Mobile games are a pretty mixed bag; not to put too fine a point on it, but quality control on the various app stores can be a little lenient. Combined with the sheer number of mobile games available, that’s why when we come across a really special mobile game it’s important to point it out and make it clear that it’s worth checking out. Here we are, then: Nintendo’s Pokémon Go is pretty cool and you should probably play it. Chances are good you already are.
Pokémon Go is essentially the latest GPS-based exploration simulator from Ingress creators Niantic. It’s based on the beloved Pokémon franchise, of course, and it boils down to a straightforward gameplay loop: you’re a Pokémon Trainer, so naturally you want to catch and train some Pokémon. You need Poké Balls and other items to do this, so you’ll need to visit Pokéspots to get them; additional items can be obtained via microtransactions but this largely doesn’t feel necessary if you’re close enough to an area with plenty of Pokéspots. Like the portals in Niantic’s previous game Ingress, Pokéspots are found at real-world locations like tourist signs, churches, popular businesses and so on.
Once you’ve visited some spots and harvested some items, you can catch Pokémon found in the world around you; your phone will alert you when one is nearby, giving you the chance to catch them with a simple minigame. The entire first generation of monsters is available, so you’re sure to be able to find some of your favorites.
Once you’ve done this for awhile, you’re also given the chance to engage in Pokémon battles. These take place at Gyms, which are also located at key points in the real world, and are largely decided by comparing the Combat Power values of the Pokémon in question. There’s some skill involved in battle, but drastically varying CP values will make it pretty clear who’s going to win. Victory at a Gym allows you to claim that Gym; each player chooses a colored Team, and ostensibly the goal of the game is to claim as many Gyms as possible for your Team.
You’ll typically obtain better Pokémon for battling by catching them, but you can also find Eggs that can be hatched by walking around with them. If you’ve got a particular favorite Pokémon, you can also improve it directly by spending Stardust currency and candy obtained by catching more of the same Pokémon.
That’s really it – the key to Pokémon Go is the game’s simplicity. Ingress isn’t really all that complex once you get into it, but its combination of sci-fi technobabble and long-established enthusiast community means that it isn’t the easiest thing to sell a new player on. Pokémon Go, meanwhile, presents the game’s key points within the first hour of play: walk to landmarks to get items, use the items to catch more Pokémon. When gyms are introduced later they’re presented in an equally simple manner: your Pokémon have power numbers, higher numbers usually win. It’s the kind of thing anyone can pick up and play.
Naturally there’s been no small amount of upset over this simplification of the series. That’s nonsense, of course; Nintendo has stuck their guns in keeping the heart and soul of Pokémon on their handhelds. If they wouldn’t bring a full-scale Pokémon RPG to their consoles, it’s ludicrous to think they’d make an about-face for something like this. Instead, it’s a game that uses its license to facilitate social interaction, community engagement and exercise. It’s hard to think of many video games that do the same.
That kind of ties into the best thing I can say about Pokémon Go, which is that I’ve seen a greater amount and variety of people playing it than pretty much any other game. Old, young, male, female, any race you can imagine, at some point I’ve seen them all walking around in town visibly playing Pokémon Go. Random people in public were openly talking about how they found a Clefairy over there or how they were excited for their Charmander to evolve. I’d call this important; in fact, I’d call it more important than any artsy puzzle platformer, overly wordy RPG or dull walking simulator that’s ever been released.
Why? Let’s be real: no matter how many treatises people write about how Games Are Art Now, the fact of the matter is that in 2016 video games remain a hobby that many people will think less of you for engaging in. I think that’s the root of a lot of the problems that the industry and that people who play games face, in fact.
I also think games like Pokémon Go, where we’ve got a legitimate chunk of the mainstream interested and playing, are the real way toward mitigating that stigma and turning gaming into a respectable medium. Incessant insistence that “everyone really should take games seriously now, I mean come on guys, we swear they aren’t just for kids anymore” certainly hasn’t worked for the past twenty years. If we want the world to understand that games aren’t just a waste of time – and really, that’s the heart of the games-as-art thing – maybe we should try engaging them instead.