In the early 90s, Satoshi Tajiri had an idea for a game born from a childhood love of bug-collecting. He wanted players to find and collect a host of bizarre creatures – and that idea became Pokémon. Twenty years on from the launch of the original GameBoy games, the series is taking over the world all over again thanks to mobile game Pokémon Go – and it might be the game that most closely-resembles Tajiri's dream.
Developed by Niantic in a partnership with The Pokémon Company, the free-to-play game uses real-world location data to populate near-enough every inch of our planet with bizarre creatures to be found, caught and trained. Pokémon seldom come to the player in Go, they have explore to find them – and its resulted in incredible scenes of players coming together in public places like New York's Central Park and the Sydney Opera House.
The social aspect of Go cannot be ignored. The game itself is good, with a couple of sizeable flaws, but the experience of playing the game with others is one that's fundamental to the game's success, regardless of how much its fuelled by nostalgia. It's like the iconography of DICE's Star Wars Battlefront, or the feeling that you're the goddamn Batman in Rocksteady's Arkham series – these as aspects inherited by the games due to the IP they've adopted, but they're integral to what makes them work.
Mechanically there are two core aspects to Pokémon Go: collecting and levelling up Pokémon, and the Gym system where battles also come into play.
Once a player has found a Pokémon, tapping them prompts the capture screen. There's no need to weaken the creature before chancing a Pokéball, instead there's a touch-based game in which the player swipes to throw a ball at the Pokémon, trying to hit it on a 3D plane they must judge through the size of the character and through attempted throws, rather than any actual stereoscopic effect. Players can add spin for a bonus if they capture the Pokémon and can increase their chances of success by aiming to hit the creature when a circular icon hovering over it is at its smallest.
It essentially works like those touch-screen games in which you throw a ball of paper into a waste paper bin. It's functional and logical with a slight depth to be mastered for additional experience points (XP), which levels up trainers, opening their game up to more items (Super Potions and Great Balls for example) and more powerful Pokémon.
The power of a Pokémon is judged by their combat points (CP), as well as health points (HP) and the power of their attacks – which vary slightly from Pokémon to Pokémon. CP and HP can be increased through levelling up a Pokémon with two items – Stardust and Candies. Candies are specific to certain Pokémon and their later evolution forms, and are collected through capturing them and also through sending them to the Professor you meet at the start of the game. This means capturing multiples is a requirement, and helps stave off a feeling boredom when you've caught the Pokémon you'll see plenty of in your local area, ie. Pidgeys, countless bloody Pidgeys.
Rarer Pokémon will occasionally appear, either by chance or influenced by the weather or time of day. For example, a Tentacool or Dratini is more likely to appear when it's raining. At least, I think that's the case. Niantic has been vague about how it all works, in some cases deliberately to cultivate a feeling of discovery. Finding out how the game works is part of the fun, but only to an extent. The game needs to inform players how certain aspects work more clearly early on – especially given the evident mass-appeal.
It took me a long time to fully understand how gyms work for example. These points on the map are controlled by three teams – Mystic (blue), Valor (red) and Instinct (yellow) – once players hit level 5 and decide which they want to join. Players can train against a gym held by their own team and battle against others for control with wins building and reducing a gym's Prestige (ostensibly a health bar) respectively.
Battles themselves devolve quickly into crapshoots. Battles are not against live opponents, but the Pokémon other users have left there. Players tap to attack, hold to use a charged attack and swipe to defend, moving around their opponent. It quickly becomes manic, but there's a slight knack to it involving watching for an opponent's attack animation to start. Most of a player's time battling will be spent hoping for the best, and fights should only taken when their own Pokémon have a comparable CP to those in the gym.
As players progress they'll level up alongside their Pokémon and seize control of gyms. This will eventually prevent new players from enjoying the gym aspect of the game fully, as they'll have to wait a long time – far beyond when they hit level 5 – before they're able to compete. This is problematic, but could have been worse. Pokémon training and the Gym aspects of Go operate separately, so players can focus on the former before getting into the later. If battling at gyms also levelled up Pokémon, the game would quickly become dominated by higher-level trainers.
Another problem stems from the game's requirement that it be open at all times to function. The pedometer (need to hatch eggs over certain distances) doesn't work when the screen is locked or app is closed. The phone doesn't vibrate either when a Pokémon is nearby, unless the game is open. This is probably a cynical function to sell Pokémon Go Plus Bluetooth-enabled wrist-strap, which will vibrate when one appears.
This is partly the reason why Go is a major battery-killer, as well as its general high production value. The game looks great for a free-to-play game, with the Pokémon themselves perhaps looking as good as they ever have. Go isn't the data-consumer it seems to be however. If a week of regular play our data-limit hasn't yet been troubled – but it's certainly something players should be wary of.
It's not perfect, but it is special. Pokémon Go uses a set of simple but functional mechanics to encourage social play and actual exercise, but is let down by regular but manageable crashes. You won't love it purely for the game (if battling with friends is introduced that may well change) but what the game inspires is absolutely part of its success. I've gone on walks with friends purely to catch Pokémon in the real world. My eight-year-old self would have exploded if you told him that would one day be a reality.