovering more Yo-kai and helping friends and neighbors with their problems. You’re not “catching ‘em all” so much as pulling back a mystical veil on what’s been there all along. Each Yo-kai is designed such that finding them is reward enough: the sweaty blob Swelton is a gross, drippy thing complete with tiny sauna towel, but what would be revolting in person is a cute cartoon spirit you feel empathy with. I, too, sweat sometimes, Swelton; I, too, know what it’s like to feel warm.
One early quest takes you to the local playground. You help a group of kids playing soccer settle an argument about whether the goalie let the ball into the net or not. He exclaims it did not; the dozen of onlookers persist: Of course the ball went in, are you blind!? Once you find the hidden Yo-kai, however, all is revealed. The goalie was controlled by the Nosirs, a troupe of stubborn spirits that cause their victim to be incessantly negative: No no no! Fight and defeat Nosir and the goalie admits the truth. As a kind of filter for a child’s experience, Yo-kai Watch is a brilliant conceit, giving reason to so many unreasonable things—the need to be right, certainty in the face of the unknown—we put up with as flawed humans.
But as a concept—and Yo-kai Watch was designed to be exactly that, a “concept” that extends beyond a simple game and into a multi-tentacled universe of product—it only works when the franchise becomes like its titular spirits, everywhere and nowhere all at once. In Japan, its country of origin, Level-5 succeeded in birthing a new ubiquitous property. The first game sold okay and puttered to over a million in its first year of release in 2013; its dual-sequel, released a year later and subtitled Ganso and Honke in Japan, blasted past a million in its first week. It became a genuine phenomenon and, still today, its characters can be seen in convenience stores on nearly every street corner from Tokyo to Kagoshima.
The original game came out in the West last year; the response has been muted. Anecdotal evidence remains mixed. My then-nine-year-old niece asked for the 3DS game last Christmas. My twelve-year-old nephew remains infatuated with Minecraft, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and the greater Marvel Universe. After playing the sequel for some time, I worry about the game’s chances to duplicate its massive success here, though not because I don’t like it. I do. But as much as I might care for the game, it matters little what I, thirtysomething college instructor, think, since my preferences won’t drive enthusiasm like the fervor of a packed blacktop or a lunchroom bubbling with the excited chatter of pre-teens.
Pokémon succeeds as an adorable quest filled with fantastical animals, but also as a nuanced battle game fit for tournaments. As far as I can tell, the battle system for Yo-kai Watch 2 is more passive. Spirits fight automatically; you control a spinner of sorts that selects which three of your six party members are out front and attacking. There’s some strategy involved, but nothing like the surprisingly deep system hiding under Pokémon’s cute sheen.
And that’s one of the reasons I wonder if the Yo-kai Watch phenomenon will successfully cross over to the West. It takes more than a cheeky cartoon and clever plastic merchandise to entice children. The young ones aren’t dumb; there must be something more to Yo-kai Watch that I’m not seeing. In the case of Pikachu and Co., Pokémon became such a massive success largely because there was something to chew on long after you Caught ‘Em All. That’s why there are still annual tournaments today, twenty years later. You can master the game in a way that necessitates practice and a deep-dive into its mechanical underpinnings.
Yo-kai Watch’s world and characters are fun and funny and fascinating… but there’s little sense of mastery to be uncovered over time. For me, a husband and teacher and full-grown adult happy to indulge in some fanciful whimsy, it’s the perfect cocktail of bizarre storylines matched with a frictionless plot. I can push forward and get what I need. Since my niece asked for the first game for Christmas last year, I haven’t heard much about it. She set it aside because she could. Because the game didn’t require more of her.
Perhaps the Japanese children enamoured with Level-5’s spirited world see themselves within it. Yo-kai Watch is outlandishly Japanese—you walk past shrines and you purchase rice balls. This game has not been washed clean of its origins. Which is a good thing: You’d lose much of its charm if the world was a pretend American suburb rife with pizza shops and giant SUVs. And though Japanese culture has become more pervasive than in the Import Your Favorite Anime days of the mid-’90s, our familiarity with Japan’s tropes and cultural enthusiasms might actually hurt Yo-kai Watch’s chances for long-term success in the West.
When I mentioned Yo-kai Watch’s extreme Japanese-ness as an obstacle, my editor mentioned that Pokémon, too, was and is extremely Japanese. That hasn’t hurt its global appeal. But I wonder if timing isn’t the issue here. Pokémon first revealed itself in North America in 1998. We had Sailor Moon and Akira, but there was no Crunchyroll, no corner comics store with a full rack of Death Note, no 24/7 YouTube access for the really obscure stuff. Pokémon was a quirky diamond in a relatively spare field of rocks. Yo-kai Watch is a quirky diamond thrown into a quarry of other shiny, oddball jewels.
In Japan, 7-Eleven, a staple on many a street corner there, is still awash in the brand. Go in and be bombarded with the cutesy spirit creatures that make us hungry or lose our second sock. In the United States, a similar fervor appears to have been rekindled for all things Star Wars: get your plastic Darth Vader mask for Halloween, watch your side-story cartoons, buy your expensive automated Yoda with a dozen pre-recorded voices, decorate your Christmas tree with Jedi and wookiees and droids. This is the marketing fury that landed after the first movie in 1977, seen again forty years later. This second wave (or third or fourth, depending on your view) is understandable, if only considering the franchise’s reach across generations: You watched the original as a kid, now your own children are watching the new movies and discovering your old favorites. Yo-kai Watch is still in its first wave, but I can imagine a similar renaissance in a few decades, with today’s kids grown-up, remembering fondly their obsession, and introducing their own children with—surprise!—a new movie or game.
But that kind of resurgence takes time. Pokémon has sustained this kind of ebb-and-flow of interest and growth over two decades. The recent and still-smoldering Pokémon Go craze is proof of that series’s reach and uncommon, near-supernatural appeal. Whether Yo-kai Watch can maintain a similar resonance in its homeland, let alone break out as a worldwide hit, remains up for question. Recent evidence suggests otherwise. But maybe my pessimism stems only from some nearby poltergeist, filling my mind with negativity, invisible to me and my dog but in control of my mind nonetheless. Nosir, is that you?
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.