This is the third and final part of my retrospective on Japanese game developer Level-5, which I hope is now the most detailed history of the developer available in English. Make sure to read part 1 and part 2 if you haven’t yet.
Level-5 Helps Publish A Collection of Smaller Titles on Nintendo 3DS
In 2012, Level-5 was not only continuing to develop their own games but also published a collection of several smaller titles by various developers collectively known as Guild 01 on the Nintendo 3DS. The games in this collection included Liberation Maiden, Aero Porter, Crimson Shroud, and Weapon Shop de Omasse, which later all received separate releases on the Nintendo 3DS eShop.
A second collection of games, Guild 02, was announced not long after the release of the first and included Attack of the Friday Monsters!, Bugs vs. Tanks, and The Starship Damrey. All titles in both collections received mixed to positive reception, with Liberation Maiden perhaps being the most well-known.
Level-5 Travels Through Time in Japan
Included with Guild 01 was a demo of Time Travelers, an interactive cinematic visual novel type game stated to “have no genre” during its initial reveal in 2010. Time Travelers was directed by Jiro Ishii, who had previously directed critically acclaimed visual novel 428 Shibuya Scramble and like many visual novel type games before it, contained a flow chart for branches that led to different endings depending on player choices. Time Travelers was released for Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita, and PlayStation Portable in Japan on July 12, 2012, and received positive reception from Famitsu. As of writing, Time Travelers has never been released outside of Japan.
Creating New Life Sim Fantasy Life
Not too long after publishing all the games in the Guild series, Level-5 released Fantasy Life. Although there doesn’t seem to be much information about the development of Fantasy Life available in English, reception for the game was mostly positive.While many praised the visuals and music, some took issue with the monotonous gameplay loop and the lackluster story, with Aoife Wilson stating, “the most Fantasy Life ever does is remind you of other titles that do each of its individual facets better, without ever quite surpassing any of them,” in her review for GameSpot. Prior to release of the international version of Fantasy Life, Fantasy Life Link! was released in Japan and added new features, including online play, a level cap increase, new quests, and it also received a screenshot feature. The international release contained all content from the rerelease besides the Origin Islands DLC.
In April 2015, a sequel titled Fantasy Life 2: Two Moons and the Village of God, was announced for mobile devices with a 2016 release window, but after several delays was released in Japan on February 23, 2018, and renamed Fantasy Life Online. A possible international release has not yet been revealed.
Level-5 Develops A Gundam Game
In 2012, Level -5 was tasked by animation company Sunrise to create a Gundam game for the PlayStation Portable. Instead of creating a game out of a previously existing Gundam series, Hino wrote a brand new story, which Bandai then decided to create a new anime series out of. The anime series known as Gundam AGE is unique within the franchise for chronicling three generations of Gundam pilots trying to fight the injustices of the cosmos. It ran for 49 episodes starting in October 2011. As the anime was airing, the game was split into two versions: Universe Accel and Cosmic Drive, which each included exclusive content from several other Gundam series. The game was never released outside of Japan, which once again means available information in English is sparse.
