So what exactly is Yo-Kai Watch anyway?

There’s a name many parents might be hearing a lot right now. Yo-Kai Watch. It’s a game, it’s a TV show, it’s getting a lot of ad play, and your kids want it for Christmas. The thing is, you’ve also heard that it’s a massive cultural phenomenon with millions of fans … so why are you only hearing about it now? Relax, The Iris has you covered. Here’s a quick primer on the world of Yo-Kai Watch.

Yo-Kai Watch is a series of video games that have spawned a pop culture empire in its homeland of Japan. They follow a young boy or girl, depending on player preference, who find and collect yokai, or spirits. These spirits are responsible for any number of irritating circumstances in your daily life. Some compulsively steal single socks which is why you can’t ever find a pair in your house that matches. Some are more mischievous, able to manipulate people’s minds and cause them to fight or forget important things. Yokai can be exorcised but they can also be gathered and used to fight off other unruly yokai. Gathering yokai causes them to become your friend and ally, rather than in Pokemon where they are essentially captive animals. Friends, yes, but still, you put them away in a little ball on your belt until you’re ready to make them fight something. Yokai just hang out with you, offering advice and helping you to accomplish various side quests around the world.

The series is up to over eight titles in Japan and still going strong. The game we have just seen release on Nintendo 3DS in Australia (and you can check out our full review of it right here) is the first title in the series, but has a fully-fledged sequel Yo-Kai Watch 2, a few spin-offs like Yo-Kai Watch Busters and a number of mobile games available in Japan. Yo-Kai Watch 3 is currently in development for release sometime in 2016. No word on when, if ever, we’ll see these titles reach the west. Sooner rather than later should Yo-Kai Watch fare as well outside of Japan as Nintendo are hoping.

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There have been a lot of superficial comparisons made to the Pokemon series in terms of gameplay and while they’re not incorrect, the fundamental difference is that Yo-Kai Watch pulls from Japanese culture in many of its core mechanics, settings and characters. “Yokai” itself is the Japanese word for ghost or apparition, thus explaining what these monsters are and why they do what they do. Your character in the game is on their summer break from school and is desperately trying to find something to do on their own initiative to pass the time. This is something that real Japanese kids do – they come up with projects and spend a lot of time roaming about in the world unsupervised, a far cry from the controlled and closely monitored lives many western children are used to.

“Yo-kai are spooky beings which often appear in Japanese folklore, mostly related to either humans or objects we were once attached to,” said series creator Akihiro Hino of the concepts beginnings. “From there, I started thinking about some of the main characters, and the concept of Jibanyan – a pretty cat Yo-kai who got hit by a truck – came into my mind.” Relatability and engagement was key to Hino’s early concepts, something that remains one of the series’ strongest suits. “We tried hard to capture what they are most concerned about – it was interesting to find concerns which I can relate to my childhood days, and the ones which were unique to kids today.”

These facets, among others, have lead to Yo-Kai Watch becoming one of the most popular properties in Japan today. Right now, it’s not possible to walk around in Tokyo without seeing something related to the property, be it food or actual advertising for the game. It also has an extremely popular anime TV show, the English language version of which recently premiered on GO! here in Australia (and we’ll come back to that in a moment), that continues to do huge business in Japan. There are manga comics, there are movies, there are music cds, there are a wealth of other games in the series we haven’t even seen yet (the game that just released in Australia last weekend has been available in Japan for over two years at this point).

And now Yo-Kai Watch has escaped its homeland and into the west where, if it’s breathlessly excited marketing materials are to believed, it is set to make a huge splash. This is another area where the comparisons to Pokemon are both expected and well-deserved. At the risk of a digression into the millennial equivalent of a “when I was your age” story, I was in high school when Pokemon Red and Blue first erupted into Australian hearts and minds. It was everywhere. The games were almost the last things on anyone’s minds such was the frenzy around the many-tentacled arms of the franchise’s merchandising. It was, more than anything else, the TV show about Ash Ketchum and his quest that did most of the legwork in feeding Pokemania, creating a cult atmosphere around the property and converting kids into fans daily.

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This had reached a fever pitch by the time Pokemon: The First Movie (of a current total of 24!) found its way to Australia as Pokemon Gold and Silver were about to release. Indeed, that series continues to be a huge cultural force to this day – I went into the post office to send a gift yesterday and there were two nine-year-olds on the floor in a corner playing the Pokemon trading card game – and while Yo-Kai Watch certainly has that sort of staying power in Japan, whether it catches on in the west is another matter entirely.

The TV show based around Yo-Kai Watch began screening in Australia last weekend and, like Pokemon before it, this show will be the key to building an audience outside of its homeland. The show is a vehicle for the game as much as anything else, a place to show off the bizarre creatures and offbeat humour that pervade the game without asking parents to throw down any money initially. Based on the pilot, it’s easy to see the show garnering a dedicated fan base here quite quickly.

You can check out the show’s pilot episode embedded above and you can watch brand new episodes Monday-to-Friday on GO at 8:30am, repeating at 1:30pm! You can also get yourself up to date with each episode so far on Nine’s streaming 9JumpIn catch-up service.