Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Is Pokemon Now Trying to Learn From Yo-Kai Watch?

It is now halfway through the week, and without a new Pokemon Sun and Moon trailer in sight, I've decided to temporarily satisfy my seemingly unending thirst for writing about Pokemon on this website to talk about a question that's been on my mind for several weeks now: is the Pokemon series now learning from Yo-Kai Watch?

One could argue that the Pokemon franchise practically invented the "collect/purchase them all" marketing strategy. The release of the original games in 1996 (1998 in U.S.) was closely followed by an anime adaptation, a trading card game, and an extensive lineup of merchandise. This multi-front war on parents' wallets all contributed to the so called "Pokemania" of the late 90's, in which the Pokemon franchise cemented itself as one of Nintendo's go-to IP. For the next two decades, Pokemon dominated the collectible monsters market, despite the numerous attempts from other companies trying to zero in on that "collect 'em all" hungry demographic of youths. None of these managed to reach quite the success of the Pokemon franchise, however, and the video games' core mechanics remained largely stable for all six generations of Pokemon games, albeit with a few game play additions and incrementally improved graphics.

But in 2013, a new challenger entered the fray. Yo-Kai Watch saw its initial release in Japan on July 11, 2013. Similar to the Pokemon games, the original Yo-Kai Watch game was targeted to a young audience and featured young human protagonists with the ability to befriend hundreds of cute, charming, and tough little monsters. There are numerous differences, of course. Yo-Kai Watch's Yo-Kai (the titular little monsters) were able to speak to the protagonist, and as as result of this had more personality already built into their character, unlike Pokemon whose randomly-assigned natures have very little to do with their actual behavior. Yo-Kai Watch's battle system was also a bit more hectic than the turn-based Pokemon, with several Yo-Kai engaging each other at once, cinematic "Soultimate" moves, and real-time input required from the player in order to direct attacks and heal allies. Finally, Yo-Kai Watch's boss battles featured unique, unobtainable monsters who introduced new game play mechanics and required frequent strategic adaptation as opposed to the Gym Leaders of the Pokemon series who are essentially higher-level versions of the trainers found in surrounding areas.

Though the original Yo-Kai Watch only sold about 300,000 copies that year in Japan, that number skyrocketed by over 1 million units in 2014, likely thanks to the popularity of the Yo-Kai Watch anime which premiered in January of that year. A line of Yo-Kai Watch merchandise followed suite, and suddenly Japan was in "Yo-Kai Watch mania". Sound familiar? Excellent, because it should.

Though the first Yo-Kai Watch title only managed to sell less than a third of what Pokemon X and Y (released October 2013) sold in Japan, 1.3 million units sold is hardly a number to ignore. The Yo-Kai Watch series then proceeded to tear a page right out of the Pokemon playbook and release two versions of the same game in July of 2014: Yo-Kai Watch 2: Ganso and Yo-Kai Watch 2: Honke (these names were eventually localized to Bony Spirits and Fleshy Souls, which will release in the U.S. September 30 this year). These two games were a direct sequel to the original and featured the same setting as each other with similar stories, but with version exclusive Yo-Kai. Further copying the formula of Pokemon's 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations, developer Level-5 then released a third title that essentially combined Ganso and Honke and added more version-exclusive Yo-Kai called Yo-kai Watch 2: Shinuchi. These three titles have since combined to sell over 5.5 million units in Japan alone. By comparison, Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire versions released in November of 2014 and totaled just over 3 million units sold. And although Yo-Kai Watch 3's Japanese release date has struggled to match its predecessors, the brand still appears to be going strong. Granted, Pokemon ORAS was a remake of a previous set of Pokemon games released back in 2002, but nevertheless, if there was a time for The Pokemon Company to be hitting a panic button and start re-evaluating their brand, it would be right about now.

And now here we are at September 28, 2016, about a month and a half away from Pokemon Sun and Moon's release. Over a dozen preview trailers have been released for the pair, and from what has been seen so far, one might be able to say that it is now Pokemon that is learning from the success of Yo-Kai Watch.

The first form of mimicry is coming in the form of a new Pokedex possessed by a Rotom assistant. Aside from the well-known Meowth in the anime, Pokemon being able to speak the human language is a rare thing indeed, and something that almost never occurs in the main series Pokemon games. But it seems that players will be getting a talking assistant with personality in Sun and Moon, which is a role that has existed in Yo-Kai Watch since the beginning in the form of the "Yo-Kai butler" Whisper.

The trailers have also shown that Game Freak is shaking up the traditional 8 Gym Leader system that has been a staple of the Pokemon games since the beginning. Sun and Moon will be introducing island challenges that conclude with a boss battle against a so-called "Totem Pokemon". From what can be gleaned from the few seconds shown in the trailer, the Totem Pokemon will have the ability to increase their own stats without the use of an attack as well as summon ally Pokemon to fight by their side mid-battle, both things that have never been seen before in the main-series Pokemon games. Likewise, Sun and Moon are adding entirely new entities called Ultra Beasts, which are not even Pokemon but apparently pose a serious risk to Alola and are shown fighting with a Pokemon in a cut scene. Though actual footage of the player character combating Ultra Beasts has not yet been shown, these changes seem to be evidence of an interest from Game Freak to change up the way that boss battles are handled in the Pokemon games, perhaps in an effort to emulate the Yo-Kai Watch series.

Speaking of combat, Sun and Moon are also seeing the addition of Z-moves (footage in a previous link), powerful cinematic attacks that can only be performed once per battle. Not only are the cinematic aspects of a Z-move reminiscent of Yo-Kai Watch's Soultimate moves, but they are performed in-game by dancing (Yo-Kai dance as they come out of the Yo-Kai Watch) and require a Z-ring on the player's wrist (like the titular Yo-Kai Watch from Yo-Kai Watch). In addition to the Z-ring that appears in game, Tomy International will be selling a real-world Z-ring that can be worn on a person's wrist and can be paired with separately-purchasable Z-crystals to produce different effects, very similar to the real-world Yo-Kai Watch watches that can be purchased online or in the local store's toy section.

But it doesn't just stop at the video games. The trailer for the next season of the Pokemon anime recently debuted in Japan, and there has been a drastic shift from the sharp edged style that the Pokemon anime has been moving towards for years in favor an even more cartoony appearance. For comparison, here is Ash Ketchum as he appears in the Pokemon XYZ series (the current season):

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 And here is Ash Ketchum's look for the upcoming Sun and Moon series:

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 And here is Nate, the male protagonist of Yo-Kai Watch, as he appears in the first game:

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The more rounded, cartoony style is something that the Yo-Kai Watch series has been utilizing since its games' premiere, and it's a style that looks to be more prevalent in the future of Pokemon too. The general goofiness of the humor shown in the magazine and trailer for the new anime are also reminiscent of the Yo-Kai Watch anime, which has always had a tongue-in-cheek attitude about it.

But despite all this, it is still said the competition breeds excellence. The Pokemon games have always been hounded by criticism of repeating the same old formula for each game (see any review of the past 3 game generations), so the pressure to adapt the feel and mechanics of the games may be exactly what the series needs to rejuvenate itself. Alternatively, these changes could alienate the Pokemon series' biggest fans and push them away from the franchise. Hopefully players will receive the changes positively, but if not, then there are probably many would-be franchises that would love to fill Pokemon's shoes. Only time will tell. 1.5 months worth of time, specifically.