Years from now, a generation of Japanese men and women will be fondly reminiscing about the summer of 2014 as the Summer of Yokai Watch 2. Heard of this game? You will. It met the 2 million-unit sales mark less than a month into its release, and that is probably important, but I’m much more impressed by the game itself and everything it encapsulates about being young in Japan during summer vacation.
In this game, you play a Japanese fifth-grade boy or girl whose summer vacation has just begun, and your main quest involves doing all the things that Japanese kids do on their month and a half-long break between the first and second semester. Now what is that exactly? Well, catching bugs, going fishing, and street festivals play a big part in this, but also going to visit your relatives out in the boonies is a very real, if not stereotypical part of the Japanese childhood experience. Somehow, Level 5 has translated all of this and more into a cohesive game that makes goofing off in your town just as worthwhile as fighting monsters. And if you’ve ever spent time in a Japanese town, you’ll see just how immaculately they have managed to recreate damn near everybody’s childhood here with a fully-interactive environment more realistic than even the metropoli of Grand Theft Auto. I fucking love it.
Whenever I move back to the United States with my family (no matter how much I’d love to do just that, let me tell you) I am inevitably going to miss my life in Japan, and I think it will weigh even heavier on my wife and children who were born here. But I know that whenever I need the flavor of being alive here in this crazy country, I will always be able to jump into a game of Yokai Watch 2 and be magically transported back with wizardry that would make Doraemon blush.
As for the meaty questy part of the game, you have the very Pokemon-esque task of catching and cataloging the many monsters you encounter. These are the titular Yokai, a word which refers the mythical creatures of Japanese folklore. For anyone up on this, either through traditional tomes or other expositions into the Yokai world such as Ge Ge Ge no Kitarou, the familiar faces of the single-eyed umbrella ghost or the lady with the long neck are easy to place. If you’ve studied Japanese and can piece together the linguistics of the Yokai’s pun-heavy names, you will feel a sense of satisfaction and amusement at their clever, if not groan-worthy nomenclature. But for most of the Western world, you’re pretty much fucked, and the Yokai all going to look like just, well.. fucking Pokemon, making it all too easy to dismiss the game as a big rip-off of the successful Game Freak formula.
But they’re not Pokemon. They’re sentient spirits of the Yokai world which overlaps our own human world like something out of an Algernon Blackwood story. The Yokai affect our pliant human minds and manipulate our actions without us even knowing about it. Are spacing out today? Perhaps there’s a Wasurenbo invisibly clinging to your head, chewing on your memories and making you forgetful. Are you falling asleep at your desk? It’s not because you stayed up all night drinking and playing Smash – there’s likely a Baku lurking somewhere in the room and lulling you to sleep so it can eat your dreams – yum! Did you get the urge to clean up your house? No, you’re not on speed – there’s a Katazukerai somewhere making you obsessively need to straighten everything up!
If you had a Yokai Watch on your wrist, you’d be able to see these things, and start taking measures to get rid of them, typically by summoning a different Yokai with counteracting powers. Once defeated and befriended, the Yokai are yours to summon at will, although honestly in this game, you’re mostly making six-member parties to auto-fight other groups of Yokai. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s Pokemon for Japanese people who are sick of Pokemon.
It’s not difficult to see why this game has so far had very little traction outside of its country of origin, because it’s just so goddamn Japanese in that you have a set of very real settings and traditions and lingo that struggle for purchase outside the native mindset. When they bring this game over to the States and beyond, it’s going to be like trying to market igloos in the Sahara, but I’m convinced that Yokai Watch is a real opportunity for people around the world to actually learn something interesting and real about Japan. At the very least, it will give them something besides their snide and tired mumbles about tentacle porn and used panty machines to invoke when discussing Japan on the internet. A daunting task, but god damn, how noble.
How I’d love to be part of that elite squad of localizers, deconstructing the names of the Yokai, rechristening them with shiny new Westernized monickers, and researching all the ancient and modern lore to tell their tales in tasty little bite-sized blurbs for the Yokai Encyclopedia you build in the game. A dream job, eaten by a Baku, egged on by whatever Yokai is responsible for making me need to keep these go-nowhere teaching jobs and drink all this fucking alcohol every night. Fuck it, I’m going fishing.