It's fitting that Pokemon’s most significant evolutionary leap in its 20-year history is on a mobile platform, which mirrors its humble origins on the Game Boy. We’re going outside with Pokemon Go, catching Pokemon with friends, fighting over gyms, and making new friends along the way.
Much of Pokemon Go's augmented reality infrastructure was already in place thanks to developer Niantic’s location-based MMO mobile game, Ingress. Both games feature point-of-interest check-ins and territorial conflicts, except that Go features three teams compared to Ingress’ two, designated conflict zones are now gyms, and landmarks are called Pokestops.
Assuming you’re in a densely populated area, you won’t have a problem growing your collection as there are Pokemon everywhere. The act of capturing these critters follows the single-thumb input of many popular mobile games. Simulating a throwing motion, a forward swipe toward your target (with a bit of finesse for specific distances) is all it takes to trap basic Pokemon. It’s a credit to the diverse behaviors of these wild beasts that you can’t lackadaisically throw Pokeballs as you attempt to capture them--you have to factor whether the Pokemon can fly, jump, or deflect incoming Pokeballs.
These pocket monsters litter the landscape often in accordance to their terrain. It’s not unheard of to come across a water-type Goldeen around a town square but they’re more abundant around large bodies of water. The simple act of leaving your familiar dwellings will open yourself to a wider, more diverse net of potential captures. This, along with the high gym count in cities, underscores the disadvantages of rural players, many of whom have relatively limited access to rare Pokemon.
It is through rampant collecting that Go showcases much of its depth, especially to Pokemon novices. The chances of capturing the same monster with the exact same stats are astronomically low, which makes capturing multiples of the same Pokemon a sound tactic. This, along with the initial storage limit of 250 Pokemon, spurs you to make judgement calls on which ones to keep and which ones to recycle.
Reminiscent of collectable card games, battling in a gym is a duel of stats and hoping your cumulative abilities outweigh your opponent’s. Health, weight, height, moveset, and type are all factors that go into a gym fight. The most crucial variable is a Pokemon's CP, which can be upgraded using candy and stardust, two currencies that you earn with each capture. There’s a satisfying sense of trainer ownership when planning a gym battle, to curate a squad and to carefully curate an order in which your Pokemon will fight. Pokemon Go stays true to the franchise’s strategic appeal, even if it doesn’t offer the conveniences of turn-based battles.
There’s added depth in the actual battle, which plays out in real time. Careful timing is needed when attacking (screen tapping) and dodging (screen swipes), and your stats determine the effectiveness of your offensive moves as well your capacity to take hits. What makes these duels even more involved is the ability to gang up on a gym team with multiple concurrent battles. The opportunities to participate and excel in a group help lower the barrier to entry for latecomers. This is partly because the takeover of a gym is not determined by a single fight, but rather a series of encounters that could potentially wear down the gym owner over time.
It’s a blessing that gym battles can be a collaborative effort since Pokemon Go offers little instruction on how to be victorious in these virtual face offs. The nuances and timing of attacks and dodges are learned through trial and error and sharing experiences with players in public. You won't learn advanced controls and tactics in the game like adding spin your Poke Ball to making special throws. It’s not ideal, but at least there is gratification in socializing with other players to figure out the game's esoteric mechanics. The sharing of notes, group capture sessions, and bonding through team battles are Pokemon Go’s social strengths and help fans ignore the current absence of a key series component: trading. While some form of trading is planned, it’s unfortunate that a feature synonymous with the series was not present at launch.
One crucial design benefit of Pokemon Go is that its social draw isn’t limited to adversarial team battles. Collecting can be a communal effort because no one wild Pokemon is exclusive to the first person who captures it. Once a 60 kilogram Charmander with 260 CP shows up at the Starbucks on 4th and Main Street in San Francisco, every player has a fair opportunity to capture it. This experience can be greatly enhanced with lures, consumable items that attract more Pokemon to a set location. More Pokemon begets more people which can lead to new friendships.
Beyond the bland map art and the limited trainer character design options is a lively world of animated icons for gyms and Pokestops. Niantic wisely focused their efforts here on the Pokemon themselves, particularly their dramatic and flashy evolution sequences. During capture events, they counter your Poke Ball throws with dodges and blocks, while they’re even livelier during gym battles. It’s also not uncommon to approach a gym that is currently in the midst of a power struggle, indicated by the amusing Looney Tunes-inspired whirlwind animation. When you join the fight, it truly feels like a team effort to see your buddy’s Pokemon battling at the far side of the arena.
It’s too early to tell if Pokemon Go will be make a meaningful impact on the cardiovascular health of its users, but developer Niantic has the right idea in repurposing key elements of the franchise to suit real life exploration and movement. Much like in the mainline series, egg fertilization in Go relies on walking, running, or biking specific distances, whether that’s two kilometers or 10. This incubation process isn’t perfect. You can cheat in a car by driving slowly and since the game tracks your movements via GPS, running on a treadmill will not count.
Pokemon Go’s strengths can’t hide the fact that its initial iteration is a buggy mess on all levels, from server and potential security issues to invisible trainers. Crashes can come during monster captures, GPS reconnections, and even when you’re taking a screenshot. One particularly upsetting issue is a bug that makes gym opponents invincible, which is especially unfair if you’ve exhausted your best Pokemon during this battle. These issues occur often enough to cause immense frustration but not enough to warrant giving up altogether.
Compounding these issues is Go’s high battery consumption. Even with the AR camera turned off and power saving option turned on, it’s still possible to fully drain a year-old Samsung Galaxy S6 in less than two hours. Expect to invest in an external battery if you don’t own one already.
Speaking of spending money, the in-game shop offers a collection of optional items, though they may only be valuable to truly ambitious players. Much of the gear can be acquired through general play, by leveling up, and checking in at landmarks. In classic free-to-play fashion, the majority of the shop items merely accelerate the monster collecting process, whether you’re using lures and incense to attract Pokemon or cracking lucky eggs for a temporary experience bonus.
If Pokemon Go’s initial public reception is anything to go by, its ability to draw players from multiple generations and varied gaming backgrounds together is a game worthy of attention. When it works, Pokemon Go feels like a natural evolution for the series, very much a product of the times without making the mainline series obsolete. Its bugs and high battery consumption do not outweigh the old-but-new thrill of capturing Pikachu at a local park or vanquishing a Snorlax while conquering a gym.