By now you’ve all probably heard of, or played, Pokémon GO.
GO was developed by Niantic, originally a startup within Google. The company was spun into an independent entity in October 2015 shortly after it announced partnership with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company to produce a Pokemon title.
GO is the latest in Nintendo’s enduringly popular Pokémon series, and the first to be released on smart phones following a recent change in the company’s strategy. The series immerses players in worlds filled with a plethora of bizarre creatures called Pokémon which can be caught, raised, and fought. Pokémon GO utilises smart phone GPS and camera technology to ‘augment reality’, overlaying animated characters on the camera’s live feed and requiring players to seek out Pokémon in real world locations. Buoyed by immense hype the Tokyo stock exchange saw Nintendo shares become the most traded stock in any one day this century. At time of writing Nintendo’s stock price has doubled since the release of Pokémon GO, surpassing Sony’s estimated value.
But there’s one question that’s largely been ignored in the hype surrounding GO’s release. “Is Pokémon GO a good game?”
Not really, no.
Pokémon GO’s success seems to rely on two key principles. The first, that it taps into a very specific nostalgia. Pokémon GO heavily features the 151 creatures found in the original Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow games released in 1996 for the Nintendo Game Boy. The decision to limit Pokémon GO’s characters to more familiar faces feels like a deliberate move to reach the series’ old fans. Like marketing for recent Star Wars products, Niantic have aimed straight for the nostalgia dollar, and if you’re part of the target demographic, it’s impossible to resist the game’s pull.
Secondly, there’s a $0 price barrier to Pokémon GO. Unlike any previous release, you don’t have to buy a Nintendo handheld console or the game to play. With smartphones now pretty much ubiquitous, the move to mobile has unlocked a massive audience for Pokémon GO, and people have responded with overwhelming enthusiasm.
The Pokémon here look amazing, Niantic have done a great job bringing each creature to life with beautiful looking character models and fitting animations. Sound effects are wonderfully on-point-glitchy-screeches, and music by series veteran Junichi Masuda, despite being a little repetitive, adds a lot to the game. The aesthetic here is on point, and those first few expeditions hunting for the elusive critters are really quite magical. So why is it a bad game?
GO starts to unravel once you play for a little longer. Unlike the bona fide Pokémon titles, wild Pokémon in GO don’t have to be weakened by your own Pokémon before you can catch them. Instead you just use various (purchasable) items and fling (purchasable) Pokéballs at them until you get lucky. It’s basically Paper Toss. At level 5 the player joins a team (Red, Blue, or Yellow) and starts to fight over Pokémon Gyms. Training at a friendly Gym will allow more Pokémon from your team to defend it, while attacking another teams’s Gym will reduce the amount of Pokémon guarding it.
Unlike previous Pokémon games, your Pokémon won’t get any stronger from fighting at Gyms, nor will you be able to fight wild Pokémon with your own. Instead you’ll either have to raise your player level to increase the chance of high level Pokémon spawns or boost your Pokémon’s growth with ‘stardust’ and Pokémon-specific ‘candy’. This is achieved through battling Gyms and capturing duplicates of the Pokémon you want to raise, respectively. The problem here is that if Pikachu is your favourite Pokémon and you don’t regularly visit an area in which Pikachus live, you’re shit out of luck. Raising an individual Pokémon just isn’t a thing in GO — you’ll simply have to make do with the Pokémon that live in the locations you frequent.
What little battling you’ll do in Pokémon GO’s Gyms will also kinda suck. Pokémon have a basic move, a special move, and the ability to dodge. Most of the time however you’ll find yourself just mashing the screen to use your creature’s main attack. Special moves seem to take way too long to power up for how much damage they do, and opposing Pokémon’s attacks are signposted too poorly to be able to dodge effectively. Newer players will find it prohibitively difficult to compete for Gyms and gain experience, which is the primary way to level your character and unlock wild Pokémon strong enough to contest tougher Gyms.
Conversely players who are now reaching those higher levels are reporting that even low CP Pokémon ‘have an an abnormally high chance to evade capture’ and that progress from level 29-30 will ‘see you go through 1,000 Pokéballs’. This means less Pokémon hunting, more visits to Pokéstops, and increasing pressure to use real money to purchase items from GO’s in-game store.
In addition to these fundamental problems with gameplay, the game has never really worked that well. GO’s Australian, American, and European releases have all been plagued with server load issues, instability, and various bugs. If we can agree that it’s annoying to log into your favourite multiplayer game at home and find the servers are down, it’s infuriating to physically spend half an hour walking to a Gym just to find that you can’t fight. For a week after release I would often experience a bug where the game would freeze when an opposing Gym’s final Pokémon had 1HP remaining. The Gym would remain in enemy hands while my Pokémon would retain the damage they’d suffered in the fight. At time of writing the majority of players seem to be suffering from the ‘three footprint bug’ meaning that the game won’t indicate when you’re nearing a certain Pokémon. For a game about tracking down Pokémon, a broken Pokémon tracking feature is a big deal.
Defenders will say the game is free, and point to any number of good-news stories about Pokémon GO getting people out of the house and socialising. They would be right, too. I think, all in all, Pokémon GO is probably a good thing for a lot of people out there. It’s just that for me, I was hoping for something deeper, something that I could really sink my teeth (and some serious dollars) into. Something that more accurately reflected the gameplay experience that I remember so fondly from the original games.
Pokémon GO just seems like such a missed opportunity. I want to see players able to change their in-game avatars to hikers, bug-catchers, or fisherpeople. I want to see player vs player battles. I want to see a bigger emphasis on training and connecting with individual Pokémon. I want to see some customisation options for the Gyms. I want to see fighting against wild Pokémon. I want to see as many Pokémon in parklands and rural areas as there are in cities and shopping malls. However I have virtually no expectation that these features will ever be introduced.
In November, Nintendo are scheduled to release two new Pokémon games, Sun and Moon, on their 3DS handheld console. Why would a company about to release two new games (on a console they need to sell) give away the experience of playing those games for free? They wouldn’t. This is why I believe that GO will remain frustratingly distinct from the games that inspired us to download it in the first place. Some critics seem to think Pokémon GO will undergo a drastic transformation as time passes, but I’m sceptical. GO has already achieved what it set out to; it’s raked in an incredible amount of cash from players, sent Nintendo’s stock price through the roof, and advertised the franchise’s upcoming exclusive games. It’s also created an eerie potential for the sale of ‘digital real estate’ overlapping the real world.
Consider how much companies like McDonalds might pay for the installation of Pokéstops at all of their restaurants for example. While there’s absolutely no indication that Niantic will go down this route, it wouldn’t be the first startup to bank on the future potential for commercialisation of their product. EDIT: It’s since come to my attention that Niantic are really partnering with McDonalds to establish 3,000+ Gyms and Pokéstops in McDonalds restaurants across Japan.
Am I being a killjoy? Certainly. Go and download Pokémon GO, get a few friends together, and have some fun out in the fresh air. Despite all of the problems described previously I’ve enjoyed seeing all the Pokémon from my youth and walking around to find the critters. But I also think the game represents a huge missed opportunity.
I’m also willing to concede I’m part of an increasingly insignificant market share, the ‘legacy gamer’. Smartphone game sales are predicted to hit $52.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2019, accounting for 45% of global gaming revenue. The commercial success of Pokemon GO might mean it’s not the last treasured Nintendo franchise that will see a ‘free to play’ mobile iteration. Overall, I think it’s great that games can now be compact enough to fit into our early morning commute, or daily walk — it’s just sad that as part of this process the first Pokémon product I’ve played in years is bereft of the depth that made it so magical in childhood.