Level-5 finally launched its Japanese monster hit Yo-Kai Watch on Nintendo 3DS stateside in November, but that was only phase one of its overseas debut.
The company has partnered with Hasbro to invade several other consumer industries with the Pokémon-like characters — none more fitting, however, than the lucrative smartwatch market.
Smartwatches have technically been around for decades; we've detailed their long, storied history on Polygon in the past. But it's only in the last few years that companies have capitalized on the technology, making a play at broader consumer appreciation.
Yet there lies one major problem with devices like the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear: they're still largely under the purview of technophiles and hardcore gadgetry snobs. It's not entirely the fault of these products; their cost-to-functionality ratio isn't great, but it's also that they're stereotyped by an unwelcoming society, which often has trouble taking smartwatches seriously.
It seems unlikely that the Yo-Kai Watch, then, can properly address these issues. As the central device in its video game (and anime, and action figure, and manga, and ...) namesake, the Watch is meant for one thing: to make kids want to buy it. That means it's big and cutesy, not sleek and elegant.
But in my time with the Yo-Kai Watch — wearing it around, testing out its features, taking it through the ringer — I discovered that maybe elegance is played out. Maybe what the public really wants out of something as high-concept as a high-tech wristwatch is the most ridiculous take on that concept as possible.
In that case, the Yo-Kai Watch fits the bill.
First off, gander at the hunk of plastic: It's not attractive. It's dishwater gray with an uncomfortable rubber wristband that's as wide as the watch face. The sole burst of color is on said face, a mismatched quartet of purple, pink, green and blue spun out like a Yin and Yang symbol.
And that's all there is to the face, those colors. There's no screen like the average smartwatch; the Yo-Kai Watch doesn't even offer touch controls. And it doesn't have any functioning hands, either. Instead, it mocks the idea that you'd use this thing to tell time. There are hands painted on there, but they don't move.
The basic function of a watch, dumb or smart, is to tell time. The Yo-Kai Watch doesn't do that, either. This might be the best thing about it.
When you touch the Watch, something special happens
Because really, who in 2016 needs a dedicated time-telling device? Odds are good you have a smartphone. Odds are better that you stare at said smartphone for the majority of your waking hours. And it's implausible that your phone doesn't tell you what time it is in several different countries at any given moment.
Hasbro and Level-5 know this. To differentiate their product, they've taken the basic idea of a watch and abstracted it to its simplest components. The Yo-Kai Watch is a simulacrum of a once-precious thing. It is abstract art, a postmodern marvel.
It's still really ugly though. That's a fact.
So the Yo-Kai Watch doesn't tell time. What does it do? Instead of inviting finger presses on its face, the Watch actually discourages you from touching it. Get too hands on and this puppy makes a lot of sound.
The Apple Watch, Samsung Gear and every other smartwatch has some basic apps: a pedometer, a music player, a calculator, maybe some games you'll actually want to check out. These are all embedded in the device as digital downloads. The Yo-Kai Watch ignores the virtual space and instead embraces the real world by making its applications physical.
A set of medals with different yo-kai characters on them are available to purchase separately from the device, although the Watch comes with two medals packed in. They're pretty freaking adorable at first blush; they're brightly, distinctly colored with different yo-kai featured on each one. There's a helpful arrow pointing in the direction you're supposed to insert the medal into the Watch; there's nothing left to chance here.
The Yo-Kai Watch's face is covered by a plastic hood which lifts up, allowing you to slide in a medal. Once you do, something ... special happens.
Here's the thing: Maybe you're a shy, private person, and you don't like to call attention to yourself. If that describes you, well, you shouldn't bother with the Yo-Kai Watch in any sense because that gigantic contraption will make you stick out like a sore thumb anywhere. But you especially shouldn't try using the medals in a public setting, because that's when this thing goes off the rails.
Depending on which medal you put in, the Yo-Kai Watch will serenade you with a relevant song based on its character trait or class or whatever the Yo-Kai Watch version of Pokémon types are called. There's no volume setting; the medal will activate a sound at full blast, every single time you touch it. Sometimes even when you don't touch it.
The Yo-Kai Watch gets why you even still wear watches
Look at it like this: If you're going to wear a gigantic watch on your delicate wrist, as I have done for several hours now, you might as well go balls to the wall with it. A watch is a status symbol — like, why do they cost so much money? Duh. Who needs to tell time so often as to warrant a watch on their wrist? No, you're just wearing one to show off. This is a safe space. You can admit it.
The Yo-Kai Watch, like the Apple Watch or Samsung Gear S2 or whatever else, takes that idea and makes it the most ludicrous thing possible. Which is great, because at its core the smartwatch as a gadget is totally ludicrous in the era of smartphones.
When other people go to inspect your wrist as a way of assessing your character, they're going to see this gigantic piece of incessantly chattering plastic on your wrist, weighing you down, and they're going to think one thing: Dude has cajones.
Even so, if someone could explain to me how to get the Yo-Kai Watch to quiet down, that would be super appreciated.
Another thing: The Yo-Kai Watch, as you can probably guess just from looking at it, is heavy. But life is a game of survival, right? Hasbro and Level-5 are aware of this, and recognize that the weak-wristed aren't going to cut it in this world. In that sense, they're here to help you out by giving you a phenomenal workout. Wearing the Yo-Kai Watch for even a few hours, and especially in public, will not only strengthen you emotionally — you'll have to quickly learn to steel yourself against the strange looks you'll constantly get — but physically, too.
It's most impressive when you consider that the characters who wear the Watch in the 3DS game are 10-years-old. They are deceptively strong children. And they have to consistently lift their arms to point the thing around looking for wild yo-kai, too; if anything, wearing the Yo-Kai Watch increased my respect for both them and the franchise as a whole.
The Yo-Kai Watch in its real world iteration does not locate yo-kai (as it does in the game and show), or really do all that much. Those medals you can plug in that make it whine incessantly can also be used in far more agreeable ways with the Yo-Kai Land mobile app, so even those have a better application.
But as a smartwatch, there's something really, really wonderful about the Yo-Kai Watch. It takes the genre and strips it to its most basic components: It's loud, absurd and no one will ever doubt your self-worth ever again. This is smartwatch as satire and I love it.