Yes, I know. Please, God, not another article about this game.
But, as a videogames blogger, I would be remiss to not throw in my two cents about the Poke-sensation that is causing shock-waves in our culture. Honestly, I don’t remember the last time a game was so wildly popular that it has affected the world around us so profoundly– not even other huge gaming phenomena, like the launch of a Bungie game, have come close to generating this much buzz. Everybody, whether they enjoy Go or not, is talking about it — if you’re not complaining about how sick you are about people talking about it, then you’re already an avid fan yourself. Heck, if you’re somehow not seeing it everywhere in the news or on social media, it’s visible on the streets of your home town and every major population center in the country. There are young people everywhere, across a multitude of age groups, walking around with their phones out in small gangs, chasing the next big catch.
Before the game was released, I was not one of the many who anticipated it’s upcoming launch with fervor. To tell you this story, I’ll have to tell you another story.
See, I grew up playing Pokemon, and of course I adored the franchise, it’s characters, and it’s iconic little pocket monsters — my earliest memories are of the rush of excitement and adventure I got from watching Ash Ketchum on his journey through Kanto. I remember getting up on Saturday mornings to play Pokemon Stadium with my brothers, I remember my Pokedex toy and smuggling the trading cards my parents forbid me to have. I remember how my world was turned upside down when I saw an advertisement in a gaming magazine about the release of a new, second generation of Pokemon, and the summers I spent exploring the world of Johto in Pokemon Gold version. I remember my elder brother’s special edition Pikachu Gameboy Color, and how there was a little Poke-ball around the POWER ON light, with Pikachu and Jigglypuff and Togepi poking their little cartoon faces around the edge of the game screen. So if anybody should have been excited about Pokemon Go, it should have been me, someone who shared the happiness and excitement of the series with so many others as children.
But, I wasn’t.
The Pokemon cartoons and franchise excited me as a child, but what I enjoyed most were the games themselves. These games allowed you to make a small virtual self and go traveling through a huge open world, trekking through forests, caves and faraway cities, discovering new Pokemon and challenging strangers to battles. These games blew my mind as a child, and having never owned a similar, open world RPG like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy, I thought it was the closest thing to living a different life of adventure that anyone could possibly get to. These games took me to another world, full of mystery and excitement. Geez, I used to go to bed at night and have dreams about being a Pokemon trainer and exploring the world. Really, this is exactly what Pokemon Go is, only this time, you’re not exploring Kanto, you’re exploring your actual world. So why am I not nuts about it?
Its because Pokemon Go, in a traditional video game lens, is hardly even a game at all.
Allow me to explain my reasoning.
I love games. I’m a gamer. And there is a sizable majority of the population who will say those exact same words, but they won’t always mean what I mean when I say it. We live in an era when the title “gamer” is used interchangeably to label the type of person who was literally weaned on Super Mario Brothers by their mother on a Super Nintendo, and to also label the type of person who won’t stop spamming your Facebook account for more continues on Candy Crush Saga. It’s like comparing two people, one sitting with Jane Eyre open in their lap, the other sucked into the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. While they are both “reading”, and you wouldn’t technically be incorrect for then applying to both of them the label of “reader”, we both know that you’re talking about two kinds of consumer. I’m not trying to say that enjoying a cute puzzle game where you match colorful candies makes you less cultured, or less intelligent, or less of anything at all, I’m merely trying to get the point across that I consider a real game to have depth, to possess the soul of what makes gaming special: the summation of art design funneled into it’s graphics, the content of a unique story and characters, a soundtrack that sets a mood and defines it’s identity, and gameplay that is involving and cerebral.
On the other end of the spectrum are your new generation of, ah, “simple” games. They’re designed to pander to the least common denominator, and while this can be a good thing in some cases, it generally isn’t to me, because it means the meat of the content is absent for the sake of being enjoyable to people who can’t be bothered to invest enough time into playing them. The music is bland or repetitive, or absent entirely, the gameplay is too basic to warrant nay kind of further examination or increase in skill, there’s no creativity or real charm or beauty in the visuals. They’re simple and easy, and can hold your interest. Basically, they’re videogames designed to appeal to those of us who don’t particularly enjoy videogames, or even worse, they were only ever intended to suck you into repetitive behavior.
It doesn’t take a full-time nerd to see the difference between a game the likes of the Legend of Zelda or Fallout, and a title like Farmville or Doodle Jump. And Pokemon Go and the previous Pokemon videogames are similarly divided.
The reason I was cautious about the upcoming hype for Go was because I knew in my heart that many of the elements that made the games so enjoyable would be stripped out and sacrificed at the altar of mass appeal. If you have had any experience with the main series of Pokemon games, you would know what I’m talking about here. The games that Nintendo released for the Gameboy series or portable consoles were RPGs, with sophisticated mechanics that made the actual process of acquiring and training your Pokemon a deeply engrossing affair. Pokemon GO, instead, is a largely shallow gaming experience, lacking many of the features I would expect to be required for a legitimate Pokemon entry. In the past, a serious, legitimate Pokemon game, one that focuses on the player finding, capturing, training, and battling other Pokemon, has specific features that the game revolves around.
