Unless you've been living under a rock for the past month or so, you've probably seen everyone talking about Pokémon GO on your social media feeds. Equally popular on my own feeds were people asking, "What the @? is Pokémon GO (and why is everyone talking about it)?" It's become a phenomenon that has spawned plenty of controversy with people arguing like crazy over both the positive and negative aspects of this...thing. Pokémon GO is near impossible to ignore now.
Before I talk about Pokémon GO itself, let's get into the right frame of mind. Remember when you first played a Pokémon game. Wasn't it a completely immersive experience that made you want to live in that world? Didn't you think to yourself, "I want my own pet Butterfree or Eevee or whatever Pokémon I find appealing. I want to see a professor, pick my starting Pokémon, name it Mister Cuddlyfluff, and go on wild adventures with it. I want to live in this world, it is so wonderful!" Well, Pokémon GO aims to use that feeling to turn your regular life and your surroundings into a Pokémon adventure using your smartphone or tablet.
Pokémon GO is an augmented reality game that makes use of your phone's or tablet's GPS and camera. For those who don't know what an "augmented reality" game is, a good example is the shooter game Face Raiders that comes preloaded on the 3DS. In Face Raiders, you would photograph a face using the 3DS camera and then superimpose those faces onto wherever your 3DS camera is filming, so it looks like your bedroom, car, or whatever place you're playing in is being "invaded" by these faces that you need to shoot. This was fun on long road trips where my buddies and I would blast "evil" faces of each other that had "invaded" our van.
That was Face Raiders and this is Pokémon GO. GO is more of an exploration game comparable to the hobby of geocaching. Geocaching is an outdoor recreational activity where participants use a GPS receiver, mobile device, or other navigational techniques to seek out containers (called geocaches or caches) that other participants have hidden around the world. With Pokémon GO, you basically walk around your neighborhood with your phone's or tablet's GPS and camera on, and you might see a wild pokémon on your screen to capture. These creatures can appear anywhere, but there are virtual hubs placed in fixed positions throughout the real world that function as facilities like Gyms and PokéStops where players can replenish pokéballs and supplies (e.g. incubators for eggs). One of my fellow editors discovered that one of the Stops was a neighborhood Chipotle restaurant he frequented, and that never failed to amuse him.
Battle mechanics consist of simple taps and swipes, which are very intuitive for a touchscreen game. Battles are not the patient and complex turn-based affairs of the offline games, so fast fingers and type advantages (e.g. water type pokémon inflict massive damage to fire types but are weak to grass types) will win the day. Along with pokémon, eggs can be found as well and you need to take a lot of steps in order to hatch them.
As with recent Pokémon games, GO allows you to create your own distinct in-game avatar. There are a decent variety of hairstyles, skin colors, and outfits to choose from, and I'm sure new hairstyles and outfits will become available as in-app purchases or for special events. Playing dress-up was one of my favorite aspects of Pokémon X/Y and I'm sure others feel the same way. Who wouldn't want their in-game avatar to be hypothetically traipsing around in an adorably bright Pikachu costume? Adding another aspect of choice is that, upon reaching level 5, you can choose which of three factions you wish to join: Valor (Red), Mystic (Blue), or Instinct (Yellow). This mechanic is similar to the "teams" play in the popular game Agar.io, and gym battles are like playing King of the Mountain. If a Valor player has bested a gym, that gym is Valor territory until a Mystic or Instinct player wins that gym. One of my fellow editors talked about playing during a college visit and, given the amount of players on campus, saw several Valor gyms fall under Instinct control. RPGFan Music Editor Brigid Choi created a lovely chart showing team distribution among the RPGFan staff, and though all teams are represented, the staff as a whole are overwhelmingly Mystic Blue.
This is not the first time the franchise has tried to tie the immersive wonder of Pokémon to the real world, to get gamers to see reality as being as wonderful as a virtual world. When the HeartGold and SoulSilver versions of Pokémon came out, they had an accessory called the PokéWalker: a pedometer where you could load in Pokémon you wanted to level up and they would level up as you walked around. The more steps you took, the better the results. And from what I've read, Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri's hobby of going out and collecting bugs is what inspired him to create Pokémon in the first place, and hopefully Pokémon GO will allow us to see the real world in the fascinating way he did when his Pokémon idea was hatched.
