In this article, I give you my quick review of the Pokemon Go mobile game [app]. Before yesterday, the sum total of my Pokemon knowledge was a handful of memes that were hilarious, a decade ago.
But you don’t really need to know much about the classic games, cartoons, and comic books to enjoy the new title that’s dominating headlines: Pokemon Go.
Because this isn’t just a game. It’s augmented reality, and it’s an awful lot of fun. Even though I know nothing about the lore behind it, Pokemon Go is my favorite kind of game, because it’s intrinsically mobile.
You can’t play it sitting in front of a computer or strapped into a virtual reality rig. You play it by going outside. Once you’ve chosen your trainer’s haircut, boots, and backpack, and gotten a quick tutorial, you’re set loose to wander your neighborhood in search of Pokemon.
The world appears on your Android or iPhone as a sort of brighter, cheerier Google Map with your avatar centered at the bottom, and you move that avatar by walking. A lot.
As you walk, you come across PokeStops, which are marked by stylized pins in the virtual world with a photo of the real-life object they’re anchored to. These can be art installations, monuments, parks, basically anything culturally notable in your town or city.
Using your thumb to spin the spinner, spits out supplies you need for gameplay. And remember, this only works if you’re standing right next to the PokeStop in the real world.
So, the idea is you’re not just playing a game, you’re exploring your neighborhood, maybe learning a few things.
If this all sounds familiar, it should. The software developer behind Pokemon Go is Niantic Labs, the Google spin-off that cooked up the augmented reality game Ingress a few years back. If you’ve played Ingress, you already know the basic mechanics of Pokemon Go.
Portals are PokeStops, spinning is hacking, and so on. But, where winning in Ingress is about capturing portals and building fields, victory in Pokemon Go means, well, capturing Pokemon. And that last bit is where this game really stands apart.
As you walk around collecting supplies, you’ll randomly run into wild Pokemon that pop out of nowhere and buzz your phone with a quick vibration.
The creatures appear on your screen overlaid on the real world, so they appear to be standing on the sidewalk right in front of you, or if you play at home, they can sometimes show up right on your coffee table.
Which particular Pokemon shows up, depends on where you’re standing. Some types only appear near water, while others are, I guess, more agrarian in their ambitions.
Now, the whole idea behind capturing these guys is to have them ready so they can go battle for your honor in crazy virtual fights. I don’t really get the ethics of this world. And you do this by throwing these billiard balls at them until you hit them in the head, which can actually be pretty tough until you get the hang of it.
The PokeBall pops open sucks in the Pokemon and boom, you’ve caught one. The more you do this, the more experience points you’ll get, and once you reach Level 5, you’re finally eligible to go to the gyms, which are scattered across the map. You choose a team, choose a Pokemon to do battle with, and unleash it on your opponent.
Apparently you do this until you win, which helps your team capture the gym, but I’m pretty bad at this game, so I wouldn’t know anything about that.
There’s a lot more to the game too that depends on a deeper understanding of the lore. Healing Potions, eggs that hatch only once you’ve walked a certain distance, character matrices more complex than the periodic table.
But, as someone who doesn’t know a Pokedex from a Solaflex, my biggest enjoyment comes from exploring the real world as a consequence of wandering the virtual one.
Now, Ingress accomplishes the same thing, and because I’m more at home inside its cold, haunting technoscape, the biggest thing Pokemon Go did for me was rekindled my latent love for that older title.
Of course, thanks to its namesake’s 20-year legacy, Pokemon Go is already much more popular than its predecessor ever was. Niantic is still struggling to keep up with that demand.
Server strain plagues the game with frustrating loading problems and an absence of Pokemon to capture, which has already led to some really wonderful new memes. These server issues are another facet that Ingress players will be familiar with.
Hopefully, the newly independent Niantic will be able to get it under control someday. Also, there are issues with the app itself: some wonkiness with touch input, and a tendency for the audio to cut out whenever you get a text message. Where the hell are all these Pokemon?
Oh, and pro tip: if you go on a long mission, be sure to bring a power pack. The constant screen-on time and GPS usage is hell on your phone’s battery.
As the launch buzz fades away, we see only the hardcore trainers stick around to hunt Bulbasaurs and fork over real money for PokeCoins.
But, even many years after Ingress launched, I still see players walking the streets capturing portals, and sometimes I’m even one of them. Whether you favor the brighter playfulness of Pokemon or the darker undertones of Ingress, both games are free to download, and both require that you get out of your house and into the real world to play them.
For someone who loves to wander aimlessly anyway, it’s hard to ask for more from a smartphone game.
Stay safe. Don’t get hit by a car while you’re out capturing Caterpie. And feel free to share this post.