On June 2019, the fourth installment of Level 5’s Youkai Watch series was released in Japan (with an international release scheduled for December 2019). The game received a 37/40 in Japan’s prestigious Famitsu magazine, and was a modest hit. However, prior to its release, the series had one of the most sudden rises throughout the decade to the point that its popularity eclipsed Pokemon in Japan, and then it just suddenly dropped like it was a one hit wonder. So, how do we chronicle its unique rise and fall, and its semi-return to relevancy? Allow us to share you how!
Inspiration from Doraemon
Despite its notable comparisons and competition with Pokemon, the conception of Youkai Watch actually takes inspiration from Doraemon, and Akihiro Hino, the CEO of Level 5, thoroughly researched it to understand how to make a franchise last long-term. Initially, Hino and Level 5 wanted to make a Doraemon game but regardless, they wanted to make something that would keep interest in the long run. The game would then debut in 2013 for the Nintendo 3DS, and would be an instant success to the point that it became a multi-media franchise.
Bigger Than Pokemon
Midway into the 2010’s, Youkai Watch was all the rage in Japan to the point that it was bigger than Pokemon! Thanks to an anime, manga, toys, and even an exercise song, it was almost at every corner you would turn throughout the Land of the Rising Sun. While Pokemon’s domestic influences were subliminal, the use of youkai, or supernatural beings, was very direct with its cultural inspirations and its domestic audiences could identify with the material. Plus, its aggressive marketing campaign in appealing to its target audience certainly helped.
Merchandising and Marketing Disaster
The first step in its unfortunate fall Youkai Watch involved a fiasco with its toys. Due to technical difficulties with how some toys weren’t compatible with some medals and that its second line was for a new line of medals that weren’t compatible with the first line, it created some frustration with parents. Plus, the franchise faced an over-saturation with its merchandising to the point that supply was exceeding demand despite initial shortages to the point that they instantly ended up in the bargain bin.
As its domestic audience was getting older, the marketing team thought it would be a good idea of keeping in tune with that respective audience as opposed to children. For example, they attempted to make a movie by making it more mature and horror oriented, and it wasn’t well-received. In other instances, they released mobile games which would appeal to older gamers, but they didn’t garner the success they expected. Then with the release of Pokemon Go, Pokemon just took back its number one spot not just in Japan, but in a world wide scale and with a vengeance.
Failure to Capture an International Audience
One particular factor that didn’t help Youkai Watch as a whole is that it didn’t get the same international popularity that Pokemon always had. Its first game would get an international release towards the end of 2015, but its success never measured up to Pokemon’s. While Pokemon is obviously Japanese, it’s easier to localize due to how the environments and characters are flexibly designed to suit just about any audience. With Youkai Watch, it’s obviously more Japanese in nature and those qualities only appeal to a cult audience. With the release and tremendous success of Pokemon Go shortly after, Youkai Watch was in no position to gain that popularity outside of Japan.
At this point, we don’t think this is the end of Youkai Watch, but it will never regain its crown, and that’s OK. Some experts say that Youkai Watch doesn’t exactly keep its appeal once you get a little older, while something like Pokemon does. In other words, they should just keep on appealing to kids for generations to come. Youkai Watch certainly had a very unique run for when it was on top, and made us realize that fads may come and go, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t have appeal to begin with. It doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that Hino and Level 5 didn’t exactly apply their research in means of making it last in the long term, but merely didn’t keep its position as the number one franchise for children. Does a franchise have to be number one to stay relevant? At this point with a new release for modern consoles, its recent success proves it doesn’t have to. Youkai Watch will probably stay around for the long run but will never be number one again. As long as they don’t mess up with their toys and keep their anime running, people will still acknowledge and enjoy it.