The initial premise is largely recognizable, at first. The player wanders the wilderness, and encounters Pokemon. Okay, Pokemon Go has this. Check. The player then must capture the Pokemon. Check. But after this point, Pokemon Go and a traditional Pokemon game cease their similarities and become two completely different experiences.
In a normal Pokemon game, you use previously acquired Pokemon to battle Pokemon found in the wild. To do so, your Pokemon must outmatch the wild one, and to do so, the player must use the “right” Pokemon — for instance, it would make sense to use an electric type Pokemon against a water type you found fishing in a pond, while it would be detrimental to your success to use a fire type Pokemon. This alone does not guarantee success, however. Your Pokemon must have enough previous battle experience to be tough enough to defeat this wild Pokemon. Pokemon also have several different moves they can use in a battle, and each type of Pokemon has specific stats — like strength, defense, speed, etcetera– which determine how it performs in different roles in battle. These simple dynamics intertwine to form the heart of the game, the complex layers of strategy that must be navigated by the player to win battles.
In Pokemon Go, the acquisition of Pokemon is different. To catch a Pokemon, you must throw a ball at it.
There is no battling to acquire new Pokemon. I could put up with this, at least, because it simulates the trainer physically capturing his newest addition to his party, which is a pretty cool concept. But unfortunately, this applies to training your Pokemon too. In a traditional game, your Pokemon got stronger by battling other trainers’ Pokemon, or the various monsters you encountered in the wild. In Go, your Pokemon become more powerful by, once again, throwing a ball at Pokemon of the same type. By trading in weaker versions of the same Pokemon, you earn “candies” and “stardust”, which are in turn used to make your Pokemon stronger.
I could forgive the lack of using your Pokemon to earn new, more powerful ones or to train your existing Pokemon, if the only remaining avenue of battling wasn’t such a simple affair. Battles are held at Gyms, locations that are generated at local landmarks in the real world. Swiping left or right allows you to attempt to dodge attacks, and you can tap your phone’s screen in a seizure-tastic manner to spam the use of a single, predetermined attack. As time passes in battle, a meter builds up until you can unleash a special attack, which varies depending on the Pokemon in question. This sounds neat enough, but in any other entry, I wouldn’t be limited to only two attacks, or fighting exclusively against players in gyms.
Basically, the mechanics of Pokemon Go revolve around how good you are at swiping a Pokeball across a screen and how far you’re willing to walk. Battles are still affected by Pokemon type, but things like stats and move variety are gone, and what we’re left with are contests decided by how much you hiked around the neighborhood that day. All of the planning, training and strategic choices made in battles are mostly absent here, leaving little more than a fitness app camouflaged to resemble a game from a well renowned franchise. There just isn’t much “game” here at all. You walk around, throw balls at Pokemon, and then match up your accumulated gains against other people who have been doing the same thing that afternoon.
And it’s not just the actual gameplay that’s lacking, but everything else that makes a Pokemon game timeless is forgotten as well. Anybody who has played the games can hum the catchy, enjoyable tunes of the series’ iconic wilderness and town themes, which are by themselves very enjoyable and put you in a good mood just by hearing them play. Go’s music doesn’t stand out at all, and can get irritating enough to make you mute your phone after walking around with it on for a prolonged period of time. The visuals are also lacking: the colorful, cute style of the places and characters in the games isn’t present at all, instead replaced by your surroundings in your camera. Even the game’s menus are a departure from the stylish ones we’re used to, with Go’s interface sporting a bland, generic phone-game interface that would feel less out of place on a work computer or a google application.
I understand it’s appeal, so I’m not completely blind as to why so many people enjoy it. The idea of walking out into the real world and encountered fantastical creatures is an exciting concept. Go also offers people a real reason to actually go outside, and explore the fascinating world around us, and it has a remarkable way of making people connect. My friends, who are one hundred percent nuts about this game, have told me the same thing: it’s the community that makes Go so fun and so special. As you’re running around town and catching these little monsters, you run into other people who are doing the same thing. You share Pokemon locations, or discuss the strengths of local gyms, show off your favorite acquisitions. And wouldn’t you know it, connecting with people over a hobby actually allows you to make new friends.
As a normal person who likes Pokemon and who likes technology, Go is an awesome idea, one that has serious implications for the future of games and how it affects our daily lives. As a gamer, it’s a shallow imitation of a much better game, an imitation that could have been so much more. And honestly, if I wanted to play a good Pokemon game, I’d grab a Gameboy and play one. If I wanted to go out on the town and have a good time, I can think of other things I’d much rather be doing than be glued to my phone, walking in circles and hoping that a rare Pokemon shows up on my screen.