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Yo-Kai Watch turns to a mobile app to recreate the series' overseas craze

How do you recreate an arcade vending machine in a market with no arcades left?

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Yo-kai Watch, the anime, manga and video-game phenomenon that overran Japan in 2013, finally came west a couple months ago. Localizing a Japanese game for western audiences is often a straightforward job of translating language and names, but in this case the game was missing a unique component its popularity in Japan: The Gashapon machine.

Gashapon are vending machines, getting their name onomatopoeically from the sound they make when they dispense capsules with goodies inside. In Yo-kai Watch's case, kids jam coins into a Yo-kai gashapon machine and get a medal that they can use to play Yo-kai arcade games. North America has next to no arcade culture remaining, so the challenge facing its stateside launch was how to replicate that part of the Yo-kai experience.

Answer: A mobile app, which quietly launched about a month ago and was updated just last week, in time for the physical product launch of Yo-kai medals in the west. It stands out as an American thumbprint on a decidedly Japanese video game.

Yo-kai Watch Land, available for iOS and Android, is part pokédex, part AR game, and entirely free, arriving on time for the launch of Yo-kai's physical products in North America. It hinges on scanning QR codes on the Yo-kai medals that accompany each Yo-kai toy, and also are sold separately in blind bags of three. The toy packaging allows anyone to scan the front of the medal into their app without purchasing it. That QR code adds the particular creature to the index on the collector's app.

The back of the medal can only be scanned if the package is bought and opened. That code unlocks the Yo-kai — mystical gremlins who roam around our world unseen (according to Yo-kai Watch's main concept) — in one of three minigames. This approximates the Japanese arcade experience. These features are still unlockable for free in the app, but it takes a lot of grinding. There's a photo booth, stickers, and other virtual toys players can use to personalize their Yo-kai bestiary.

With Yo-kai Watch Land, Level-5 and co-developer Hasbro are banking on the idea that kids don't really care about platforms. They want what they want on every device they own, whether it's a mobile phone, a 3DS, or a video they're watching on YouTube. Yo-kai Watch has been available on Nintendo 3DS in the west since early November, and the series is a direct challenge to Pokemon in the monster-collecting role-playing game genre it has dominated for 20 years.

The toys-to-life aspect is a key differentiator, though the franchise has yet to show the same impact here as it has seen over the past three years in Japan. For more, see Polygon's review of the Nintendo 3DS game, We scored it a 7.5, noting the obvious upsells to the toy line and other Yo-kai products but saying there is still much to like in its gameplay.

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