Nintendo Hopes Its $2 Billion Yo-Kai Watch Franchise Can Be the Next Pokémon

The basic premise of Yo-Kai Watch closely mirrors that of Pokémon, but shifting consumer habits may test the game’s success in the US.

Nov 7 2015, 7:00pm

Image: Nintendo

Does Nintendo still have what it takes to successfully launch a new all-conquering franchise in the US? We're about to find out.

Released on Friday for the Nintendo 3DS, Yo-Kai Watch is a role-playing game that tasks players with fighting and capturing "yokai," Pokémon-like creatures that are based on Japanese mythology. Nintendo, the game's publisher, launched the series in 2013 in Japan, where it spans so many video games, toys, movies, cartoons, and comic books that the game's developer, a company called Level-5, refers to it as a "cross-media project."

"Yo-Kai Watch is something that the whole family can enjoy together," Level-5 Founder, president, and CEO Akihiro Hino told Motherboard in an interview on Friday, speaking through an interpreter. "From the very beginning we developed Yo-Kai Watch to be a cross-media project and not just a video game."

The value of this project so far? Around $2 billion, according to Nintendo.

If you're a kid, know a kid, or still think you're a kid, it may be difficult to avoid all things Yo-Kai in the coming weeks. A Yo-Kai Watch cartoon recently debuted on the cable channel Disney XD, with full episodes airing on YouTube shortly after their TV debut—recognition of how kids today consume media, as highlighted in a recent Common Sense Media report. A full line of toys, produced by Hasbro, is also slated for release in early 2016.

There's at least one major difference between the Japanese and US video game markets that may stymie Nintendo's efforts to create a sensation here on the level of Pokémon, which captured the hearts, minds, and dollars of an entire generation of kids (including many of us here at Motherboard) in the late 1990s.

"If you're a schoolkid in Japan, there's a certain chance you'll get teased for not having a Nintendo 3DS," Japanese video game industry analyst Dr. Serkan Toto told Motherboard in a recent Skype interview. Japan only has about 1.3 million more 3DS units floating around than in the US (around 19.25 million versus 17.91 million), but that covers a population roughly one-third the size.

Then there's the increased competition from mobile games like Candy Crush Saga, Hearthstone, and Minecraft that didn't simply exist in 1998 when Nintendo introduced the likes of Pikachu, Charmander, and Psyduck to the US. Given these challenges, "iIt may be really difficult to replicate the roaring success of Pokémon," Toto said.

"The most critical factor for Nintendo in the US is that the games are good, period," added Toto. "This is a super premium IP that's a cultural phenomenon. It's a brand."