Yo-Kai Wha?

Tomorrow marks the North American debut of Yo-Kai Watch, a 3DS game wildly popular in Japan but only now being released (four years after its original release; more on this in a bit). To people outside the so-called otakusphere the game is hardly a blip on the radar; many North American game players haven’t even heard of it. Within Japan, however, the game looks to unseat Pokemon as ruler of the “collect everything” style of game. It’s easy to take this at face value and just write it off as a clone, but the truth is a bit more complex. It’s also telling of a trend that helps identify where video games are headed. 

In Yo-Kai Watch, a young boy named Nate has an encounter with Whisper, a specter that owes him a favor after releasing him from an ancient capsule. Whisper follows Nate around as a sort of polter-butler, helping him identify the various other Yo-Kai (spirits) within the town. Some of these spirits are friendly or beneficial, like Komasan (a guardian dog); others are antagonistic or dangerous, such as Negatibuzz (a mosquito that appears to cause temporary depression). If a Yo-Kai is affecting a person, Nate might either befriend the spirit or be forced into battle. Along the way, of course, Nate will collect the various Yo-Kai and send them into battle to protect his town from being utterly overrun. 

At first glance, the game appears to be yet another interpretation of the Shinto pandeistic mythology; spirits are everywhere, affecting people or things whether those people know it or not. However, where Pokemon puts a stronger emphasis on the competitive aspect of the game’s battles, Yo-Kai Watch heavily favors simply making peace with the spirits, rather than forcing them into battle. It’s a fantastic alternative to Pokemon’s often cutthroat nature. For younger players or those looking for a less adversarial kind of game, I’d highly recommend it. 

But it’s precisely that (if you’ll excuse the pun) spirit of nonviolence that is attracting me to the game so strongly. It’s a refreshing trend to see so many games being released where ruthless competition isn’t fostered for its own sake. Animal Crossing Happy Home Designer and Undertale are just two more examples. All of these are predicated on a strong message of peacemaking; in Undertale, taking a bloodthirsty approach to the game results in it getting progressively bleaker. In an era where video games as a whole are routinely blamed for acts of real-world violence, it’s encouraging to see so many games looking to buck that trend. 

Yo-Kai Watch is not perfect in this regard, because there are still times when violence is unavoidable. Self-defense is the order of the day, though, not relentless aggression, and so the game becomes a bag of mixed messages. Fighting is a conscious choice in the real world, and that is the stronger message that Undertale tries to stress. Yo-Kai Watch’s message of peace-bringing could be better served by adding the option to talk down opposing spirits rather than beating them down. Diplomacy has been a bit of a mixed bag in video games, though, and so it’s not surprising that Level-5 didn’t include it in this game. 

Then again, there’s always next time. The game that North America is getting tomorrow is merely the first in the series; the third game is being released in Japan soon. In a funny enough twist, Yo-Kai Watch 3 takes the setting out of Japan and into the United States, featuring appropriately American Yo-Kai modeled after astronauts and football players, for example. If the game catches on in the US– and considering the enormous media push that Nintendo and Hasbro are putting behind this release, it’d be a shock if it didn’t– we might see Whisper pal it up with those spirits soon enough.