Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month or so, you’re well aware of the Pokémon Go craze that’s sweeping the nation. Niantic’s game has been downloaded over 100 million times, taking advantage of the cross-generational appeal of the long-running series of video games. I played the original Game Boy games in the first two generations of the series (Red/Blue/Yellow and Gold/Silver/Crystal), so I was eager to hop on the bandwagon and relive a bit of my childhood. I figured, since I’ve been playing the game for just shy of a month (level 14!), I’d sound off on my initial thoughts about the game and its strengths and weaknesses. So, here we go…
The augmented reality aspect is by far the coolest part. I realize I may be Captain Obvious in stating this fact, but it still needs to be said. While Niantic’s first augmented reality (AR) game, Ingress, attracted a cult following, Pokémon Go is one of the first of these types of games to fully penetrate the mainstream market. “Augmented reality” means that the game’s action is overlaid onto the physical world, and the player must navigate to different locations in order to play different aspects of the game. Different landmarks in an area are marked as “Pokéstops,” where a player can acquire items needed to advance in the game. In addition, when a Pokémon appears onscreen, it uses the player’s phone camera to make it appear as if the Pokémon is right in front of them, which makes it feel much more immediate and real. The player then flicks their finger forward to throw a Poké Ball at it to catch it. There are a few items you can use to make this easier. Your Pokédex keeps track of the Pokémon you’ve seen and caught, and with over 140 species currently available, the game appeals greatly to the collector in me.
The “king of the hill” style of taking and holding gyms is interesting. Several landmarks in the physical world are also marked as Pokémon gyms, which are owned by one of the three teams in the game: Team Mystic J, Team Valor, or Team Instinct. Trainers are allowed to select a team to join when they reach level 5. If your team controls the gym, you can test your Pokémon’s strength against the ones that other trainers have placed in the gym, or you can place one in there yourself if there’s an open slot. If your team doesn’t control the gym, you can take up to six Pokémon in and battle to claim it for your team. This contrasts to gyms in the original game, where the gym leaders were always the same and you would fight to earn badges if you beat them. That sort of system wouldn’t really work with a massively multiplayer AR game like Pokémon Go, so I like how Niantic has chosen to work around that. The only issue I have with the system is that, as with many massively multiplayer games, there are several hardcore players that devote nearly all of their free time to the game, powering up their Pokémon so quickly that it makes it harder for the Average Joes of the world to take and hold any gyms. But that doesn’t seem to be as big of a problem as I originally anticipated.
Powering up your Pokémon is a lot easier this time around… In the original games, you had to make your Pokémon fight others in order for them to gain enough experience to grow in levels. This could be a very time-consuming and repetitive process, so several players (myself included) would often try to find ways around it. This time, since the game doesn’t emphasize battling as much (more on this below), powering up is a lot easier. The experience point system still applies when moving up to the next trainer level, but your Pokémon have a number called Combat Power, or CP, which measures how strong they are. CPs can range from 10 to… I’m not really sure what the maximum is, but I’ve seen some over 2000. Rather than endless battling, players use Stardust, obtained every time one catches a Pokémon. You still have to put some elbow grease into it if you really want to power up your Pokémon to high levels, but it’s a lot less onerous than what the original games required.
…but evolving them isn’t. On the other hand, Pokémon Go makes evolving Pokémon much harder. Most Pokémon can transform, or “evolve” into more advanced forms, which are often more powerful than the original Pokémon. In the original games, most Pokémon would automatically evolve into the next form once they reached a certain level. But in Pokémon Go, evolution requires that a player amass huge amounts of candy. There’s just one problem: the candy is specific to each Pokémon evolutionary chain. The only way to get this candy is to catch a Pokémon that is a member of said chain. What this means is, say for instance you want to evolve your Bulbasaur into an Ivysaur and then a Venusaur (see below).
