Unless you’re someone that doesn’t follow either social media or most of the technology press, then you might not have heard there’s a new Pokemon game in town. That’s nothing new you’re thinking, well this time it is, because it’s a game that has done something that the franchise hasn’t been able to do since it first launched almost 20 years ago; catch everyone’s attention. Pokemon GO has caught the attention of practically anyone that was either born in the 1990’s or has an interest in games that try to do something a little different. It’s become something of a phenomenon over the course of just one weekend. I’ve been playing it, and I love it, but can the magic of Pokemon GO stand the test of time, or will it end up petering out into nothing more than a game some hardcore fans will still play long after the hype train has left the station?
For those of you that don’t know what Pokemon GO is, it’s a game that trades heavily on nostalgia of the 1990’s variety. It’s got all of the same Pokemon you remember from the halcyon days of the Game Boy, and it’s one that asks you to get off your ass, see the outside world and effectively live the life of a Pokemon trainer, albeit virtually. Developed by the same team that put together the cult classic, Ingress, Pokemon GO requires players get out there and get exploring. Players will need to hunt down Pokemon using their phones’ GPS signals, PokeStops will help them refuel and gain XP around their cities and towns at landmarks or places of interest, and Gyms will keep people competing to the very best in their area. It’s an infectious game, and one that really does get you out and about, with some interesting results to boot.
My love for Pokemon GO was practically guaranteed, I grew up playing the Pokemon games on the original Game Boy, and I’m not ashamed to say that even the more recent titles on the 3DS have been great, relaxing fun. The collector inside of me is more than happy to spend hours working on a single entry in the Pokedex, and now with Pokemon GO, I get exercise all at the same time. It has however, had unexpected results for me as well. I recently moved to a new area, not too far from where I live, and Pokemon Go has helped me learn and explore what my new home is all about. It’s also helped me make friends with my next door neighbor, who is a year older than I am, another product of the 90’s. I was already friendly with my neighbors, but thanks to Pokemon GO I have spent more time chatting and getting to know my new neighbor than I have with my old neighbors before I moved, and I grew up next door to the same people for 20 years or more.
I live in a small town in the UK (where the game isn’t officially available as of writing) and I am already seeing huge amounts of people playing the game. Well, for a small town in Middle England, that is. I’ve seen lures being set off at PokeStops nearby, a constant fight over one of the two gyms in the town and a lot more activity than I ever would have imagined for such a small space and a franchise that many moved on from years ago. It seems as though nostalgia really is as powerful as we all feel it is.
This “silly little game” has not only gotten people talking about Pokemon once again, but it’s also added genuine value to Nintendo’s stock market value, to the tune of billions of dollars in fact. It is, quite literally, magic. Nintendo has not only been struggling in the mainstream, they’ve effectively drifted away. Master strokes such as the Amiibo line of figures and connected games have helped them stay relevant, but it’s not enough, and in the face of the PS4 and the Xbox One, the Wii U has been laughed at and ridiculed. Hopes are high for the new “NX” console from Nintendo, but hopes are even higher for Nintendo to capitalize on their key franchises with more mobile titles, at least judging from their rise in stock value. This magic is something that Nintendo and the Pokemon Company will do well to keep working on, and in Niantic they have a diligent and creative partner to help them make it happen, but will it continue like this?
For any game, mobile or otherwise, to become as popular as this practically overnight and stay that way is a tall order, but it is unlikely that Pokemon GO will continue to be this popular. That is, unless it evolves into something with more engaging gameplay mechanics and something that is less repetitive. Not only are there only so many times I can catch that Pidgey, but there seems to be only 151 Pokemon available to catch in Pokemon GO, probably less if you take out the Legendary Pokemon. Which seems like a fine number, except that there are – not including new monsters from the upcoming Sun and Moon – a whopping 721 different Pokemon. This is an insane amount, for sure, and not all of them are going to be fan favorites, but imagine the variety of Pokemon you could have with just half of that number? In each generation of the games there are different Pidgeys, Pokemon that fill in the gaps and get people off their feet, none of which are too exciting, but imagine being able to catch 7 or 8 different types of menial Pokemon instead of just one? Variety is the spice of life, and Niantic and The Pokemon Company have a huge and vast well of it to tap into, and they should start relatively soon if they want to keep people busy.
Speaking of variety, the gameplay itself is already starting to feel repetitive for some players. Those that have caught the same pokemon over and over again, and seemingly exhausted those available in their local vicinity have few gameplay options left to them. These include fighting over the gyms in their area, and ranking up through the levels. For me, I find taking over the gyms a little “meh” to be honest. The 0.8 mile to my local gym is a welcome one for me, and I enjoy the fight, but I don’t really get much in return for this, my Pokemon is surely to be kicked out within 24 hours and it can be a matter of minutes in bigger cities. Someone has to be the very best, but with everyone playing all of the time it seems, gyms can trade hands quickly and that recognition you crave for having your prized monster atop the white tower can vanish quickly.
Trading. Why this wasn’t included at launch is a little confusing for me. The Pokemon X and Y games that came out a few years ago had “Wonder Trade” included. This was great fun. You would choose a Pokemon to trade and off it would go, sent to someone – anyone – from anywhere in the world to have a random Pokemon you might not ever have even heard of be returned. I enjoyed Wonder Trade a lot, but trading in general has been a great way of getting Pokemon players together and helping to build the popularity of the game. The original games were arguably one of the only reasons you would ever need to buy a link cable to connect two Game Boys together. I have friends all over the world, some in very hot climates that catch Fire Pokemon super-easily, I would love to trade with them, but there’s no way of me being able to do that. Right now, at least, trading will no doubt have been on Niantic’s mind, and after things quiet down after the initial launch, it’s likely that these features will be implemented soon. Can Pokemon GO keep its magic alive? Well, not to this degree, the more casual players that have picked it up because their friends, boyfriends and girlfriends have will probably fall out of love with the game. This is true of any overnight success and the core Pokemon fanbase, as well as many millions of new fans, are likely to stick with it. They will only stick with it long-term however, if the game gets better, if there becomes more to do and trading becomes a real thing. This is an interesting time to be a Pokemon fan, a Nintendo investor and someone that enjoys getting out and about for a purpose and one thing’s for sure, Pokemon is back.