Pokémon Go is a paradox, a bland and repetitive game that nonetheless delivers the series' tacit fantasy better than any entry in its 20-year history. The game lacks the strategy and story of its predecessors, relies on internet connection that regularly fails, and the game itself is prone to crashes. But it’s the only Pokémon game that lets you catch a pikachu in your backyard. That may be enough.
Pokémon, for the unconverted, is an ever-expanding bestiary of cartoon creatures designed for maximum lovability and populated throughout countless video games, television programs, films, and merchandising opportunities. The heart of the franchise is a series of roleplaying games, in which a tweenage boy or girl travels between colorful towns collecting the hundreds of critters, training them to battle, and forcing them to battle the captives of increasingly skilled pokémon masters.
Pokémon Go strips the roleplaying series for its most valuable parts, scrapping most of the story and setting altogether. There is no adventure or fantastical world. The augmented reality game invites players to find and catch adorable pokémon by walking around the real world. Like its predecessor, Pokémon Go includes competitive battles, though it trades the depth and complexity of previous games for a truncated upgrade system, shallow combat, and an esoteric meta-game about conquering territories in the game’s equivalent of Google Maps.
Took me a few days to get over my pride and admit that Pokemon Go being a bad game doesn't stop it from being a Great Fun Thing.— Asher Vollmer (@AsherVo) July 10, 2016
Pokémon Go is the first game in the beloved Nintendo franchise available on iPhone and Android smartphones. For millions of people who’ve never owned a discrete video game console, Pokémon Go will be their entry point. This is great news for publisher Nintendo, because while the app's merits in game design are questionable, it is the most potent example of the Pokémon formula.
A simple fantasy propels Pokémon fandom: imagine finding adorable pets around the world and claiming them as your own. This began with the first roleplaying game, but has continued through other mediums, from a competitive card game to countless plush toys. Each medium tries to bring the fantasy closer to reality.
Pokémon Go, more than any game in the franchise, manages to remove the barriers between fantasy and reality. There’s no fictional map, and your avatar is a generic teenager that has about as much humanity as a mouse cursor. You are collecting pokémon in your world. Through the game’s smartphone camera, and the lens of augmented reality, schools, churches, fast food patios, police stations, monuments, public art installations, subway stops, and even adult clubs become homes to the brand's hundreds of lovable creatures. It's as if one day we woke up, and suddenly, wherever we went waited gangs of the cutest puppies and kittens imaginable, all begging to be adopted.
The app’s mishmash of fiction and reality is doubly flattering: the mundane world seems magical, and the fictional creatures feel more lifelike. Suddenly coffee shops become hangouts, not simply to find pokémon in the game, but fellow pokémon masters in the real world. And the pokémon feel less like a list of fictional pets, and more like actual guests in our homes and favorite shops.
With Pokémon Go, anyone can catch pokémon. They don’t need to know how to navigate video game menus. There’s no story to learn or skill to master. It’s as simple as taking a photo at a location that attracts fellow players, creating pop-up fan meetups. Simplicity, familiarity, inclusivity: these are the ingredients of Pokémon Go’s success.
Pokémon Go is the fantasy that gamers have had since the first Pokémon in 1996. But the scarcity of design is also its longterm weakness. Once the surge of players have had their fill of catching creatures, what will remain is the dense metagame. If Pokémon Go survives past its moment in the pop culture sun, it will mean players attracted to a welcoming, easygoing fantasy learned the complexities of a dense, impenetrable game. Now that would be fantastic.