What that means is that you have to catch a lot of those specific Pokémon in the wild, in order to accumulate enough Bulbasaur Candy to evolve one of them. But these are rare in the wild (I’ve never even seen one, much less caught one), so it’s near-impossible to evolve a Pokémon like that unless you devote many, many hours scouring nearby areas to try to find the six or seven Bulbasaur or Ivysaur that may be in your area. Not all Pokémon are that rare in the wild, but many are, and for rarer Pokémon like Bulbasaur that have two evolutionary forms, the task gets even more tedious. A small amount of candy is also required along with Stardust to increase a Pokémon’s CP, which exacerbates this issue.
I think this system would’ve made more sense if the candy was tied to a Pokémon’s type, rather than its species. So, if you caught a Bulbasaur, you’d get a Grass-type candy, since Bulbasaur is a Grass-type Pokémon. You could then use that candy to evolve any Grass-type Pokémon, rather than having to collect a ton of the same species. For Pokémon that are two types, you could get candy from both types when you caught it. And maybe the requirements to evolve could be a little more fluid then. For example, Weedle is both a Bug and Poison-type Pokémon. Maybe the requirements to evolve it into Kakuna could be 12 Bug Candy, 12 Poison Candy, or 6 of each, rather than just 12 Weedle candy. That would streamline the game’s experience considerably in my view, because it’s fairly easy to encounter Pokémon of many different types.
And then there’s that infamous update. A week or two ago, Niantic broadcast an update for the game that many fans didn’t like. It eliminated the tracking part from the Nearby feature, which showed the approximate distance certain Pokémon were from the player. The more footprints that were under a Pokémon’s picture in the tracker, the further away they were. This feature still works, but the footprints are gone. This change also forced the shutdown of several third-party tracking websites like Pokévision, which would show users where different Pokémon could be located and some interpreted as cheating. Many fans turned on Niantic after this change, resulting in a hail of bad reviews on iTunes and other places where the app is sold.
Honestly, I didn’t react as strongly to this change. I never found the Nearby tracking all that useful anyway (especially after it developed a glitch very soon after the game started that put three footprints under all Pokémon). I do wish that they’d found a way to keep these third-party tracking sites up and running. I don’t really view them as cheating… the player still has to do the work of going to whatever location the Pokémon is and catching them, it just saves a lot of time spent aimlessly wandering around. Though Niantic would later explain that part of the reason for this change was to prevent people from accessing their servers and scraping data to create bots that would spoof their GPS location and essentially play the game for them. If they made the change to prevent that, it annoys me less. Niantic is not a huge company; if they devote all their time to fighting the bots, they won’t have time to expand the game into new areas, develop new features, or fix the bug that’s made Pokémon harder to catch, which all us players want. Hopefully they’ll find some sort of middle ground.
The battle system is much less sophisticated. In the original game, battles were turn-based, and players could choose the move they felt would be most effective against their opponents. There was a fair amount of strategy and nuance involved, even if it was still pretty simple at its core. The only time battles really happen in Pokémon Go is when trainers are trying to take over gyms, or train their Pokémon at a gym their team controls. And even when that happens, the battles are pretty simplistic. Pokémon have one basic move (rather than up to four originally), which the trainer performs by tapping their opponent’s picture on the screen. Every move that successfully lands builds up the power meter for a super move, that can be used after enough successful hits. That’s pretty much it. This gives the battles more of a feel of a random button mash, with much less strategy involved, and is one of the more disappointing parts of the game for me.
But, despite its flaws, Pokémon Go is getting people outside and fostering interactions among groups. This is perhaps the biggest benefit I see of Pokémon Go. I’ve made several new friends and interacted with people I never would have otherwise while I was outside playing the game. Spontaneous gatherings of players have sprung up all over my home city of Atlanta. Many nerds and gamers such as myself have largely sedentary hobbies, and Pokémon Go has got us up moving and walking around more frequently than we would have done on our own. Many people credit Pokémon Go’s popularity with people wanting a temporary escape from what seems like a scary world these days, what with police shootings, terrorist attacks, and this guy. If it can do even a little part in bringing us all closer together, then that’s enough reason for me to play.