The Boom and Decline of Yo-Kai Watch
First announced at Tokyo Game Show 2011, Level-5’s second attempt at the monster capturing genre was Yo-Kai Watch for the Nintendo 3DS in 2013, although similar to Ni no Kuni, it was originally planned for the PlayStation 3. According to an article on Siliconera, Yo-Kai Watch saw a massive rise in popularity in January 2014 once the anime series had started airing, which isn’t surprising considering it was designed to be a huge success as a franchise. From many eyewitness accounts of foreigners living in Japan, you couldn’t even walk down the street without seeing something about Yo-Kai Watch, whether that be an advertisement a new game, toys — which had in-game functionality –, several Yo-Kai Watch themed stores across the country, appearances in other games like Final Fantasy XIV or even the characters working at McDonald’s. The two version sequel to the original, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Ganso and Yo-Kai Watch 2: Honke, even managed to outsell two of the most popular series in Japan, beating both Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire as well Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. The first Yo-Kai Watch movie, which is based on the second game(s) even managed to beat Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens in Japan. The massive popularity of Level-5’s new cross-media hit eventually received international attention from games media, with some even expecting it to dethrone Pokémon (at least in Japan). Due to Yo-Kai Watch being heavily steeped in Japanese culture, many thought a localization would be difficult and perhaps not possible. But during Nintendo’s E3 2015 direct, the mischievous spirits would be announced for a Western release that October. After the international release of the game and anime series, you’d often see Yo-Kai Watch toys in a handful of retail stores, although it couldn’t compete with its Pocket Monster predecessor on an international level, however, it still managed to get a dub of the anime series on Disney XD — with 26 episodes available on Netflix (US) — and a limited theatrical release for its first movie as well as localizations for its sequels and a few spin-offs throughout the past few years. Unfortunately, 2015 was also seemingly when the popularity of Yo-Kai Watch started to wane in Japan. Once again referring to the aforementioned Siliconera article, analysts said the decline may have been due to oversaturation, with the first sequel releasing only a year after the first game, and an updated version of the said sequel only five months later, and several spin-offs such as the Yo-Kai Watch Blasters (Busters in Japan) series and even a special Yo-Kai Watch version of Just Dance. According to Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku, the scarcity of some toys combined with the limited in-game functionality, with some toys only compatible with certain games, was likely another factor in the decline of the franchise. 2016 saw the release of Yo-Kai Watch 3, which is where the franchise saw its biggest drop, making a third of what it had made just a year prior.
After the disappointing sales of the third main entry in the series, Level-5 started a multimedia project known as Yo-Kai Watch: Shadowside, which included a movie, anime series, and video game, and contained a darker tone than the original series. The video game tied to Yo-Kai Watch Shadowside eventually came to be known as Yo-Kai Watch 4: We’re Looking Up at The Same Sky. Yo-Kai Watch 4 is the first game in the series to be on Nintendo Switch instead of Nintendo 3DS and as such had a major gameplay and graphical overhaul. Instead of the touch screen focused battle system of the previous three games, the gameplay was seemingly inspired by Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, with main human characters fighting alongside their yokai companions in real-time combat. Similar to Inazuma Eleven: Heroes Great Road, Yo-Kai Watch 4 experienced several delays, but was eventually released for Nintendo Switch in Japan on June 20, 2019. During the development of Yo-Kai Watch 4, a Pokemon GO inspired mobile game known as Yo-Kai Watch World was released in Japan on June 27th, 2018 for Android and iOS devices as a way to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the franchise. An updated version of Yo-Kai Watch 4, known as Yo-Kai Watch 4 ++ was later released for both Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 in late 2019, marking the first time a main series Yo-Kai Watch game was released on a non-Nintendo console. During the previously mentioned panel at Anime Expo 2019, Yo-Kai Watch 4 was confirmed to be getting a Western localization, but no release window was given and it is currently unknown whether the localization will be based on the first version of the game or the updated version. 2019 also marked the first time an older Yo-Kai Watch game got ported to another console, with Yo-Kai Watch 1 seeing a release for Nintendo Switch in Japan on October 10, 2019.
While the localized versions of first Yo-Kai Watch as well as its two version sequel, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits and Yo-Kai Watch 2: Fleshy Souls, can often be found on clearance at some retailers, Yo-Kai Watch 2: Psychic Specters and Yo-Kai Watch 3 are a bit more elusive, with the latter sometimes fetching up to twice its original launch price. Yo-Kai Watch may have been a massive success in Japan for a time, but its staying power has proved to not be quite as strong as its contemporaries. Luckily, Level-5 had another trick up their sleeve.
Level-5 Introduces Uniplay with Wonder Flick
First revealed during a Level-5 event in 2013, Wonder Flick was a mobile game planned to be the first game that shared data across all platforms it was on by using a functionality called ‘Uniplay.” In addition to the mobile version, Wonder Flick was planned for release on Wii U, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One and potentially may have been able to share data across all versions. The mobile version of Wonder Flick was fully released in Japan on January 8, 2014, with an updated version known as Wonder Flick R released on August 30 that same year. Due to the game’s service being terminated in 2015, the cross-platform versions of Wonder Flick were canceled, with the Uniplay feature never fully coming to fruition.
