Forget NX and smartphone games – the product that might just come to define Nintendo’s 2016 is a 3DS title.
Yo-kai Watch is a monster of a Japanese phenomenon. Created by Level-5 (the company responsible for the Professor Layton series), the last Yo-kai Watch movie attracted more viewers in its first weekend than Star Wars: The Force Awakens (974,557 people went to see the film versus 800,258 for Star Wars).
There wasn’t a full Yo-kai Watch 3DS game last year, but a spin-off game (Yo-kai Watch: Busters) went on to sell as many units as FIFA does over here (2m units).
“The concept of Yo-kai is popular for Japanese people due to traditional folklore,” explains Mitsunobu Uwatoko, chief analyst at Famitsu.
“There are other Yo-kai franchises, but Yo-kai Watch has translated the idea into the modern culture for young children. In addition, the marketing strategy is following Pokémon, and as a result it has become a strong franchise in all of entertainment.”
He continues: “Developer Level-5 will continue to develop the original video game series, but we believe they are planning the next step for Yo-kai Watch, such as holding an eSports event and developing contents for VR/AR.”
"Pokémon was created 20 years ago and we really hope that Yo-kai Watch is going to have the same awareness and longevity."
Aadil Tayouga, Viz Media Europe
Yo-kai Watch certainly sounds a little like Pokémon. The game follows the story of either Nate or Katie, who come across a mysterious Yo-kai (which is a Japanese word for a sort of spirit) called Whisper. Whisper gives the hero the mysterious Yo-kai Watch, which allows the player to see other Yo-kai. Utilising the Watch, the game’s characters can befriend Yo-kai and use them to battle others.
“Pokémon was created 20 years ago and we really hope that Yo-kai Watch is going to have the same awareness and longevity,” says Aadil Tayouga, EMEA licensing manager at licence holder Viz Media Europe.
“Yo-kai Watch is a unique property and is enjoying huge success around the world as a result of its ability to bring something new to the market. The animation is superbly crafted and written with a very strong sense of humor - it works on a more multi-tiered level than most of the other properties vying for attention in the boys’ market, displaying strong humor, adventure and didactic resolutions.
“The Nintendo game is receiving rave reviews everywhere and, where many properties develop additional media platforms and licensing programs as an adjunct to the original property, all elements of the Yo-kai Watch universe come together as essential assets of the same core property. The TV will provide reach which will be enhanced by the interactive game and extended further by the consumer products, a virtuous circle to ensure growth and brand stability.”
The humour and characters will prove key to Yo-kai Watch’s European performance. Titles from Japan don’t always succeed in the West – particularly ones that are steeped in Japanese folklore – but there are elements to the series that Nintendo and Viz believe will resonate with children worldwide.
“It is difficult to say whether it will have the same impact in the West, but I definitely think that there is a lot of potential for it, especially working together with the likes of [toy company] Hasbro and [TV company] Turner,” says Nintendo UK product manager Remy van Leeuwen.
“Everyone is going to back it to its fullest. Because of the nature of Yo-kai and their emotional abilities, it makes it quite easy for kids to relate to them. For instance, there is a Yo-kai called Cheeksqueek, which basically makes people fart. That’s been a hit with kids in our research.”
He continues: “One of the other key aspects that will definitely resonate with kids in the UK is the comedy aspect to it. The characters themselves are just funny, and they’re quite deep, too. We will be trying to bring that out in our campaign.”
Nintendo hopes its hardcore fans will be interested in the game, but its main aim is to win over kids. However, van Leeuwen says simply recreating the Pokémon effect won’t be easy.
“We live in a wildly different time if you compare it to when the first Pokemon games were released,” he says. “But there are a lot of other opportunities now to engage with kids, with the TV show starting on Cartoon Network, I think that’s a great place for kids to be introduced to the franchise, to get to know the universe and characters. And then go and explore from there.”
A big attractions for Nintendo around Yo-kai Watch is its potential impact on 3DS.
The handheld machine is now five years old, and appears past its peak. There are a few potential hits for the platform this year, including a new Pokémon and Fire Emblem, yet whereas those games will likely appeal to existing 3DS owners, van Leeuwen hopes Yo-kai Watch will entice new users to the machine.
“3DS has still got a big life ahead of it,” he says. “There will be a lot of great experiences and Yo-kai Watch, particularly, will help expand it into the kids market. There’s more beyond this first title, So there’s hardware driving potential.”
Nintendo says the marketing campaign it is putting behind Yo-kai Watch has an investment akin to last year’s blockbuster launches of Splatoon and Super Mario Maker. And that’s not including the campaigns from Cartoon Network and Hasbro.
The toys set to reach the market over the summer includes the Yo-kai Watch itself, plus a series of collectable medals that appear in the game and show – this will be joined by a book to store the medals. There will also be plush toys and figurines.
The TV show will debut on Cartoon Network on April 23rd, six days before the 3DS game hits. There is currently no word on the manga series or the movies, although Viz points to early 2017 for the next major push behind Yo-kai Watch.
“For the moment, we are focusing on the launch of the franchise in the West,” continues Viz’s Tayouga.
“2016 is all about laying the foundations to support Yo-kai Watch as it builds to become the strongest boys’ brand in the UK. Key launches from Hasbro, Nintendo and Cartoon Network will introduce the universe to an eager audience of young fans whilst retail right across the territory are very keen to build support programs for the wider merchandise program.
“We are currently working with a large number of licensees to ensure a successful soft launch through publishing and soft lines in 2016 before, working with key retail partners to build in-store theatre to support footfall and sell-through as our core program launches fully in Q1 2017.”
What we think
Is this Pokemon 2.0?
Yo-kai Watch is a huge Japanese hit in merchandise, TV and games. It’s also about battling monsters (of sorts), so the comparisons are there.
However, unlike Pokémon, this is a brand heavily based in Japanes culture, which may deter Western players. Also, unlike when Pokémon hit, the kids media landscape is fragmented and challenging.
However, with huge names such as Turner, Hasbro and Nintendo throwing their respective marketing weights behind it, there’s ever reason to believe this can become 2016’s top boy’s brand.