First announced for iPhone and Android devices way back in September 2015, Pokemon GO made a huge splash by way of an exciting trailer packed with scenes of people across the globe catching, trading, and emphatically battling Pokemon—all in the wild expanse of the real world and by virtue of their cell phones. In a fell swoop, the trailer seemed to assuage the worries many expressed at the idea of Nintendo bringing their beloved franchises to the mobile platform.
Well, it’s finally here, and by all accounts, the public has fallen into a fervor not unlike the fervor seen in that trailer. From hitting the #1 top grossing iOS spot in the US to sending Nintendo’s stock soaring, Pokemon GO seems to have caused a wave of interest not seen since the franchise’s debut in the mid-‘90s. On my first outing with the GPS-based, augmented reality mobile game, I was shocked by the number of random people I saw hunting for Pokemon. From offices to universities, one thing is clear: people have flocked to this game like a horde of Nidoran♂.
So…how is it?
I’ll be honest. I’m a man in my mid-twenties who grew up in the ‘90s. It doesn’t take a whole lot to make me feel like a kid again, but there are things about Pokemon GO that, when functioning properly, fill my heart with a sense of adventure and discovery. And I promise that’s not hyperbole. There have been times while out roaming my town that I’ve stopped in my tracks and uttered, “Oh my God,” aloud when a wild and rare Pokemon shows up. There were very real moments of joy and satisfaction when I finally caught that Eevee I’d been coveting or was finally able to evolve that stupid Ratata.
The game also features Pokédex entries for each Pokemon you catch, and though I was a little bummed to discover they were just recycled entries from 2014’s Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, I did enjoy the sentiment. It’s a nice touch that makes the experience broader, fleshed out, and just a little more real.
Overall, the game has a slick presentation with beautiful menus and character models that look better than the models in the 3DS games. The Pokemon all make their appropriately digitized calls, and the music that plays while you’re out hunting for Pokemon really sets the mood.
I like that the game encourages exploration. Players explore cities and towns surrounding their current GPS location in hopes of finding new Pokemon to catch, and as is to be expected with something like this, some Pokemon will only be available in certain local or global locations. PokeStops (located in interesting places like museums and historical markers) are where the player can find more Pokeballs, items, or even a Pokemon Egg that hatches after traveling the appropriate distance.
Being out and about with my girlfriend and visiting locations we never would have led to interesting conversations and pleasant run-ins with strangers. And what’s interesting to me is that these shining moments felt more spiritual or emotional rather than mechanical. By that, I mean that it wasn’t necessarily the game’s mechanics that had me feeling that way, but Pokemon in general and what these silly cartoon monsters have come to represent.
This is because on a rudimentary and by-the-numbers level, the game isn’t all that interesting. Players accustomed to the handheld versions of Pokemon games will find that a lot of concessions have been made—seemingly in an effort to appeal to a larger crowd or lapsed trainers. Training Pokemon is no longer about experience in battle or tuning a set of moves to the player’s liking. Instead, your Pokemon become stronger by catching more of that same Pokemon, and evolution works the same. Each time you catch a Pokemon, you’re gifted three Pokemon-specific Candies, and the player can choose to use these Candies to increase their Pokemon’s Combat Power or save them up to pay for that Pokemon to evolve.
The asynchronous battles that are in the game are just as underwhelming. After reaching a certain Trainer Level, the player will be asked to join one of three teams and is then tasked with helping their teammates establish and defend Gyms in real world locations by “stationing” Pokemon. The battles occur when a player chooses to attack a defended Gym.
Players are given three options: attack, dodge, or special attack, which translate to: tap the screen, swipe the screen, or tap and hold the screen. Since the Pokemon battles of the larger handheld titles aren’t often seen as mechanically complex, the issue with Pokemon GO’s battles aren’t that they’re too simple. The process is just clunky. Having the ability to dodge an attack means very little if the ability only works half of the time or there aren’t reliable cues to tell the player when to dodge. And while type match-ups are still very much a thing in Pokémon GO, there seems to be a larger emphasis on mastering the dodging mechanic. When I set my Ninetales against an enemy Bellsprout, my victory felt more a product of lucking into the right timing than actual insight and battle preparation.
Then again, maybe I’m just not very good and tapping and swiping.
Another aspect of Pokemon GO that I found to be almost insultingly backward is the fact that, currently, there is no way to trade your Pokemon with other players. If the game is about “going” in the purest sense of the word and exploration and interacting with strangers and catching location-specific Pokemon, then why aren’t players allowed to trade those Pokemon? Yeah, I know that developer Niantic has promised that trading will come eventually, but this points to a bigger problem I have with the game in its current state. Plain an simple, it feels rushed.
During my time with Pokemon GO, I ran into several bugs and glitches that ranged from minor annoyances to aggravating headaches. On the minor side, things like the augmented reality function bugging out and flipping the image upside down or cutting to a white screen didn’t have much impact on my playtime. But then there were moments where the game would crash right after catching a Pokémon, and when I logged back in, I found that not only was the Pokémon I caught gone, but also the balls (which are a limited resource) I used to catch it. Other times, I would walk a decent distance from my home to the nearest Pokestop or Gym to find that the game’s servers had gone down and locked me out—effectively making that sweat-inducing walk in July pointless.
Pokemon GO also has an issue with communicating important information. The game does a decent job of explaining how to catch Pokemon and how Pokestops and Gyms work, but there’s a lot that gets left for the player to intuit on their own. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for respecting the player’s intelligence and allowing for space to learn. It’s just that most of this unspoken information feels like basic stuff the game should just tell you. Like the glitches, server issues, and trading, this is something that can and probably will be addressed in updates to the game, but as it stands, it’s another factor contributing to the game feeling rushed.
Let’s be honest; you don’t need a verdict, do you? You’ve already downloaded and spent hours with this free-to-play title. You’ve been stung by the Weedle of adventure, and hey, I’m right there with you. What the game lacks in nuance and complexity, it gains back in nostalgia and discovery. Sure, I’m disappointed that the battles are clunky and that you can’t trade your Pokemon. And yeah, the broken servers are something in need of immediate attention. But since most mobile games are inherently suited for time wasting and general idleness, this is great for people who just watch to scratch that Pokemon itch while out walking their dogs or waiting for a train. And for anyone yearning something more robust, the 3DS is right there waiting.