There’s this unwritten rule in video game development on mobile phones; thou shall not create a game where walking around in real life is a part of the experience.
Okay, that isn’t an actual rule. But there aren’t many games out there that have you physically walking in order to achieve your objective, outside of those zombie runner games hopeful athletes use, and a online multiplayer game called Ingress by Niantic Labs. Its location based gameplay had you walking around real-life locations to capture portals situated in particular locations around you, such as a nearby park, the shopping centre or a well known landmark. Millions of people have since joined in on the phenomena, creating events, clans and challenges around the world. It’s such a simple concept, but there’s no doubt it found an audience.
That’s arguably the biggest reason why Nintendo, in their wisdom, teamed up with Niantic to bring one of their biggest IP’s across to the mobile market in a very similar way. Pokemon Go was born, the hype intensified and, earlier this week, the game finally launched worldwide. The world as we know it has already changed so much in a handful of hours, but what is it really like to play Pokemon Go?
Here’s the skinny. Unlike the main games in the long-running series, Pokemon Go has you discovering, capturing and raising Pokemon without the trouble of looking through grass in a made-up RPG world. Instead, you’ll be physically walking (perhaps jogging, maybe even driving) around the world of the real to discover Pokemon hidden around the landscapes. They can appear almost anywhere, from the backyard, to the nearby train station to, yes, even the bathroom (trust me, it’s happened). To capture them, you don’t fight with your Pokemon either, instead ‘throwing’ Pokeballs by swiping up on your mobile phone touch screen towards the critter.
It might take you a little while to settle into a groove, but once you’ve caught a few Pokemon you’ll soon level up and discover a greater level of variety in the pocket monsters around you. You’ll also notice nearby Pokestops (landmarks where hidden pokeballs, eggs and other collectibles are up for grabs) and Gyms, larger locations that can be fought over and protected by yourself and your chosen clan. Once you reach level five, you’ll have the opportunity to choose one of three teams (essentially coming down to a choice of yellow, red or blue), which will determine bonuses based on whether you control or attack.
I’ve already found myself changing my routine to suit the game. Just yesterday, having arrived at work a little earlier than normal, I started wondering around my shopping centre looking for Pokestops to collect more Pokeballs, and attempting to beat a local Gym leader and his goons (i.e. other players who have backed up their colour brethren). On the night of the games launch, my partner and our roommate walked around outside (gasp!) for a good half an hour doing the same thing. But is it the game that’s convincing us to do this, or the experience of being as close to a real like Pokemon Master?
Personally, I get the feeling it’s more of the latter, and that’s not a bad thing. Considering some of the glitches, bugs and server issues I’ve experienced so far, if it were any other game it would have likely turned me off completely. I’ve had the game crash a few times, I’ve had gym victories stolen thanks to bugs in the combat system and the controls and GPS tracking needs a little work. Yet I’m still here, still working away, still more than happy to go hunting instead of sitting on my couch all day. The enjoyment of being a Pokemon trainer and coming across strangers playing nearby far outweighs any of the problems I’ve had so far.
There’s a lot more to the game than meets the eye too. Early ‘how to’ and ‘tips to play’ lists I’ve seen dotted around the place are far from complete, largely because there’s a lot of unknowns to Pokemon Go that have yet to be discovered. What happens when you reach a higher level? Are there legendaries? Is there an end-game? We might not know for a while yet, but I can tell you there’s more than just standard Pokeballs out there and levelling up is a key part of the larger experience.
There’s also paid content, though it’s entirely optional. I put a few bucks in just for a laugh, but you can play the entire thing and grab what you need without spending a cent. Pokestops are your best friend when it comes to finding what you need but, if you’re like me and work most days and don’t have many Pokestops near home, there’s certainly nothing wrong with spending a few bucks to help you along the way early on.
There’s definitely some room to build upon what’s here, too. We only have Gen 1 Pokemon to find so far, don’t be surprised if they are eventually joined by other generations over the coming months (or years). There’s also opportunities to add other gameplay mechanics, such as trading Pokemon between players, creating/suggesting/updating Pokestop locations, adding Gym badges or a possible ‘Elite Four’ mode. As time goes on, we’ll discover for sure what the plan is going forward, but if Ingress is anything to go by, the possibilities are endless.
Pokemon Go has come out at just the right time for Nintendo. In the midst of a decline in sales, a clear drought in releases and a lot of uncertainty over the future of the brand and their NX plans, Pokemon Go allows both long time fans and newcomers alike a chance to partake in a piece of pure entertainment that does well to gel over some of the pain we Nintendo fans have had to suffer over the past year or so. Here, they finally have something positive and worthwhile to talk about and gloat over (just a little). Already, the partnership has created one of the most talked about games of the year, has made more money than any of Nintendo’s previous attempts on mobile and has cemented Magikarp memes in the urban dictionary for life.
Pokemon Go is available now on iOS and Android and is free to play. If you’re a Pokemon fan or just curious, it’s definitely worth checking out. FYI, this was reviewed on a Samsung Galaxy S7, and your experience may vary depending on your mobile software and hardware.
Mark Isaacson is a freelance journalist, editor of PN2 and hopeful Pokemon Master. Go say hi @Mark_D_Isaacson