Pokemon GO is a really weird thing. On the one hand, I couldn’t be happier that it’s caused thousands, even millions of people to care about Pokemon that haven’t payed attention to it in 15+ years. On the other hand, it’s a really shitty video game. Despite my overall feelings about the actual product, that first positive can’t be overstated. Pokemon has never been a “niche” product, but since the release of the original Red and Blue versions, and the following TV show, each iteration has lost a few fans. I consider myself to be a huge Pokemon enthusiast, and even I’m behind on the now over 700 Pokemon in existence.
Before we dive in, if you’re just looking for my thoughts on the game, you probably got the gist in that first paragraph. I don’t think it’s a good game, for a multitude of reasons. It’s buggy as hell, there’s very little in the way of actual gameplay or mechanics, there’s absolutely zero depth to the process of catching, raising, and fighting Pokemon, and in general it captures almost nothing about what’s made the handheld games so beloved. But let’s not simplify things, because I think it’s important to get into what makes the handheld games so great, and why The Pokemon Company and Niantic went in this direction.
First, a little history on my Pokemon history. As I said, I’ve been playing Pokemon since the beginning. My brother and I each owned a version of Red and Blue, though to be honest I can’t remember which one belonged to me. We were fervent fans of the television show, as well; for a while I watched an episode every morning before school. I traded cards on the bus with my friends, and took advantage of younger kids with some really terrible trades. “No really, Taurus is an awesome card. He’s super rare… I guess I could give him up for your Japanese Blastoise, but don’t tell anyone…” I never got into the actual combat of the card game, preferring the collection and rarity aspect. My card collection is probably still buried somewhere in my Mom’s attic. I wonder if any of those cards are still worth anything?
From there, I went on to play Pokemon Yellow, which I also loved. It was cool to be able to get all three starters in one game, plus it was adorable having Pikachu trail behind you as you explored. Gold, Silver, and Crystal might have been even better games. They added a whole new continent and Pokemon, while still including Kanto, the original 151, and the original Pokemon league and eight trainers. Ruby and Sapphire didn’t grab me as much, but I still put plenty of hours into them. Leaf Green and Fire Red were a great return to the originals, and I’m actually replaying Leaf Green on my DS right now. The release of Diamond and Pearl was the first time I started feeling myself getting burnt out. The standard loop of catching and fighting didn’t feel as special, and there were plenty of duds in the new roster of Pokemon to catch.
Heart Gold and Soul Silver were again better versions of their original games, and it was fun going back with better graphics and animations. Black and White was where I fell off entirely. I bought Pokemon Black and was super hyped up for it, but I don’t think I ever even completed that game. I haven’t touched any of the games since (partially due to my lack of a 3DS), but I still go back to the originals at least once a year. On the home console side of things, I played Pokemon Snap, Pokemon Stadium, and Pokemon Colosseum. I’ve also seen a handful of the movies, though I know there are about twenty of them that I haven’t seen.
So there, now that I’ve proven my Pokemon love to you, let’s talk about Pokemon GO. Full disclosure, I put probably ten or so hours into it, catching well over fifty Pokemon (mostly repeats), evolving a few, hitting up a couple Pokestops, and challenging a Gym before getting destroyed immediately. I know there are plenty of people out there that have played this game waaaaaay more than I have, but I wanted to write this up to explain why I didn’t enjoy my time with Pokemon GO, and how there’s almost no chance that I’ll come back to it without some major overhauls of the app.
To be fair, there are definitely some good things about the “game.” I love that it’s encouraging people to go outside and get some exercise. It’s a great way to meet up with other people in real life, and to hang out with existing friends. I know my brother has been having a great time forming Pokestop driving routes with his buddies. And like I said, it’s made Pokemon mainstream in a way that it hasn’t been in a very long time.
Some of the ideas are worth recognizing as well, even if some of them don’t function properly or aren’t fully formed. The AR or “altered reality” aspect is cool. That’s where you’re seeing the Pokemon in the real world on your phone. In theory, that makes it feel like the Pokemon is really there. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work most of the time. I noticed more often than not, the Pokemon would be floating in mid-air or standing on something that doesn’t make sense. That kind of breaks the immersion aspect. There are also almost no social features. Niantic has said that they’re working on stuff, but at the time of this writing there’s no way to check out your friend’s Pokemon, no way to trade Pokemon, and not even a way to battle Pokemon with other people in real-time. Those seem like huge missteps for such a social experience. We’ve all seen the videos of dozens or even hundreds of people all gathered in the same place, trying to catch a rare Pokemon or take advantage of a lure. But as of right now, there is no in-game way for those people to interact. That is completely bonkers.
Unfortunately, when it comes to actually playing the game, there isn’t much positive that I can say. Even when the game doesn’t crash while you’re trying to catch a Pokemon, the process isn’t all that fun. All you’re doing is flinging a Pokeball at the Pokemon. There’s a circle around the Pokemon that grows and shrinks, but it really has very little effect on whether or not you catch the Pokemon. At first, I caught everything no matter how good of a throw it was. But once I leveled up to around level five, Pokemon started randomly escaping my throws. There was almost no rhyme or reason to it. It didn’t matter what CP the Pokemon was or how good my throw was, some Pokemon just fail to be caught just because. That’s a pretty lame mechanic.
Battling Pokemon isn’t much better, which boils down to a button mashing game. You’re able to dodge left and right, and utilize special moves that every Pokemon comes with, but thanks to the buggy servers, this feature is basically useless. All of the Pokemon battles I experienced were decided on who had the higher level Pokemon and who could jam on their phone screen faster. Another complaint I have is about how to find Pokemon. I live in a busy suburb of Atlanta, and so I expected to be surrounded by Pokestops and Gyms. That is not the case. I have three Pokestops within a square half mile from my house, none of which are a walkable distance away. Not that it would matter, since my town isn’t really walkable in the first place. The way this part of the game works seems designed for people that live in big cities, and that’s frustrating. There should be a better way for people in smaller towns to be able to catch Pokemon without having to drive 20 mins to their nearest populated park.
Now, I’m not a game designer, but I have plenty of ideas that I think could make Pokemon Go a better experience. Some of them I’ve already mentioned, like adding the ability to battle anyone you come across or being able to trade Pokemon with your friends. But I think the combat in the game is the thing that needs the biggest overhaul. I’d recommend going back to the traditional turn based combat seen in the handheld Pokemon games. Some newer features like super moves and two-on-two battles are probably too complex for the overwhelmingly casual Pokemon fan, but a simple layout of four moves and the ability to use potions wouldn’t be too much for most. It would make battles more exciting, and it would please the diehard Pokemon fans, plenty of whom are disappointed in this current version (like me).
So, while the concept of catching Pokemon in the real world is novel, the good ideas in this game could have still existed in a much better overall product. There’s always the chance that Niantic and The Pokemon Company make sweeping changes to the game, inputting more social features, integrating a turn based combat system, and changing the way you catch Pokemon, but I’m not holding my breath. It’s going to take a whole lot to get me interested in Pokemon Go again, and I just don’t see it happening. That’s incredibly disappointing.