Because of the unforeseen popularity of Pokémon GO, there has been plenty of press on it, both positive and negative. In many places, mobile internet is spotty at best, so the developers are still working through fledgling issues like servers bumping people off, preventing logins, freezing, and crashing, but that's a minor hurdle any endeavor like this would face and the potential is ripe with possibilities. As of this writing, trading mechanics are still being worked out as well as feedback forms to report if any Gyms or Stops are in unsafe areas. The news is always quick to pick up on hazards concerning mobile apps. These hazards range from simply bumping into walls or trees to more sinister threats (e.g. petty criminals camping at the real-world locations of PokéStops to mug people of their phones or cyber criminals camping out to steal users' data.) So, as with any app like this, use common sense and always stay alert and be aware of your surroundings.
That being said, the app has been used to positive effect, getting sedentary people off their couches and walking around outside, exploring their local parks, and enjoying nature to some extent. I was also recently pointed to a lovely Growlithe and Cubone-festooned ad by the Muncie Animal Shelter in Indiana asking avid Pokémon GO users to visit the shelter and get their steps in to hatch an egg or find rare Pokémon while walking one of their many adoptable dogs. Playing the game while helping out the community sounds like a win-win to me, and according to that shelter's Facebook page, they've already adopted out some dogs thanks to the Pokémon GO initiative. How wonderful is that?
Several of our staff members are active Pokémon GO players who have had some memorable and unique experiences playing this unique and popular game, and here is what they have to say about it:
My favorite moment as a real life Pokémon GO trainer was my first one; after waiting anxiously for the app to load properly (third time was the charm), I got a buzz alerting me to my inaugural encounter. Frantically spinning around my living room, searching through the camera of my phone, I see it! A Bulbasaur! Several wasted pokéballs later he is mine, and my life as a gamer has come full circle to middle school, when I picked my first herbaceous dino starter. Once again I was in the grips of poké-mania.
Pokémon GO is a first toe in the ocean of what could be a massive augmented reality market. In some ways it's more of a geocaching game than full AR (pokémon are overlaid on the real world by your phone but don't interact with it in any meaningful way), but it is such a brilliant model for the AR's potential as a gaming platform. Forget the Kinect (or worse yet PS Eye) tethering me to my living room; I want to run around outside and find that Squirtle.
I don't have much to say about Pokémon GO as a game, if only because I live in an extremely rural area, on top of a hill. To put it in perspective, the closest PokéStop to me is about a 20 minute walk. I do, however, have something to say about Pokémon GO as an experience.
Suffering from rapid cycling, type II bipolar disorder, I'm often prone to negative mood swings. I'm also a bit of a hermit who would much rather spend his time inside than out. Pokémon GO, however, is all about getting you outside, and since I'm an avid Pokémon fan, I knew that I would have to get over my preference of staying indoors and start walking around what little neighborhood I have. No, I haven't caught very many Pokémon (my team consists of about eight, four of which are a pair of duplicates), and I suspect it's because I don't have much of a path to walk around. After all, I'm not exactly in a suburban cul-de-sac.
While this has hindered GO as a game for me a bit, it hasn't hindered Go as an actual act — an act that consists of getting outside, enjoying the sunshine and exercising. Being a depressed shut-in, I'm simply not used to getting sweaty from the hot air and the even hotter rays of the sun; nor am I used to aching feet from walking around so much. Thanks to GO, I'm getting out and moving my body while absorbing some nice sunshine, and it's already impacted my mood and thought habits. I feel happier now that I'm moving. Taking a 10-15 minute walk every day and getting some fresh air is a proud accomplishment.
Is the game curing my mental illness? Absolutely not. But it is definitely making a positive impact on it, and on my lifestyle. The weeks of getting exercise have made me realize how much I missed it and the sense of euphoria I get after a nice walk or jog. I'm even planning to give going to the gym another chance. Nintendo's goal with this app was to get players outside and interacting with other people through their love of the Pokémon franchise, and based on my experience, I'd say the company has succeeded.
Pokémon GO really came out at an ideal time. You see, I just moved to a new and unfamiliar area, and while I'd be perfectly content to hide out in my new basement... but wait, you're telling me there are Pokémon outside?! Kidding aside, I have to give Pokémon GO credit for giving me more enthusiasm about exploring a new environment. It gives me an excuse to check out local landmarks (who knows, they might be PokéStops!) and often requires me to take a brief detour on my evening walks to hunt down a new critter that spawned in my path (I'm watching you, Raticate...).
