Tomorrow marks the debut of Yo-kai Watch in North America (you can read our review here). The franchise has already caused a stir in Japan, becoming a worthy rival to Pokémon. It has spawned a television show, manga, films, and toys, but will it cause the same fanfare Stateside? We spoke with Level-5 president and CEO Akihiro Hino to discuss the zany series' potential in the Western market, its Yo-kai collecting addiction, and why he's confident it will resonate with Western gamers.

Game Informer: The concept of the Yo-kai is built into Japanese folklore, which might be unfamiliar to many Westerners. Can you describe what a Yo-kai is?
Akihiro Hino: A Yo-kai is a Yo-kai. Derived from Japanese traditional folklore, Yo-kai are invisible beings that inhabit the world around us. They are responsible for all of our daily annoyances and embarrassments – like losing your socks in the dryer or calling your teacher 'mom.' It's all Yo-kai's fault!

Obviously, comparisons to other monster-collecting games like Pokémon will happen, but how does Yo-kai Watch separate itself from others in the genre?
Firstly, Yo-kai are different from monsters – they each have different personalities and thus bring depth to the story. Secondly, it is set in the real world. There is much more, but you will have to discover those differences once you start playing.

How would you describe this series to someone who has never played it, particularly a North American audience? What do you think is the main draw?
This game provides a high degree of freedom to users. Unlike other games that are built around the main storyline, Yo-kai Watch offers players the freedom to follow the storyline, devote themselves in collecting Yo-kai, or start their own adventures by completing 'missions.' I think it will appeal to the North American audience.

How did the concept for Yo-kai Watch come about? Describe the creative process behind it.
I wanted create an IP that is universal and long-lasting, while providing something new and highly relatable to kids today. Yo-kai are spooky beings which often appear in Japanese folklore, mostly related to either humans or objects we were once attached to. Though they are somewhat monster-like, I realized they had never been featured in video games. From there, I started thinking about some of the main characters, and the concept of Jibanyan – a pretty cat Yo-kai who got hit by a truck – came into my mind. In order to write a story which can be relatable to kids, we conducted robust kids research to understand them. We tried hard to capture what they are most concerned about – it was interesting to find concerns which I can relate to my childhood days, and the ones which were unique to kids today. Setting-wise, it was natural to have it take place in real world. Springdale is an ordinary town with characters who use modern devices and live normal lives, just as we all are now – which is why it is so relatable to today's kids.

What has Level-5 learned in its past that has helped create the Yo-kai Watch series?
Almost every experience in the past is built into this title. This is our third 'cross-media project' title – that is, us collaborating from the concept stage with companies from other fields of entertainment (TV, movie, toys, publishing, music, etc.), and each media supporting the other to drive the growth of the entire IP. Previous titles – Inazuma Eleven and Little Battlers eXperience – have taught us how we would best collaborate. From the gaming system point of view, this is another Level-5 title with a very easy-to-play gaming system, which I believe to be one of our strengths.

What are some of your favorite Yo-kai and why? 
My favorite is Jibanyan for sure. He is the first Yo-kai I came up with, and without his unique characteristics – a laid-back, self-centered cat with a cute visual with wide appeal – Yo-kai Watch would not have been the same.

Why do you think Yo-kai Watch has been so successful in Japan?
The reason behind the success of Yo-kai Watch, not only as the game title but as the entire franchise, I would say is the strong link between the different pieces of our franchise, centered around what we call Yo-kai Medals [which] contributed a lot. Kids in Japan ran to the store after seeing the Yo-kai Medals used in the TV series, which can not only be enjoyed as collectible toys, but are also interactive with the video game, the arcade game, and can be utilized in many more ways.

Any Yo-kai Watch tips for beginners?
The story of Yo-kai Watch is easy to follow, and the gaming mechanics are simple to understand. At the same time, this game will easily turn a beginner into a completionist – over 200 Yo-kai to collect, abundant items, missions etc... You will never be bored again!

What's your favorite thing about the series?
The story and the setting are both very flexible. That means a lot to us – updated trends can be reflected, jokes targeting different audiences can be inserted at any time. This allows us to make Yo-kai Watch the perfect content for all members of the family over years.

I also like the fact that each Yo-kai has a unique personality. We can make unbelievable amount of episodes from all the 200+ Yo-kai we created, and they make us feel like they are really around us.

Toys and accessories were a huge draw for Yo-kai Watch in Japan. Will these sorts of things make their way Stateside?
Yes. In January 2016, toys and other merchandising goods will start hitting the shelf. Looking forward to it!

Want more Yo-kai Watch? The cartoon currently airs on Disney XD, and starting today episodes are available on its official YouTube channel.