If you've paid attention Japanese media over the past couple years, you're probably aware of Yo-Kai Watch - the latest in a string of transmedia products that have taken that country by storm.
Yo-Kai Watch has everything you would expect from a marketing machine for kids, including a cartoon, toys, and several games. What it has lacked up until now is global distribution. That'll be changing next week, though, as the first Yo-Kai Watch will be released in the U.S. next week. The question is whether it will catch on with Americans to the degree that it has with the Japanese. Even now, having had a couple opportunities to play it, I'm not entirely sure.
I was determined to give Yo-Kai Watch a real chance when I checked it out last week. Yo-Kai Watch is frequently compared to Pokémon, and as a long-time fan of the series, I wondered if Level-5 might address my desire to collect monsters in a way that Game Freak's RPG lately hasn't. But in the end, Yo-Kai Watch may just be too young for me.
From the outset, it's clear that Level-5 and Nintendo are gearing Yo-Kai Watch toward a young audience - possibly even younger than the one Pokémon has enjoyed for 15 years. Its characters are simple and cute, making them easier to render into a variety of toys, and its mechanics appear quite simple. If Pokemon and its complex mechanics suitable for organized competition is the RPG equivalent of giving a child their first set of LEGOs, then Yo-Kai Watch is like Duplo blocks - big, friendly, and fun, but very much limited to one age group.
Among other things, the battle system is simple in the extreme. You can deploy six characters at any given time, all of whom fulfill basic roles in your party - healer, attack, and so forth. Three of them can be on-screen at any given time, and they can be rotated by spinning the wheel on your touchscreen, which is meant to represent your character's eponymous watch. They attack on their own, leaving you to wait until they've charged up their "Soultimate Attacks," which can be activated to deal a bit of damage.
As far as I can tell, the extent of the strategy involves rotating in your healer when you need some HP, then rotating in your bulkier creatures when a big attack is coming. There are passive abilities, as well as a little minigame to complete when you use a Soultimate Attack that usually involves tracing a pattern or spinning a wheel, but it's all rather rote. Higher level RPG functions are definitely absent from this game.
To be clear, I don't necessarily consider that a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with introducing young children to basic RPG concepts like classes at an early age, especially when Pokémon can be a bit much even for older players at times. Battling isn't even necessarily the point. Instead, the bulk of the appeal of Yo-Kai Watch is in capturing spirits, which can be found with the help of a special device - no wandering the tall grass - and exploring the colorful world.
Yo-Kai Watch has undeniably high production values - a Level-5 staple - and is loaded with lots of little sequences like a chase scene where you avoid an enraged oni after sneaking out after dark, making it more faster and more exciting than its counterpart. And by emphasizing the watch, Yo-Kai Watch uses the Nintendo 3DS's touch-based mechanics in a way that will definitely appeal to kids. Honestly, it would probably be a better fit for the iPad than the Nintendo 3DS, but I don't expect Nintendo to allow a property as popular as Yo-Kai Watch to slip out of its grasp anytime soon.
With the anime on its way to Disney XD, Hasbro set to release the toys in the U.S., and Viz Media prepping the manga, it seems that the marketing blitz is on for Yo-Kai Watch. We'll see if it manages to ultimately become a phenomenon in the U.S. like it has in Japan, but I'll say this for Yo-Kai Watch - it knows its audience and it knows exactly what it's trying to be. Now we'll just have to see how well that translates to the west.
On the subject of Pokémon, Game Freak's powerhouse is apparently taking the year off after a sustained run of annual releases. But fans won't be totally bereft this fall. Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon is set to launch on November 20, putting it just about two weeks after Yo-Kai Watch.
Appropriately, Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon is another game that can be characterized as training wheels for the genre that it represents - in this case, roguelikes. In his Gateway Guide to Roguelikes, Jeremy more or less refers to it as such, characterizing it as an extremely easy roguelike meant to introduce beginners to the sub-genre's most fundamental concepts. The series walks and talks like a roguelike, featuring top-down turn-based battles and other genre staples, but it hardly bears comparison to Angband or even Shiren the Wanderer.
Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon looks to be much the same, though it boasts plenty of additions that are in line with the mechanical changes from the mainline series, the most notable of which is the ability to utilize a mega evolution - a super-powered Pokémon form that can do large amounts of damage when accessed via an Awakening Emera. Alas, it wasn't available in the version that I got to play, but it's good to know that Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon is keeping pace with the series at large. Another new addition is the ability to use team attacks by surrounding an enemy and attacking all at once.
As expected, it's still pretty easy. In the course of about 10 minutes, I was able to rip through Drilbur's Cave with Froakie and Chimchar with ease using Water Pulse. Granted, that particular area might have been balanced as a kind of tutorial; but given Pokemon Mystery Dungeon's reputation for being quite easy, it's more likely that it's following in line with the previous games in the series. In that sense it's less of a roguelike and more of a "rogue-lite" - an RPG that keeps some of the basic roguelike ideas like hunger and randomized dungeons while jettisoning other elements like permanent death. Suffice it to say, it's aimed squarely at the casual Pokémon demographic and not the hardcore rogulike audience.
So what does Pokémon Mystery Dungeon have to offer fans of the series jonesing for another RPG? Well, there are the 700 some odd monsters populating the universe, all of which can be found in this game. There's the fact that the monsters can talk and generally exhibit personality traits appropriate to their species, which automatically makes them more fun than the rather one-dimensional humans in the mainline games. And its particular brand of dungeon diving remains a nice change of pace from the grind of collecting and battling, the foundation of which remains very similar to what it was when the series arrived on American shores in 1998.
Out of all the Pokémon spinoffs, Mystery Dungeon remains one of the most notable, over time outlasting the likes of Pokémon Ranger, PokéPark, Pokémon Rumble, and even the much-loved Stadium games. In the case of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, whether or not it's a proper roguelike seems to be beside the point. After nearly 20 years, the universe remains popular enough that a game like Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon practically sells itself, particularly with the main series apparently on hiatus until next year. If Yo-Kai Watch is truly the successor to Pokémon some have claimed it to be, then that's the bar that it will have to clear as it finally sets up shop in the U.S.