As for the game itself... well, I wasn't expecting a core Pokémon title, and the simple act of finding new Pokémon and chucking PokéBalls at them is quite addictive, but there's definitely more that could be done with the concept. It's a work in progress, but given how popular Pokémon GO has become in such a short period of time, it would astound me if the developers didn't expand upon it in the near future. Trading is reportedly on the way, which will give trainers new ways to interact with each other outside of competing for Gyms, which I feel would enhance the community aspect of this game. And I can't be alone in wanting some representation from later Pokémon gens, am I? Despite my minor complaints, I remain enthused with the overall conceit of Pokémon GO, and can see this game sticking around for quite some time.
Also, if you didn't choose Team Mystic, you're doing it wrong.
Pokémon GO is perfect for me. Having finished blue and playing through most of Silver, I realized that I'm a very specific type of Pokémon fan. I skipped the other games in the series, because the combat and story always bored me, and I found the pacing slow. The allure of capturing pokémon was always what engaged me the most. I'm a collector at heart — my desk of figurines can attest to that. And that's precisely why I love Pokémon GO. I haven't been this engaged by a Pokémon game in years. The goal is truly to "catch 'em all" with combat being a secondary focus. Fighting at Gyms could almost be defined as a side activity given how simple it is. The drive to "catch 'em all" is why I've been playing Pokémon GO every day since its release.
I absolutely love it when video games are accessible to a wider audience. The more people enjoy video games, the more support the video game community has, the more diverse the video game crowd, the more we break down gamer stereotypes, etc.
Pokémon GO is one of the most accessible games I've seen in my life (not including games like Minesweeper and Candy Crush). Casual and hardcore gamers both play it. News outlets and non-gamers are talking about it (maybe sometimes not for the best reasons, such as all the accidents that have happened to players who aren't aware of their surroundings). I've run into so many people playing Pokémon GO who I wouldn't have pegged as "gamers." A buff dudebro in a tank top asked me if the Pokéstop in the mall was closed. It was a jarring, yet totally awesome experience.
Not so awesome are the bugs, and no I'm not talking about Caterpie or Weedle. Anyone who's played the game for five minutes knows that the servers go down as often as you waste a PokéBall trying to catch a Zubat. Anyone who's gone to at least two Pokéstops has seen that frustrating "Try again later" message. But as annoying as those experiences are, I give Niantic some slack. Come on, the game hasn't been out very long.
Because Pokémon GO is so different from other Pokémon games, a lot of things take some getting used to. Once I got to level 5 and started battling, the battling just felt really strange. I'm used to having four moves (which is limiting in itself since the Pokémon in the anime have larger movesets), but in GO, I only have two attacks. That second attack is considerably harder to use, especially if I'm dodging blows from my foe. Also, the longer the game is out, the stronger the gym-defending Pokémon passively becomes, making it harder to win battles. For example, I just saw a Vaporeon with 1300 CP defending a gym. I'm level 11 with 400 CP, so a victory there is not happening.
Another awkwardly different feature I had trouble getting used to was the game's more detached relationship with Pokémon. In traditional Pokémon games, you take the time to groom your cutie level 5 starter into a level 60 beast. There were times I vowed to stick with a certain pokémon until I caught something better, but ended up getting attached to it and taking it with me to the Elite 4. My prior Pokémon gameplay experience, and every episode of the anime, taught me that pokémon are our friends, not fighting machines. In Pokémon GO, however, the strategy is to keep the strongest pokémon and get rid of the rest. When you catch a higher CP version of your starter, it makes the most sense to transfer away your first guy and feed its candy to the new guy. The disposable nature of pokémon here feels weirdly disconnected from what Pokémon is all about for me.
Lastly, as a member of the RPGFan Music staff, I have to talk about the music. Pokémon soundtracks have always been extraordinary and full of variety. The one overworld song in Pokémon GO is nothing to write home about. With the handful of route songs in each traditional Pokémon game, could they not have included five overworld songs to randomly switch out? Or have one song that plays in a residential area, one song to play in the city, and another to play while you're a passenger in a vehicle (which the program has to be able to detect, if it considers how fast you're covering distance.) The other songs in Pokémon GO definitely have Junichi Masuda's masterful touch. Some songs build off familiar tunes (e.g. the arrangement of Red/Blue/Yellow's "Victory Road" as the new Gym song) and some are original pieces (e.g. the wild Pokémon encounter song). Those are not heard as often as the drab overworld theme, which leaves me extremely disappointed in Pokémon GO's lackluster OST.
I'm not sure how long Pokémon GO will be able to maintain the hype, but I hope it keeps up until the inevitable update of adding second generation Pokémon. There's so much still to be added and tackled, like trading, breeding, and battling. I can't wait to see how Pokémon GO will Pokémon GROW.