Pokemon Go has a killer concept: to bring the “catch ’em all” experience from the Pokemon games into the real world.
In practice, the app — one of a handful that Nintendo has agreed to put out as part of a push on mobile devices — lives up to some of the hype, though with changes from the traditional video games that might take the shine off the idea for some fans.
The Pokemon Company International and Niantic gave me early access to download a field test version of Pokemon Go, which will be released as a free app in July. The basic idea of the game is to combine augmented reality with your smartphone as the game uses real locations to anchor its digital world.
There are certain special markers, called Pokestops, peppered throughout that world that can offer various kinds of loot in the game. Other spots, designated as gyms, act as control points where you can battle for dominance against other players.
Right off the bat, I was disappointed to find that the battles in this early test of Pokemon Go are very different from the traditional games.
When catching a new Pokemon, for example, it’s just you and some Pokeballs against a wild Pokemon — no battle necessary. Fighting between Pokemon is reserved for challenging other players at Pokemon Gyms. But even then the "battles" are about dodging your opponents' attacks in real time, not choosing your attacks turn by turn. Battles are a core part of the app, so my disappointment was heavy, even as I recognize that it's early in the app's development.
Still, there are other touches outside of battles that make the game fun. The novelty of seeing a Pokemon superimposed onto your sidewalk is delightful. So is the fact that the Pokemon are supposed to match their surroundings — for example, water Pokemon hang out near lakes and other bodies of water.
And, honestly, one of the things I ended up liking most about Pokemon Go is finding all the little murals and statues in my city, designated as Pokestops, that I either had not noticed or not visited before. I could definitely see this as an incentive to get your child (or adult) to exercise and explore.
To help players wander without tripping over curbs in pursuit of Pokemon, the Pokemon Go team will also sell a $35 game accessory that I did not test called the Pokemon Go Plus. According to the developers, this device is about the size of a fitness tracker and can be worn on the wrist or lapel. It will connect with the app and buzz when a wild Pokemon is nearby, allowing you to tap the tracker to catch it, sight unseen.
Pokemon is a remarkably resilient franchise, having survived well past the “Pokemania” of the 1990s while also leaving an enduring mark on that generation. That's my generation: I grew up with the games and the TV show as an after-school staple. And I've played into adulthood, because, well, it’s fun.
Pokemon Go, however, doesn’t quite tap all the enthusiasm I felt for the app when it was first announced. It’s not what I’d dreamed up in my head, which was essentially an AR-enhanced version of the traditional game. Despite my initial disappointment, I am intrigued about the app's potential to become exciting as more people get into it and to take its place as a mobile supplement to the more traditional games.
Niantic has proven that it can create a devoted fan base with “Ingress,” which only gets more fun as more people join. The hope for Pokemon Go is that its fans can give it the same sense of community and collaboration.
After all, that’s a big part of Pokemon, right? You teach me, and I'll teach you.