Snack World, A New Cross-Media Franchise
Yo-kai Watch might have already reached its peak before 2015, but Level-5 had already planned another cross-media franchise. The Snack World was announced in 2015 during the Level-5 vision presentation and like Yo-Kai Watch, The Snack World was planned to have a game, tie-in toys, and an anime series. The Snack World video game, titled The Snack World: Trejarers, is an action RPG with roguelike elements including randomized dungeons and permadeath. Similar to the medals featured in the Yo-Kai Watch series, Snack World has collectible keychains known as Jara, which can help players unlock weapons and other items in the game by using NFC technology on the Nintendo 3DS. Snack World later received an enhanced Nintendo Switch port in Japan on April 12, 2018, known as Snack World: The Dungeon Crawl – Gold. Nintendo officially announced the western localization on November 20, 2019, and as of writing, the game has just been released worldwide. Learning from the lower popularity of Yo-Kai Watch outside of Japan, the localized version of Snack World replaces the Jara toys with an in-game “Daily Fortune” for the international release. While Snack World hasn’t been able to gain close to the same amount of popularity as Yo-Kai Watch in Japan, it has barely gained any attention internationally either. Review codes seemingly went out after release and some critics experienced game breaking bugs that earned it a lower review score. Another feature fans noticed about the international release of Snack World is the rather interesting localization, featuring what the ESRB would consider adult language and some modern references that heavily contrast its kid-friendly appearance.
Comcept Acquisition and Closure
In a June 2017 issue of Weekly Famitsu, it was announced that Level-5 had acquired Comcept, the development team founded by Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune and known for the now infamous Mighty No. 9. The same issue featured an interview with both Hino and Inafune regarding the matter, claiming that the acquisition combines the philosophies of both companies. The first and now only game developed by Level-5 Comcept was a mobile game known as Dragons & Colonies, which was released in Japan in 2018. Dragons & Colonies is a real-time PVP battle game set in a world where various races live together and features dice-shaped, miniature garden colonies known as “Hacolonies,” using Dragons as weapons to fight each other.
As of writing, Level-5 Comcept allegedly closed on February 17, 2020.
Mass Exodus Rumors & Everything Else Level-5 is Currently Working On
While never officially confirmed, rumors of a mass exodus of employees at Level-5 surfaced online in 2018 after the first set of delays for Yo-Kai Watch 4 and Inazuma Eleven Heroes Great Road. While no one seems to know the exact truth in this matter, a mass exodus would help explain the multiple delays the games have gone through since their initial reveals.
While a mass exodus of employees is a possibility, Level-5 is still currently developing plenty of other games besides all of the previously mentioned titles. In October 2018, Level-5 reannounced Ushiro, a horror RPG that had originally been in development for the PSP in 2008 for Level-5’s 10th anniversary, before it was shelved for a decade. According to an interview in Famitsu, Ushiro was often in the “most wanted games” list for the magazine and Hino joked that Famitsu Representative Hiroshi Hanamura asked him to officially cancel the game so they could finally remove the PSP section of their upcoming games list, at which Hino responded by telling him to put the game in the Nintendo Switch section instead. Despite its cancellation in 2008, Ushiro was still adapted into a novel series in 2014 and a manga series in 2015.
Level-5’s first video game collaboration with Shonen Jump and second attempt at a mech action game — after the previously discussed Little Battlers eXperience –, Megaton Musashi, was another title originally revealed in 2015, and just recently received an extended gameplay trailer. Megaton Musashi sees players cooperatively fighting together by controlling giant robots to defeat bosses sent by aliens and is planned to launch on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, iOS, and Android at some point in the future.
It seems like Level- 5 has a lot planned for the future, and there are sure to be other projects we haven’t even heard about yet as well. While the visuals and audio of all Level-5 games still remain at a high quality, reception between their more recent games has been mixed or negative rather than overwhelmingly positive. For right now, let’s hope that Level-5 can make a return to form and once again become the highly regarded development team it was back at the start of the new millennium.
Level- 5’s two most recent games released in the West, Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires Conspiracy – Deluxe Edition and Snack World: The Dungeon Crawl – Gold, are both available on Nintendo Switch.